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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New Episodic Coming of Age Book

Missionaries and Indians
Author Wil Gesler has published a fictionalized memoir of life growing up in a Christian missionary community in India

CUMBRIA, ENGLAND – Author Wil Gesler, an accomplished and now retired academic who specialized in Human Geography and wrote numerous scholarly books and articles, has published his first fiction book, “Missionaries and Indians” based on experiences from his youth and travels.

 “Missionaries and Indians” is a coming of age picaresque novel filled with action, adventure and humorous stories as seen through the eyes of 16-year-old narrator Ben along with his twin sister Naomi. Born and raised in India as the son of Lutheran missionaries, Gesler experienced various cultures around the world and was inspired to share his stories in his fictionalized memoir.

Themes of tolerance and intolerance are explored in the various relationships presented in the book such as those between missionaries and Indians, children and their parents, servants and masters, religious beliefs and more. The characters also experience events such as a cyclone and devastating floods, being caught up in a political riot, becoming a fantasy spy, hunting a man-eating tiger, and the consequences of killing a monkey.

“Admirably, the narrator is neither a zealot who champions his parents’ beliefs nor a cynic who questions their sincerity. Rather, he fills the role of reporter, giving readers the space to form their own opinions.” – Foreword Clarion Review

To learn more please visit:
ISBN: 9781524680251

About the author
Wil Gesler was born in India of missionary parents during the Second World War and was educated there through high school at a school for missionary children. He spent most of his working life as an academic human geographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Since his retirement, he has lived with his wife in England, most recently at the edge of the Lake District.

Welcome to my blog Wil.  Please tell my readers and I more about yourself and your books.

Tell us about your latest worktitle, genre, etc. — and why you wrote it?
The book is called Missionaries and Indians, a play on Cowboys and Indians, a game we played as kids, although here the Indians are not Native Americans, but from the country of India.  The narrator, Ben, and his twin sister, Naomi, who are sixteen, are on holiday from school and living with their Lutheran missionary parents in their home beside one of India’s sacred rivers.  They experience a cyclone and devastating floods; think about what it takes to be a successful missionary; are influenced by different types of sermons; have ups and downs on a houseboat trip on the river; hear the story of a single-woman missionary who was taken to court; are caught up in a political riot; suffer through the illness of a little child; get involved in an incident in which a missionary kills a monkey; listen to another missionary teen-ager talk about being a fantasy spy; discuss sex education; accompany a missionary on a tiger-hunting trip; and enjoy a holiday at the beach.

The question of genre is an interesting one for this book.  Originally the publisher, AuthorHouse, put it down as a book on religion, but I convinced them that, although there will of course be religious elements in a book with “missionaries” in the title, the book was not primarily religious.  After some discussion/negotiation with AuthorHouse and the book’s publicist, we decided that the genre was best described as action/adventure.  We also decided to cast the book as a coming-of-age narrative because teen-age Ben, the protagonist, is constantly finding out more about life as the stories in the book are told.  Further, we concluded that the book was not a novel in the conventional sense; that is, there was not an overall narrative arc that carried the reader from beginning to end, although some major themes persisted throughout.  Rather, there are multiple arcs, like the contrails in the skies above a busy airport (some of them crossing each other), as each chapter tells its main and subsidiary stories centered around a main theme.  Call the book a picaresque novel, modeled on something like the adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  When you have read all the stories, a picture should emerge that comprehensively captures the missionary and Indian experience.
I started to write the book to see if I could relate some good stories about my very interesting childhood.  I wanted to see if I could provide an honest account of what life was like for a teenager with missionary parents in India in the 1950s.   Also, I wanted to avoid casting missionaries and Indians as either saints or sinners, as other books have done.  As I got into the stories, I realized that there were two levels of the writing that would be of interest to many people.  The first level is the stories themselves, which involve exciting yarns (e.g., hunting a man-eating tiger, getting caught in a political riot), interesting settings (e.g., a very large river, missionary houses, the local bazaar), lovable characters (e.g., Pastor Timothy, Wally, Miss Malayalam, Uncle Eli, Aunt Emma, Uncle Jim) and not so lovable ones (e.g., Uncle Frank, Reverend Joseph), and vivid imagery (e.g., the river delta as the many arms of a Hindu goddess).  Then there is the level of what the stories might mean which deals with several perennially important themes in the everyday lives of people: evolution and change (e.g., biological evolution, children growing up); human relationships among various groups of people (parents and children; missionaries and servants; Indians and missionaries) that included both tolerance and intolerance, inclusion and exclusion; fake things (e.g., false accusations, poor quality products) versus real things (e.g., honesty in relationships, good quality actions), order versus chaos (e.g., in building a church or creating a new state); fantasy (pretending to be a spy) versus reality (knowing the spy story to be false); taking risks (e.g., climbing around the outside of a moving train, hunting a tiger at night), sex education (or lack of it); and religious beliefs (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism). 
What draws you to your genre(s)? Why is this type of story compelling to you?
I have always seen life as a series of adventures.  Although I am a rather shy person who is awkward in social situations, I have always felt the urge to try out new things like teaching or conducting research in foreign countries or walking by myself in the fells (mountains) of the English Lake District (which I close to where I live).  And I like to tell stories inspired by those adventures where I put people in a position of conflict or potential danger, build up the tension, and then see how things work out.  At the same time, I think that an action/adventure story is a good way to dramatize an idea or theme.  It gets the reader involved, imagining that they are in the story.  Also, an adventure story is a good way of developing characters because you can see how they behave in a stressed situation.  Say I want to illustrate some ideas about taking risks.  Should one take risks?  Under what circumstances?  Why do people take risks?  Let’s illustrate these ideas with a story about our hero trailing along when a missionary, who is perhaps not the greatest hunter in the world, goes off in the dark of night in pursuit of a man-eating tiger.  Why does the missionary want to hunt the tiger?  How is our hero going to react when things get a bit sticky?
What is your writing process like? Do you map the whole thing out or do you just let it unfold? 
I would say mainly the latter.  Suppose I remember a story about the time a missionary shot and killed a monkey by mistake.  That was a terrible thing to do and resulted in a serious cultural clash.  I do not know what the end of this story is, but I start to write down how the incident might have occurred and I begin to develop a character, a lovable but often rather feckless missionary who comes to Ben’s father for advice.  What is to be done?  Well, let’s bring in an educated Indian who was converted to Christianity from Hinduism.  Perhaps he can bridge the gap between cultures.  And so the story unfolds and I begin to focus on the theme of cultural conflict and possible resolution.  Now is the time to do a bit of organizing or mapping of the material to make a coherent story. Think of the whole process as starting with a seed of an idea, letting it germinate and grow, and then tending it by pruning and shaping it.
What kind of research was involved?
I did library research to fill in some gaps in my knowledge about some of the stories and themes in the book.  This led me to reading books on Indian history, European influences on India, Hinduism, Martin Luther and Lutheranism, and hunting man-eating tigers. I also read a play by a famous Telegu playwright, a missionary’s memoir, and information about the creation of the Telegu state.  Wikipedia and other on-line sources were used to clear about minor points.
How much of YOU makes it into your characters?
The answer is quite a lot.  What the narrator, Ben, does and thinks is based a great deal on my own experiences.  But the book is not an autobiography.  In some stories I wanted to disguise the identities of people who might still be alive.  In order to tell my stories in a meaningful way, I fictionalized events in many instances.  An example: Hans in the book is based on two or three missionary children I knew.  One day one of them told me that he would love to put on a disguise and do something like wander about India being a spy.  Well, he didn’t ever do that, but he was the kind of guy who had the imagination for it and he sparked my imagination to concoct a story.
My perceptive niece asked me if I saw myself in the seven-year old nerdy Wally and I had to say “yes.”  Was there a subconscious identification with my school nickname, Willy?  Sometimes the views and actions of characters other than Ben reflect my own ideas on such things as religion and politics.  For example: Uncle Wilhelm is my ideal missionary, able to live in the world of his parishioners as well as his own.  Uncle Frank, on the other hand, who puts down local culture and religion, represents what I deplore in a certain type of missionary.  I favor those who seek to tolerate and include as opposed to those who are intolerant and exclusive.
How do you balance the need to have time to write with the needs of family, society, etc.?
Since I am retired it might seem that I enjoy the luxury of having all the time in the world to write.  There are, however, many demands on one’s time, even when a career is formally over.  When I left my last university post, I continued to carry out academic research for several years.  Recently, I have been spending more and more of my time caring for my wife who is quite frail.  This entails taking on the household chores she used to do so well.  But I still have plenty of time to write.
I had a teacher who told us that when he shared an office with John Barth at Penn State, he discovered that the author of The Sot Weed Factor and other great books went home each evening, went into his study, closed the door, and wrote for several hours.  If I could do that (and I have read that this is the recommended way to go) all would be fine.  Unfortunately, I am a sporadic writer; I have sudden inspirations and rush to write them down.  What I lack is discipline, but I am sure there are ways to cure that fault.  I started writing stories for Missionaries and Indians soon after retirement, more than a dozen years ago.  If I wrote for a living, that sort of time frame would be untenable.
Have there been any authors in particular, that inspired your writing?
I am inspired by reading and re-reading a handful of what are considered to be classics in literature.  Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, my favorite novel, does it all: furious action and high adventure mixed with deep contemplation, a heady concoction of metaphysical flights of fancy and absorbing details of the lives of whalers, a sense of the mystery and unkowableness of life, on and on.  I admire Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men for its throbbing narrative drive and its unique combination of theme, plot, and characterization.  Huckleberry Finn serves as a model for my picaresque novel; also, no one is better than Mark Twain at injecting humor into stories.  Poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge can be read for the obvious rhythms of the language and ability to elicit a whole range of emotions.  I enjoy a novel like The Sot Weed Factor by John Barth for its exuberance, raucous humor, and intricate plot.  Thomas Hardy is rarely equaled in his ability to create an overall atmosphere (Return of the Native) or to set up scenes with the use of vivid imagery (Far From the Madding Crowd).  The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann is exceptional in its ability to meld large ideas like the meaning of life and death with the everyday lives of its characters.  And then there is perhaps the archetypal coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  Many of these influences are quoted or referenced in Missionaries and Indians.
Is there a story you want to tell behind or about your work(s)?
I have come across depictions of missionaries and missionary life that either praised the missionary endeavor to the high heavens or else viciously attacked missionaries and their ways.  So we get hagiographies of people like Mother Teresa and accounts that take the exact opposite view as Christopher Hitchens does in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.  I suppose both kinds of writing makes good copy, but neither view mirrored my experience and I wanted a chance to say so.  I also, like some other children of missionaries I know, was sensitive to the bad press that missionaries sometimes get.
Thus I started out to set the record on missionaries straight, at least from my perspective.  But as I went along composing stories it occurred to me that I was focusing too narrowly on the “missionary question.”  The tales, I began to realize, had universal application, they dealt with situations that people everywhere experience every day.  So I broadened my view of the missionary enterprise as being just one example of what goes on in the wide world.  I felt I needed to lighten up and not worry so much about how others felt about people like my parents.  They were, after all, in many ways, just like anyone else.
What other projects are you currently working on or about to start?
I have written several short stories that I would like to see published someday.  Again, they are fictionalized accounts of places I have lived and things I have experienced.  Two are set in Africa, two in Pennsylvania, one in the foothills of the Rockies, one in France, and one in Afghanistan.  They are centered on themes dear to my heart: Third World Development, social class, power relations, and coming-of-age.
I spent most of my working life as an academic geographer. I have written a non-fiction book, Freedom to Roam: Research Adventures of a Human Geographer.  Here I tell true stories about projects I have been involved in in several countries.  In its own way, the book belongs to the action/adventure genre, being light on academic issues and emphasizing the journeys that my colleagues and I took to understand more about the world.  The book is unique in that it engages throughout with an extended walking metaphor, illustrated by my many rambles among the English Lake District fells.
Could you share some of your marketing strategies?  Which ones are the most effective in your opinion?
Due to my lack of expertise in marketing, I paid AuthorHouse to arrange the marketing of Missionaries and Indians, mainly through the services of a publicist working for a marketing agency.  I did give away copies to family, friends, and neighbors and several of them told me they urged others to purchase a copy, so there is a snowball effect there, but it starts with a pretty small snowball and I do not expect it will build a very large snowman.  AuthorHouse encouraged me to get into social media with the book and I suppose this would be of huge benefit to many authors who have multiple contacts, but my knowledge and inclinations for this direction are virtually nonexistent.  The publicist and I collaborated on promotional material and she has been working away steadily at sending it out to dozens of outlets that focus on the action/adventure genre, Young Adults and Adults, Christian and Lutheran interests, local media, educational institutions I have attended or worked at, Hinduism and spirituality, human interest stories, travel and Geography.  I also paid for a radio interview with Stu Taylor, an experience that was not as bad as I had feared.  We shall have to wait and see how successful these strategies have been.
What would be the top five, (or 3 or 1 or however many) things you would tell aspiring authors?
One.  It is a clichĂ© to say follow your passions, but I say it anyway.  Someone I know who was not a missionary child told me my love of India and growing up there comes through to her in my book.  Write about things you can get emotional about, that have meaning for you.
Two.  Practice what I preach and not what I do and try to make your writing a regular habit.  If at one session you feel you have not done so well, you can always revise (as I do; often).  Keep things on the boil, but then let the pot simmer for a while, adding ingredients to suit your taste.  As our Latin teacher used to say, festina lente, or make haste slowly.  Get on with it and then take time to reflect and revise (I just changed this sentence around).
Three.  I do not think it is always of benefit to take a creative writing course or read books on how to write.  For better or worse, I did neither.  Courses and books, however, may be fine for some and I know have helped to create some very successful writers.  I suspect the quality of courses can be very variable, so they would need to be chosen wisely.  I think you consciously or unconsciously pick up many tips about writing from reading good literature and reviews of books in good newspapers and journals.
Four. Choose (select, pick, decide on) the words you use carefully.  It pays to take the time to find a word that is just that bit better in expressing what you want to say or to avoid repeating the same word too often.  I always keep both a thesaurus and a dictionary close to hand.
Q. What role does humor play in your work?
A. It plays a very important role.  I hadn’t really thought about humor in Missionaries and Indians until some friends mentioned how much they appreciated it.  Then I realized from the reactions of a few people who had read the book that they were taking it too seriously.  Perhaps they thought if you wrote or read about missionaries you had to adopt a somber mood.  No, just about any topic lends itself to humor, I think.  Humor is an antidote, a foil, to serious ideas and it helps to develop plot and character.  Thus the drunken porter scene follows immediately after Macbeth is murdered.  In my book, Ben’s father has a bad temper, but is also known for his dry wit.  Exactly 500 years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany I can’t help poking some fun at the old boy, even though I think he is one of history’s greats.  The chapter on sex (the title is a pun) has some fun in it because sex is funny.  The deadly serious monkey business is leavened with jokes about evolution and reincarnation.  And so on. 
Again, thanks Wil for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. We appreciate you and your work.

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