From cricket and drunks to ghosts and war
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
“I don’t think people become interesting until they’re 30”
Shehan Karunatilaka talks life after success
We caught up with award-winning author Shehan Karunatilaka a couple of days before the launch of his most recent novel “Chats with the Dead”. The book was launched on Friday (28) at Barefoot Café and Gallery.
Ten years since he first wrote his highly acclaimed and wildly popular “Chinaman”, which accorded him widespread recognition as a novelist, in his latest work, Shehan sets out to tell the story of the ghost of a renegade war photographer, Maali Almeida, who has to solve his own murder.
We met Shehan at the Barefoot Café during its weekly pub quiz and Shehan did his absolute best to answer our questions while also being deeply committed to the game and its questions, which amongst other things, left him wondering whether James Corden was a big enough celebrity to have a full profile on him done by The New Yorker and who on earth Little Mix was – the latter of which was one thing we could actually help him out with.
In between rounds of trivia, we asked Shehan about his time as a successful novelist, writing his first novel after a massive hit, how he believes that realistically speaking, one doesn’t have anything truly interesting to say until you’re over 30, how awards mean nothing until you win one, and whole bunch of other things.
Chats with the Dead
Straight off the bat, we decided to get Shehan talking on Chats with the Dead. We proposed to him that even though he may have not set out to write something similar, Chinaman and this new book seem to have a very similar tone, to which he said: “There is a theory that every writer writes the same book over and over again.”
He said that one tries to write something different of course, and if you take his all-time favourite writer Kurt Vonnegut, he too “writes the same book over and over again” but yet the books are fantastic.
About the perceived similarities between his two works, he said: “One is about cricket and drunks and one is about ghosts and war photographers,” and he supposes there is a difference, but it is for someone else to decide.
About writing Chats with the Dead, Shehan said: “My intention was, after writing a cricket book to explore a story that is completely alien to cricket and sports; in Chinaman the war isn’t featured all that much, the war is there but it is more about people in the Colombo bubble who watch cricket and drink arrack, but in this one I speak about the war pretty much explicitly and overtly.”
He said that if you look at it, Chinaman is actually an example of how you tell a story about Sri Lanka without touching on the war, whereas his new book is about 1989 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and government death squads. “I just thought it was a good setting for a ghost story.”
Write for one person
Shehan’s first hit was Chinaman, and it has been well received not only in Sri Lanka and the South Asian continent but also globally, even in the European market.
Despite being a highly local piece of writing about drinking arrack and watching cricket – both very Lankan things – we asked Shehan about his process when approaching his stories and the importance of being relatable, to which he said that thinking of your audience is detrimental to your work.
“My day job is in advertising and in that, the target audience – who are you talking to – is part of every brief and therefore it dictates the tone, but I think that it is a bit dangerous when you are writing a novel to think of an audience of more than one person,” he said.
His advice when writing is to picture one person, usually a reader like yourself, because you know your own tastes and if there is something that appeals to your sensibilities, that is what you should write. If you are to think of whether an American in New York will be able to understand what you are writing, then, according to Shehan, you won’t be able to tell the story honestly.
About Chats with the Dead, Shehan said he thinks that it is even more localised than Chinaman because foreign readers and publishers have found it difficult to understand, whereas Indians have understood it almost immediately. He never thought of an international audience when writing, he said.
Life after success
When we see someone after one big commercial success, us laypeople like to then think “alright, they’ve done it, and so they don’t need to work a day in their life now”, but according to Shehan, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
He said that he was unemployed and primarily promoting freelance work when writing Chinaman. Having quit his job to write his novel, as soon as it was published, he took up a job in advertising in Singapore. “I did not want to hang around to see if it was a flop or a success. I just moved on with life.” However, even though Chinaman was a huge success, he said: “Writing a book every 10 years is not a great business plan.”
Shehan said that there are really very few novelists who are fulltime writers; you get your exceptions, he said, such as J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, but the rest of them, if relatively successful, might be able to put their kids through college at best, while the others take on day jobs in teaching, journalism, advertising, etc.
Having something to say
As for writing a novel, Shehan believes that you have to have a certain amount of life experience to write. “I don’t think people become interesting until they’re 30,” he said, while there are the exceptions like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran, 20-something writers who do well, they say that 30-50 years is your peak age to write and that people have written masterpieces only in the later stages of their life.
He shared that while he tried to write in his 20s, luckily he recognised that it was badly done and so he took time to travel, read more, and taking his own sweet time – almost six years – drafting Chinaman. “When that story hit, I felt qualified to write it,” he said, adding: “You need to have travelled or read or lived, lost, and loved – experienced the usual hits.”
About Sri Lankan writing
“One problem I have with Sri Lankan writing is you have Sinhala writing, you have Tamil writing, and also English, but they are all done in silos; we don’t read each other’s stuff and there is not much available in translation,” said Shehan, adding: “Because of this, English writers are just not aware of what’s happening in Sinhala writing and vice versa, and that is one thing holding us back – our three separate literatures.”
One other thing about Sri Lanka is the unavailability of editors. While there are plenty of publishing houses now, there are no dedicated editors. He said Chinaman was edited from 500 pages to 400; it is important to have fresh eyes looking at your work and point out when it is boring or when it doesn’t make any sense, he said.
He said writing is a tedious process, at least for him, and that there is a lot of revision involved. You have to keep going back to the same thing to try to make it better, so it is important to pick a subject you are willing to live with for as long as it takes and also employ fresh eyes to tell you when it is bad.
On a closing note, we had to ask Shehan about what he thought about awards, especially considering that he has won many, and what it means to be recognised for an author, to which Shehan said: “The truth is, awards are bullsh*t until you win one.”
He said that while he is grateful for the recognition and the opportunities winning had brought his way, one should never fall into that trap of thinking of accolades and previous achievements, trying to match that.
“Awards require an element of luck, and I was very lucky with Chinaman,” he said. You have to keep that unforeseeable element in mind; once your work is done you have to accept that there is nothing you can do about it after. All is easier said than done, but you must train yourself to do it.
Finally, before he ran off to do the next portion of the quiz on current affairs, sharing some advice with us, Shehan said: “As clichéd as this may sound, you have to read more and write more, that is all.”
Photo: Saman Abesiriwardana