The brilliant mind of Peter Wells was out in full force in his session, where he was in conversation with writer and producer David Herkt. Herkt introduced Wells as ‘an author who writes both with a fountain pen and mobile’ – an apt and literal descriptor of a man who has penned – and typed – in venues both traditional and modern.
As the session name – Dear Oliver – suggested, the primary focus was on Wells’ most recent release, Dear Oliver, while also touching on his cancer diaries, which recently won him the gong for Best First-Person Essay or Feature at the Voyager Media Awards.
‘Wells has never simply been an writer, not that writing is ever simple,’ Herkt said, and Wells agreed.
‘In terms of the shape of my career, it has this social activist impulse threaded through it – it’s not a strictly literary career in that way.’
Herkt rattled off just a few of the different aspects of Wells’s background – from his involvement in the early days of gay liberation in Auckland, to his ‘instrumental’ role in saving the Civic Theatre from demolition, to co-founding (with Stephanie Johnson) this very festival.
Such a path has not been without challenges.
‘New Zealand has a really abrasive culture. It’s not particularly supportive for those in the arts,’ Wells commented (to nods around the audience). Expounding on his literary and artistic influence, he went on to comment that ‘probably the most important thing in my life in relation to my writing was my keeping a diary. I kept a diary from childhood onwards – religiously through my morbid teenage years and episodically through my adult years.’
Segueing from discussion of using his phone and Facebook to write what became the ongoing cancer diaries, Herkt asked Wells about the 140-characters or less, Twitter-esque version. ‘Well, I’m not so sure about Twitter,’ Wells hedged. ‘But it’s the history of Pākehā New Zealand told through one family.’
The title Dear Oliver is taken from the fact that the book is addressed to Oliver – ‘a young boy growing up in San Francisco with two gay mothers… with the hope that he would understand some of his New Zealand past.’
So it dove deeper into his family history, in Napier, positioning the book as part of a pseudo-trilogy of sorts about Napier (following on from The Hungry Heart (his book on William Colenso) and Journey to a Hanging (a portrait of Kereopa Te Rau). But this title was intensely personal and close to home, as he described some of the influences feeding into its writing and its tone.
‘[Moving to New Zealand] was quite a dystopian experience for most Pākehā migrants… they left everything behind,’ he commented, making specific reference to the economic positioning and according history of his own British tīpuna. ‘Because middle class families wrote so many letters, you tend to get a history of the middle class. But this family was sort of lower-middle class, so we ended up with a story that isn’t told as much.’
But now it is. And if the discussion around it – and the readings from it – are anything to go by, it’s a story very well told. This blogger definitely needs to put it on her to-read list!
There was also some briefer discussion of ‘Hello Darkness’, the title Wells has given to his cancer diaries. Wells commented that Hello Darkness has many of the same characteristics as Dear Oliver – the same highly personal tone, for one. In introducing how it came about, Wells self-aware-ly said that ‘on November 12th last year, I found myself in hospital with a “very bad case of cancer”, which sounds ridiculous’ – but was, ultimately the truth of it. ‘I had prostate cancer, and it had gotten into my bones without me being aware of it.’
Understandably, such a diagnosis provoked an emotional response. ‘I began questioning my own mortality and mortality in general.’ The Facebook posts started simply as a way of making sense of his situation, and sharing his goings on with his friends – and obviously grew significantly in audience and appreciation from there.
The overall tone of the event was upbeat, a sense of banter between friends despite the ‘Big C’ looming over things. Herkt had plenty curveballs to send Wells’ way. ‘In some ways, it’s a writer’s duty to blab, is that what you’re saying?’
‘To be truthful, yes,’ Wells replied – an almost agreement, and a suitable summary of his art of the non-fiction craft.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry
Published by Massey University Press