Indie Spotlight is our monthly column on self-publishing. This month, Raelee Chapman talks to indie author G.L Tysk.
G.L Tysk was born in Chicago to Hong Kong Immigrants and her novels focus on early American whaling history and its impact, 19th century colonialism, and Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant culture. Her first novel The Sea-God at Sunrise is based on the story of John Manjiro one of the first Japanese people to live and work in America. It took four years to research and reached the quarter finals of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. It has also been well received on Goodreads with above 4 out of 5 stars as an average rating. G.L Tysk’s new novel Paradise, the sequel to Sea-God at Sunrise, was released in February 2015.
I have read online that you described your first work as non-mainstream in that it is part nautical fiction, part historical true story, and part Moby Dick. What was your inspiration for such an ambitious first novel?
I discovered Moby Dick and the story of Manjiro around the same time. I never had to read Moby Dick in school like a lot of kids, so when I read it as an adult, I think I had an appreciation for it that I wouldn’t have had if a teacher had assigned it as homework. I was inspired by Melville’s maritime writing and started reading a lot of other maritime and 19th century whaling-related works, where I found Manjiro’s biography, Drifting toward the Southeast, written after he returned to Japan in the 1850s.
Many of my previous short stories and novel attempts had to do with the sea and Asia, but Manjiro’s story was the first time where I felt like I could write a story that really resonated with me. I’m an island kid; my parents are from Hong Kong and I have relatives in Japan, so the sea and its impact on Asian culture is really important to me. Writing a book inspired by Manjiro’s story allows me to tell an historical tale while dealing with timeless concepts such as sorrow, longing, and the culture shock of unwillingly being thrust into an unfamiliar place and expected to adapt. As an Asian-American, the clash of American and Japanese cultures really resonates with me.
What made you choose to self-publish and did you try the traditional publishing path first?
I queried agents but after receiving a lot of polite “we are not interested in your book at this time” responses, I realised that historical fiction about American whaling was not really a hot selling concept for publishing houses - not like I’d had any illusions to begin with! I believed in the book that I’d written and felt like my writing was good enough to be published even without the backing of a large publisher, so with the support of my husband and a lot of close friends, I went for it.
Which platform do you use for self-publishing and would you recommend it to other indie authors?
I publish my fiction on Amazon exclusively – Createspace for the physical paperback and KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) for the eBook. I like Amazon for its ease of use and the fact that most readers these days will look on Amazon first for a book before looking anywhere else. Amazon also has a good expanded distribution network to libraries and other institutions. However, I’m also a photographer and publish nonfiction photography-heavy books as well. Because photography requires a high quality print job and specialised paper, I outsource those books to printing presses.
What, if any, assistance do you seek in terms of editorial or layout support and are you part of a critique group for early drafts?
I do utilise a critique group; my husband is my editor and usually reads each book at least 2 or 3 times, making edits along the way, before I submit my final draft. I also try to self-edit my books, but that’s probably the hardest job in the world, because the story is so personal to you that it’s impossible to step back from it and get an objective view. The Sea-God at Sunrise in particular was sent out to about 20 different critique readers before publication.
How have you promoted your books? Is it difficult to get physical copies into bookstores, or to get reviews, as an Indie author?
Promoting and marketing is, I feel, the hardest part of being an indie author. I have had my books in a few bookstores on consignment, but the majority of them I’ve sold via world of mouth and promotion on sites like Goodreads. I’ve also been very lucky to have the support of a few passionate book bloggers and readers who discovered my books via Goodreads or review copies and have been promoting my works because they love them! Sometimes it’s discouraging to have go at it all alone, but I’m constantly creating, so my marketing process changes all the time. I am very active on social media and most recently, I’ve opened up an email mailing list for fans so I can consolidate all my promotions and news into one space.
How is your new novel, Paradise, different from the first one in terms of setting? Does it pick up where the last one left off or can it be read as a stand-alone?
Paradise is a direct sequel taking place eight years after The Sea-God at Sunrise, set in 1849 Honolulu and dealing with the effects of the California Gold Rush. It can definitely be read as a standalone novel, although it directly references people and events from the first book, the plot and setting are entirely new. I really enjoyed writing a book set in Hawaii, especially in an era that doesn’t get much attention in American history. Plus I wrote and finished Paradise during the winter in New England, and it was nice to get away, at least in my head, from the cold and snow outside!
What made you write a sequel?
When I finished The Sea-God at Sunrise, I wrapped up the major plotline of the book, but I was constantly asked if I would continue the story where it left off, with the main characters headed to Hawaii. Manjiro himself went on to the United States, returning to Hawaii almost ten years later. I thought it would be very interesting to explore the two different paths of the two Japanese characters from Sea-God, with one staying in Hawaii and the other growing up in Massachusetts.
My main aim in writing Paradise was to show the slow change in people and relationships over time. No one stays static, and change can be a positive thing. As my characters find in Paradise, it can also be cruel to realise someone who you once knew well has changed beyond recognition. The title of the book reflects this; we think of Hawaii and Honolulu as a perfect paradise destination, but what happens in the book reveals that there’s a lot of turmoil under the surface and that maybe perfection and paradise don’t really exist.
What is your day job and when do you find the time to write? Are you currently working on anything new?
I’m always working on something new! I write and make art full time. Currently, I’m working on a nonfiction photography book about Manjiro’s life, called Nothing but an Island. The book will follow his journey from Japan to America and back again, told through photographs that I’ve taken over the past six years. I travelled to his hometown in Japan twice, most recently last year. To get myself into his shoes, I sailed aboard the last wooden whaleship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan, and also sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with another ship in order to really experience shipboard life. I really hope that the photos in this book will bring Manjiro’s journeys to life. I’m hoping to release the book in late summer of 2015 and am planning to launch a Kickstarter in April to fund the printing. Interested readers can click here to see a photo essay I wrote last year when I was beginning to put the book together that outlines the general concept of the book.
I also have a collection of short fiction coming out in April called Waiting for Cherry Blossoms, inspired by my own experiences of living in Japan.
How have you reached out to your target audience and found your readers?
I’ve heard from readers from all over the world, and I’m so happy that my books are reaching so many people. I’ve worked with the local New England museum community, via my project on the Charles W. Morgan, as well as with tall ship sailors around the country, and with fans of Japanese culture and history. And then there are just people who enjoy a good story, who have reached out to me and told me how they’ve enjoyed my books and found them through Goodreads or a friend.
Do you have any tips for Indie authors on how to promote their work?
I would say that being personable and genuine is the most important thing. I could promote myself via social media and my blog until I’m blue in the face, but no one wants to listen to a sales pitch from someone they don’t know or like. I try to always interact with readers as one human being to another. Sometimes it’s hard, especially when someone doesn’t like your work, but being polite and nice goes a long way.
What is most satisfying about being an Indie author?
I love having complete creative control of my work. I’ve always had a vision for my own art and writing, and after writing three books, and now with two more coming out soon, I’ve discovered I like being my own director. I definitely have input from others, as sometimes I can get bogged down in my own work, but I can’t imagine turning over everything to a publishing house and having them make the decisions for me.