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Interview: Denis Welch talks about We Need to Talk About Norman


Denis Welch has worked as a journalist most of his life, first for newspapers (including The Times of Zambia and The Times of London), then magazines. He was with the Listener for many years, notably as a political columnist during the 1980s but also at various times as deputy editor (twice), arts & books editor and writer of hundreds of feature articles about everything from sensational crime to spreadable butter. He was also the magazine’s Wellington theatre critic through the 1990s.


He has had three books published previously – a novel, Human Remains; a biography of Helen Clark; and a collection of poetry, Childwood. Denis talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about We Need to Talk About Norman. What inspired you to write this book?

The realization, as I worked on my biography of Helen Clark in 2009, that no one had ever done a full biography of Norman Kirk. But the historian David Grant had had the same idea, and beat me to publication in 2014; that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to rethink my book and take more of an analytical approach – locating Kirk in a wider context and drawing out more thoroughly what he can teach us 50 years on.

What research was involved?

Dozens of interviews, many with people who knew Kirk well and worked alongside him. Archives, libraries, websites. Hoovering up anything that seemed remotely relevant, 95% of which never made the final draft, which is of course as it should be. Margaret Hayward, one of Kirk’s secretaries and author of Diary of the Kirk Years, was enormously helpful in providing historical material and support.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I had a day job throughout, so it was a matter of squeezing in time when I could. Both when researching and writing, I found the 15-minute method useful: 15 minutes of unbroken concentration on the work, 15 minutes doing something else entirely, and so on alternately. Maybe I have a short attention span, but it works for me.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Steve Apirana’s ‘Postscript’ is for me an intensely moving song of love, forgiveness and redemption: it was so strongly with me while writing the book that at one point I even drafted a chapter based on it. ‘Safe in My Garden’ by the Mamas and Papas catches painfully the moment in the late 1960s when many young people like me thought we could change the world; Iris Dement’s ‘From an Airplane’ (based on an Anna Akhmatova poem) expresses powerfully the love of one’s own country that was so central to Kirk’s political philosophy. Pretty much anything by David Kilgour and Don McGlashan.


What did you enjoy the most about writing We Need to Talk About Norman?

The expansion of my own thinking, which started off in a narrow groove and gradually grew to encompass political history since at least the Second World War, leading me for the first time to really grasp the global context of the political and ideological changes this country has gone through. Getting my head round this has been a tremendous intellectual adventure, and it’s still going on.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Breathed a sigh of relief, grief, joy and gratitude and started thinking about my next book.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Crack-Up Capitalism by Quinn Slobodian, an American historian who, as in his previous book, Globalists, will open your eyes to the way neoliberalism is infiltrating and undermining democracy and the concept of the nation-state that we have mistakenly come to believe was somehow set in stone.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

A break, some travel, and then get to work on that next book (this time with no day job to distract me). The Kirk book has proved to be a jumping-off point for so many fresh ideas. But he still walks with me, and probably always will.


Quentin Wilson Publishing

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