Once we’d settled into our apartment, it was time to start writing in earnest. I would file a blog post each day of four hundred words. The discipline would be good for me – the exercising of fingers and brain cells, as well as teasing friends at home with our exotic adventures. There were so many distinctive Sāmoan topics to write about: the Cultural Village, the Apian buzz, wooden buses that went by the names of Thor and Queen Nefertiti, and supermarket shopping Frankie style.
When I wasn’t blogging, I’d visit places further afield – churches, beaches, museums and rundown hotels – choosing and documenting settings to feature in my novel.
Blogging would be the easy part, I thought, just a matter of dashing off a few lines each morning over coffee, then pressing the publish button. I hadn’t reckoned on the research, gazing from the communal balcony or wandering the nearby sticky streets in search of inspiration. Or choosing an eye-catching photo, usually one of Kate’s. Or honing the prose so that it was concise and made its mark. Or checking grammar, spelling, especially Sāmoan place names, then finding somewhere with a Wi-Fi signal, logging onto a Blue Sky hotspot, and then pushing publish.
One seemingly brief post about the Sliding Rocks of Papase’ea and three-legged dogs took an entire day to manufacture, longer than it would have been for one of the unfortunate mutts to lope seven kilometres up there on the Papase’ea Road, piss in one of the pristine pools then tail beside leg lope home.
This too was before our frenemies Ted and Teresa arrived, demanding ever more blog posts with plot, character arcs and a sense of richly deserved retribution. Ted got stuck in a hole and Teresa scared all the fishes. Three months later when I returned to New Zealand, the first question people asked wasn’t “Did you enjoy Sāmoa?” but “Are Ted and Teresa real?” So often I had to explain they were genuine tourists at the beginning – close friends who’d visited for a week. However as caricatures tend to, Ted and Teresa grew loud personalities of their own.
In the heat of blog writing, penning scenes for a novel atrophied and fell away. Occasionally I managed half a page of scribbled lines. Once I spent a day mooching at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, sitting on the floor in every room, soaking up the vibe and writing down everything I saw, heard and felt. Yet otherwise nothing. The weeks were rolling past and my notebooks lay as empty as a wave swept beach.
Perhaps without realising I was absorbing places in my mind? Once we were home and I sat down to write this novel for real, all my senses would capitulate and surrender the details my story needed? I hadn’t decided what to call this story. The working title was Call This Paradise but that was too close to the lyrics of Save A Prayer.
One balmy evening I walked the length of Mulinu’u Peninsula speaking quietly into a handheld voice recorder, attempting to make an audio report of people, monuments, fences, buildings, animals, scents and sunsets. This two kilometre journey of traffic, wind gusts, laughter and my endless monotone might one day feature as a promising scene in the story I still had to name. Except it didn’t. My protagonist walked in the opposite direction towards the docks. Mulinu’u instead became a bicycle ride for Eve and the unscrupulous English doctor.
One incident did make it into the story accidentally. I went to the dock area in Apia one blazing hot afternoon to jot down impressions of boats, buildings, pavements and wildlife. We’d been in Apia a full three weeks at that point so I hoped I would blend in. No longer was I a rookie tourist straight off the plane. Observing me, a man in a breezy floral lavalava sauntered over. He asked how long I’d been in Sāmoa.
“Three weeks,” I replied, expecting him to be impressed.
He hardly batted an eyelid. First and foremost he was a taxi-driver. “I can give you a half-day tour,” he said, oblivious of my tan and the fact we already had a rental.
This guy had to figure somewhere – and he did. He became the local Salelologa driver who, in the sizzling heat of chapter fifteen, saves Adam’s bacon.