April 2006: Lesley Thomas
by Judy Griffin
Author Lesley Thomas refused to let publishing trials and distribution travails ground her novel Flight of the Goose: A Story of the Far North. The former Alaskan who now lives in Seattle told attendees at the Alaska Press Women lunch meeting on April 6, 2006, about her experiences launching her book in a lecture titled “How Flight of the Goose Flew: the Migration of an Alaska Book.”
Sales of Thomas’ novel, which integrates “the spiritual and mythical parts of Alaskan northern life,” have reached 1,000 copies. The novel is self-published by Far Eastern Press, a business founded in 2001 with her husband, Eric Oberg.
The protagonist of the novel is a feisty young Native woman in a Bering Straits village who practices shamanism, rejecting the Lutheran ways of her father. She falls in love with a man from another culture, an ecologist studying an endangered goose species and the effects of oil spills on bird habitat.
Thomas grew up on a salmon troller in Southeast Alaska and in rural communities in Arctic Alaska. Her family still lives in Nome. Knowledge of subsistence ways and Native culture, as well as training in arctic ecology, enabled her to weave together her lifelong interests in anthropology and mythology in Flight of the Goose. Thomas holds bachelor’s and master’s degree in East Asian Studies and English, respectively, and has worked in Alaska, Washington, Japan, Taiwan, Israel, and Norway.
The biggest obstacle in publishing is getting distributed in America, Thomas explained. She described rejection a decade ago by New York presses that saw her work as “alien” because she had grown up in Alaska. One company suggested she could make her work saleable by making the female lead a “softer, nicer” person and changing her sad ending to a happy conclusion.
Thomas’ grandmother had always wanted to publish, and the $3,000 she left to her granddaughter seeded Far Eastern Press. The self-published edition of Flight of the Goose was released in February 2005. In the fast-turning world of commercial book distribution, the novel is now “expired.” Said Thomas, “But if your book is self-published, it is never dead.”
Winning first place in the 2005 “Communicator of Excellence in Fiction” category from the Washington Press Association helped to attract buyers. Interest in shamanism has provided further sales impetus. Thomas also counts among her niches scientists, Alaskans, and most surprising, Lutheran missionaries. Mention on a gay web site brought another flurry of Internet orders.
When a member of the Alaska Press Women audience asked Thomas how she learned to write, Thomas replied that she had not finished learning to write. “Sheer volume helps,” she noted, as do repetition and throwing away much of what is composed.
To learn more about Lesley Thomas and read reviews of her novel, visit her website.