Compiled by Thulasi Muttulingam
It has been quite an eventful few years for Shehan Karunatilaka, the author of the 2008 Gratiaen Prize winning Chinaman. Since then, the big red jacketed tome has undergone many facelifts and slimming procedures in the process of wooing more and more urbane, international admirers. It has also ditched the slightly peculiar name and rechristened itself in a manner more suited to its new and glamorous image; it is now ‘The Legend of Pradeep Matthew’ on Amazon.com
For writers back home, the trajectory of the Chinaman is a source of much inspiration and national pride. For the first time in living Sri Lankan memory, a local, homegrown author and his book are making waves abroad. Since winning the local Gratiaen Prize for Sri Lankan writing in English, the book has gone on to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature as well as the Commonwealth Book Prize of 2012. No mean feat considering the variety and depth of competition out there.
Shehan Karunatilaka is now a very well known name within Sri Lankan literary circles. Many writers and aspiring writers who were once content to be minnows in the Sri Lankan pond have now perked up and started wondering who else can make it into the exotic goldfish grade in the global aquarium. Unsurprisingly Shehan has been taxed again and again on the secret of his success; how he did it, how it all came about, his tips for success and on writing a good novel…
Here are a few of his pithy sayings when asked to share his wisdom with the masses:
“The Gratiaen Prize gives us Sri Lankans writing in English something to aim towards which is a good thing.”
“To write a novel all you need is a pen and a paper or their electronic equivalent. We have access to the same information and imagination as any writer in the world. We have no more excuses.”
“In one way, it’s quite a gift to be a Sri Lankan writer because there are so many untold stories just waiting to be told there. We have so much of untapped stories and themes to explore.”
“When the idea for Chinaman occurred to me, I was just amazed that Sri Lanka’s biggest national obsession hadn’t been turned effectively into fiction yet. It seemed like such an opportunity.”
Inspiration for Pradeep Matthew?
The catalyst was the story of Anura Ranasinghe, the guy who played just two games for our national team. At one point, it was a choice between him and the captain Arjuna Ranatunga for a place on the team. Obviously the captain got the place and went on to a career. This guy went to South Africa, got banned for life and ended up drinking himself to death.
I tried to find out if there were more cricketers like that and it turned out there were plenty. So Pradeep Matthew is sort of an amalgamation of all these guys - but I think the archetype is bigger than Sri Lanka or cricket.”
“For your self esteem as a writer, if you are sitting there waiting for prizes, good reviews or sales to validate you, you could be in for quite a miserable time.”
“I started a lot of novels I didn’t finish. It takes as long to write a bad novel as it takes to write a decent one.”
“I spent a year writing a novel which was terrible. I told myself; if you ever take up a project like this again, make sure you do it properly. So when the Idea of Chinaman came up… I decided to learn from those mistakes and dedicated my life to writing it every day.”
“Write everyday! Consume art not aimed at your demographic. Rewrite until it’s done. Then rewrite again. Be a professional. Don’t talk about your work with anyone. Seek out unusual stories. Don’t be afraid of your own voice. Don’t be lazy.”
“When I was writing, I didn’t really think of writing for India or the UK because that would have been a pipedream. I think that helped – the fact that I didn’t think I was writing for an international audience. The tone of voice, the colloquialisms… it was very much a Sri Lankan flavoured novel.
Some people asked me later if I should correct my grammar and syntax but I kept those mistakes in because it was how a drunk in a bar, talking about cricket would express it.
So maybe that’s the key – if you are writing a local story, you should keep it very local – and thereby you might attract a universal readership.”
Why a cricket novel?
Usually when you are writing about Sri Lanka, there are certain familiar themes. You either talk about the war or an inter-ethnic love affair or the tsunami – or corruption, or colonialism…
I didn’t feel qualified to give a new spin on any of these subjects. Cricket by comparison seemed like a harmless thing. I could write about Sri Lanka and cricket without addressing those other things head on.”
“Initially, I just conceived of it as a detective story of this drunk and his sidekick tracking down this shadowy figure. But then as I drafted it, all these other things seeped in. So cricket became a means of talking about Sri Lanka’s history, colonialism and corruption as well as the conflict within the country.
But that wasn’t my original intention. It was supposed to be just a fun story about cricket.”
“When I revised the book, I tried to make it readable to even readers who had no knowledge of cricket or Sri Lanka. After all, I read baseball novels and watch baseball movies even though I have no interest in that game. It’s all about compelling storylines.
That’s my sales pitch anyway.”
“One thing I did while working on the novel was my homework. I thoroughly researched Sri Lankan cricket from 1982 to 1999 because even though I myself am not a cricket fanatic, there are plenty in the country who are and they would have picked my story apart if I got any of it wrong.”
“It’s the research that usually derails a book – because the research is the real work. But when your research is watching cricket and hanging out with drunks at a bar, which is what I had to do for this book, it doesn’t seem so much work. I believe that had a lot to do with why I finished the book.”
“Editing of manuscripts is essential. You have no objectivity over your final product, especially if you’ve spent years crafting it. The right set of eyes, can fix structural problems, enhance your pacing, unify your tone and eliminate irrelevancies. I find it astonishing that people even attempt to publish unedited manuscripts.”
“I’d like to see more editors coming out of Sri Lanka and being more rewarded as their service is essential for a polished product. This is the missing ingredient in Sri Lankan writing at the moment.”
“My experience of the book tour circuits and literature festivals?
The book has taken me to many countries and lit fests and has convinced me that writers belong not before an audience, but locked up in a room by themselves.”