When writer and historian Michael King died in 2004 at age 58, the NZ Herald wrote that "the man who explained so much about the people of New Zealand leaves a formidable body of literature, a plain language, accessible history likely to endure and a faith in his country."
Michael King was born in Wellington in 1945. He grew up in the seaside suburb of Paremata, enjoying a Kiwi childhood often spent exploring the land. After taking a BA in English and History at Victoria University, King moved to Hamilton to work as a journalist with The Waikato Times, and complete an MA at Waikato University.
At this point King decided to address the yawning gap in historical scholarship on Māori subjects. His early writing encompassed many Māori topics, starting with 1972's Moko: Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century. It was a wide open field, and King was good at it. His affinity for Māori subjects led to him acting as researcher, writer and presenter on landmark TV series Tangata Whenua, produced by John O'Shea and directed by Barry Barclay. The series saw King winning a 1975 Feltex Award for writing (shared that year with Michael Noonan, for his work on The Longest Winter).
King's credentials as a historian of Māori culture would be questioned by a new generation of Māori academics. King agreed he was "culturally removed" from his subject, but defended his writing on the grounds that nobody else was doing it. Unlike some of his critics, he put his money where his mouth was, sensitively researching his subjects and actively helping emerging Māori writers by assisting them to get their work published.
The focus of King's work expanded into other areas. His ruminations on his own cultural heritage led to a key work, Being Pakeha (1985). The book stepped away from pure history, to confront what it meant to be a Pākehā New Zealander. King would also write biographies of Princess Te Puea (1977), writer Frank Sargeson (1995) and Whina Cooper (2003). On television he handled the interviews for 1992 documentary Whina Te Whaea o te Motu, and Perfectly Frank - The Life of a New Zealand Writer.
Some of King's work was mediated by the necessity of making a living. He constantly struggled to bring in an income. King mixed popular writing with academic work and research, often juggling an enormous workload. Despite diabetes, a bout with throat cancer and the ill health of his second wife Maria Jungowska, he rarely complained. Regarding the thin financial rewards of his craft, he once said "please understand that there is nothing else that I wish to do."
King was arguably at his peak when he died in a freak vehicle accident on 30 March 2004.
His acclaimed biography of Janet Frame had inspired a documentary of the same name, Wrestling with the Angel. His own life was being documented for 2004 TV doco History Man; and his most recent book, The Penguin History of New Zealand was topping bestseller lists. It would go on to sell an incredible 250,000 copies plus, helping encourage the curiosity of a new generation of New Zealanders for their own history. In the same period he was interviewed by Kim Hill, and for this documentary.
King won many accolades, awards, and fellowships over his career, including the 2003 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement. He received the Winston Churchill Fellowship (1980), the Fulbright Visiting Writers' Fellowship (1988), and the Order of the British Empire (1988). In 1987 and 1989 King won the NZ Literary Fund Award, in 1984 and 1990 the Wattie Book Of The Year Award and, in 1978, the NZ Book Award (non-fiction). He was the Burns Fellow at Otago University in 1998-99.