Unity Books Wellington spoke to Peter Wells ahead of his in-store lunchtime event for his new book
Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pākehā History
When writer and historian Peter Wells found a cache of family letters amongst his elderly mother’s effects, he realised that he had the means of retracing the history of a not-untypical family swept out to New Zealand during the great nineteenth-century human diaspora from Britain. His family experienced the war against Te Kooti, the Boer War, the Napier earthquake of 1931 and the Depression. They rose from servant status to the comforts of the middle class. There was army desertion, suicide, adultery, AIDS, secrets and lies. There was also success, prosperity and social status.
In digging deep into their stories, examining letters from the past and writing a letter to the future, Peter Wells constructs a novel and striking way to view the history of Pākehā New Zealanders
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND HOW DID YOU DISCOVER THE BOOK(S)?
‘Peculiar Ground’, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, well reviewed in The NYer and LRB.
‘Illness as Metaphor’, Susan Sontag (recommended by David Herkt for obvious reasons. It was in the stack of the public library – no longer in demand.)
WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRITERS AND WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THEM?
Janet Malcolm for her understanding of nonfiction and the complicit role of the writer.
Alan Hollinghurst for his buttery sentences and light touch on Sodom. Henry James for the opium of his sentences and his equivocal morality. Joan Didion for the amount of white space in her books and the typography of her covers. Anthony Trollope for his sentences and plots which have the unique ability to calm me down and change the way I am breathing. A friend who was pregnant felt Trollope was better than any relaxant. Proust of course.
WHAT BOOKS ARE ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE?
‘The Elusive Embrace’, Daniel Mendelsohn.
‘Between Them’, Richard Ford.
‘Can You Forgive Her’, Anthony Trollope. I need my Trollope drug on standby.
‘Paintings in Proust’, Eric Karpeles.
‘Driving to Treblinka’, Diana Wichtel.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK-TO-FILM ADAPTATION?
Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’. A novella turned into an epic realisation of the Belle Epoque in all its beauty and decadence.
WHAT BOOK HAVE YOU RE-READ THE MOST AND WHY?
Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’. It’s a fascinating thing that a boorish man could produce such an empathetic novel on the terrors of love and a woman’s predicament. It’s the great 19th century novel in my view. Panoramic, incisive. But on the whole I am not a great re-reader.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE LITERARY CHARACTER?
Lewis Lambert Strether in Henry James’ ‘The Ambassadors.’
WHAT BOOK HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN MEANING TO READ BUT STILL HAVEN’T GOTTEN AROUND TO?
Dame Anne Salmond ‘Tears of Rangi’.
WHICH THREE WRITERS WOULD YOU HAVE OVER FOR SUPPER?
E.H. McCormick, E.M. Forster, Frank Sargeson, three old homos.
WHAT WOULD YOU COOK THEM?
I’m thinking a cream of watercress and potato soup, followed by chicken bollito and rice and seasonal vegetables. But the pudding is everything here so I’m thinking Spotted Dick (no puns intended) and vanilla custard, followed by cheeses, pears and Port. One should have a good Hawkes Bay Syrah plus icy cold champagne. Indigestion pills on standby.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE LITERARY QUOTE?
‘It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognise that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole words apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.’ Proust.