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Launching your debut novel amid a mass protest - Issue #00007
Self-promotion tactics and spreadsheet included
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Have you ever been told: “You should get a more sensible career"? I’m Timi, and each week we interview a storyteller, artist or creative entrepreneur in Asia who ignored this advice to pursue a creative career instead. They unpack how they paved their own path and dealt with unmitigated failures on their way to building a unique and singular foolish career.
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INTERVIEW: Launching your debut novel about protest amidst a mass protest
Sunisa Manning was born and raised in Bangkok to a Thai mom and American dad. She studied journalism at Brown University then came back home to work in the non-profit sector, which led to spending time in rural Thailand with farmers, school teachers, and descendants of royalty alike.
The experience opened her eyes to the wealth disparity in the kingdom and was part of Sunisa’s political awakening. (“I was one of those people who couldn't have told you it was rice growing in the field for a long time.”)
It planted the earliest seeds for her debut novel, A Good True Thai, a coming-of-age story about three college students from different classes and ethnic backgrounds who join Thailand’s 1970’s violent democracy movement.
The characters are compelling. It is deeply researched, taking six years to write. At least one Bangkokian described it as having an incredible sense of place.
Between the writing and the topic, there was potential for getting published in the US, and they tried for three years.
“We first tried to sell it in March 2017. Donald Trump took office in January 2017. I talked to my agent about it: ‘You think Americans are going to want to buy anything to do with the rest of the world?’ She was like, ‘I think it's so topical.’ And that's really not what anyone else thought.”
Looking for other options, Sunisa submitted her manuscript to the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, a Singapore competition that opened up to Southeast Asian writers in 2020. A Good True Thai was a finalist, got published, and sold out in four months, which hasn’t happened since the Prize’s first year.
In this interview, Sunisa tells us how she advocated for her own work and promoted the book in Thailand while she was stuck in California during the pandemic. Read on for the highlights.
If you have a novel in your drawer or in your head, this is the podcast episode to listen to. We’re joined by Epigram's Fiction Editor, Jason Erik Lundberg. He edited Sunisa’s book and provides insight into the writer-editor relationship.
Here are some highlights:
1. Find a work arrangement that doesn’t deplete your “writing resource”
Because it takes place in an actual era of Thai history, the book required in-depth archival research and dedicated writing time. Sunisa says, “I learned very quickly that if I didn't make writing the first thing in my life, it just wouldn't happen. I used to work in nonprofit communication, which was a great day job, but there's a lot of writing in it. That actually depletes my writing resource.”
So she switched to teaching, a conscious choice that gave her the brainspace to write.
“I go a little nuts when I'm just writing, particularly with novels because they're so big and, to hold that in my head, it's very cerebral. I can float away. Teaching puts me in the world. It puts me in service of other people, which I think is healthy for the ego.”
2. Clarity of purpose: Why are you writing this book?
A Good True Thai is told from the point of view of three young Thais who meet as freshmen at Chulalongkorn University: Det, a great-grandson of King Chulalongkorn; his best friend Chang, a smart kid from the slums; and Lek, the eldest daughter of Chinese immigrants who has radical ideas.
Sunisa was always clear that she wanted her novel to be a story about Thailand written by a Thai person, featuring Thai people. As she says in this interview:
“The way I wrote about Thailand was not to show it to foreigners. If the outside of the circle is what foreigners see, I really wanted to write for the inside of the circle – I wanted to write a book that took place entirely within a Thai consciousness that isn’t mediated by this white, usually foreign gaze.”
It guided her choice of agent and helped her say no to suggestions of dropping a character.
“Editors mostly just wanted Lek. They said, if this was all her book, we might take it. A lot of Americans didn't like Det, and I get it. He's highborn and sensitive. But of course, within the context of Thailand, if you don't have what the nobility is up to, you don't capture the whole story.”
While she stood her ground on those decisions, it was a difficult time for Sunisa as an artist. Through artist residencies, she was in touch with other serious young female writers like her and could see their progress.
“They had their books sell in the States. They had these big publicity teams. It felt like I was just watching all the rocket ships around me take off. So that was really hard, not because I was competitive with them, but because I stopped believing in the book's integrity.”
3. Make it a family affair
While writing itself will always be a lone act, Sunisa was surrounded by a supportive family who fought for the book as much as she did and helped her at various stages of the project.
“Right after I gave birth, I was going through major edits on the book with my agent. In retrospect, I would wait. But such is the force of my ambition that I really wanted to sell the book. My husband took the baby a lot. I would nurse him at my desk and then pass him over my head like a football and keep working. I had always hoped that my book baby would come out before my baby baby, but it didn't work out that way.”
It was Sunisa’s brother who told her about the Epigram Books Fiction Prize. And her in-laws co-produced her launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand. Her father-in-law, who works in video, lit her professionally, while her mother-in-law, a gallery owner, chose the painting for her backdrop.
“It was very cool because, for Thai people, red symbolizes one side of the political spectrum and yellow traditionally has been associated with Rama the Ninth, the current king's father. And so I loved the fact that I got to launch in Asia in front of a backdrop that was all of that gradient. They assume that I feel one way about the King, but actually, I wanted to sketch out all the points.”
4. Build a press list of your dream reviewers
“My experience in American publishing taught me that no one is going to advocate for your book the way you are. I tried not to be too neurotic, but when I saw most of the press list was in Singapore, a little bit in Malaysia, nothing was Thai… This is my home country, so I got to work and reached out to everyone. No shame.”
Sunisa made a list of her dream reviewers, people she didn't know whose work she admired, and prepared a basic pitch: “Heeey. I have a novel coming out. You want to read it? And write something about it?”
Almost anyone who is Thai or whose field is Thailand said yes, which she says demonstrates the dearth of Thai stories.
One example: Jasmine Chia, a London-based Thai journalist. “I just reached out to her on Twitter and was like, love your work genuinely. I feel like you would really dig my novel. Would you read it?” It was an interview that met Sunisa’s desire for intelligent engagement, touching on subjects that are still considered taboo, and Jasmine joined her launch as a guest speaker.
Sunisa also built a spreadsheet to track pitches, and synched up with Epigram’s marketing department. “We were a really good team and they let me be extremely Type A. They worked in the spreadsheet and we would just hand things off.”
Here’s Sunisa’s color-coded spreadsheet:
Green: Active for Sunisa
Yellow: Active for Epigram
Pink: Piece is published
5. By doing the work, you can place yourself in the path of luck
On October 14, 2020, the day A Good True Thai launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand, the pro-democracy protests ramped up again and swelled to a fever pitch throughout the week. It helped book sales.
“The day of the FCCT launch, Jonathan Head [the BBC correspondent hosting the launch], arrived late and out of breath because he was running in from the protests. And we had a lot more journalists who were meant to come to the event but had to report on the protest. It’s kind of crazy timing. I’m telling you, do not mess with fate.”
This was obviously not something that could be planned, but the relevance of the story, combined with the groundwork Sunisa and the team had laid down for months, allowed the book to ride this wave.
A Good True Thai sold out its first print run in four months. This hasn’t happened since the first year of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015.
6. Think about self-promotion in a bigger context
Like most creators, self-promotion is not Sunisa’s favorite thing to do. To get over this, she thinks of her book in the larger context of getting more books out about Thailand, written by Thai people.
“I don't think of it as my book on a pedestal. I think of it as just kicking that door open. It's really embarrassing that these farangs come and marry their young Thai wives, have barely lived in the country, and write these atrocious orientalist tomes. It drives me absolutely crazy. Now my book is next to those books in bookstores.”
Sunisa wanted to dedicate the book to her Thai grandparents, but “my most sincere wish is that Thailand sees a bit more change in terms of who is allowed to have opportunity in the kingdom. So I put that dedication on it and I feel like it has been very auspicious for the novel.”
The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is now accepting submissions for 2022. The Prize is open to all citizens and permanent residents of Southeast Asia. More info here.
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