Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka

This was published in DNA.

Mister Fantastic

What do you think of when you hear “Sri Lanka”? For a vast majority of us, the island nation is best known for its cricket team, which came out of nowhere in the 1990s and beat the big guns of the game to win the World Cup. Fittingly, Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew has a similar track record. It also appeared on the literary scene with little fanfare and went on to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Commonwealth Book Prize, among others. The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is about a stubborn old journalist who is determined to uncover the mystery of the greatest Sri Lankan cricketer whom no one knows. Karunatilaka told us a little bit about himself and what it takes to write a prize-winning novel.

Give me a quick bio to start us off.
Born in Galle, grew up in Colombo, studied in New Zealand, worked in London, Sri Lanka and now Singapore. Thathi (father) was a doctor, Ammi (mother) used to read me Enid Blyton. Malli (brother) is a lapsed architect, who drew the wonderful diagrams for The Chinaman. Grew up reading Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Ed McBain. Spent boarding school in New Zealand hiding out in libraries and record shops, dodging bigots. Ambition was to play in a rock band, ended up drifting into copywriting. The book began as an amusement and then became an obsession.

How does it feel to be a first-time author whose novel has won prizes like the Commonwealth Book Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature?
Pretty amazing. I’d achieved my ambition for the book when it was published outside of Sri Lanka two years ago. Since then everything’s been a surprise gift. It also means that I have to ensure that the follow-up book doesn’t suck.

Are there real-life inspirations for The Chinaman’s two heroes, WG Karunasena and Pradeep Mathew?
Sort of. I interviewed lots of old uncles and researched forgotten cricketers, but it’s hard to pin either one down to a particular character. I probably borrowed details and mannerisms and anecdotes, but in the end both Pradeep and WG came alive on the page by themselves.

Garfield Karunasena, the son of WG Karunasena, and you seem to have a lot in common. 
I have been accused of making him a fantasy version of myself and the similarities are not exactly subtle. The blurring between fact and fiction and author and text is something that’s always intrigued me. Two big influences on the book were Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver and William Goldman’s Princess Bride, both of which do this well.

How did the idea of The Chinaman come to you?
It was a combination of adolescent fantasies of bowling left-arm spin for Sri Lanka, sports books like Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and watching two drunken uncles fighting at a wedding. The idea of the greatest cricketer of all time playing unnoticed for Sri Lanka in the ’80s was with me a long time. But the book didn’t come into being until I realised that a drunk would have to tell it.

Was there ever any concern that the book and its characters may be too specifically local?
I’m hoping that’s what drew the publishers to it, and what will draw readers to it. WG’s voice is very much the soul of the book and to correct his grammar and syntax would’ve robbed the book of its flavour.

I believe you started writing a novel, decided it was bad, abandoned it and then wrote The Chinaman
There was almost a decade between the first one being abandoned and starting The Chinaman. In the interim, I travelled, read more and reminded myself of the mistakes I made the first time around. I was just so intrigued by the idea that I thought it was worth devoting time to, regardless of whether I was able to pull it off.

How many times have you tried to write something and abandoned it?
Before The Chinaman, there were about three dead novels, numerous attempts at short stories and tons of lost songs. They’re all around somewhere and may get resurrected, though I doubt it.

The Chinaman is something of a history book, a detective novel, a sports novel, a biography, all rolled into one. How did you see the novel?
The book changed shape many times. At the beginning it was a drunk detective story, then it became a character study, then a book about writing, then about fathers and sons, and suddenly all this Sri Lankan philosophy and sociology crept in as well. I can’t say I was in control of the process, but I really enjoyed it.

Are you a fan of cricket?
I was very much a casual fan. I grew up watching Sri Lanka getting thrashed by everyone and was in my 20s when they hammered the World Cup. You can’t avoid cricket if you’re Lankan, but I did switch off after the vintage of ’96 soured. For the book I had to do my homework, but it wasn’t really work. I had followed Sri Lankan cricket from ’82-’99, so it was fun to revisit. I had to make sure that the obsessive Lankan fans wouldn’t be able to pick holes.

There is a lot about contemporary Sri Lanka that is reported in the news and most of it underlines the turbulent politics. Do you find what you see around you in Sri Lanka inspiring?
Very much so. And I fear my sluggish pace on the new novel has to do with the fact that I’m living away from it. I follow Sri Lanka on the net and get newspapers and books sent to me, but it’s not the same. I’m never short of things to write about when I’m in Sri Lanka. It’s such a beautiful and ugly place.

Do you have a writing schedule? 
The witching hours for writing are 5 am – 8 am. I try and stick to this even when I’m working day jobs. If I miss a day, I get cranky. When I was doing Chinaman, I was writing 4 am to midday for two years.

Are there any writing rules you have?
Write everyday and never talk about what you’re writing.

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The Mag This Week

Fun stuff this week —

An interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, the author of the wonderful The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. 

Reviews of With My Body by Nikki Gemmell (reviewed by Joanna Lobo) and Another Country by Anjali Joseph (reviewed by me).

Here’s the review. I’ll put the interview up in another post so that this one doesn’t seem endless.

It’s Not Always in the Details

Leela Ghosh is in her twenties. She was born in England, but she doesn’t have a British passport. To the British, she sounds Indian. To Indians, she sounds British. She is always out of place, constantly seeking another country, but for what? A sense of belonging? A job? A boyfriend? Since she moves from Paris to London to “Bombay”, we can assume it’s not for either the infrastructure or real estate. However, beyond that, there are no certainties because Leela never tells us. She just floats through Another Country like Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’s painting of the Shakespearean heroine.

A few chapters into the novel, you may wonder what precisely is Leela’s problem. She starts off as a graduate of Cambridge University, living in Paris. She has friends and doesn’t seem to be short on cash. Then she moves to London, which only the French would consider a downgrade. In London, she has a job, a boyfriend and a crush. At the end of that episode and a short holiday in an Indian coastal town (probably Varkala), Leela arrives in Mumbai. She finds a nice hostel in the south Mumbai and a job. The latter facilitates a meeting with a rich, good-looking young man who, praise the lord, is crazy about her.

It’s not as though Leela lives an entirely charmed life – she has a mild brushes with racism and notches up one break-up in each city — but the upsets she suffers hardly seem worthy of sympathetic clucking. This is because Leela herself seems unmoved by the events. She is observant — almost excessively so — but her descriptions are dispassionate and often laced with contempt. Since she cares so little for the people around her, the reader cares even less.

Leela doesn’t have a career to speak of but that isn’t something that makes her fret. If you ignore the fact that she’s incapable of feeling much more than self-pity and boredom, the only fly in the ointment of Leela’s existence is her love life, which follows a pattern: have a relationship with a good-looking but weak-willed man, break up, move cities. In Paris, the object of her affections is interested in someone else. When another “reasonably handsome man” hits on Leela, they cheerfully end up in a copulation-themed tangle. Though Leela doesn’t seem to be interested in happily-ever-after with this gent — she sneaks out of his house in the morning because the sex was bad – she is mildly put out when she learns he’s only interested in being friends with benefits.

In London, Leela works her way out of a relationship with a new man, Richard. Richard is awkward, bland and, for reasons undefined, keeps Leela from meeting his father. The fact that Leela perseveres with their relationship, despite disliking Richard intensely, doesn’t dispose the reader kindly towards either Richard or Leela. Unsurprisingly, that relationship ends. From daddy’s pet, Leela moves on to momma’s boy when she relocates to Bombay and falls for Vikram. Leela’s reasons for being attracted to Vikram are about as mysterious as her relationship with Richard. However, when Vikram and Leela start dating, there’s conflict for the first time in Another Country. Vikram’s mother has the gleaming edge and menace of a samurai blade. Impeccably polite and unmistakably disapproving of Leela, the older woman quickly outmanoeuvres the younger. Net result — you guessed it — Leela moves cities.

Occasionally, Leela’s dry narrative tone works, like when she describes with subtlety how inadequate Vikram’s mother makes her feel or the subtle racism Leela faces while dining with a terribly posh and Caucasian family. Some of Leela’s early awkwardness is endearing initially. However, there are few gripping moments in Another Country, which doesn’t move through three cities as much as squat in them. The changes in setting barely break the tedium because it quickly becomes clear that Leela is unaffected by her location.

Joseph has a gift for description that makes for some charming passages in Another Country. Sadly, no matter how beautiful they seem in the garb of Joseph’s narration, minutiae become tedious when the details don’t add up. In Joseph’s first novel, Saraswati Park, the banalities created a portrait of Mumbai and told a poignant story about changing relationships. The characters in Another Country are content to remain as curiosities. The cities are as pretty and static as in postcards. They’re all souvenirs collected from nostalgia trips and neatly arranged in the glass cabinet of Joseph’s second novel.