On November 15, Slanza Auckland met in the library within the lovely grounds of St Mary’s College, Herne Bay, to celebrate a successful year and to hear editor/teacher/author Graeme Lay speak about “Fictionalising history - bringing the dead back to life”. What followed was not only a talk about an extraordinary man - James Cook - but also the story behind the writing of the James Cook Trilogy.
Graeme has written a lot of nonfiction history but noted that facts about history are only half the story. Non-fiction writers inform us but novelists move us and let us emotionally sympathise with the characters. With fiction we can attempt to get “into the soul of the characters”.
In the course of researching his book “In search of paradise” Graeme became very interested in initial European contact with the peoples of the Pacific Islands. Much had been written and published about these encounters, so moved were those who first came into contact with the island peoples. A trip to the Frankfurt Book fair to look for a publisher resulted in a request for for a book on James Cook emphasizing the contact between Cook, his men and Pacific peoples, and Graeme then wrote a sample chapter focussing on Niue, trying to show the reasons why the islanders repelled them. He wasn’t satisfied with this chapter and felt that others had done it more effectively, but the character of Cook stuck in his mind. In his research Cook appeared as a titanic figure. His image was everywhere - on stamps, banknotes, along with the famous portrait of him had been commissioned by Joseph Banks.
Graeme didn’t know much about Cook’s private life or motivations and decided that he wanted to tell his story in fiction commenting on what a big step it is to “have to walk the deck with your character”. Cook wrote many journals, as was required by the Navy but they didn’t contain personal reflections so Graeme decided to have Cook write letters and keep a journal specifically for his wife, allowing Elizabeth to be brought into the story even though she was “offstage” for much of the time. The three books in his
Graeme had already done a lot of research for his previous books on the Pacific which fed into this trilogy but, to judge by the quality of the talk he gave us, full of facts and anecdotes about Cook’s journeys, has spent years reading about and further researching Cook. As an audience we were completely spellbound.
With the 2019 celebrations of the first encounters between Cook, Tupaia, the Tahitian priest and navigator who travelled with Cook, and Maori where the Endeavour landed (Gisborne/Te Tairāwhiti, Mercury Bay, Bay of Islands and Marlborough), Graeme’s books, anecdotes and vast knowledge will be great additions to any school programme looking of this defining time in our history.