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‘There Are A Lot Of Stories To Be Told In Sri Lanka’

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Shehan Karunatilaka is an adman, writes basslines and travel stories and is also the author of Chinaman. The Commonwealth Book Prize winner says the book is not just about cricket but of failed genius, which is an universal story that will appeal to any reader across the globe. In an interview with BW Online's Sanjitha Rao Chaini, Karunatilaka recounts his journey of writing the book, and finding a publisher. 
 
Why should a reader pick up Chinaman?
It's a mystery tale, a classic detective quest plot, which at its heart has a very human story of genius and loss. You can also learn interesting trivia on Sri Lanka and cricket. It’s also a lot of fun.
 
What does the book mean to you?
It was my first attempt at sustained concentration. It occupied my life for three years and has taken me around the world. I just still enjoy the concept of it, the characters and where they took me.
 
You are in Singapore now. What took you there?
I was born in Galle, Sri Lanka, grew up in Colombo, and attended university in New Zealand. I studied English literature and business administration. My dad wanted me to do an MBA, but I secretly studied arts. I did not tell him until the third year. Then I ended up doing a diploma in business. I came back to Sri Lanka and worked in advertising and later worked in London for a little while. I returned to Sri Lanka and wrote this book and then moved to Singapore. I moved there to take up a job in advertising since I hadn’t yet found a publisher for my book.
 
Does advertising contribute to your style of writing?
Yes, maybe. In advertising, one is taught to write short sentences. I was asked to read Hemingway and the Bible while studying as a copy writer. And the idea of having pictures in the book, perhaps, my advertising back ground did influence me. In advertising, you always write in someone else’s voice. You are writing in the voice of the brand. You don't really have a great deal of room while doing that. In the 1990s, we used to write long copy ads. These days no one reads that. Sometimes, we don't even write copies. There is just one visual and a logo and it works. So, yes, the training in advertising did have an influence.
 
How did you finally get down to writing this book?
All ad guys, all creative guys — pretty much without any exception — dream of something big. A copy writer dreams of writing a screenplay or a novel. You talk to art director, he dreams of being a great artist. So, it's like their current job in creative field is like something one is doing until you get do the real thing — what they have been dreaming of becoming. I was no exception and I also had ideas to write book, do movies and all that. I tried writing a book quite a few times. But I never managed to sustain interest in a project — I never went beyond 20-30 pages. The idea for Chinaman came to me in 2007. I had been in advertising for 10 years then and I was ready for a break. I quit my job and took six months off.
 
A lot of people, including my parents, thought I was crazy. I was the creative director at McCann Erickson in Colombo. But I did not want do the book part time and not do justice to it. I wanted to research and then write it. That said, I was not totally unemployed. I did some freelance feature writing and copy writing. I was making enough to pay the bills.
 
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What was the kind of research you put in for the book?
Cricket is well-documented on the internet. The history of the game, the scorecards are all available on the Web. For the behind-the-scene actions, I interviewed a lot of players and former players from the 1980s. I was not talking to people in the establishment, but interviewing guys who were on the fringe — those who had played just a couple of games, basically guys who were willing to gossip. The people in the establishment will always give me the official-speak. So, I went to ex-coaches, ex-writers, ex-players, ex-commentators, and asked them to tell me stories about Sri Lankan cricket and players who should have made it to the top but never did. I also spoke to a lot of old uncles and drunks in bars. In advertising, not much happens during afternoons, not many meetings to win. 
 
And when you are stuck for ideas, one tends to go to bars, hang out there and have a drink, perhaps. These are quite dodgy bars where many old pensioners come in. I was familiar with the territory. I used to write in the mornings, and in the afternoons I would go to these bars and chill out there. The bars had a TV screen with the cricket on. After a while, once you become a familiar face, you can go and talk to them and join them. I asked them about cricket stories, what happened in the 1960s and 70s. After a while, I started noticing their mannerisms, their patterns of speech, phrases they use and so on. I started getting interested in these people themselves than the stories they told. As long as you get them to speak to you before 6 pm, it's fine. Once they are drunk, they just ramble on. Part of it was research on the Web and book research.
 
How did you find a publisher?
Once I completed the book in 2010, I started my search for a publisher. So, every Friday, I used to send out at least five publishing queries to different publishers and agencies in cricket playing countries — India, South Africa, New Zealand. And I did not get any response — a couple of publishers asked for the manuscript, but I did not get any offers. I got polite rejection notes from several. I waited for 10 months. Well, Sri Lankan writers generally don't get published outside the country. Most of us get published locally, or we self publish. I did not give up totally. I self- published it and moved to Singapore with a job offer.
 
In 2008, Chinaman won the Gratiaen prize. I used the money to self publish 2,000 copies of the book and moved to Singapore. And then a query I had sent six months ago to Random House India got through. And it happened quite quickly after that. Within a week that I sent the manuscript, I got a response for an offer. Everything happened so quickly. And within that week, I even got response from other publishers. So, the lesson here is you should not give up even after five rejections. You should just keep going. I sent a lot of queries out there. Any new author needs to understand that it takes time for publishers to get to your manuscript. If I had known that this would happen, I would have probably not moved out of Sri Lanka and would have kept writing.
 
How has it been after Chinaman, after winning several awards?
It seemed like I had spent about three years writing a book. It made sense to me to take up the job in Singapore and get back into advertising. I just did a tour of the US and talked about a cricket book there. Well, it was quite strange. Essentially, the story is about wasted genius and not just about cricket. It's more about an old man who tries to make something out of his life. That's how I talked about the book over there. Because, people don't care about cricket there and they don't have an understanding of it. So, I drew a few parallels between baseball and cricket. Generally, I was telling them it is a detective story and it is tale of failed genius and why certain talent go unnoticed. That's how I spun it when I was in the US.
 
Will publishing your next book be easier?
I started writing my second book about a year ago. I write every day, say, for about three hours. But that's not really enough. I write only part time since I also freelance in advertising. At the moment, I don't want to talk about what it is about. It is set in Sri Lanka and is dealing with the country's past. So, no cricket. I am sick of writing about cricket now (laughs). And no drunkards.
 
Now that I have got an audience for my current book, I don't think it will be a difficult process to get it published. The trick now is to make sure that the next book is of quality. And for that I have to spend time in Sri Lanka and do my research. The book probably won't be done for a couple of years. And by that stage, who knows if there will be publishers at all. With the Kindle and digitisation, who knows what the landscape will look like.
 
How has been the response towards your book outside cricket-crazy India and Sri Lanka?
Readers will respond to an interesting story and an interesting character. I did not consciously look to write for an international audience. I wanted to write a story that I would like to read — I was writing for Sri Lankans who had grown up with the war and with cricket. Maybe, it's a good thing not to think too much about who is going to read it. You should simply write and see if you would like to read that book. I just toured Seattle. And I don't know if someone there would understand half the cultural references in the story. But the story is a universal one. Also, international readers are interested in reading experiences from other countries. I like reading Latin American and African literature. So I don’t think it's a problem if the story is written honestly.
 
As an author, are you able to better articulate the political and economic issues vis-a-vis a reporter?
In advertising, you are basically telling lies pretending them to be true. Whereas in fiction, you are telling a true story, but dress it up as fiction. In my second book, I don't know if I will write about the current political scenario or the end of the (civil) war in 2009 — I may write about that in 10 years time, perhaps. In fiction, it is good that you can look at the past, you can see how history has unfolded, and you get a bit of a perspective. But in journalism, it's written at the moment. I don't think I am qualified to write about, say, how the War ended and what the current scenario is — I am not comfortable writing about the present now.
 
Maybe, in 10-20 years there will be clarity. A fiction writer has all those tools at his disposal and he can look at the current scenario through the gaze of history and construct a story around it. One is not a replacement for the other in any case. I am not trying to make any political or historical statements through my books. My intention is to write a story and get characters working. For me, the historical, political and sociological scenario is a by-product of the story. A movie or a book is only trying to entertain. You cannot watch Kingdom Of Heaven and think you know all about the Crusades. That's dangerous.
 
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Tell us about literature from Sri Lanka...
Apart from writers such as Carl Muller, Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunasekera, I love reading works of new authors such as Ashok Ferrey, who writes funny, short stories. There are lot of good playwrights and poets in Sri Lanka — Ruwanthie de Chickera, a very exciting playwright in English; Vivimarie Vanderpoorten, another great poet; Shyam Selvadurai who writes kind of gay fiction... these are some of the most accomplished names in Sri Lanka. Most of them have self published their works.
 
Is there a lacuna in the Sri Lankan publishing?
Yes. I would like to see a lot of Sri Lankans writing and they should write international quality work. That’s when (global) publishing houses will come to the country. It's an easy excuse for authors in Sri Lanka to say “oh, we don't have publishers, so what's the point?”. The onus is on the writers to bring out good works. If you do good writing, publishers will come to you. There are a lot of good writers in Sri Lanka. Among publishers, we have Perera Hussein, Vijitha Yapa and a few other independent publishers, but they don't have international networks. But before we have a good publishing industry, we have to have a good writing industry — in English as well as in the vernacular language. There are a lot of stories to be told in Sri Lanka.
 
Coming back to ads, will social media make advertising redundant?
No, not redundant at all. Advertising has to change its approach. Earlier, when a brand does a press ad or a TV ad, we spend a lot of money on it and really don't know whether it worked or not. Now, we have measurements to show that our communication is working. You put something up and you immediately have a conversation with your consumers. That not only makes it challenging but effective as well. With the data available on social media, advertisers can target specific demographics with specific data with specific communication tools. 
 
Technology still has changed advertising but advertising still mean the same thing — a brand communicating in whatever medium claiming to be superior than any other brands.
 
Tell us a bit about your writing habits - for your first novel and for the second one you are currently writing. When and where do you write?
I start writing at 4 am. On good days I do 10 hours, on bad days 3. I spend the evenings reading, researching, watching movies and playing bass. I do this every day, for as long as it takes, until it is done.
 
What according to you makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
Those two things aren’t necessarily the same thing. In fact, too often they’re not. For me a good read is something that has a voice that captivates, a plot that transports and that teaches you something you didn’t know before. A bestseller is a book that shifts units. So these days it’s erotica and teenage vampires.
 
What are you reading now? 
I read five books at once. A comic, a fun read, a non-fiction, short stories and a literary read. At the moment it’s Maus by Art Speigelman, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Incognito by David Eagleman, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver and Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid.
 
Note:
  • The Gratiaen Prize was founded in 1992 by the Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje with the money he received as joint-winner of the Booker Prize for his novel The English Patient. The prize is named after Michael Ondaatje's mother, Doris Gratiaen
  • Karunatilaka was in India on a three-city tour to promote his book Chinaman as part of DSC Prize WInner's Tour 2012. 
sanjitha (dot) bw (at) gmail (dot) com