NAW Interview with Romesh Gunesekera

Romesh Gunesekera

Credit- Yemisi Blake

Romesh Gunesekera was born in 1954 in Sri Lanka where he spent his early years. Before coming to Britain he also lived in the Philippines. He now lives in London. His widely acclaimed first novel, Reef, was published in 1994 and was short-listed as a finalist for the Booker Prize, as well as for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In the USA he was nominated for a New Voice Award. His most recent book is Noontide TollRomesh Gunesekera is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has also received a National Honour in Sri Lanka. He has been a judge for a number of literary prizes including the Caine Prize for African Writing, the David Cohen Literature Prize, the Forward Prize for Poetry and most recently the Granta 2013 list of the Best of Young British Novelists. He has been a Guest Director at the Cheltenham Festival, an Associate Tutor at Goldsmiths College and on the Board of the Arvon Foundation for writing. For the last four years he has been on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature. Visit him here.

NAW- Please give us your bio in brief. How did you start writing and the struggles you faced (if any)?

I was born in Sri Lanka. I started writing before I came to Britain in the early 1970s. It took quite a few years before I started getting my poems and stories published in literary magazines like Stand, Poetry Durham, Ambit, and the London Magazine. The struggle was to write something good enough.

My first book was a collection of stories called Monkfish Moon which was published by Granta in 1992. Debut collections of stories were rare in those days but I was lucky enough for the book to get noticed and to get translation and US editions. My first novel, Reef, was written and published within two years. When that got on the Booker shortlist, it made a big difference. Since then, most of my books have taken longer to write except for the current one: Noontide Toll.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Noontide Toll.’ How did you get the idea for the book? How long did it take to complete the book?

After the war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, I had the chance to travel to the north of the island. The country was, and is, going through a rapid transformation with both good and bad repercussions. I felt I needed to engage with those changes in my writing. I thought I could do it best through fiction and began to write some short stories involving journeys on the island. From these the idea of a book that might mirror my first one came. I wanted a book that would be accessible as a book of short stories, but which could also be read as a novel. My narrator provided the perfect vehicle.

My last novel, The Prisoner of Paradise, a novel set in Mauritius of the 1820s, took six years to complete, so it was a great surprise to have done this one within two years, pretty much like my first two books.

NAW- What was your objective in penning down the book?

To capture this moment in time while the recent past is still remembered and the future is uncertain. Some books can only be written in a particular window of history even though their meaning and significance should go beyond that moment.

NAW- Noontide is a very interesting work and I can’t think of anything else that has similarity. How did you get the idea of narrating it through a van driver which makes the book full of different stories but still a complete book in itself?

I wanted a book that you could take in small portions but still give the satisfaction of something bigger, tapas-style. In this way I thought someone who might be willing to tackle a few short stories might find they had unexpectedly swallowed a novel.

The van driver, a taxi driver, seemed to me to offer an ideal lens through which to look at this world of competing interpretations. I also found that I enjoyed his company and thought readers might too.

NAW- Tell us about yourself? What do you do when you are not writing books?

I gave up the day job only when I was writing my third book. So far the last eighteen years it has been a mixture of writing, doing things to do with writing, and raising a family. I do some workshops, teach and mentor writing students as well. Outside all of that I do what everyone else does: cook, eat, watch films. Watch the sky and the countryside flow past my window as I drive. That sort of thing.

NAW- What are you reading right now?

John Salter’s book of stories:  Last Night

NAW- Please name your favourite authors. Are there any who have influenced your writings?

The greatest influences were the writers I read when I was starting to write: the Beats in America, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, R K Narayan, Graham Greene, E M Forster, V S Naipaul. Also the playwrights and poets from Shakespeare to Neruda.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I am just completing a book on novel writing together with the novelist A L Kennedy. It is the last in a series of Writers’ & Artists’ Companions and will be published early next year.  I am also working on an audio version of Noontide Toll. More to follow on my website: www.romeshgunesekera.com or @RomeshG

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