Author Luke Elworthy publishes comic “memoir of misery” about the burden of not being published

Luke Elworthy will have to rethink his self-description as an “unpublished author” now that he has finally published a novel, about an unpublished author.

Godfrey Cheathem’s Last Letter was described as ‘novel of the year’ by one reviewer, others describe it as a ‘comic romp’ which ‘skewered the pretensions’ of the literary world, chock full of black humor and social commentary , but with moving and serious themes and relatability.

These are glowing reviews for a novel that Elworthy self-published, after being rejected by a publisher, although he was able to draw on his experience working all over the world in the publishing industry.

As the son of a publisher and a journalist, Elworthy also had a lot to draw on to create Cheathem, his parents and his younger siblings, a creative group whose success and expectations weighed heavily on the protagonist.

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“There’s a lot of him in me, or I in him I should say. There are some biographical elements.”

When Elworthy arrived home after years abroad in the early 2000s, biographies and ‘memoirs of misery’ were being published at a rapid pace, after such epics as Angela’s Ashes.

Although Elworthy’s childhood was nowhere near “scorching and painful,” he began writing bits and pieces of his biography, toying with the idea of ​​a satirical How to Succeed in Publishing, “which I definitely didn’t do,” he said. said Elworthy. “But you really need a complete train wreck of a career to make it work.”

Godfrey Cheathem's last letter came together in about 20 years.

Anthony Phelps/Stuff

Godfrey Cheathem’s last letter came together in about 20 years.

And so a failed fictional writer began to form. “He might have my life experiences, but I could take the story where I wanted him to go. He was very liberating.

“I thought it would be fun to write about a childhood that, while not marred by material deprivation, or the pain and unhappiness of a child not getting enough to eat, was more about failing to meet parental expectations . It was always going to be comical, but it also looks at real emotional things that happen in the family, and this kid in particular.

The Cheathems were an “urban art group” who created dynamic scenes of family life. But young Godfrey Cheathem has struggled to find his niche.

“I am very unhappy doing pottery!” he cried out to his mother, who suggested that he use that pain in his work. Until he found a creative vacancy among his many siblings: “I’ll be the novelist,” he declared.

The novel followed her personal journey, including her “comic but anguished unraveling” during a family gathering in her tūrangawaewae.

But Cheathem’s “great New Zealand novel” would never be published. An unpublished writer would die, never knowing of the posthumous publication of his letters from his cell in Paparua prison to his sister Rosemary.


What began as a creative writing program for young inmates at Auckland’s Mt Eden Correction Facility is now spreading to prisons across the country. (Audio broadcast January 2021).

The novel was built around the discovery of a last letter from Cheathem by a fictional academic named Luke Elworthy, influenced by Elworthy’s real-life experience studying creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington.

Indeed a real-life professor has taken on a fictional role to write a foreword to Elworthy’s novel about the meaning of Cheathem’s last letter.

The novel had taken more than 20 years to work on, put aside and picked up over the course of Elworthy’s lifetime, its continued fascination urging him to finish it.

Born in India, Elworthy was raised in Wellington and educated at Christ’s College, Christchurch, and spent part of his school holidays visiting his mother and sisters at Auckland’s controversial cult, Centrepoint, another source of inspiration.

“It was a very different journey for my sisters… but they were similar in ways, both places of worship.

“A lot of my family were reading it and thought things weren’t as fictional as I thought they were…but they’re fictional characters.”

His home in Rapaura, near Blenheim, had a separate building where writers in town often stayed for the Marlborough Book Festival. Knowing full well the challenge of writing around a day job, Elworthy said he decided to use the building and part of its profit from book sales to fund the Godfrey Cheathem Arts Residency, to support artists and writers achieve their goals .

“I feel so full of admiration for people who are making literary careers in this country…it’s not easy.

“So hopefully it’s something that benefits the community in a way and encourages artists and writers to come here and do some work.”

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