12 January, 2018

#Interview with Wil Gesler, #Author of Missionaries And India

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. 

An Interview with the Author:

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?
I wanted to write stories ever since I was a teenager, but I never thought of writing as a career.  I did win honorable mention in a short story contest my first year at college, but then I did not turn to writing in earnest until I retired from my last post as a university professor.

What inspires you to write?
I feel a strong inner urge to tell other people a story about something that (usually) happened to me.  But I want the story to mean something, to be focused on a central theme or themes.  The act of writing and revising gives me great pleasure and satisfaction.  It makes me feel that I have the possibility to communicate my experiences, thoughts, and feelings to others with the hope that they resonate with them.

How did you come up with the idea for your current story?
Throughout my life I have often recalled with great fondness my early years in India as the son of Protestant missionary parents.  I began to remember incidents that I either experienced or heard about that made a strong, lasting impression on me.  I ended up with material for a dozen or so tales that I felt epitomized this time in my life.  The result was not a novel in the usual sense, but an episodic or picaresque novel.  I knew that somehow I wanted to portray interactions between Indians and missionaries in the 1950s, as viewed by a teen-age boy, in as honest a way as possible.  I wanted to show that these interactions were examples of universal themes such as cultural clashes, inclusion and exclusion, fantasy versus reality, order versus chaos, or taking risks.

Are there some stories tucked away in some drawer that was written before and never saw the light of the day?
As I was writing Missionaries and Indians, I also began to write some short stories based mainly on other experiences I have had.  There are half-a-dozen stories with settings in the United States, West Africa, France, and Afghanistan.  They reflect my interest in social and economic inequalities, power relations, and coming-of-age.

Tell us about your writing process.
I am usually daydreaming, sitting in a comfortable chair, lying awake early in the morning, or out on a walk when an idea for a story comes to me.  When I next have the chance, I make some notes.  Then I think some more and make some more notes.  When I have what seem to be enough ideas, I begin to write.  I am afraid I am not a very disciplined writer; that is, I do not have set times during the day, every day, when I sit down and write.  But once I get started on a story, it usually flows along and the first draft pops out fairly quickly.  Then I spend a long time, months maybe, making revisions as I read the story over and over and new ideas come to me.
The process is somewhat analogous to the method I have read that Leonardo da Vinci used when he was painting a picture such as the Mona Lisa.  He would lay down a base layer of paint and then meticulously lay down thin layers of paint (sometimes over a period of many years) that incorporated such things as perspective, light and shade, anatomical structure, matching facial expressions and body movement to express the same emotions, and so on.  For my stories the base layer is the first draft that tells the main story or theme.  Then I add background context, side themes, descriptions of setting and character, sections of dialogue, snatches of humor, bits of local color, and so on.

What is your favorite scene in the book? Why?
I will say it comes in the chapter titled “Uncle Jim Kills a Monkey.”  Missionary Jim, a somewhat feckless fellow with a heart of gold, fatally shoots a sacred animal by accident.  The people in the village where Jim works are, with good reason, outraged.  Jim comes to the narrator’s father for help and he suggests that they ask Pastor Timothy, a Brahmin convert to Christianity, to help resolve the clash of cultures.  The scene is Pastor Timothy and Jim sitting with a group of villagers under a large banyan tree negotiating a peaceful settlement.

Did any of your characters inherit some of your own quirks?
The narrator, Ben, is most like me.  He is a rather shy teen-ager, but loves to get involved in adventures such as being caught up in a political riot or hunting a man-eating tiger in the dark of night.  My perceptive niece asked me if the seven-year old Wally in the story might also be based on my young self and I had to say, “yes.”  Wally is a science nerd, perhaps a bit autistic, socially awkward, but always tells the truth.
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.

What is your most interesting writing quirk?
Perhaps it is the fact that I came to write in earnest rather late in life, starting in my mid-sixties and only being published in my mid-seventies.

Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?
I read a great deal.  Many of the books I read are non-fiction and cover a wide range of subjects in the arts and sciences. For my writing style, 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.

What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?
Write about things that seem to come from somewhere deep inside you.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
It is a cliché 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.

What would be the Dream Cast for you book if it was to be turned into a movie?
I think I will pass on this one.  I know very few film actors who are currently in movies.  
If you were to be stranded on the famous deserted island, what three things would you carry?
I am tempted to say, given modern technology, that I would take solar-powered equipment to enable me to read my favorite books, play my favorite classical and popular music, and watch my favorite movies, but that would probably go against the spirit of the question.
So I will say a bag of books, including those mentioned in question 9; a good telescope to help me navigate the clear night skies; and snorkeling equipment to explore the reefs along the coast.

How do you spend your free time? Do you have a favorite place to go and unwind?
Most of my free time is spent reading fiction and non-fiction books.  In the evenings I watch an hour or two of T.V., good quality nature, history, music, and news programs.  The best place for me to unwind is walking in the fells (mountains) of the English Lake District, just a few miles from where I live.

Can you share with us something off your bucket list?
These are all things I will probably never dare to do or have the chance to do, but they are potentially doable:  hike to Everest Base Camp; do a sky dive, spend a season going to good plays in a city such as London.

Tell us three fun facts about yourself.
I climbed over 800,000 feet (more than two dozen Everest’s) over the last ten years in the English Lake District.  Several years ago, during an operation to remove prostate tissue, I enjoyed watching the procedure on a T.V. screen above the hospital bed: it was like seeing water rushing down a stream, forcing rocks to tumble along.  At age 75 I joined some friends, a father and his two young sons, in a Go Ape! high-wire adventure in a nearby forest; I had never done anything remotely like that before. 

What do you have in store next for your readers?
As mentioned in question 4 above, I have written several short stories that I would like to see published.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with your readers?
I have worried that some readers of Missionaries and Indians took the book too seriously.  Perhaps they thought a book about missionaries was a mainly religious book and they should keep a poker face when reading it.  Not so.  I have tried to inject humor into the story whenever possible, sometimes obviously, sometimes a bit obscure.  Please laugh when you read it.  People and the situations they get themselves into are funny.

About  the Book:
This book is a fictionalized account of a teenage boy growing up in a community of Lutheran missionaries in India. It attempts to honestly portray his experiences there, steering a course between either eulogizing or condemning the missionary endeavour. Indian and missionary characters weather a cyclone and floods, try to make the grade as a missionary, send out mixed messages in sermons, have their ups and downs on a river trip on a houseboat, are taken to court, get caught up in a violent political protest, suffer through a little child's illness, kill a sacred monkey, become a fantasy spy, take positions on sex, hunt a tiger, and come together for a topsy-turvy retreat at the beach.
The stories told in the book touch on issues of perennial interest: the collision and integration of different worlds and cultures; interpersonal relationships among and between missionaries and Indians, between children and their parents, and between servants and masters; evolution and change; inclusion versus exclusion; religious beliefs; human-environment relationships; sex education; the real and the fake; fantasy versus reality; and taking risks.

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