How to Finally Get Around To Publishing Your First Novel
Beau Flemister’s path to publishing his first novel, the recently released In the Seat of a Stranger’s Car–may not have been the most conventional.
Born and raised on the island of Oahu, Flemister graduated with an English degree from the University of Hawaii before–in no particular order–working as a valet attendant, stealing away from the island to chase waves for months at a time, teaching English in a private high school, starting a fledgling magazine writing career, getting hired as an editor for the former magazine Surfing, getting fired as an editor for the former magazine Surfing, and starting a job as a freelance copywriter and travel writer for publications like Vice and Outside. Somehow, through it all, he found a way to publish his first novel–eight years after he started writing it.
To celebrate his novel, Beau hopped on the phone for a Q&A on how to finally get over the hump and write that novel you’ve always wanted to, how to balance indulging your creative passions with the need to make money–particularly when you try to make a living off your passion–and how experiences as inconspicuous as parking strangers cars can be the inspiration behind huge personal breakthroughs.
Wayward: So how did you get into writing?
Beau Flemister: So, me being a valet and also beginning my writing career kinda happened at the same time. I graduated from the University of Hawaii with an English major and I didn’t have a job or anything in the writing field outside of college publications. So, at the time, I figured out I was big into two things: traveling and making money to travel.
So one of the jobs I took after college and into my mid-20s was valet parking. It was pretty lucrative–all cash–and I think my boss kinda dug the program I had going of traveling for six months then coming home and working for six months to make cash to do it again. I think he was living vicariously through my travels a bit, and so he always gave me a shift when I came back. I did that for a few years, and when I came home I would just submit stories I had written on my travels to local magazines. Some of them caught on and I started getting assignments–one of my first big assignments was with Freesurf Magazine–and it was about my travels to India, Nepal, and Pakistan; non-surfing specific travel. So I’d come back from these trips, and get paid to write, but I definitely wasn’t making a living–so having the valet job to fall back on was huge.
WW: So how did you get the idea to turn your valet experience into the basis of this novel?
BF: So it started around the time when I got a job teaching creative writing at this private summer school in Hawaii. My childhood friends and writing mentors, Aaron and Jordan Kandell (the screenwriters behind Moana) somehow got me a job there–I think they referred me.
While I was working that job, I had this book of short fictional stories I had written from around the world during my travels, and when I was talking with the Kandell’s, and other authors, they all told me that I should aim to publish a novel first before my short stories–that it’s always easier to get a novel published as your first book before a collection of short stories.
So I just thought about my valet experiences, and the world valet parking can bring you to in Hawaii–sort of the underbelly of the island; the seedier side of paradise–and made that my inspiration. Basically, the protagonist in the story was just a sleazier version of myself: A semi-inspiring writer, who also was kinda teaching at a private summer school–as I did–but was actually making his true living valet parking. It was all pretty true to form with my life, but largely embellished, as I ultimately made the kids who were parking cars seem pretty disrespectful.
WW: So how did you go about finding the time to, you know, actually put pen to paper and crank out the book?
BF: I kinda make reference to it in the acknowledgments, but I have an eccentric older cousin who speaks like eight languages that had lived in Kenya in the late ‘90s and had moved to a town in the foothills of the Himalayas around 2010. He was really into paragliding and was just spending all day meditating, learning Hindi, and then jumping off mountains. So I asked him, “Hey can I come over to you and cruise with you and write my book?”
So I did that because I knew I wasn’t going to spend much money out there and because it would be easy for me to take a few months to be able to bang out a draft with no distractions. So I went over with a goal to write 5-10 pages a day, and I did that from the end of 2010 into 2011 and had almost a full first draft by the end of 2011. Then I got hired to Surfing, abruptly moved to California, and put the book on the shelf for a few years. I didn’t touch it because I was so busy with the job and too lazy to write after being in the office all day writing. Around 2016, when I was let go from Surfing, I got back into it, started seeking out a literary agent, an editor, and a publisher, and by 2017 I found a local publisher (NMG Network) that wanted the story, and it finally published this year. It took me longer than it should have–eight years–to finish the story and I think that’s longer than I would suggest anybody take. It’s a tough thing to say, but if you have an idea, you should probably get it down as quick as possible, and not put the book down for a few years.
WW: Can you talk about the struggle of balancing time to indulge your creative passion when you’re making money in the creative field? It sounds like writing for Surfing made it hard for you to write on your own.
BF: I wouldn’t say I had no time to work on the book when I was at Surfing, but I do like to travel and surf a lot and have fun on my own time, so I probably could have managed my time a bit more wisely to get it done quicker.
It’s funny, though–growing up you have this picture of what a writing career looks like, of what the lives of your writing idols are. For me, my idols were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Junot Diaz. And you have this idea that you want to write these amazing short stories and make a career out of it, but as I’ve learned in my own life, if you want to have a shot at it there are different avenues to take to supplement the dream. When I was home just valet parking, which is basically like a 2-10 or 3-11 gig, I had the whole day prior to that to surf or write, and I got a lot of writing done because of it. But when I started getting published and involving myself in journalism, you realize that you’re only making maybe $40K to start, and that’s tough to make a living on and still have time and energy to write for your own passions. So, I figured out that, “Well, you know what? There are a lot of companies that need copywriters and brand writers to tell their stories, and they pay a lot better than most publications. I think finding consistent work like that, particularly if you can work on, say, a retainer for a certain company, is huge.
My advice for anyone struggling to find the balance is that broadening your horizons will help. I was surprised, when I met Junot Diaz, that he teaches to make a living–he’s a professor at MIT. You would think a novelist that won a Pulitzer has it made, but he’s not actually writing for a living–he’s teaching. I’ve met a lot of authors who are the same–it’s always important to have a side gig that supplements or supports the creative one. You know, if I have a product description writing gig where writing a couple headlines will pay as much as a 3,000-word profile for Vice, it’s important to make sure I’m giving my attention to those jobs. It’s all about making sacrifices.
WW: What about the old adage, “Write what you know?” You wrote a book about valet parking that incorporates a lot of Pidgin English–clearly growing up in Hawaii as a valet made that easier.
BF: I think there are two sides to that coin–the notion of “writing what you know.”
On one hand, if you don’t know a topic and don’t do a ton of research on it, it’s easy for you to fuck it up. Someone trying to write Pidgin without living in a culture where it’s spoken will sound like nails on a chalkboard. Another great example is anytime surfing is featured in a film, if they don’t know what they’re filming, it’s so easy for them to make it look kooky.
So I do think there’s credence to “write what you know.” And so conveying Pidgin as a language was easy for me because I know the culture really well because I was raised around it and worked all my life with people who spoke it. I also did some additional research with different writers who write in Pidgin to see how they spell words which I think, along with my background, helped make the book authentic.
On the other hand, do I think it’s okay to write about something you haven’t experienced? I think so, if you have researched it enough. Homelessness is a big issue in Hawaii, and it’s one I tackle in the book, and while I’m sure someone could challenge me on writing about it since I never experienced it, I think with enough research you can create authenticity. For this book, I visited homeless encampments and spoke to those living on the streets here in Hawaii, and I think that helped me write about it quite authentically.
WW: So what’s next for you in your career?
BF: The next step is, I just did a book tour for this novel, and I’ve learned from authors that a book isn’t something you just publish and see what happens–it’s up to you to make it profitable. The only way to do that is to always push it and knock on doors and look for opportunities to get the word out. So I’m clearly focusing on that right now.
Outside of that, I want to continue to work for the next year with the brands I’m on retainer with and travel–I’m headed to France and Belgium with my wife for her work, so we will travel around there and to Zurich and Antwerp and northern Italy before hopefully slipping away for a few days to Transylvania, renting a car, and spending a week or so driving around and checking out the villages of the area and the Carpathian mountains.
Beyond that, I’ll be starting on another novel I hope to have done in the next three-to-five years. Maybe, if I’m a good boy and sacrifice a bit more than I did the last time around, I can get it done quicker.