Author G.L. Tysk Talks About Whaling

Today I’d like to welcome G.L. Tysk, author of the new novel The Sea God at Sunrise. G.L is promoting her new novel and has stopped by Plain Talk to chat about a cause near and dear to her heart–whaling.

Banner courtesy Close the Cover Tours

Let’s talk about whaling.

Sometimes I say this to my friends, or on Twitter, and I inevitably get one or two people who gasp and demand to know why, because whaling is terrible, horrible stuff. And I agree, whaling is terrible, horrible stuff. It was horrible then and is horrible now.

Just because something is terrible and horrible doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it.

I talk a lot about whaling in my novel, The Sea-God at Sunrise.  It is set in 1841, right as the whaling industry in the United States peaked. Those of you forced to read Moby-Dick in school are now rolling your eyes. I can hear you: “No more! No more lists of the types of whales! No more preaching!”

There’s no preaching in my book – at least, not intentionally – but Herman Melville’s great American novel did indirectly inspire the idea that eventually became my narrative. I didn’t read Moby-Dick until I was twenty-five, didn’t finish my novel until I was thirty-one; not all of that was due to laziness, but rather because of the huge amount of research I had to do to write a book about whaling.

I’ve never been whaling in my entire life. Even if the whaling industry in the United States still existed, I’d have absolutely no desire to go, as it was a nasty job that took people away from their homes for years at a time. As an Asian woman, I’d have been born the wrong gender, in the wrong part of the world. But it was easy for Herman Melville to write a book about whaling; all he had to do was get on a ship and go. Write what you know, right?

I’d written about what I knew my whole life. Obsessed with Lord of the Rings, I wrote fantasy until I was a late teen, when I realized that Orcs and Elves were not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I joined the military, so I wrote about the military, and then I moved to Japan, so I wrote about Japan. I put out a few short stories. Nothing stuck, but “write what you know” was my mantra. I might have as well printed it on a trophy and stuck it on my mantelpiece, because I would have won the award for sticking to it while wondering why I wasn’t getting anywhere.

Then I read Moby-Dick.

What struck me most about Moby-Dick was how much of the history of whaling you don’t learn in school. The American whaling industry is relegated to a couple of history textbook footnotes. Those books don’t tell you how whalers mapped the South Pacific. They don’t tell you about the people, food, and customs they discovered (tattoos!) or the cities that grew up because of them (Honolulu!). They don’t talk about how whalers were responsible for completely obliterating one of the Galapagos Islands or how a whale once sank a whaling ship and drove the surviving crew to cannibalism*. They certainly don’t talk about the end of the whaling industry, commonly explained away because there were no more whales to hunt. (If that were the case, whaling would never have started back up in the 1900′s in a new, even more brutal way. The demise of 19th century whaling was a combination of declining whale population, the Gold Rush, and the discovery of petroleum, among other things).

This fascinated me. I knew nothing about whaling, but I knew I wanted to write about it. I was a little frightened, because what could I write about that wouldn’t be a rehashing of Moby-Dick? I didn’t want to be the sole writer ofMoby-Dick fan-fiction on the planet. (A short Google search brings up Moby-Dick fan-fiction, so at least I wouldn’t have been alone.) I didn’t want to be Herman Melville, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be that crazy girl writing about whaling, with no one buying her books.

My husband told me that was okay, because no one bought Melville’s books either. That didn’t make me feel any better.

The Sea-God at Sunrise is the combination of five years of research and long nights at the keyboard added on to what I know. And I know this: my background in fantasy helped me craft a narrative of feudal Japan, where the gods were still very real and were believed to manifest in animal form. My military background gave me a good start on writing the scenes aboard ship. And my time in Japan was essential in making Shima and Takao, my two Japanese main characters, real. Like me, they were born the wrong ethnicity in the wrong part of the world, but whaling was the means through which they discovered America.

Whaling was terrible and horrible, and I talk about that a lot in the novel. I describe whaling scenes in detail: the excitement of the chase, the goriness of the actual kill, the terrifying moments that every whale man felt when he thought he was about to die, smashed by a whale’s flukes. And the hard truth was many whale man did die, in order to light some wealthy man’s mansion, in the name of perfumes and umbrellas. But I talk about the majesty of the whale and its beauty and grace and intelligence, all these other things that, in the end, brought about the end of American commercial whaling in 1986.

I don’t think we should smooth over history to make ourselves feel better. I also don’t believe in looking away. Things happened, they were real, and in looking back on these things with modern eyes, I think we discover much about ourselves and humankind in the process. This, too, is writing what you know.

Writing my second book and the sequel to Sea-God has been easier. Those five years of research paid off. I spent five years seeing through the eyes of Shima, Takao, and Ellis, and it’s like we’re old friends again reunited on deck. I might never have been aboard a 19th century whaling ship, but I sure feel like it.

This is where I should preach about the benefits of doing research, but I promised you no preaching. I’ll only say this: for a long time I shied away from writing historical fiction. I realize now that I wrote fantasy because I didn’t want to do the research. Then I discovered how fun research could be. I’m creating my own little world, but that world is still our own.

Write what you know. What you don’t know can be found out there – you just need to keep looking. Who knows? At some point, you may be able to talk about whaling with the best of them.

*In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, tells the true story of the Essex, a whale ship out of Nantucket. She was struck and sunk by a sperm whale, and the surviving crew spent three months floating around the Pacific Ocean eating each other. It’s currently being made into a movie starring Chris Hemsworth as first mate Owen Chase.

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Plain Talk is proud to be a part of the The Sea God at Sunset book tour.

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