24 May 2011
Author Peter Wells has been awarded the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship to research and write a non-fiction book titled 'Sparrow on a Rooftop'.
The book looks at the months of December 1871 and January 1872 when Kereopa Te Rau was brought to Napier, put on trial for the murder of the Reverend Volkner and hanged.
The Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship is one of New Zealand's largest writing fellowships and supports established writers to work on a major project over two or more years.
Suspected of spying by Te Whakatohea, the missionary Carl Volkner was hanged from a willow tree outside his own church in Opotiki during the height of the land wars in New Zealand. Kereopa Te Rau swallowed Volkner's eyes and became infamous. On the run for seven years, he was eventually captured, tried and hanged in Napier.
'At the time Kereopa Te Rau was regarded as a kind of Osama Bin Laden being brought to justice,' Wells says. ' But there were other points of view. William Colenso published an impassioned tract saying 'Hear the other side' of the story. Sister Aubert visited Kereopa Te Rau in his cell and tried to comfort him. 'Sparrow on a Rooftop' is as much a portrait of a time as an event. You have to remember it was Christmas and New Year and in the small colonial town of Napier there were theatrical events, adulteries, lost property, fights. Meanwhile inside a room, a man waits for his death.'
'This story allows me to sink into the rich compost of local history, which is where the small truths - and deceptions - lie, ' Peter Wells says. 'The 19th century was the furnace in which contemporary New Zealand was forged. It's a great privilege to get this support so I can take my own time to go back to a crucial moment.'
A writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a writer/director in film, Peter Wells's first book, Dangerous Desires, won the Reed Fiction Award, the NZ Book Award, and PEN Best New Book in Prose in 1992. His memoir won the 2002 Montana NZ Book Award for Biography, and he has won many awards for his work as a film director. He is co-founder of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. In 2006, Wells was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and film.
This year he is bringing out The Hungry Heart, a contemporary look at the 19th century dissident and polymath, William Colenso.
Creative New Zealand Chief Executive, Stephen Wainwright said that the applications for this fellowship were high and of exceptional calibre.
"I look forward to reading this tale that with Peter's interesting and innovative way of narrative will not only highlight the personal story of Kereopa Te Rau but also regional New Zealand - colonial Napier - in the nineteenth-century."
Wells will be the ninth recipient of the Michael King fellowship since its inauguration in 2003. It was renamed in recognition of the late Michael King for his contribution to literature and his role in advocating for a major fellowship for New Zealand writers.
The selection panel for the award, administered by Creative New Zealand, was Geoff Walker, Fiona Farrell and David Hill.
Previous recipients of the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship are Owen Marshall, Vincent O'Sullivan, CK Stead, Rachel Barrowman, Neville Peat, Dame Fiona Kidman, Philip Simpson and Kate De Goldi.