Kill Your Darlings’ First Book Club pick for September is Michael Fitzgerald’s The Pacific Room (Transit Lounge). The 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. 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. Here, the author describes the inspiration and writing process behind the novel.
It is winter 2011 and clouds of white fog are rolling past my window. I am in Eleanor Dark’s garden studio in the Blue Mountains and reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the first time. I feel as though I know the story intimately already – the killer twist to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella is one of literature’s worst-kept secrets. But what grabs me by the throat is how he tells it. In Stevenson’s telling, the perspective jumps once, then twice, circling the double nature at the heart of the novella, before entering the mind of the famous antagonist/protagonist. So when Henry Jekyll confesses at the end of the tale that ‘man is not truly one, but truly two’, I feel shipwrecked with him along with the truth.
I had been holed up for a week at Varuna Writers’ House on a publishing fellowship, and working on the historical characters in my debut novel The Pacific Room. But perhaps the most important one had eluded me until then: Robert Louis Stevenson. The Scottish writer’s life and death in 1890s Samoa, in the middle of the Pacific, was the stepping-off point for my speculative novel – and, in particular, an actual portrait painted of him by the Italian impressionist Girolamo Nerli. But like his own literary shapeshifting (after all, this was the writer who delighted in A Child’s Garden of Verses as well as helping inspire Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), Stevenson was hard to grasp. So I took my cue from Jekyll and Hyde. The only way I could reveal the truth of him was to circle him, through the various characters of his 1890s household, and then to enter his mind through the body of his words.
The only way I could reveal the truth of [Stevenson] was to circle him, and then to enter his mind through the body of his words.
In Samoa, where he is buried on top of Mount Vaea overlooking Apia Harbour, Stevenson’s best-known work is the poem ‘Requiem’: ‘Under the wide and starry sky,/ Dig the grave and let me lie…’ On my first research trip to Apia in 2005 and en route to ‘Vailima’, Stevenson’s house on the hill (now a museum), I was astonished when my driver began reciting these words in our taxi cab as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Here was not some dead white author fossilised by time, but a storytelling spirit very much alive – in Samoa, the Scotsman was known as Tusitala, ‘the teller of tales’.
Stevenson’s next best-known work in Samoa is not Kidnapped or Treasure Island, but ‘The Bottle Imp’. When it appeared in 1891 as ‘O le Fagu Auitu’, it was the first serial tale to be translated into Samoan. A story about the curse of a gift-giving aitu spirit, ‘The Bottle Imp’ is also a cautionary tale against desire – to be careful of what you wish for. Along with Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this was my other cue for The Pacific Room. Double identity mixed with desire. Despite his dandified bohemian persona, Stevenson remained remarkably faithful to his strict Calvinist upbringing in Scotland. Which got me thinking: what if I released the genie of desire into his 1890s household, to make mischief among its stitched-up, highly strung souls? And what if a love, perhaps unrequited back then, was transmitted imp-like through time to present-day Samoa, to be inhabited by a contemporary character called Teuila? And what if Teuila was the great-great granddaughter of Sosimo, Stevenson’s servant boy?
Here was not some dead white author fossilised by time, but a storytelling spirit very much alive.
Suddenly, through Teuila’s eyes, I could start to see Stevenson more clearly. Indeed, in a novel running rampant with double-takes and jump-cuts through time, Teuila is very much Stevenson’s calm counterpoint, his contemporary doppelgänger. Spoiler alert: Teuila is also a member of Apia’s fa‘afafine community, or ‘third’ sex, as a biological male raised as a female. So in this way she is also caught up in a sense of doubleness, but without the horror of Jekyll and Hyde. Instead, she is in love with the imaginative possibilities of duality: ‘What will I become?’
I like to think that we are each defined by our opposite – by something which is the inverse to how we might appear, and brought to us by some strange kink of nature or fate. The best portraits often contain this telling twist, which brings us closer to something we always thought we knew but perhaps never did. In finding Teuila I had, at last, caught sight of the real Stevenson.
The Pacific Room is available now at Readings.