Jeremy Hansen pays tribute to author Peter Wells, who died yesterday – exactly a week after the launch of his final book, Hello Darkness, a memoir of living with his fatal illness.
The past is a foreign country, especially if you were gay before the internet existed. In 1993 I was 23 years old and had moved from Dunedin to Auckland. I’d acknowledged the crushing weight of evidence that I was gay and hoped Auckland might be the place to actually do something about it.
Exciting in theory, but near-impossible in practice. Where the hell to begin? I didn’t know anyone gay and hadn’t come out to my friends or family. Homosexuality had been decriminalised while I was at high school but all I remembered was the toxic homophobia that surrounded the process. The scourge of AIDS cast a diabolical shadow, turning the promise of sex into something like a game of Russian roulette.
There didn’t seem to be any gay voices to help me navigate this weird fog. If homosexuality was mentioned at all in popular culture, it was as a punchline or cautionary tale. The groundbreaking film Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas play a gay couple (hot!), wasn’t released until the end of 1993, and wasn’t much cause for celebration: you bought a ticket filled with excitement about the prospect of gay visibility only to watch a gruelling saga of Hanks’s character battling breathtaking homophobia then dying of AIDS.
Thank goodness, then, for bookshops. On the shelves at Unity Books I found a volume of short stories that allowed a little glimmer of light to reach around the closet door. Dangerous Desires was Peter Wells’ first book and had been published in 1991. Michael King called it “an extraordinary literary debut” in the blurb on the cover, and others seemed to agree, as it had won the fiction prize at the New Zealand Book Awards (later that decade one of the stories in the book, Of Memory and Desire, was adapted by Niki Caro as her debut feature film). It’s dedicated to Peter’s only sibling, his older brother Russell, who was also gay and died of AIDS in 1989. It is full of intriguing, complex, emphatically human gay people. It felt strangely important that they were New Zealand characters created by a New Zealand writer, some of them living lives that I could imagine for myself. The book made me realise there might eventually be a place for me, no matter how long I was taking to get there.
I’ve been re-reading Dangerous Desires lately and it’s even better than I remembered, written with a delicacy and bravery that still seems remarkable. I dug it out of the bookshelf to prepare for an on-stage interview I did with Peter at the Same Same But Different LGBTQI+ Writers Festival a couple of Saturdays ago. We were there to talk about Peter’s last book, Hello Darkness, a combination of diary and memoir that grew out of Facebook posts he wrote as he was being treated for cancer (some were serialized at the Spinoff). Peter had been very public about the fact that he didn’t have long to live, but he still looked incredibly dapper, taking the stage in a navy-and-white polka-dot shirt and a suave olive fedora, and smiling broadly at the standing ovation the crowd gave him when we concluded our chat.
Peter was quietly spoken and a little shy in person, but in Hello Darkness it becomes clear he was a warrior – not one full of flimsy fake bombast, but with an elegantly concealed core of steel. In the book he reveals, with careful reserve, that he survived childhood abuse (“The long ago ‘uncle’ episode had frozen me with fear and I felt disgusting and ugly,” he writes) and how, as an 18-year-old facing a medical test to assess his suitability for fighting in the Vietnam War, he refused to strip for an examination and told the doctors he was gay. “The old-school doctor said I could go to prison for refusing to obey orders (to strip),” he writes. “I was staunch. I stood there and said I didn’t care. I was not undressing. I was gay. That invalidated me for military service. This astonishes me now. I was a shy boy, almost crippled with fear about speaking to strangers.” This was in 1968, 18 years before homosexuality was decriminalised.
This fearlessness became a hallmark. He decided to become a writer aged 22: “I saw myself as a writer, though there was no evidence for it, apart from my diaries and all my unpublished writing.” He didn’t have a book published until he was 41; he made his name first as a filmmaker, co-directing and co-writing the 1985 TV drama Jewel’s Darl, starring Georgina Beyer as an Auckland transsexual (it was shot by Stuart Dryburgh, who would later become director of photography of The Piano). Cowardly TV executives tried to shelve it, arguing it violated public standards, but it eventually screened to positive reviews. The following year he wrote and co-directed (with his then-partner, Stewart Main) an equally brave TV drama, A Death in the Family, about a young man from a conservative family dying of AIDS. As the decade passed, Peter’s activism broadened its focus: In 1988, he galvanised public support for saving Auckland’s Civic Theatre with the documentary The Mighty Civic.
This was all serious stuff, but Peter had a humorous side, too. He put a bomb under New Zealand cinema’s maudlin self-involvement with the fantastically campy colonial melodrama Desperate Remedies (co-written and co-directed with Main), in which a shirtless Kevin Smith and Cliff Curtis hilariously smolder, and Jennifer Ward-Leland and Lisa Chappell brilliantly scheme and swoon. The film was a wonder, but its funders at the New Zealand Film Commission “seemed flabbergasted. They didn’t really know what to say,” Peter said in a terrific interview with David Larsen. The picture went on to become part of the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also Peter’s last film. He and Main broke up, and Peter decided he preferred the solitude of writing.
Peter wrote many books. His output was prodigious and wildly diverse: he wrote novels, memoirs, a biography of William Colenso, and a 2005 anthology of New Zealand writing about cats entitled The Cat’s Whiskers. He co-founded the 20-year-old Auckland Writers’ Festival and started the four-year-old Same Same But Different LGBTQI+ Writers Festival. He and his partner, writer and curator Douglas Lloyd Jenkins (they were together for 26 years and married in December last year), had a modernist home in Auckland and a villa they renovated in Napier, decorating it in fabulous maximalist style with auction house finds and blogging about the pleasures of doing so. The house gets a shoutout in Hello Darkness: “I might as well enjoy living in this beautiful house which breathes as the soul of two lovers,” Peter writes.
One of the most moving things about Hello Darkness is the way it thrums with the joy of small things – stroking a cat, the quiet before sunrise, talking to a friend – and the heartbreak that these pleasures will be curtailed. And yet, the “strange gift” of cancer comes with unexpected surprises, one of them being that this “morbidly private person” is now prepared to open the front door a little wider than before. “Letting go for me is a very relaxing business, partly because I have resisted it so much all my life”, he writes.
The book also contains a confession I feel compelled to challenge. Peter says he is “almost pathetically dependent on writing”, but the idea of pathetic dependency sounds far too grim. I prefer to think he meant he was sustained by it – and indeed, he makes this clear in many other parts of the book, as he describes and thereby processes indignities like swallowing an arsenal of pills, the tedium of invasive medical procedures and the dullness of eating mundane hospital food with compromised taste buds. It’s awful that he’s gone, but there are weird consolations in long goodbyes. One of them is the fact that Peter’s very public farewell gave so many of us, in Facebook replies or in person, the chance to tell him that his writing had strengthened and sustained us, too.
Hello Darkness by Peter Wells (Mighty Ajax Press, $40) is available at Unity Books.