Michael’s top tip for aspiring authors: Embrace difficulty and keep curious and alive to the process. Don’t think too much about what’s hovering over the horizon, but stay focused on what’s there on the page. Keep moving those words around and trust they will show you the way.
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.
Why do you write? There’s nothing I love more than moving words around on a page, watching them take shape, building up images and scenes transmitted with a certain emotion, transforming them into stories. It’s a creative urge in me that has recently flowered into The Pacific Room, my debut novel. And the urge only grows as I get older.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? When I’m not moving words around on a page as a writer, I’m doing the same as an editor. My early life as a journalist in Melbourne and Sydney (most recently as the arts editor for the South Pacific edition of Time magazine) led to art magazine editing – currently for Art Monthly Australasia, which involves different ways of thinking and looking at the world but which feeds back to creativity. And, of course, words.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? The perception of being a former journalist brought an expectation from agents and publishers that non-fiction or memoir was a more natural evolution for me as a writer – I’ve heard that said many times – and that my fiction didn’t travel in the usual narrative arc. But I’ve stubbornly resisted and persisted with fiction writing. It’s the biggest challenge and satisfaction for me (when I get it right), and I’m still learning.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Research and writing requires marathon-like lengths of solitude and (in my case) travel – a solipsistic discipline not unlike swimming, which I also love and can’t do without. With the cacophony of demands from our working and private lives, that lulling ocean of time that writing requires – flowing over months and years – seems a precious luxury which is utterly intoxicating and desirable.
—the worst? Not having that time to luxuriate in. The Pacific Room took nine years from a glint in the eye to final realisation. This was in between editing Art & Australia, Photofile and now Art Monthly Australasia, and as one’s other life speeds up, it’s increasingly hard to slow down into that deep meditative space that writing a novel requires.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? It’s hard to say. Because all the stumbles I’ve experienced along the way to publication have – I hope – made me a better writer. Life experience helps, finding patience and dealing with disappointment. Absorbing the world and learning from it takes time – for me anyway – and I’m only just making my literary debut aged 52.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? That’s a tricky one, because the allowance or freedom to make mistakes is essential for any writer’s passage. For me the desire to become an author was unshakeable, but my own pathway needed to unfold in precisely the way that it did, and – now that I think of it – not unlike that of Teuila in The Pacific Room: ‘She has always been led by the forest, through a path never clear, found by touch, fumbling, rather than sight.’
What’s the best advice you were ever given? In the literary world, opinions and advice can fly thick and fast – sometimes confusingly so. And, for a young writer, rejection can be brutal. When I was researching The Pacific Room in Samoa in the late 2000s, I must have seemed quite anxious as someone told me to relax my mind and let the stories in. Looking back, that was the best advice I could have received.
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.
The Pacific Room is available from Transit Lounge and other retailers.