MICHAEL KING (1945 - 2004)
Michael King was New Zealand’s most prominent writer of non-fiction. He had a great sense of humour, huge curiosity, and a scholar’s intensity, but always with a popular touch.
His histories appealed, beyond any specialist audience, to the wider New Zealand public.
His last book, The Penguin History of New Zealand, became the fastest and biggest selling book on New Zealand history ever. It was widely acclaimed and has sold more than 230,000 copies.
He was also a biographer of some of New Zealand’s most celebrated people, including Te Puea Herangi, Whina Cooper and the writers Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame. He wrote more than 30 books on a wide range of subjects.
He is revered by Moriori for his history of this iwi from the Chatham Islands. Moriori was the first book of its kind and led to a Moriori renaissance. Much of his early television work and writing explored the Maori world, and illuminated the divide between Maori and Pakeha viewpoints. Then, by examining his own life in his book Being Pakehaand its successor Being Pakeha Now, he moved beyond analysis to a simple description of Pakeha belonging in a land whose first population was Polynesian.
King believed in what he called Pakehatanga: that Pakeha New Zealanders whose families go back generations compromise a distinctive white New Zealand culture that is significantly different from the European roots from whence they came. And some Pakeha characteristics, he believed, owe much to generations of interaction with Maori.
He told the New Zealand Herald in 2003 that he was partly driven by the conviction that “You can't understand your country and your culture unless you know its history.”
The people’s historian
In an obituary by Tim Watkin in The Listener, King was dubbed "the people's historian."
“He …developed a sense of us as a people that no other writer has ever had. Michael King was passionate about this country – celebrating Maoridom and standing up for the ‘basic worthiness and honourableness’ of Pakeha culture. Sincere, funny, deeply knowledgeable, he taught us so much about being a New Zealander.
“He was the man who knew us best. New Zealand’s closest confidant. Our most relentless analyst. And for that simple reason, as we come again to question where we have come from, who we are and how to live with one another, Michael King is someone we could least afford to lose."
King had successful careers both in journalism and academia, but he decided to write full-time in 1976. Writing in a small market was a constant financial struggle. Because of this, he was a strong supporter of the idea of setting up a centre which would help to support New Zealand writers.
King won many awards. These included the Feltex Television Writers' Award in 1975, the NZ Literary Fund Award (1987 and 1989), the Wattie Book of the Year Award (1984 and 1990) and the NZ Book Award (non-fiction) (1978). The Penguin History of New Zealand was overwhelmingly the Readers' Choice at the 2004 Montana NZ Book Awards.
He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1988, and an honorary doctorate by Victoria University in 1997.
He was joint winner of the inaugural 2003 Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement and was selected by the New Zealand Herald as New Zealander of the Year in 2003.
More information is available in the following pages:
Publications - for a full list of books by Michael King, including his latest posthumous publication