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Interview: Luke Elworthy talks about The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem

Luke Elworthy was born in India and comes from a family of publishers and farmers. Growing up in Wellington, he was educated at Church of England boarding school Christ’s College, in Christchurch, and spent much of his school holidays at controversial Auckland cult, Centrepoint. He has worked in marketing, publicity and editorial roles with book publishers in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the Netherlands, and he has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University in Wellington. He lives with his family just outside Blenheim.

In 2022, with four other trustees, Luke established the Godfrey Cheathem Arts Residency for visiting artists and writers. Luke talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem.

Godfrey Cheathem is in prison, writing to his youngest sister Rosemary to try to explain the events that led him there, having abandoned the “great New Zealand novel” he’s been writing for much of his life. Traumatised by failing to match the creative successes of his precocious siblings, he’s struggling to account for what he sees as his disappointing life, starting with his baffling experimental pottery, followed by his occasionally disastrous career in book publishing, later giving up on his novel. It’s Rosemary he turns to, to listen and to help him tell his story. Although Rosemary knows a lot about Godfrey’s life, there’s much she has yet to discover, and as his letter progresses she encourages him to face up to some uncomfortable truths.

What inspired you to write this book?

Around 2005 I started work on a memoir. Partly inspired by the slew of books written by high-flying businesspeople whose careers had hit a speed bump, I thought it would be fun to write about a career that was a disaster almost from start to finish. I shopped How to Succeed in Publishing around a few agents and publishers then shelved it for a few years, before noting that one of the publishing trends of the late 1990s, the “misery memoir”, still persisted. Starting with a little of the material from my earlier work, I set about writing the story of a character who was a terrible disappointment to his family of over-achieving creative artists, and experienced a different kind of misery to those of, say, Angela’s Ashes, but a “suffering every bit as valid as that fired in the kiln of poverty and despair, and every bit as painful”. I wanted the story to be comic, but also to explore serious themes, including belonging, authenticity and the concept of tūrangawaewae. Years later what emerged eventually became The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem.

What research was involved?

I worked in book publishing for quite a long time, so it was a world I knew, but I still spent time researching publishing trends of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as looking at some of the colourful identities in the worlds of books, music, theatre and fine arts of that period. What Godfrey Cheathem shows us of these worlds reflects his own peculiar take, and sometimes that take may have less to do with publishing realities than with Godfrey’s prejudices, but it was still important to me that what he describes sounded more or less rooted in fact. I also did research around legal issues, including criminal charges and sentencing guidelines, and into pop cultural and pop psychology trends of the time. But again, my objective here was to ensure that the handling of these issues reads as broadly plausible, then I felt free to twist reality to suit the needs of the narrative.

What was your routine or process when writing this novel?

A lot of the first draft came when I was living in Arrowtown around 2005, and working in a friend’s antique shop in Queenstown. It could be busy but there were also long gaps between customers, when I often wrote. I should have been busily polishing the furniture! My partner went back to full-time work a year or two later, and I looked after our two young children, then about one and three. I tried to fit in writing when I could, and that continued in fits and starts over the next five or more years, around some contract work and childcare shared with my partner. As to writing routines: If I can I try to start in the early morning, sketching out ideas in longhand on random bits of scrap A4 paper that I don’t always manage to keep control of. I tweak the handwritten notes until I feel ready to commit to a word doc, then type badly, just trying to get it down. Then more tweaking in the digital file, alongside occasional outlining again by hand on hard copy, then back to screen, and on it goes. When I have something I’m prepared to show someone I send it to one or two trusted first readers, I get their feedback and rewrite, and repeat…

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

I love the idea of Nic Cave’s Into my Arms. I’m not sure Godfrey deserves such a haunting and beautiful track, but he’d definitely believe that he did. Maybe it could come at the end. Babies by Pulp has the right tone for parts of the story. It’s my party by Lesley Gore would resonate with Godfrey – he mightn’t cry, but at times he definitely wants to.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Not something I’ve thought at all about before now, but off the top of my head: Ben Whishaw for Godfrey, Olivia Colman as his mother, and Bill Nighy to play his dad, Herbert. It could work!

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Trying to turn some of the more muddled parts of my childhood and young life into fiction was strangely satisfying, and in re-reading real letters from my parents, and then reinventing some of them in the novel, in a slightly odd way I felt like I got to know them both better.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It hardly feels like it’s finished, really, even though it’s printed. It feels like such a long time that I’ve been making it. Well, it is a long time. Hopefully it’ll feel finished when I’m done promoting it. But so far there’s been nothing that really feels like an end point. If I reach one, I’d love to travel somewhere with my partner Meredith.

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

Can I have two? Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was intense and painful. He manages to show us a harrowing life in Glasgow, as bleak and tough as it often was, with moments of humour and humanity, and without descending into melodrama. I loved Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides – unusual coming-of-age story, mystery, great characters, beautifully written – it’s wonderful.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Writing-wise pretty much the same things that have been on the agenda for the last few years: solving the problems of a novel I wrote during my creative writing MA in 2014 – about an intense, sometimes obsessive friendship between two men – and finishing another novel, a horticultural heist caper, set in the world of competitive rose growing!

I’m interested to see what happens: I honestly can’t say if I’ll go back to either or both of these projects, or start something else, or never write another word of fiction again.

I’m involved in an annual garden festival here in Blenheim which takes a bit of my time, we have a b+b which is busy over the summer, and we’ve just started to host visiting writers and artists there during the winter. We named it The Godfrey Cheathem Arts Residency, after the character in my novel, for reasons that I hope will become clear for anybody who reads it.


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