Today we welcome Michael Fitzgerald to Booklover Book Reviews to share what inspired him to write his debut novel The Pacific Room.
The Pacific Room Synopsis:
This remarkable debut novel tells of the last days of Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’, as Robert Louis Stevenson became known in Samoa where he chose to die. In 1892 Girolamo Nerli travels from Sydney by steamer to Apia, with the intention of capturing something of Jekyll and Hyde in his portrait of the famous author. Nerli’s presence sets in train a disturbing sequence of events. More than a century later, art historian Lewis Wakefield comes to Samoa to research the painting of Tusitala’s portrait by the long-forgotten Italian artist.
On hiatus from his bipolar medication, Lewis is freed to confront the powerful reality of all the desires and demons that R. L. Stevenson couldn’t control. Lewis’s personal journey is shadowed by the story of the lovable Teuila, a so-called fa‘afafine (‘in the manner of a woman’), and the spirit of Stevenson’s servant boy, Sosimo. Set in an evocative tropical landscape haunted by the lives and spirits which drift across it, The Pacific Room is both a love letter to Samoa and a lush and tender exploration of artistic creation, of secret passions and merging dualities.
(Transit Lounge, July 2017)
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When and how does a novel begin?
Until now, pressing my pen into this blank notebook page in July 2017, just as The Pacific Room is being released to the world, I haven’t asked myself that question. In the fits and bursts that a novel requires, and mine took nine years from start to finish, there are other things to think about.
When characters take hold of you – in my case, a whole island of them – it pays to wait and listen to their call and ask questions later.
Was it first traversing the Pacific in my early twenties, when a planned trip to Bali got strangely sidetracked to Tahiti? Rather than paradise, in Papeete I found an Oceanic metropolis without beaches, though at my hotel (near the airport, I recall, as American flight crew lounged by the pool) I had an unexpected epiphany. While watching a tourist set of Polynesian dancing one night, I remember seeing a young French woman in her wheelchair in paroxysms of delight. It made me wonder about the mysterious process of cultural reception, from one culture to another, and how we navigate in between.
Was it a few years later reading Shirley Hazzard’s magisterial The Transit of Venus (1995) and witnessing the strange shadow cast by the Pacific on the doomed Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell? Or, a decade on, in the late 1990s, while on assignment for Time magazine in New Caledonia, watching the actual shadow cast by a windsurfer in an endless sea of blue? Jump-cut a few years to Tonga, again on assignment for Time, and I wonder if I caught my first sight of Teuila at a fa‘afafine pageant in Nuku‘alofa.
I got closer to The Pacific Room in 2005, landfall for me in Samoa. It was then I first climbed Mount Vaea to reach the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, a rite of passage for any visitor to Apia. A century or more since his death, his presence seemed to seep down into the valleys below and expand, colouring my experiences.
Everything I reported on during that press trip seemed to lead me back to Stevenson. Like the tuitui weed he and wife Fanny used to complain of in clearing the land around Vailima, he had taken hold of Samoa’s imagination. He loomed large.
It was on that same visit to Samoa that I was first introduced to Apia’s fa‘afafine community. Alosina Ropati was my generous guide and through her I began to understand the rich history and complex social significance of the so-called ‘third gender’. Through Stevenson’s eyes I saw the fascinating and liberating ‘doubleness’ of their lives but without any of the horror of Jekyll and Hyde.
Both stories took hold of me ‘closer than a wife, closer than an eye’, to quote the Scottish writer, and a novel began to take shape. There would be research trips back to Samoa in late 2007 and then again for the Festival of Pacific Arts in 2008, but it soon became apparent that for a novel so cavalier with time – we follow the stories of Lewis and Teuila but for a few days while zigzagging through time zones and centuries – it would require an abundance of it.
Strangely I came closest to The Pacific Room as the fog rolled past my window at Eleanor Dark’s garden studio in the Blue Mountains in the winter of 2011 as the historical characters began to live and breathe for me. And then again on a mountain in Murwillumbah in January this year while putting the finishing touches to the manuscript. By this point, even the dairy cows brushing past my window moved slowly with a South Pacific swagger.
Perhaps nine years on, I’m none the wiser. ‘Where’s this beach?’ Stevenson’s family ask their Teller of Tales, or Tusitala as he was known, in a passage from The Pacific Room. ‘Climb to the top of Mount Vaea,’ he replies, ‘and look around you. You’ll see the string of sand circles forever.’
About the Author, Michael Fitzgerald
Michael Fitzgerald lives on a lush gully in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He first journeyed to Samoa in 2005 as arts editor for the South Pacific edition of Time, and has since worked as a magazine editor for Art & Australia, Photofile and now Art Monthly Australasia. His writing has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review and Harper’s Bazaar. The Pacific Room is his first novel.