Shehan Karunatilaka is a Sri Lankan writer. His book Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew was published to critical acclaim and went on to win the Commonwealth Book Prize, DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and Gratiaen Prize.
An advertising copywriter by trade, he currently resides in Singapore. Visit him here.
NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?
Like most, mine began with reading. As a teen, I went through a lot of horror and detective fiction, kept journals, wrote songs for terrible bands and did outlines for stories that I never wrote.
I studied English just for the reading list, and later got a job in advertising because it allowed me to keep my hair long and never wear a tie. It did end up teaching me about craft, tone, texture and writing to deadline.
I didn’t have a lifelong ambition to write fiction, but after my band broke up and advertising tired of me, I had an idea for a story involving a cricketer and a drunk. I took some time off to write it and it took over everything.
NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Chinaman.’ How long did it take for you to finish the book?
It’s a drunken detective story about a sportswriter who decides to spend his final years pursuing a phantom cricketer, reputed to be the best ever. What starts off as a madcap quest becomes the story of an underachieving country and of a dying man trying to give his life significance.
It took 1 year of research, 1 year of writing, and 1 year of editing. 3 years well spent. The current one has already taken that amount of time and is still at the research stage.
NAW- Has life changed after winning the DSC award? To what degree does winning a monetary award help a writer? Do you feel your voice is given more value now than earlier perhaps?
The writing life is the same. I still write every day and get depressed when I don’t. Winning the DSC, the Gratiaen and the Commonwealth meant that I got to travel for a couple of years and not write. Money is always welcome and it means that I can write another one, knowing it will be published. The value of your voice is in the writing, the rest is marketing. I’m grateful to be recognized, but I still feel like I’m learning the craft.
NAW- Tell us about your other works?
My other works are the stuff I do to pay the bills. Advertising copy, features, reviews and travel stories. I’ve published some short stories, but so far Chinaman is my only successful attempt at sustained concentration. Being a freelance writer does give you the space to develop long-term creative projects and I have a few in the pipeline.
NAW- What drew you to writing?
Bad experiences in collaboration. I played in bands but never had the right mix of players and sounds, or perhaps the talent. I wrote TV commercials, which never came alive on screen. With fiction writing, it’s just you and the page, and an invisible reader, who is usually also you. I was better at pushing myself than at pushing other people. And I love the process of reading, watching, having ideas, not having ideas, crafting, thinking and then one day having something finished and you’re not sure where it came from.
NAW- How is the literary scene in Sri Lanka? I know of one other Sri Lankan writer other than you, Romesh Gunesekera but both of you found literary success largely because of recognition in the literary scene outside your home country, am I right?
Sri Lankan writing in English has been growing since the early 90s, when Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje set up the Gratiaen prize for fiction in English.
Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree was an influential text with its uniquely Sri Lankan voice, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, Romesh Gunasekera’s Reef, Michelle de Kretser’s Hamilton Case have all been celebrated internationally.
We have a mix of expat writers like Roma Tearne, Ru Freeman, Nayomi Munaweera and local writers like Ashok Ferrey, Nihal De Silva and Vivimarie Vanderpoorten. These are just a few names. Genres range from literary to satire to love stories to war stories.
There are many voices coming from all over the island and the globe and this is just as well, because Sri Lanka is filled with untold stories waiting to be uncovered. Personally I think the best writing is happening in the theatre with the likes of Ruwanthi de Chickera, Tracy Holsinger, Dananjaya Karunaratne and Rajitha Dissanayake penning powerful contemporary dramas.
NAW- How long did it take for you to be a successful writer? And if you did face any measure of struggle, how did you deal with it?
Every piece of writing is a struggle. Even this interview. I don’t think it gets easier, but you have faith that if you keep scribbling, something good will stay on the page. It took me 2 years to write a bad novel, 8 years to get over it, and then 3 to write another one. I’m in the midst of a new story and have no idea how it will turn out or if anyone will like it, but I’m fascinated by where it’s leading and I’d like to see it written.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Reading, being a father, playing bass, trying to play guitar and piano, movies, tv, playstation, swims, meditation, travel, food. But I suspect all these activities have something to do with writing.
NAW- Are there any literary influences that you would like to name?
Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Nick Hornby, William Goldman, Ira Levin, Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Chuck Palahnuik.
NAW-Please name your five favourite books.
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Adventures in the Screen Trade – William Goldman
Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
Two novels, a short story collection, a cooking app, a travel book and a couple for kids.