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Books: How to Write a Best-Seller

An essay by author Graeme Lay on how he came to write his best-selling trilogy of novels about Captain James Cook.

I grew up beside the Taranaki coast, first in Oakura, where I started school, then Opunake, so the Tasman Sea with its moody beauty and power was always in sight. It enthralled me. Unsurprisingly, I loved reading sea stories. I read and re-read Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and The Coral Island, and the Famous Five books because they were usually set beside the sea. The sea, I learned, was filled with wonderful stories. At Oakura, impaled on a reef exposed at low tide, were the remains of a wrecked ship. Whenever my mother took me for walks on Oakura beach and the tide was low, there was the hulk, stark and sinister, its great gaunt ribs exposed. I was entranced. A real shipwreck.

Fast forward 40 years. After living in England and Europe, I’ve returned to New Zealand. I’ve developed an interest in the history and cultures of the South Pacific, particularly regarding the first contacts between European explorers and Polynesian peoples. I’ve travelled extensively throughout the Pacific, been inspired by the beauty of the islands and their inhabitants, and have published stories and novels of my own, set in the Cook Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Tonga and Niue.

I’ve learned that several of those islands retained memories of the times that Cook’s ships visited them. Local people showed me where he had come ashore, where he had been welcomed or repulsed, where he had set up his encampments. Islands in French Polynesia and Tonga in particular, had kept that early connection with Cook alive. For instance on Tahiti at Point Venus, from where Cook and his astronomer Charles Green observed the transit of Venus on 3 June 1769, a monument commemorates the event. And near the village of Mu’a, on Tonga’s largest island Tongatapu, the place where Cook came ashore in 1777 is now an important stopover on the island’s tourist trail. The imposing Cook Monument at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, commemorates the explorer’s five separate stays at the bay. Even on Niue, where Cook’s attempted landing in 1774 was repelled, there is a notice-board marking the hapless encounter.

I then read some primary sources, the journals of several of the voyagers who had come to the South Pacific and recorded their impressions of the islands and their peoples. The vivid accounts of men such as George Robertson, Louis Antoine de Bougainville and Joseph Banks were full of wonder at the exotic scenes they witnessed. Equally striking were the drawings and paintings of the artists who accompanied the voyagers. Sydney Parkinson, William Hodges and Johann Webber, who sailed on Cook’s ships, left superb visual records of their sojourns in the Pacific.

So captivating were the words and images emerging from those early contacts between Europeans and Polynesians that I decided to compile a selection of their writings and illustrations. These were published in a large-format, lavishly illustrated anthology entitled In Search of Paradise – Artists and Writers in the colonial South Pacific (Random House, 2008). Spanning the period from 1768 to World War II, the book included journal extracts and paintings by men such as James Cook, Sydney Parkinson, Augustus Earle, Herman Melville, Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Rupert Brooke and James Michener; men on whom the South Pacific islands had had an unforgettable impact, as they had had on me when I first saw them.

From my research and the compilation of In Search of Paradise, the figure of James Cook stood out. I found his journal entries remarkably perceptive. He deduced, for example, that the South Pacific islands had been settled over centuries from the west, so that the Polynesian people must originally have come from South-East Asia. He also realised that the open promiscuity of the Tahitian women was motivated not by sexual desire but by the acquisition of a valuable new currency – nails – which they obtained from the lustful European sailors in exchange for their bodies. Cook’s shrewd observations were included in his journals, along with more prosaic comments on the weather conditions, topography and coordinates of whichever place he happened to be in at the time.

A copy of In Search of Paradise was subsequently taken to the Frankfurt Book Fair by my literary agent, who hoped to find a European publisher for the book. This did not eventuate, but one German publisher suggested to my agent that his company would be interested in producing a non-fiction book about early contacts between James Cook and the Polynesian peoples, one which emphasised the traditional attitudes of the indigenous peoples the explorer encountered. My agent asked me if I would be interested in writing such a book. I would. After all, I was now very familiar with the Pacific Islands and the cultures of their various peoples.

Accordingly, I wrote a sample chapter of the proposed publication, choosing the example of Cook’s attempted landing on Niue on 22 June, 1774, during his second world voyage. I stressed that what Cook interpreted as a hostile response by the Niueans was in reality merely the traditional Polynesian challenge to strange visitors. A bicultural explanation of this clash between two very different peoples was what the German publisher was looking for, and what I provided

However, when the chapter was finished I was dissatisfied with it. It wasn’t that it was inaccurate – I had researched the cultural beliefs the Niueans would have held at the time – but more the fact that Polynesian reactions towards the arrival of Europeans had already been thoroughly documented, notably by Anne Salmond in her Two Worlds (1991) and Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2003) and by James Belich in Making Peoples (2007). In their books these writers had shown such a profound knowledge of the traditional customs and beliefs of Polynesian peoples that there seemed little point in writing another one. So I aborted the project.

Something lingered in my mind after the research though. Something had become lodged in there like a barbed hook. This was an intense curiosity about the man who had been central to so many of the first meetings between Europeans and Polynesians – James Cook.

I turned to reading some of the many biographies of the man, and so became familiar with Cook and his career. And the more I read about him and his achievements, the more amazed I became.

**

The facts of Cook’s life were remarkable, but they also raised questions in my mind to which his biographers had supplied no really satisfactory answers. These questions continued to gnaw at me. Why did young James suddenly abandon his grocery apprenticeship? Why did he decide to make the sea his life when there was no maritime tradition in his family? How did he rise above his lowly origins and the rigid eighteenth century English class system? What kind of relationship did he have with his parents and siblings? How did he meet and court Elizabeth, the woman who became his wife and bore his six children? What enabled him to succeed as a peerless navigator and commander? And what were the real causes of his eventual, fatal downfall?

Virtually nothing of his personality was revealed in the dozens of James Cook biographies. In them, the man within the Royal Navy officer’s uniform remained as insubstantial as he had been when we learned about his deeds at primary school. Whereas the biographies all chronicled in detail whatthe great man had done, there was almost nothing about why he did it. Who was the real Captain Cook?

The more I considered this conundrum, the more I thought that getting to the heart of the man and bringing him to life as a person, might be a job for a novelist. Cook’s inner life, as I came to think of it, might best be explained through fiction. Because there was so little on the record about his personal life, I decided to invent one for him, and tell his story in the form of a novel.

As a novelist as well as a non-fiction writer, I well understood the challenge that I was presenting myself with. The differences between writing fiction and non-fiction are immense. They are as different in composition as wine and water, or as a painting and a photograph. To the non-fiction writer facts are sacred; to the fiction writer the imagination is sacrosanct.

Above all, fiction writing stands or falls on two crucial elements, characterisation and conflict. A novel’s characters must be completely credible to the reader, who should be significantly moved, to sorrow, anger, love or laughter. There must also be meaningful conflict between the novel’s characters, to bring dramatic tension to the narrative. The playwright’s golden rule – conflict is the essence of drama – is equally applicable to the novelist.

To convert James Cook’s life to fiction meant that I would have to infiltrate his mind, imagine his feelings on land and sea, and provide motives for his actions. To credibly recreate the man I would have to pull on his sea boots and walk around in them. I would have to go aloft in an Atlantic gale, and hug the mainmast. When the gale abated I would have to shoot the sun with a sextant at midday. I would have to sentence men to the lash if they refused to eat their sauerkraut. I would have to splice his wife Elizabeth into the narrative, and convey her hopes and fears. These, and many other considerations, lay in the testing waters ahead.

I would not, I decided, play fast and loose with historical fact; I would make the narrative close to Cook’s real experiences, as chronicled in the biographies. Since his three world voyages would provide the framework for the story, there would have to be three novels. In one sense the narrative was already there, awaiting the fiction treatment. And as far as the characters were concerned, the cast was there too.

And what a colourful cast I had been granted.

From Cook’s first world voyage: the flamboyant naturalist Joseph Banks, the sensitive illustrator Sydney Parkinson, the trigger-happy third officer John Gore and the haughty Raiatean priest, Tupaia. From the second voyage: the sanctimonious botanist Johann Forster, the concupiscent master’s mate Charles Clerke, the mediocre commander of the consort vessel HMS Adventure, Tobias Furneaux, and the Raiatean supernumerary and would-be English gentleman, Omai. From the final voyage: the American first officer Gore, the now-consumptive Clerke, the repatriated Polynesian Omai, the popular second officer James King, the humourless young sailing master William Bligh and the lascivious assistant surgeon, David Samwell. I imagined that there would be plenty of potential for conflict among these characters during the three voyages.

Naturally, a constant presence throughout the narrative would be the titanic figure of James Cook. His loyal, long-suffering wife, Elizabeth would also have a significant role, through a literary device I decided to employ, a private journal for her which James would keep while he was at sea.

So, with a copy of the Nathaniel Dance portrait of Cook pinned to the wall behind my desk, with several biographies and an atlas close at hand, and a magnetised picture of HMS Endeavour stuck to the fridge, I began to write Cook’s story in fictional form.

**

Obviously I couldn’t include everything that happened to him during his eventful life. So as far as his early years were concerned, I selected certain turning points. For example, after young James leaves his home village and walks to Staithes to take up his grocer’s apprenticeship, he sees the sea for the first time.

He looked out at what lay beyond the cliffs, beyond the town, beyond the estuary, to the source of the salty aroma and the roaring. Waves, driven by the north-east wind, racing in towards the land, waves, breaking as they came closer to the land, and white water like the streaming manes of galloping horses. Further out the sea was an expanse of grey, flecked with white, and he could see the triangular sails of several small vessels. Beyond the sails, the great expanse reached to a cloudy horizon. The German Ocean. He stood for some time, entranced by the sight. Then, with a spring in his step, he began to make his way down the track that led to the town.

After suffering the distress of an unrequited love affair, James abandons the grocery store for a merchant seaman’s training in Whitby. And having qualified there as a professional seaman, he turns his back on that career and enlists in the Royal Navy. He learns the skills of a hydrographer on the eastern shores of North America, and successfully charts the coast of Newfoundland. And he meets the woman who becomes his wife and the mother of his five sons and a daughter.

Gradually I drew together many pieces of Cook’s life up to and including his first world voyage onEndeavour, and then delved beneath these facts to imagine what had motivated him to go to sea, then succeed in a naval career. Before long “Captain Cook” had become “James” to me. He was beside me virtually every waking hour, and frequently when I was not awake. He became like a stern uncle, looking over my shoulder to check how I was treating him, and occasionally murmuring, “Make sure thy gets it right, lad.”

While I wrote I was also conscious that it had become fashionable in some circles to deride Cook and scorn his achievements. To these people he was an imperialist, a racist, and a destroyer of indigenous cultures. He brought with him, they claimed, disease and destructive weapons to the South Pacific.

There could be no better example of the distortions to which blind ideology leads. These judgements I knew to be wildly exaggerated and in many cases plainly wrong. The Cook deriders had seized on his sometimes irrational decisions during the third voyage to dishonour his entire life and ascribe to it the basest of motives. These people, I concluded, needed to read more widely, especially the work of genuine authorities such as JC Beaglehole, Anne Salmond and Richard Hough.

Cook was a product of the Enlightenment, a time when curiosity about the peoples far beyond Europe’s shores was intense, and in the main, sympathetic. The age gave rise to the term “Noble Savage”, which although naive, was for some time sincerely held. Cook himself was largely fair in his treatment of indigenous people. In accordance with Instructions from one of his principal sponsors, the Royal Society, if shooting occurred, it was to be only in self-defence. Cook showed both curiosity and respect towards native cultures, was deeply admired and made many friends throughout the Pacific. Even in Hawaii, where he was killed, the people initially greeted him with adoration. To Polynesians he was a man of great mana, esteemed for his bravery and leadership. It occurred to me, when reading of Cook’s fearlessness and driving ambition, that had he been born in 1928 rather than 1728, he would probably have become an astronaut.

His character flaws – a tendency to rage, intolerance of others’ shortcomings, a reluctance to follow the advice of his officers – became acute only during his third voyage, when an irreversible physical and mental deterioration had set in.

In spite of having the facts of Cook’s life at my disposable, there were aspects of his life which could not be explained by realities. So then came into play another important aspect of fiction writing, the What if? factor.

To give one example: after Cook left on his first world voyage, to observe the transit of Venus and search for Terra Australis Incognita, what if Cook and Joseph Banks, the young naturalist who was on the voyage and financed much of it, did not have a cordial relationship?

The accepted version is that the two men were at ease in each other’s company, but the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed to me that they would clash along the way.

Consider their differences.

Banks was young, unmarried and privileged. He was a well-connected London sophisticate and libertine, a crony of Lord Sandwich, the First Sea Lord. Independently wealthy, Banks could devote his life to exotic travel and collecting natural specimens. He brought servants with him. HisEndeavour journal is full of human detail, vividly described.

Cook was born into a poor level of society. He was highly intelligent and a free thinker, but morally conservative. Dour, self-disciplined, a true Yorkshireman, he was a devoted family man in spite of the fact that most of his children were born while he was away at sea. His journals are highly impersonal and empirical.

Given these fundamental differences, I imagined that the two men must have had serious personality clashes on the Endeavour voyage. So in the first novel, conflicts between Banks and Cook become a significant aspect of the story.

Also, what if Elizabeth Cook later became opposed to James going to sea for another long voyage?What if this put their marriage under strain? She had destroyed all his correspondence to her. Why? This fact intrigued me greatly, and formed the basis of another departure from the official record.

**

The first novel begins with James leaving his village home in 1744 and concludes with his return to England in 1771 after his successful circumnavigation. He then learns that two of his infant children have died while he was at sea. The novel includes the personal journal for Elizabeth which James keeps aboard Endeavour. In it he records his innermost thoughts and feelings about the voyage, his ship-mates, the South Pacific islands and their inhabitants. Through this literary conceit I was able to show what I imagined to be James’s most intimate feelings. And in this way Elizabeth, although she is physically absent for long periods, remains a presence in the story.

I called the first novel The Secret Life of James Cook and it was published by HarperCollins in 2013. I then turned my attention to the next novel.

The second is more sharply focused than the first, since it begins with events leading up to Cook’s second voyage, which begins in 1772.

After he returns from the first voyage, James reads his personal journal to Elizabeth and this becomes a focus of intimacy for the couple. He is then invited to lead a second world voyage. King George III was obsessed with discovering Terra Australis Incognita, which was believed by many – but not all – scientists to lie somewhere in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Cook was one of the doubters, but he agreed to lead an expedition to determine once and for all whether such a landmass existed.

Again Elizabeth is left with their two surviving young sons and a baby, George, born just days after her husband sails from Plymouth. For the following three years she hears nothing from him. She doesn’t know where he is or even if he is dead or alive; he has disappeared somewhere deep in the Southern Hemisphere’s oceans. But again James keeps an intimate journal for her, which he has again promised her they will share upon his eventual return. The second novel ends with HMSResolution’s safe return to England in 1775, and an assurance from James to Elizabeth that his voyaging days are over.

The second voyage represented the zenith of Cook’s achievements. Again in Resolution, now accompanied by the consort vessel HMS Adventure until they became separated, the expedition traverses the extreme south of the storm-tossed Indian Ocean, the South Pacific and the South Atlantic. They cross the Antarctic Circle and beyond to 71 degrees south, which no one has ever done before. The ships are beset by ice, snow, sleet and fog for weeks on end. Working the sheets and sails in freezing conditions, with frozen fingers and bleeding hands, is agonising. The cold leaches into the lower decks, fresh food runs out, they eat seals and penguins. Yet there are few deaths, and as on the first voyage, no one on Cook’s ship contracts scurvy. (The scourge broke out on Adventure, but this was because its commander, Tobias Furneaux, was not as rigorous as Cook in enforcing his anti-scorbutic diet of wort, carrot marmalade, jellied soup, sauerkraut and raisins).

If in my version of events Banks becomes James’s nemesis during much of the first voyage, then the villain during his second voyage is the Prussian naturalist, Johann Forster. He is a vexatious person to have aboard, and overtly pious, which Cook the secular humanist is not. Forster infuriates all his shipmates, and embarrasses his son George, who accompanies him on the voyage.

But for Cook this voyage is a triumph. The existence of a Great Southern Continent is disproved, new lands are discovered and named for Europeans (New Caledonia, Norfolk Island) and others more reliably charted (the New Hebrides). When James comes home he learns of the death of little Joseph, and he and Elizabeth again grieve together. In the eyes of the public, however, James is an heroic figure.

James Cook’s New World (2014) was published exactly one year after the first novel.

I was now faced with writing the final novel in the trilogy, based on James’s final, fateful voyage. At the conclusion to the second novel it seems that he is home for good. He has been given a sinecure at the Royal Greenwich Naval Hospital, where he can write the account of his triumphant second voyage. Elizabeth is pregnant again, he has a generous pension, and he is now forty-seven, an advanced age for the time.

Yet he agrees to go on yet another world voyage.

Why did he break his promise to Elizabeth and leave her again?

Because the Admiralty presented him with a challenge he could not resist: to seek a sea passage from the North Pacific through to the North Atlantic. If he discovered such a route, this would greatly increase England’s commercial power through trade with the Far East. This, I felt, must have appealed to James’s deep sense of patriotism. Moreover, he was also finding the lubberly life intolerable, compared with the challenges of voyaging and discovery.

So, much against Elizabeth’s wishes, in July 1776 he left her and England once again. Their last child, Hugh, the only one born while he was not at sea, was only weeks old.

**

Almost from the beginning of this voyage, things went wrong. Cook’s ships – Resolution and Discovery – leaked, and their rigging was sub-standard. They had been unsatisfactorily prepared, because the insurgency in England’s American colonies was absorbing most of the Royal Navy’s resources.

As with the ships, so too with their commander. Cook was now in poor health, suffering from the “bilious colic” that had afflicted him on the second voyage. These ailments worsened as the voyage went on. A portrait, painted by Johann Webber at Cape Town in November 1776, horrifies him when he views his own haggard visage. His mental condition was becoming unstable too, leading to poor decision making. For example he didn’t punish the Maori chief, Kahura, known to be responsible for the massacre of ten of Furneaux’s men at Grass Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1773, although his officers and crew urged him to do so. Yet later, in Tonga and the Society Isles, he punished natives brutally for stealing. This was not the enlightened Captain Cook of yore.

The conflict in the third novel is principally between James Cook and himself. I depict him suffering from stomach pains, bowel obstruction, insomnia, depression and fatigue. Throughout the voyage he maintains his personal journal to Elizabeth, in which he records his now-tormented thoughts, but it becomes the duty of someone else to later deliver the journal to her.

Problems on the third voyage become compounded. After the expedition “loses its season” in 1777, due to delays, time-consuming side voyages and adverse winds, the long voyage to the North Pacific must be held over to the following year. But in August 1788 an Arctic ice sheet drives the two ships back because they have arrived too late in the year. Intending to try again during the next northern summer, Cook decides that they will return to what he has called “The Sandwich Isles” (later Hawaii) to recuperate and re-provision. But his time is running out.

The third voyage is far from insignificant, however. The great archipelago of the Sandwich Isles has been discovered and charted for Europeans, and the north-west coast of America has been probed and surveyed, under the most testing of conditions.

In February 1789 Resolution and Discovery sail from Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, bound again for the Arctic Ocean. The ships are struck by a violent storm, Resolution’s foremast splits and they are forced to return to the bay for repairs. Now they are unwelcome. On 14 February a fracas occurs between a crowd of furious Hawaiians and a landing party led by James and a marine escort. During the melee, James is felled from behind. I wrote:

The mob fell upon the body as it lay in the shallows. One man plunged an iron dagger deep into James’s neck. Another warrior brought a rock down on his head. Another dagger struck deep into his back. Then another rock rose and fell. And another, and another, until the skull was completely crushed and the back was penetrated, over and over again.

Leaking blood from a score of wounds, the limp body slipped into the sea.

Shortly before his death, aware of the repercussions of his discoveries, James remarks to one of his young lieutenants, James King: “It seems that having discovered a New World, we were doomed to then lose it.”

James Cook’s Lost World was published in 2015. The total word count of the trilogy was 346,361, and Cook’s ships had sailed innumerable nautical miles during the three novels.

Throughout the prolonged project the purely invented scenes – such as James falling in love with a girl in Staithes, James being introduced to Joseph Banks for the first time, James’s courting of Elizabeth, James and Elizabeth visiting the Cook family in Yorkshire, the conversations between James and his officers in the Great Cabin while at sea – were the most difficult episodes to write, but gave me the most satisfaction when they were completed.

I learned a great deal about my own country in the process. For example, that Cook’s influence is still very much with us today, notably through the many place-names which derive from his 1769-1770 circumnavigation of this country. Among his named landmarks in the North Island: Hawke Bay, Poverty Bay, Hicks Bay, the Bay of Plenty, Mercury Bay, Great Barrier and Little Barrier Islands and Cape Palliser. In the South Island: Queen Charlotte Sound, Resolution Bay, Stephen’s Island, Banks’ Peninsula, Dusky Sound, Capes Jackson and Farewell. These and many other places had their English names bestowed upon them by Cook. He literally put this country on the map.

(There are other, less well-known Cook reverberations. In a Picton cafe I saw featured on the menu, “Captain Cook’s Fishburgers”. And in the Rangitikei town of Marton there is a “Captain Cook’s Bar & Grill”. Cook’s birthplace was Marton, Yorkshire).

Sometimes when writing fiction, coincidences occur. When I received an email from HarperCollins in 2012, accepting the first novel, I was in the Cook Islands. A few weeks later there was a transit of Venus, a rare cosmic event. Every 243 years or so, there is a pair of transits, separated by eight years. This transit was observed again in Tahiti, and at Tolaga Bay in New Zealand, a location which plays a significant part in the first novel. And when I went to Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound in the course of my research, I saw on the monument there that Endeavour had first arrived in the cove on 15 January, 1770. 15 January is my birthday. And my parents were married in Marton, New Zealand, in 1938.

So you could say that when the writing of the first novel occurred, the planets were in alignment. This, and the warm reception accorded The Secret Life of James Cook, encouraged me to carry on and write the next two novels.

Writing the trilogy has been like embarking on a long voyage. But it has been worth the effort, because of what I have learned and the respect I developed for James and Elizabeth Cook, who survived her husband and all six of her children, before dying at the age of ninety-four. And I’m grateful to my parents for bringing me me to that little coastal town of Oakura, where I first fell in love with the sea. As James Cook had, over two centuries before.


The novels in Graeme Lay’s trilogy – The Secret World of James Cook, James Cook’s Lost World, and James Cook’s New World – are all available at Unity Books

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