Following a year-long battle with illness, acclaimed writer Peter Wells talks to his friend David Herkt about facing death, his new book, Hello Darkness, and his recent marriage to Douglas Lloyd Jenkins.
"In some senses it is a last book," Peter Wells says about Hello Darkness, his just-released journal of six months of living with cancer. "It is a last chance to talk about the world, a last look back. It has some of that calmness, some of that quiet - the quiet of a dawn, I like to think."
Following a short period of remission, Wells has now found himself back in hospital.
"I've been in Ward 64, Room 13, for eight days and nights," he wrote to me in an email. "It feels all my life. It's a room divided into four beds, four patients. During that time men have come and gone. It's very intimate - you hear everything. You're very susceptible to mood.
"Delusion seems part and parcel of this very practical world. Illusions about how long people are going to live, for example," he says. "I'm in a situation of knowing I'll be alive for a limited amount of time - my bone marrow is implicated and it is my blood rather than cancer that will lead to my demise."
I have known Wells for more than 20 years. I had visited him a few days earlier, sitting on one of the cobalt-coloured plastic chairs behind the yellow and blue-checked hospital curtains.
His pain relief had been increased. The dark visible bite of his illness, which had become a familiar sight, had softened. His movements were easier. He laughed with more swiftness and ease.
"I know my own situation intimately," he says. "It's a strange time of life for me as the glamour of dying - if I could so call it - is over. I am in the hard haul of it. Yet I find it all - the necessity of staying alive for as long as I can - and being conscious about it - weighing it and making sense of it - I find all that constantly interesting."
"It's a solace in a way to turn all this into thought and words. You know I never feel alone."
Wells was travelling in Britain with his partner, art-writer Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, when he realised he was ill.
"I was trying to climb some stairs and my right leg refused to function. I suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and wondered if this was simply a flare-up and would right itself. I decided to push this to the back of my mind and cope as well as I could."
"But then my rib-cage began to hurt. I could not get comfortable at night. I ceased to sleep. I took over-the-counter medication and silently began to count down the days until I got home."
Eventually a PSA test revealed the truth.
"I have some bad news, Peter," his doctor said. "You have prostate cancer and it is in your bones. It has been left too late to do anything."
The next day, he found himself in Auckland Hospital with only an iPhone on which to record his thoughts.
"Hello Darkness is a kind of personal diary arising from nights spent in hospital when I suddenly found myself with an aggressive, life-threatening prostate cancer," he said. "I kept the diary to stay sane … I'm a writer and writing - making sense of things in words - is what I do."
"I seemed under a terrible impetus to describe a world at 2am when everyone else is asleep and I'm furiously alive wondering what road led me there, to a hospital bed in a cancer ward."
"It is, oddly enough, often a joyful kind of writing, of dawns and dusks, of going home on leave and being met by my cat stretched out in welcome on the back door."
Wells posted his thoughts to his Facebook page. His announcement of his circumstances gathered 114 comments almost immediately.
"It was very personal yet it was being aired on a thoroughly public medium - as open as a sieve - that was the inherent contradiction of it," he says.
"But it seemed the world wanted to hear my news: which was, how to make sense of being in a terminal condition, how to get sustenance and meaning from it, how to progress your life so it was enriched and not depleted; how to live, essentially, through the last hours."
"I was hungry for connection," he adds. "Now I seemed to live in a hurricane of comments, which both helped me and pushed me forward. Constructing a daily post became my day's activity."
Hello Darkness collects his original Facebook posts but adds much new material. It is extensively illustrated by photographs taken by Wells or from his archive.
"When life changes so fundamentally, all the constituent parts seem to alter too - relationships, friendships, the meaning of love. You look back, too, often in gulps of apprehension at 'the road not taken' Did you live your life right? Was there a time when you could have acted better? Who are you apart from your disease?"
"I wanted a personal testimony about this last part of my life, in my own words. I have made my own meaning up until now - why stop at the last frontier?"
Wells was raised in Point Chevalier with his older brother, Russell. Both boys were gay. It was a close, competitive, and complex relationship. Russell became a well-respected Treaty negotiations lawyer, but died of HIV/Aids in 1989.
After training as an historian in Auckland and the United Kingdom, Wells returned to New Zealand, and began to make short films. The Mighty Civic, devoted to the splendour of Auckland theatre, would eventually be credited with helping to save the building from demolition.
His first critical television success was Jewel's Darl (1986), the story of a day in the life of a transsexual, which starred the young Georgina Beyer.
"It was filmed at the very quick of the disturbances of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill," he said. "In fact, in one scene Jewel runs out in front of a real-life homophobic Salvation Army march up Queen St. Film and politics were closely intermeshed."
TVNZ did not like the subject matter. Jewel's Darl took more than a year to reach the screen. Despite this, the drama was nominated in a number of categories in the 1987 Guild of Film and TV Arts (Gofta) television awards, including Best Actress for Beyer, though it gained none.
Wells, however, became a household name due to the Gofta live broadcast. The event was hosted by the effete John Inman, a British actor from the BBC series Are You Being Served? in which he played a very camp shop assistant.
After one closeted innuendo too many, Wells called out "F*** off, sexist shit!" to the actor. It was clearly audible to the TV audience.
"Pardon me, dearie, I didn't hear what you said," responded Inman. Wells obligingly repeated himself.
"The rest of the ceremony descended in a form of petrified chaos," the writer remembers. He was soon "named and shamed" in the media. Truth newspaper called him "the Goftaslob".
It was also the period of HIV/Aids. Wells found himself involved, not only through his brother's illness but through many other others in Auckland's gay community. He co-directed a TV drama, A Death in the Family, with his then partner, Stewart Main, which told the story of a gay man with the virus, his friends, and immediate family. It was screened internationally.
Two books of short-stories, Dangerous Desires and Duration of a Kiss, followed. Wells also co-directed the lush feature movie Desperate Remedies, starring Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Kevin Smith, and Cliff Curtis, which opened at the Cannes Movie Festival in 1993.
It was a "flamboyantly fake, gorgeously unreal melodrama set in a never-never colonial world," he says. It gave a "smouldering" Curtis his first real acting role and Smith was an "often semi-naked, ravishing male beauty".
"But I never wanted to make another film," Wells says. "I much preferred the isolation and personal nature of writing. It sat with me better."
He would write three more novels and a memoir, Long Loop Home, but his later books, the 'Napier Trilogy' (The Hungry Heart, Journey to a Hanging, and Dear Oliver) have been ground-breaking works of New Zealand history, often told through a personal lens.
"I kept using 'interrupted' sorts of ways of speaking and writing that stood outside orthodox history writing," he says. "It was all closer to creative non-fiction. I didn't want to write 'straight' history for obvious reasons - I wasn't straight."
On Saturday, December 1, 2018, around 50 people gathered to witness Wells' marriage to Lloyd Jenkins, in the large blue-walled studio at their 1906 Edwardian villa, Finnis House, in Napier.
"Deciding to get married was a very spontaneous reaction to living under pressure all year from the cancer," he says.
Wells had previously been opposed to marriage equality - he "did not want equality, he wanted individual freedom". But in 2018, he had suddenly asked Lloyd Jenkins whether they should reconsider marriage. Lloyd Jenkins replied that they should, but not on the street, not on the way to a movie.
"Douglas and I had never been closer, more intimate and it suddenly seemed silly not to celebrate that love and commitment in front of friends and family."
Guests at the wedding included Georgina Beyer along with Stephanie Johnson, writer and co-founder of the Auckland Writer's Festival; Ray McVinnie, chef and food-writer; the TV and film director Garth Maxwell; and Alexa Johnston, the culinary historian.
"I was so very happy," Wells says. "It's hard not to speak in cliches but the wedding somehow seemed like something from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream - flowers, magic, a magic hour.
"I, Peter Northe Wells, take you, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, to be my husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward …" he had pledged.
They were pronounced "husband and husband" by the celebrant.
"I committed myself to Douglas and it seemed we were connected on both a profound but a very simple level," he says. "Certainly, it was something I had never thought of or planned. It crept up on me and took me by surprise."
Hello Darkness will be launched at the Same same but different Writer's Festival at 4pm on Saturday, February 9, and at Unity Books, 19 High St, Auckland at 6pm on Monday, 11 February.