Trailblazing author and filmmaker Peter Wells, MNZM, used to have panic attacks when he had to speak in public. Now he is launching LGBT literary festival Same Same But Different.

1. Is it hard to believe it took until 1991 for the first book by an openly gay author to be published in New Zealand?

It sounds incredible now that it took so long, but it was well received and won the Best First Book award. I'd already been making films with gay subject matter so it was part of a continuum for me. I find it fascinating how young people today often take the gay rights struggle for granted. I've seen such huge change in my lifetime. From growing up with the shame and guilt of someone whose sexuality was criminalised to putting on a festival with a panel sponsored by a prestigious law firm, Simpson Grierson. I still can't quite believe it. I still feel edgy. Things can change for the positive but they can change back just as quickly. Isis seems to have slipped back into some other terrible century, beheading journalists and throwing homosexuals off buildings. The world is not at all secure.

2. In your blog you accuse Creative New Zealand of interfering with your latest book, Journey to a Hanging, through political correctness. What do you mean by that?

I feel that I wasn't allowed to tell the story I wanted to tell, which was a work of creative non-fiction about Kereopa Te Rau when he was in Napier prison for the murder of the Rev Carl Volkner. Creative NZ made it clear I would have to consult his iwi if I was to win the $100,000 Michael King Fellowship. I felt I had to write a much less imaginative book because I was paranoid about getting the facts right and not offending tribal sensibilities.


3. What do you think this says about New Zealand?

I feel like New Zealanders have turned their back on their colonial history. Political correctness has made the whole area taboo because we don't want to offend anyone. Instead we've consigned this fraught territory to the Waitangi Tribunal to divvy up money, land and - importantly - guilt. I think this actually distances us from our past when it's vital we have the intellectual freedom to explore it.

4. Did you ever hear what Te Rau's iwi Ngati Rangiwewehi thought of your book?

No. I've often wondered what they think of it. In time they'll provide their own account which will be very interesting.

5. Your last two books have been historical biographies. Why the switch from novels?

I studied history at Auckland University and found myself led back to it when we moved to Napier eight years ago. My partner Douglas Lloyd Jenkins was appointed the museum and art gallery director. Delving into the region's rich history was a way of fixing myself to place. That's how I got started on my biography of William Colenso, The Hungry Heart.

6. What do you love about history?

It's the story-telling that really appeals. I try to make the past more accessible through a conversational style and lots of pictures. Elizabeth Colenso's letters to William when their marriage was being pulled apart are extremely alive. You can feel the emotion coursing through the handwriting. You get a very detailed picture of the world they lived in.


7. Which writer are you inspired by the moment?

A Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgard. He wrote an absolutely extraordinary series of six autobiographical novels called My Struggle. He writes a very truthful view on how he actually sees the world with all its blemishes and insecurities.

8. How do you feel about ageing?

I've had some great role models. My mother lived independently into her 90s and got a new boyfriend when she was 95. I remember talking to the wonderful Freda Stark when she was in her 80s. She said, "I feel exactly the same as when I was in my 20s". People might see you as old but inside you're still in a ferment, working stuff out. I'm in my 60s now and still on a learning curve. My generation of gay men were the first to be out and probably never thought we'd get old, so it's learning a whole new way of how to be in the world.

9. Do you regret not having children?

My mother's in a retirement village now and sometimes when I visit her I think, "Who's going to look after me when I'm old?", but then I notice that no one visits much so having a family doesn't guarantee they'll look after you. Also I think not having children leaves room for other people to do so. We can't have every human on the planet reproducing.

10. Have you ever felt that you've failed yourself?

Oh yes. I have a classic sort of hectoring Protestant voice in me; "You fool, you idiot". Sometimes I think it's my father's voice. I don't know if it ever goes away. I only have to stumble a little bit and I'm quite hard on myself. Sometimes you have to give yourself a break.

11. As a writer, do you find it hard to speak at book festivals?

I found it really hard at first. I'd have these terrible panic attacks sparked from memories of being bullied at Mt Albert Grammar School in the 60s. I was meant to have an effeminate voice so every time I spoke people would scream with laughter or imitate me so I ended up not talking at all. I found at the festivals that if I talked to the audience about how I was feeling, people would just go, "oh, ok". We'd acknowledge it and move beyond it.

12. What's the point of hearing writers talk?

A writers' festival is like gathering the tribe beside the fire. To hear the human voice, to witness people thinking and speaking is like feeling the breath of the world. Once I've heard an author read I can still hear their voice when I'm reading their work, it's like the music that's underneath the words. Anyone interested in the whole notion of difference and how people survive and flourish with it will enjoy this festival. We've got some fantastic young people that will add a whole new element. I find it encouraging that they still find writing this vital thing that they really want to do.