His Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew became a cult hit among cricket aficionados before sweeping up a host of prizes across the subcontinent, and now his second book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, has won the Booker Prize 2022. Shehan Karunatilaka spoke to Fountain Ink's Nandini Krishnan from Greece through video conference, having just got off a boat and checked into his hotel. In an hour-long interview, the audio of which is available in our podcast section, he spoke of his writing, inspirations, gods, spirits, and much more.
First of all, of course, congratulations on the Booker.
Thank you very much. Yeah. It's a crazy ride that still hasn't ended.
You know, I think some of us were your very early readers because one of my friends got your book [Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew] from Sri Lanka. Like, before it was published in India. Apparently, one of his friends had told him, “Oh, you know, this is great book, and you must read it.” So I think, for those of us who read Chinaman, and I got it as soon as it came out in India, because he told me, “You must check this book out.” So I think for all of us, it almost feels personal, the fact that your second book won the Booker.
No, it was a struggle, and it was a long wait since Chinaman, to this. So, yeah, good to have lots of people on your side.
But also, I think, even with Chinaman, it wasn’t really an easy ride. I don’t know whether it won the Gratiaen Prize before it was also published in India and then elsewhere…?
Yeah, it did win the Gratiaen prize. But yeah, I guess every book is a struggle. And every book, I'm doomed to write it twice. I'm working on my short story collection, which is already out in India–Birth Lottery. But for the UK, I think we will be doing some tweaking here and there. So I'm used to this long process of editing till it gets to the shelves. But yeah, even Chinaman…I guess…that was my first book, and for Sri Lankan writers, writing in English, you're not assured that you're going to get a publishing deal, especially on your debut novel, right? So, yeah, I think… I self-published it initially. And then it won this prize, and then…but it took a good year or two before it got in, before Chiki Sarkar, Random House, took it on. And then it went through another evolution. So yeah, that seems to be the way. Hopefully, the next one can be quick. As soon as I get off this tour, I can sit down and write and have one out in a year. But yeah, I don't know. Doesn't seem to work that way. [Laughs]
One of my friends remembered this party of cricketers, there’s this Ranatunga-like character and this Tony Greig-like character. So I guess, the fact that that was so precious to you, but you were not really sure of a publisher and you self-published it, but then it went on to achieve such success with the DSC prize and then the Wisden list, I think it was the number two cricket book ever. So with that kind of success, I mean, obviously...it might have come as a bit of a surprise, given your expectations upfront. But does that also put pressure on you in terms of writing your second and, you know, your career as such?
No, I think there's always pressure. I have always felt pressure. I'm feeling pressure now. I just have to write a small travel article and maybe finish a short story. But I always feel that pressure of, yeah, maybe the story is not going to work out. I think that's always there, then finishing the book is a struggle in itself. But I never took for granted that…I mean, now, I guess I'm in a different position. I can really be reasonably sure I'll have a publisher for the next book. But after Chinaman, I mean, it took a while to get published.
And then I was working in Singapore. I think when I met you, I would have been working in Singapore. And, yeah, then [I] got married and had two kids and moved back. So life happened in the meantime … and Chinaman, I mean, it won the prizes, it’s got a readership in the Indian subcontinent, certainly, and scatterings elsewhere. But, you know, it didn't guarantee that my next book would get a publisher, and I found that out when I finally started to sell it. And Seven Moons was… yeah, it was also a difficult book and a very different book, and that had its own struggles, but when it was done, it's not something you take for granted as a writer writing in Colombo that your book will automatically… you can get it published locally, for sure, there are some good local publishers, but India is the real powerhouse. But, hopefully, after this Booker win, maybe …firstly, if more Sri Lankans are writing, that would be a good thing. And if more Indian publishers are looking to Sri Lanka for stories, that would be a good thing.
But yeah, I think be prepared to struggle, I would say to any Sri Lanka writer. I don't want to give a motivational talk. But yeah, you keep at it, and seven years later, you're in Greece, sipping wine doing [an interview] in between a European tour. So it's pretty bizarre. And I saw the Booker shortlist is out…today, yesterday*, I think, yeah, the new one. And yeah…so soon, there'll be a new winner. And then I can get off this train, or this merry-go-round, and go back to writing. But yeah, and when I write the third book, I know it will be a struggle as well. And I'll have to go through those challenges. But I guess not the publishing challenges this time, maybe that might be a bit clearer.
So there is definitely a pre-Booker life and a post-Booker life.
Well, I hope not when it comes down to the writing, when it comes down to the routine of the writing and family life and all that. But yeah, I'm still in the first year. So this year has been pretty out of the ordinary. I've been on the road pretty much since the win…did the Indian subcontinent extensively, then Australia, New Zealand…now I'm on a European tour. But I think after November, yeah, I need to draw a line and say, Okay, go back to Kurunegala and start typing again.
But yeah, there certainly is, and I think in bigger ways than just my lifestyle change…It means that I can call myself a writer, you know, the book is now in thirty-odd markets, and we're touring foreign languages and all that. So yeah. But I've been writing for 15 years—when I was writing Chinaman, I was a copywriter, I was doing this fun little idea on the side. Seven Moons, I took it a lot more seriously. But still, I was working. Day job, family, and writing this thing, and hoping for the best. So um, yeah, I think that is the power of the big prize. But yeah, the third book is not going to write itself, or the fourth book. And by that time, maybe the robots, the AI, will be writing books for us. So yeah, I think I've got only a couple of books left. Let's see…but yeah, it has been a fun ride. But I'm waiting, looking forward to the quiet life again.
You spoke earlier about how you seem to be destined to write each book twice. And you’d said in an interview that apparently your brief was that if someone knows nothing about cricket, they should still be able to get Chinaman, and the same way, if someone knows nothing about Sri Lanka, they should still be able to get Maali. But I just think, with Chinaman, I think it's impossible. I mean, maybe they did get it. But then the joy of…you know, watching Eighties and Nineties cricket and seeing those echoes there is something special. And I was just thinking as a writer, when everyone has access to Google, you kind of feel frustrated with these sort of briefs that you also have to put in notes for those who are too lazy to Google or whatever.
Yeah, no, I think…look, if you follow Sri Lankan cricket, or are a fan of cricket, reading Chinaman will be a richer experience. Just like if you have some experience of the Sri Lankan Civil War or knowledge of it, this will work better, but I think you should be able to…and because I've engaged with stories from Nigeria, from Latin America, cultures that I have no real connection with…and you don't get all of it, you know you're not getting all of it. But, you know, there's a connection. There are similarities. We're all human dystopias in different parts of the world.
So, yeah, but I would still put that brief in. I think it's a good brief for a writer to have… be polite, anyone can pick it up 20 years from now, across the world, and it should give them something. It shouldn't be tied to… I mean, it's a tough thing, easier said than done. Maybe that's why it takes seven years to edit a book into that shape, but I think I’d still stick with that.
I read Chats with the Dead, and there are actually quite a few differences–and key ones, especially towards the climax, when something happens… I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't read it, but what [Maali] knows before and after, even who is there, who is endangered, there are so many drastic changes. And I mean, was it …were all these kind of, inputs that you got, or were many of them your ideas?
No, no, this was a big process. And I mean, I think the two books… I haven't revisited the two, Chats with the Dead certainly not. Richard Simon in Sri Lanka writes a really great article, I recommend people to check it out if you're into these minutiae, where he compares the two books, and says it basically uses the same words to tell two very different stories. And I think that's fair. But yeah, you're right, we did take out…so I mean, certain things for pacing, certain things for clarity, we tried to make it clear, you know, what the stakes were, what the rules were, so you don't get lost. But yeah, and we did insert a sub-plot there, which kind of gives Maali a bit more of an arc where he has to do something selfless for someone who's in danger.
Having the pandemic, that was the reason because there was no big publishing deadline. We thought we had, and yeah, 2021, we realize it's not going to get published then. So you have another nine months. So then we started taking it apart. And yeah, this was Natania Jansz of Sort Of Books, she would give me the notes. I mean, I suspected it needed work even when I submitted Chats with the Dead, but the Indian publishers, they seemed quite happy to… I think, you know, that India's familiar with Sri Lanka's political landscape and with the mythologies, so they were able to put it out, but the pandemic hit. So it came out in Jan, 2020, and then the pandemic hit a couple of months later. And the book kind of just disappeared, I think… I mean, I guess people weren't buying books, but also it didn't get reviewed that well, and so it was sort of languishing and not being able to find a UK deal, and Natania Jansz is who I approached. And she, yeah, she’s a very generous editor. And, you know, there's obviously pushback and the stuff you don't agree with, and you fight for it, and so on. But generally, she was right. She was right. She said, We can't be confusing in the beginning. We need to make sure there's a clear thread and not everything's playing at once. And there are some great notes. And I would see when I take out thirty pages and replace them with like three very carefully-placed pages that the book suddenly fizzes, and so you know that you're in good hands. So it was a pleasure to do it.
It was hard work. It was frustrating. But then, it got to a stage where it was done. And we felt like okay, if people don't get it now, that's fine. But this is what it is. And I think you have to have that moment before you put a book out there, you know… you think okay, I did my best, hopefully someone reads it. And that was the attitude that I went in with, before I got the astonishing news that I've been longlisted for the Booker, during a petrol queue during the Aragalaya. Yeah.
Yeah. Apparently your wife was in the queue and you were picking up the kids or something?
Yeah, that's exactly what happened. And yeah, she got a full tank of petrol and I got the longlist. But we were all talking about the full tank of petrol. Yeah. Everyone was more impressed by that at that time, but yeah. So I've kept that attitude, like going into the shortlist, and then now that the win happened… Yeah. Travel, airports and hotels now and lots of talking. But I've gotten back to reading and writing …like the last couple of weeks. Yeah. And so that's a good sign. Yeah, that's what keeps you sane.
One of the most intriguing things for me with Chinaman…like the edition I have has a lot of black and white photos, and they kind of mix reality with fiction. I particularly remember this woman with her hand like that [showing hand against the camera], and I was curious about your connection with photography, because now you have Maali also taking photos–often without permission, but getting annoyed that, you know, Dr. Ranee has used his photos. So, could you talk a little bit about your connection with photography?
Well… personally none. I admire a great photograph, but I can't take one to… I can barely take a selfie. My wife does all the holiday photographs, because I just ….I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm lazy. I don't have the patience. But you know, I'm fascinated by photography, and yeah, photography as a document. And I've been to many exhibitions and seen many photographs. But yeah, I can't take one myself. But I did work in advertising, when I was writing Chinaman. I was at McCann Erickson in Colombo. And yeah, we were used to doing these kinds of fake news…umm, they weren't called “fake news” then but, you know, doctoring photographs and doing that stuff. So I thought I'd call on those resources. I mean, the first resource was my brother, who's a very skilled artist, and he's also quite cricket-crazy. And so I asked him, can you draw Pradeep Mathews’ 12 mystery balls, and he had a lot of fun with that.
But the photographs …Yes. Because there is, I mean, if you want to geek out on it, there's a hidden clue in one of the photographs that reveals the key to the whole thing, which is hidden. You can go back and see it. And yeah, no spoilers, but so, to hide that, we had a few other photographs. But yeah, yeah… I remember that shoot of [Laughs]…Pradeep’s mum, right?
And there was a half-notion I had, I never pulled it off. I actually spoke with JWT, they gave me the idea, but I never pulled it off–that we are going to go all the way and pretend that this was a real thing. And we were going to get a lawyer to sue me, and show that Pradeep is living, you know, Down Under and what’s happening, and … so, we didn't go that far in the end. But in the book, there's some photographs and illustrations that also tell a bit of the story. But, with me, no...I'm not a gambler, either. I'm, uh, yeah, I play poker, and I'm really quite average at it. But yeah, I watched a lot of gamblers and, yeah, followed a lot of photographers … and then sort of put this together.’
Both these characters, [Pradeep Mathew and Maali Almeida] one of the things they have in common, I guess is like most of humanity, they tend to let down the people who are closest to them. And they tend to feel let down by those who should love them most. And it's sort of a tough truth to confront, right? Because I don't know … I guess a lot of us end up doing this. But to put that in both your main characters, I think, takes a lot of guts as a writer. Can you remember how that aspect evolved, of them?
I'm not sure I do. Because the emotional, the relationships and all of that is not the stuff that you can really research too deeply. So say with Chinaman, I got into the cricket quite deeply; with this (Maali)… into the unsolved murders. And yeah, photography, gambling, I researched all of that. But the human relationships…I think it's just when you write for long enough, so when…by about the third year of redrafting, and all that, suddenly the characters start reacting and talking and behaving, or you might write something and you're like, No, no, they wouldn't say that. They wouldn't do that.’ And they start kind of telling you…it sounds spooky, but they start telling you the story of who they are, and all of that. And that's really what I based the relationships on.
So I guess it's… you see, both characters have daddy issues, or daddy issues feature there. And I think that's true of Sri Lankans of our generation, you know. Our parents were born in the Forties, maybe the Fifties, or earlier even…and yeah, they had a, you know, “I provided for you, I put you through school, I didn't leave your mother. What else do you want from me, man? Don't talk to me about that.” [Laughs] That's kind of the attitude. All my friends seem to have that same relationship. But we are now, by contrast…we grew up watching, I guess, American TV and Indian movies, so we are like yeah, involved with our kids or we hope to be, and all of that.
But so you see that's obviously…that's, if you want…I don't want to do psychoanalysis on myself. But you can see the strained relationship between father and son, and you can even argue that Chinaman is a father-and-son story. Even Maali has some clear daddy issues which are not particularly resolved. And he's got some mummy issues as well. Yeah, so, maybe you borrow these things.
The love triangle–I mean, I've never been in that sort of threesome situation. But, you know, you've lived long enough, you've gossiped with people, and you know how human relationships work. So I think really, that's… you kind of draw on that. You don't try and kind of craft it. It's a tough one to craft… with the characters, they react to each other on the page, and you sort of try and just shape that. So yeah, it's weird. I have never thought about that. Because how are you really sure it’s them? I suppose…. Yeah, I think it… I am guessing it came organically, but over many drafts.
Yeah, but I mean it seems so natural, I guess what you said about [characters speaking to you]… because like, Jackie is one of my favourite characters. And you know, though, she doesn't appear for so much of the book, she's just so lovable and so alive. So, yeah. But there's this other…you know, I was just thinking about now you have this era of sensitivity readers, and everyone's like, 'Oh, who can write about what and who can write about whom?' And I was thinking, you must have got a lot of grief about your choice of a gay man for the main character and speaking pretty much in his voice. I mean, got a lot of grief, say, from editors, or from the legal team or whatever, saying, you know, are you sure you should be… that sort of thing. Did you have to deal with that?
No, no… I was aware of it. But I mean, now, last week, or not last week, two days ago, I was in Athens, and it was a kind of indie bookshop and a lot of members of the…it was an LGBTQ book club that was there, and yeah, you're never sure, because I didn't, if I'm being honest, anticipate this when I was thinking of the story in 2013-2014, and writing in 2015. He was gay, Maali was gay. I knew it. And [I knew] that he was a gambler. He was all these things. And he was based on Richard De Zoysa. But in the end, Richard De Zoysa, this activist-journalist…who wasn't a gambler, or war photographer, but they shared that thing in common. And I was deep into the writing. And it was clear that he was a closeted gay man. I mean, a man of many secrets, who goes out to the warzone to kind of express himself sexually and then leaves this sort of very weird, but functional, thing. It just seemed to be natural. So you go with the character.
I wasn't trying to write a LGBTQ novel, and I don't think it is. And I don't… Yeah, certainly, who am I to attempt to write that? Though I would say if I… What am I, a heteronormative, cisgender male wants to write about LGBTQ, I think, yeah, they should be allowed to, I mean, if they mess it up, they will get slammed, and they should be prepared for that, and therefore, work it as well as you can. But yeah, but I wasn't thinking any of that. That might have paralyzed me as well. So then I finished the story.
And yeah, then me and Nat, over the edits, were questioning this. Also the Mahakali, the demon character is sort of … I wouldn't say transgender, because that’s not quite true, just has attributes of both genders, or is …I don't know what the word for it is. But you know, that's a common thing in Hindu mythology, we have avatars that can change gender, and all of that, but we questioned….we had a lot…not with legal teams, just among ourselves, is this…[okay?]. So we had those conversations–not with the gay narrator… I mean, I don't, but I did send it to my friends who are gay, just to get some sense, check to make sure I'm not doing anything completely terrible, but I didn't get any bad feedback.
So, I think also you're just…you're writing human relationships. And you know, newsflash, heterosexual men also cheat on their partners, right? So, you know, men are pigs anyway. So you know, to write Maali, who's like, he has this doting partner but is out doing all that stuff with another person… you know, in the end, you're writing human relationships. But yeah, I think now, you would debate that a lot further. But even with the Mahakali, we felt it’s not like being…because it is a trope that the villain is a transgender, a confused transgender or the villain who is the serial killer is always trans, and the trans community have said, you know, that's such a bad stereotype. But I don't think that applies in this case, the Mahakali is beyond gender, it is just this thing. So it's not really a statement on any other…so yeah, you have those conversations now.
But I also believe you should be able to write whatever the hell you want to. That's why you're a fiction writer. But, do your homework, write it with empathy, like, if you get it wrong, you're going to get smashed. So, but otherwise, it's quite boring if I just have to write about, yeah, middle aged Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist men, right? So I don't know if I'll be brave enough to attempt a woman's point of view. But you know, why not? If I want to, why not?
But it all rang so true. I don't know, like you said, maybe it's the era in which you were writing, which was ten years ago, when we didn't have all these… this idea of a sensitivity reader did not exist then, I think. But I found [Maali] rang so true, because, you know, like, a lot of my gay friends speak about promiscuity…themselves, their partners, whatever. So, I mean, I guess also the advantages that there are no consequences… except maybe HIV–I mean, no pregnancies, you know, baggage of that sort to deal with.
Yeah, yeah, perhaps, but that is also a stereotype–the promiscuous gay–but, you know, I don't think it's an inaccurate stereotype, either. But yeah, you’ve got to be careful with these things and be ready to answer questions. But so far, no…I mean, I've had a lot of positive feedback. I mean, if people think it's represented wrong, no one's been telling me. I haven't been… I have had an allegation from, say, the right…sort of the Sri Lankan right wing kind of commentators, you know, who say this is pandering to the west, it's pandering to the woke West having a gay [protagonist]...it acts like Colombo is full of just.. everyone is gay and deviant and all that, you know, the uncles who…you get that kind of… you just have to take it, I guess. But no, not from the thankfully not from the LGBTQ community… yet. So hopefully, it's okay. Yeah.
One of the most troubling scenes for me, I mean, I myself felt violated when I read it–the major molesting Maali, right? Where it's not about your sexual orientation. It's about emasculation, it's about power. And that was a very hard scene to read…very, like it left such a [bad taste in the mouth]… and I felt like, Oh, God, you know, this should not be happening. But of course, it happens. Was it a hard scene for you to write?
Yeah. There were a number of hard scenes… like, I think the torture chambers. That was, I guess it's obvious. It wrote itself quite quickly. I know that, because I also, you know, we've grown up in boys’ schools. So we know. And we've seen how power has been wielded. I mean, perhaps not as bad now… I'd like to think so. Not that it was terrible in the Eighties when I was growing up, but you know, we've heard stories from bygone eras of how in these hyper-male situations, it… Yeah, you're right. It may or may not have to do with sexuality. But you're in these male situations. And yeah, power…a prefect, a teacher can do these things. And so yeah, it was like that. And the torture scenes, I think, were the tough ones, but also the war scenes, the descriptions of the bodies, because I was usually looking at a photograph, and trying to write that in the tone of the novel. So it's… yeah, so those were tough. So I'm glad it's done. I'm glad it's done. But…yeah.
You’ve spoken about how growing up in Colombo, you felt like the war was happening in another country. Although, I mean, there were significant dates, like ’71…of course, ’83, ’89… these dates when big events happened, and you couldn't really be immune to that in Colombo. But Do you remember when the war started feeling very real to you?
Um, so ’83… I was there in Colombo, in ’83. And so I remember. I didn't see much, but you know, you heard the stories… so I experienced that as an eight year old. And after that, we got used to having checkpoints and bombs going off. Yeah, a bomb would go off somewhere close at least once a year–somewhere close to where we would have gone. So, that, you learn to…That becomes normalized after a while…assassinations, very common. And that was basically our childhood. But we were aware, I mean…I was a teenager, I was still aware that there were horrible things happening up north and east. And you look at the front of the paper. And some of it was reported, but later we you find out what was actually going on. And this was a full-blown brutal war.
So I think we were spared of that all…all we had to endure was now and again, there'll be a curfew, and which is fine if you’re a kid, you know, don't have to go to school. And yeah, so you kind of… I wasn't very politically aware. And this danger, this very real threat of a bomb going off where you are… But I think it's like, you know, like the Americans now, they accept the fact that they could be anywhere, walking their kids and some nut with a gun will come and spray bullets and that's just life and you can't do anything about it. It's kind of like how you live with bombs. You're like, well...so aside from that, which obviously is not ideal, and there is obviously generational trauma that we've all inherited, but it was nothing compared to the suffering of the north and the east. And so it's only… I was aware of it at the time, but it's only later researching that you realize we had it good compared to the rest. I could have been born in Jaffna or Batticaloa, in the same you know, son of the doctor and my life would have been very, very different. And so you're aware of that.
So there is that… I won't even I won't term it survivor guilt. It's not quite as lofty as that. But that was sort of what I wanted to explore in the Maali character as well. He at least goes and does something about it. And he's quite flabbergasted that the rest of Colombo are quite happy to live in their bubble and and find other causes to pursue. But yeah.
Yeah, I mean, I guess Dr. Ranee Sridharan, you know, at least the person she…See the thing is, I think it is a danger when you immediately correlate them with the people who they're supposed to be based on or whatever, because I think she herself evolves as a character, maybe not exactly like Rajani Thiraganama, but you know, but just the decisions that like Dr. Rajani made…to go to Jaffna, she would have lived a pretty decent life in Colombo with her children and her husband or having gone abroad. And all of that …those choices people make. Even in Chinaman, you know… you have your last months…do you have to go looking for a missing cricketer instead of spending some time with your wife and son? But these are those hard choices which people make. I was just thinking about that in the context also of the suicides…like you know, there's one point where you say the highest number, the highest suicide rate in the last ten years has been in Sri Lanka [in 1989]. And through all this humour, through all the dark humour, you can't ignore the darkness. I think you've even spoken in an interview about how when you walk through the petrol queues, people will be playing cards and laughing about the situation. But the situation is there and it's so dark. And I think it's something that those of us in the subcontinent, who’ve gained freedom in our lifetimes or in our parents’ lifetimes...Would you like to talk about that a little, the sort of darkness which we just learned to take for granted, like “Oh, yeah, this is life”?
Yeah, but absurdity as well, absurdity as well. So, with the suicide thing, and I think since the novel’s been published, I met with an expert in poisons who worked during that 10-year period where we went from number one to… now I think we're you know in the hundreds or where …you know, we're down there and …because it was puzzling. Okay, we had a civil war, but was Sri Lanka a more desperate place than anywhere else in the world? Why were we number one, or …we were definitely top five for a good part of the Nineties.
And they found it was access to poison. It was access to the pesticides, that were so toxic that, you know, you have a bad love affair [and think], “Oh, I'll show them how much they’ve broken my heart”, drink a bit–and [you] don't really want to die, but you're done. And this guy, this doctor was campaigning to just reduce the pesticide, just to have it [diluted]... It'll still kill weeds, kill pests, but it doesn't kill you. And so and that’s how we went down, so also… like, so I think in that scene, you mentioned the characters are talking about “Yeah, we’re the number one in suicide, why are we so depressed and so desperate?” And then someone interjects and says no, it's just because we’ve got access to harsh pesticide, cheap pesticide. And so it's …I think, there is absurdity in that,... you can see. So I think it's, you know, that's what I enjoy writing.
And I think why not write it because but yeah, you're right. We grow up with this…not just grow up, I mean we live with this idea that we live in a dystopia. But to be fair, most of human history, people have lived in dystopia. So I think it's nothing new. It's just we expect better for us, and we should demand for better and we have, but yeah, these absurdities… I think, Sri Lanka, and I know, I've travelled and lived in India, and I know you're not immune to that as well. You just open the papers and you just see between the horrors and the tragedies and the comedies, you just see these absurdities that can only happen there. So yeah, why not write about it? What else?
And this discussion of good and evil, you know, the central idea…I love that idea so much, that God means well, he's just inefficient. And evil is better organized. I was thinking how true that is, like, I mean, forget God or “Whoever”, as you call him or her. But this idea of evil being better organized, and it's so true, and it's so… it's heartbreaking, but it's also… that's how it is. It's just that good people or people who want to get good things done can never seem to organize themselves, right? It's chaos.
Yeah, yeah, that's been a reality of life. I mean, just …you don't even have to go to evil. You look at banks, and …I've suddenly…I've got a bit of money coming in from royalties now. So I'm looking into finance and I look at how it's rigged, like how banks work. And I also wrote, you know, I wrote a lot of financial copywriting back in the day and I wrote for banks. You know, if you're like a multimillion client, they will pay you almost to have your [custom]...Give you a credit card, everything. If you have below like 200,000 rupees, they will take like 10% every time you dip down, and they will charge your credit card and all of that. And it's… it's clearly rigged, but no one knows about it, right? I mean, maybe, you know, we …the poor, kind of just take that as, okay, that's what I have to do. Whereas the rich enjoy this stuff. And yeah, you can't go against the banks, like even like I'm looking into stock markets and all …I mean, finance is the biggest fiction, I think, bigger than, you know, all these made-up terms and these markets, the things that go up and down. And again, it's the normal guy can't fathom, you know, nailing the system. But yeah, the hyper-organized financiers can and yeah, I think that's true. And that's just in finance–okay, people go bankrupt. Or, you know, it's not like life or death, I suppose. But, yeah, it's occurred to me that everywhere you see the bad guys are better organized than the good guys.
It was just so poignant, although, this idea of God. Dr. Ranee asks what religion and [Maali] says, None. And she says, how silly… and this idea of God or whoever, which comes all through… I don't know, in the subcontinent for some reason, I think our generation at least grew up with a lot of …it's just assumed that you have religion. And then you grow up in this world, which gets more and more chaotic, and then you tend to lose religion. Right? I don't know if you've experienced that personally. But the characters certainly do.
Yeah. So I mean, unconvinced by religion, I think, would be the right phrasing. Yeah. Again, you don't want to conflate yourself with the character. But just trying to find a plausible explanation. Because if there is a cosmic… a creator, overlooking this thing, either they are incompetent, or they are malign. I mean, these are all …Maali didn’t come up with them. They date back to the Greeks. But yeah, and… so it just occurred to me that either they don't… so then, the logical thing is they don't exist, this is all created myth. Or they do exist, they're well-meaning, but they're just badly organized, like the good in our parts. Yeah.
You know, we have this wonderful Aragalaya that brought down a government, demanded accountability… But it was just, you know, there are so many elements to it, and its strength was the fact that it had no clear leader for the opposition to target. But I think that was its weakness as well. But I hope I'm proved wrong. I hope we will see something rise out of that, you know, some new ideas, but I do feel this, though. Yeah, good is not very well-organized. Whereas evil builds empires, I think, was the quote, yeah.
Do you think… in Maali’s case, he records, right, he's not actively doing anything about it, but he's gathering evidence for people who can do something about it. And that seems to me in a way, a metaphor for the writer… like do you feel the writer has that sort of obligation or duty? Like, what is the role of a writer according to you, in today's world?
No, no…no obligation or duty. Certainly not. You can write about unicorns or dragons or whatever the hell you want. Like, I don't think there's obligation and …it's dangerous in our part of the world if you start taking on these big issues and taking on the state and the prevailing ideology. Yeah, I …so I wouldn't say write…again, write whatever the hell you want. But yeah, if you want to take on this mantle, I don't know, I get more and more kind of cynical about how much the impact of writers, if any, is…and because I've been on these panels on this circus that I've been on to talk about “Can books end wars?”...that was one, I think it was in Kerala or Delhi. And, yeah, again, like you think ‘Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, a greater novel than any of us could ever write, it's a classic, but it didn't do a great job of keeping Russia out of wars.’ And so whether… we can write anti-corruption novels, is that going to automatically end corruption in our part of the world?
Yeah. So I think …yeah, thinking on those lines is dangerous, but of course, thinking positively, someone may read it in a next generation and maybe that idea will take hold. And yeah, there are all those maybes. But you know, you can't count on that. And also I don't…I'm not a message writer, even though it seems like a political novel and all that. I just like a good detective story, a good missing person story, a good murder mystery, a good ghost story. And so I'm just, like, trying to write within the genre of conventions. But yeah, you know, Sri Lanka is full of such absurdity, and so many strange characters that they end up talking and so it enters that discourse. But yeah, I just wouldn't. Personally, I think, yeah, write what you want. And yeah, there's always journalism, there's activism if you really want to do something about the move to the right wing. But yeah, maybe, but maybe… look, maybe I'm being too harsh on the fiction writer, maybe we do plant these seeds. And maybe they take fruit? Yeah. In the next generation, maybe? Let's comfort ourselves with that.
The way you've kind of mixed reality and fiction even in terms of the characters in both in both novels, right, did you have fun with that? Also, it's something you… like you even spoke now about how you were considering having a lawyer sue you for this Pradeep living in Australia and all of that. Where does that come from, do you think, this idea of reality-fiction fusing?
Yes, really the mockumentary, I think. I'm a big fan of that from [This Is] Spinal Tap to…I suppose The Office even could be that… it's not strictly mockumentary, but the one that really got me into this genre was Peter Jackson. He was…so I was… I did college in New Zealand. And this is before Lord of the Rings. And before he became an A-list Hollywood director, he was making kind of these indie zombie splatter horror movies and clearly quite talented, but there was a mockumentary called Forgotten Silver. And that was about New Zealand's greatest film director who lived in the 1890s. And they found this footage of him doing colour films and shooting the first flight and at that time, it duped the entire nation or…not the entire… I mean, a lot of people were writing, like, because they kept the hoax going for like a week that Peter Jackson had just found this film of this genius film director lived there. So that made a big impression on me.
And I thought, later, when the Pradeep Mathew idea came, I thought, okay, something like that, where you're not sure, did this guy actually exist? Because this was before internet. So I was also watching, I thought, ‘Colin Mackenzie, he must be the greatest film director’. And they had Spielberg and, you know, Roger Ebert doing sound bites on it. So it has this authenticity to it. Now, of course, you see that it's very common, the fake documentary, but… so, I think Spinal Tap is the other example. And so I think that was the motivation for the Pradeep Mathew story. Let's convince people that it's true.
And now if you Google Pradeep Mathew, you’ll still see some websites dedicated to him and things like that. This one less so, though…Seven Moons, I kind of disguise the characters more, I think …and yeah, I don't think …I use a few real names, but not as gratuitously as in Chinaman, but also…cricketers versus… army commanders and politicians, you know, you don't want to…[laughs] You can have fun with cricketers, but…yeah, I think Seven Moons less so, less so.
Yeah, I guess … you know, you spoke earlier about the parents, all the daddy issues and mummy issues, but I found the mothers so interesting in both books, Pradeep’s mum as well as Maali’s mother, and especially Maali’s mother. She's such a complex character, because initially, it's this one thing of ‘Oh, you know, I just want to tell Amma that I don't love her’ or whatever. Then she becomes such a complex and beautiful character. How did she come to you? I'm not asking if there was an inspiration or anything, but you know, can you remember how you saw her first? Like, she's such a big figure, really.
Yeah. So Richard de Zoysa’s mother, Manorani Saravanamuttu, who famously started the Mothers’ Front, where…and yeah, even Mahinda Rajapaksa was part of that. Back in the Eighties, when they were peace activists, and…yeah, just mothers with missing children. So I guess that was the beginning.
Now, I don't know the relationship between Richard and Manorani. If I wanted to gossip, I could have gone down there. But I sort of tried to imagine. Yeah, I don't..I wouldn't say it's based on that at all. Because I think, for one, they had quite a cordial loving relationship. And she moved to activism after that.
Again, I…the relationship stuff is hard to recall, because it's probably sitting in a room thinking, ‘Okay, how would these guys react with each other?’ but I just thought that when Maali Almeida was coming together, and you see these daddy issues, it was clear that he would…And I've seen this in real life, blame the mum, blame the parent who's there and make their life hell, even though they are the ones who stayed, not the ones who left, and that dynamic is there. And I've had friends who've been through divorce, you know, grown up as divorced kids. And I've seen that the absent parent somehow gets this kind of heroic glow, and this one becomes the punching bag.
But yeah, I don't know precise moments, how that relationship evolved. It was quite nasty. And I think that's something that we in the edits also looked at, because that was quite nasty for a long time. But I think in the final version, yeah, there is some sort of coming together and some, some resolution, I think. But yeah, like I said, I don't recall how those came about, or where they came from. Yeah. The spirits told me, I don't know. [Laughs]
I think before we close, I just wanted to speak about the children's book Please Don't Put That in Your Mouth.
This is actually a first official collaboration with your brother, I think, though he did the sketches [for Chinaman]...
Yeah, yeah, we've got another one… so we’ve got Where Shall I Poop, which I think is the masterpiece, then Those Sneaky Plants…and now we're doing one about sleep. So yeah, that's like…I guess, as the kids say, a side hustle. While I was struggling to write Seven Moons, we thought okay, let's just do a couple of kids' books every year and put them out ourselves. But yeah, those are doing quite well, as well. So I'm eager to get into that. And that's…I think that might lead me back into writing because I'm writing a kid's book at the moment.
You know, when you've been on this talking tour, because it's kind of weird… you want the quiet time, not to be talking, to just kind of sitting down and writing, and so the kids’ books are kind of an entry into that. So I've been doing that, and short stories, but yeah, they're going well.
Please Don’t Put That in Your Mouth, it's all …I thought the 0-2 [year], or 0-3 [year age group], that target group. And I'm thinking like an advertising guy, like a marketer. I know middle class parents, you know…we've spent a lot at that period, you know, trying and reading to the kids. And those books are…some of them are masterpieces. Some of them are pretty basic. And I just thought, 'Okay, forget trying to write literary novels that might win Booker prizes that no one may read, let’s do some kids’ books, a couple of kids’ books every year.' And that could be our way into publishing. So yeah, so now both of those are working, and I kind of enjoy them both.
Kids’ books are actually very hard to write. And, yeah, 0-3, especially …and I'm doing another series. So I think that'll be a fun project that will keep going between me and my brother, while I write the other stuff.
So…I think you've been asked often about 1989. But you've spoken many times about ’83 so far in this interview. Was there ever… like, did you ever think maybe ’83? Or did this just come to you?... ’89, that is.
Yeah, no, no…’83 is a big topic. Someone should write about it. I don't know if I'll have to, but I don't think I should. It should…someone from a Tamil background, a Sinhala background…there’s a project if you want to pitch it, because so many …again, different narratives …the only narrative you get now is…you know, there’s no memorial, no acknowledgement, nothing from any government. It's just on the internet every July, ’83 gets a bit of …yeah, someone says “Let's never forget” and posts the same three pictures.
And you only get …the narrative that comes out of the comments is the Sinhala Saviour narrative. The narrative of, you know, my auntie, we sheltered the Tamil neighbours in our bedroom and …no, which is true. You know, I also have a similar story. That's true. A lot of Sinhalese were, yeah, did look after their Tamil neighbors. But there were a lot of Sinhalese who did some terrible things and horrific things too, and that's not being talked about. I just thought that's a big topic, like, so I didn't want to… because that would have overshadowed the entire novel, it would have become an ’83 novel …because there's so many wounds… there’s Tamils living in Australia, in Canada, in London who, you know, had to flee on that night in July. And that resentment is real. So that's something …Yeah, I said, that's why I didn't want to go there. Even though there's references to it in a mild way.
1989, I felt more qualified to talk about, because it was such a free -for-all. And you had, yeah, three different conflicts. And yeah, it was just enough for me to do a murder mystery where there's multiple suspects. So that's why… that was really my motivation, not any political ambition of setting the record straight. But yeah, I think someone should write about ’83, someone should do an extensive thing while the people are still alive. The victims, the survivors and the perpetrators are still alive. But yeah, I want to write a light comedy next. I just want to write a nice novel with fairies and unicorns and maybe something sweet. [Laughs] But someone should write it.
Last question before we go. 2009, right… I mean, I was working in news when it happened. And I saw all those photographs, the uncensored photographs of Prabhakaran and his son and everything. But even then, there was no real…no one was certain about whether the Tigers had really gone. Whether this was actually the end. And now it's been 14 years, it doesn't feel like 14 years, to me, at least…
What was 2009 like for you then, and what has it meant since?
Well, for us, it was a…what a moment it was that the war was over! Because we never thought we'd see that… my generation especially, we'd gone through the Eighties, Nineties, Two Thousands, with so many false dawns and false promises, okay, there's going to be peace now, there's going to be a settlement, and the war kept going. So that was a tremendous, yeah, something we thought we'd never see. But of course, yeah, that, I will… again, I should have been writing about that. But I didn't want to because, again, it's very contentious about …what actually …what lengths were taken to end that war, who suffered and again, there's been a lot of bickering in documentaries whose fault it was.
And all of that I mean, it's pretty safe to say that the Tigers were wiped out and of who were left, many, many were rehabilitated, we have to acknowledge the positives…and many were taken into the pay of the ruling party and still enjoy that. But, still, you get that during elections, we get that stirring, “You know what, the Tigers are still around. They're lurking in the diaspora. They're collecting money, and they’re coming to get you. Vote for us, the strongmen, and we will keep you safe.” So…
But I remember that being just a tremendous moment. And there was such hope, we all thought we would… I have a lot of friends living abroad who said we're going to come back to Sri Lanka, we're going to invest, start a business. Now we're going to rebuild the country. So that's why it's sad for me. Because none of those wounds, those issues were resolved, no wounds were healed. And we found ourselves about 14 years later, in economic crisis. Yeah, but that was a moment of hope… and hope…Yeah, you know, maybe 2022 has raised those hopes again, so maybe there'll be another moment. But yeah, I've lived too long. I've seen lots of false dawns. So yeah, let's hope and let's see.
Thank you so much for making the time. And I'm sorry that before you could even go sit by the swimming pool, we caught you. And good luck with a children's book. I look forward to reading the next one, with the unicorns and the fairies. Thank you so much.
* Interview done on September 22, 2023