Sri Lankan author publishes for the world
BY Kavindya Chris Thomas
Mliss: A Gotham-esque city watched over by a two faced god and the gaslight that seeps through the cobweb and the cacophony of gears and wheels; some rusted, some covered in a fresh coat of oil, the atmosphere is bleak and foggy, made dense by the Victorian Age industrial exhaust. The world of Mliss is windswept and lunar as it is, and it's about to become even more so with a singular act; a murder.
And thus, the world of Mliss becomes one of the most innovative fictional worlds created after the great legends of Middle Earth, Discworld, Narnia and Earthsea. Here's the catch; the mind behind it is Sri Lankan. And, unlike its predecessors, Mliss is a steampunk world and unequivocally becomes Sri Lanka's first steampunk creation. The story of Mliss might start off with a murder mystery, surrounding three characters who we meet regularly in their own respective chapters, but it won't be long before you realize that Mliss is doomed and that these three characters are at the very heart of it. Thus, is the story of The Other One by Amanda Jayatissa.
Amanda Jayatissa, writing under the name 'Amanda Jay,' is an entrepreneur by day and now a celebrated writer by, well, according to her, whenever she has the time. Together with her husband, Chathura Jayatissa, she is the owner of Brick Lane Cookie Company (he's the baker, she's the business, according to her) and a curious company known as Save Your Monkey.
"My husband and I get inspired by seeing gaps and issues in the local market, and we find ourselves driven to find solutions, despite the lack of qualifications to do so. And it has worked out decently well. We wanted to do something that would add value to the Sri Lankan economy and consumer. We were coming up with different ideas and insurance was one of them. Save Your Monkey is an online insurance companion platform. If you want to buy insurance, you go online and correspond with our chatbot. We believe its South Asia's first insurance related chatbot that basically, collects information from you through an automatic process, which would provide you with a quotation, comprising all insurance providers."
Save Your Monkey was initially inspired several years ago but was officially launched last August. The very same year, Jayatissa's debut novel was published digitally. The Other One was released on Amazon as a Kindle edition last May.
"The Other One is probably the only thing I knew from a young age that I wanted to do. I wanted to write since I was a child. My first work was when I was 11 or 12 on a mystery novel. I've always kept writing but I never wrote creatively for the public. My writing was very deeply personal to me. Writing the book and putting it out there has given me so much anxiety.
I started writing roughly two years ago but it didn't start out like, 'I'm going to start writing a book.' I couldn't even pinpoint exactly when the initial thought occurred to me. The story idea came from this thought of nature versus nurture argument, which my husband and I constantly have. We always argue on the two schools of thought; he's very nature and I'm more nurture. This led to the thought what if two people, almost exactly alike, were faced with vastly different circumstances. One would be kept with the family while the other is given away."
Not all writers have their intended plot, ready and steady when they start writing. The same can be said about Jayatissa. With only pages and pages of character creation and most of the initial phase spent on getting to know her characters: Ezra, Tom and Felix, Jayatissa's story has had an organic growth. "Most of it was spent on getting to know my characters; writing from their perspectives, their thoughts and their emotions. This led to the threads of the story that cropped up and I was able to develop that. I definitely grew alongside my characters. There is a little bit of me in all three of the characters. I also drew a lot from the people around me. There might have been qualities of people that I love very much but looked at from the lens of someone outside. Some of the characters, as human beings, there might be some conflict or dislike which is included in a certain character. And then I get feedback that commended me for that particular character, which always surprised me. The idea came from this need to understand people and how they would react to certain things. It's a story about relationships between siblings, friends, parents and children. At the end of the day, the type of book I love to read is always a mystery.
"It definitely forced me to look at people in my life in a more nuanced way. It is easy to just consider your singular relationship with a person and then have that define what type of person they are. It's a psychoanalytical process, terrible though it may be; it helps me have more empathy for people around me. At the end of the day when you're developing characters, you have to do that with empathy. Otherwise, you end up writing up completely unlikable characters. I'm a strong believer that there is no good guy or a bad guy. I genuinely believe that everyone has their own good intentions and nobody thinks they are in the wrong. People are not really categorized into 'black and white, good and bad'. Everyone is a different shade of grey. But they are trying to balance out this grey tone. Some people in that grey are darker than others, while the rest are fairer. It was figuring out that for me was the integral part of this entire journey. It is the thing I spend the most time on."
And The Other One is essentially a mystery novel wrapped up in an intricate package of a steampunk fantasy with touches of science fiction that was essential to tell the story Jayatissa intended to. But despite its fancy distractions and fantasy elements, The Other One is a story about us; people in general. Remove all the distractions, The Other One is an immersive and in-depth research into character studies, empathy and emotion.
"I did not know it was steampunk until someone reading the first drafts told me it was part of the genre. I didn't approach the story with that concept in my mind. I didn't actually want this to be science fiction. I personally struggled to select a genre for this. Is it even science fiction? I feel as if steampunk does not necessarily fall into the sci-fi genre; it's more fantasy related. I knew I needed a world which would be the environment in which my story develops. This story that was in my mind would not play out in this world, in our reality and therefore it would have to be based somewhere else. It is a steampunk book because the setting is steampunk. But the story itself is not."
Apart from its characters, The Other One offers a massively realistic world which is rather new to the Sri Lankan audience.
"I love world building. In my mind, I keep on adding layers into the world I built. This is one fifth of everything I had planned. Even the characters; there was only so much that transcended on to paper, where I feel deep connections and relationships with these characters. The feedback has been really positive with related to world building. Psychology and Sociology, being a student of the two subjects, understanding the dynamics of various individuals, has managed to seep into the story in snippets. I did discuss religion a fair bit. The big theme of the book is duality. Mliss is not based on our world completely. There is a touch of it; I couldn't get too much into it without convoluting the story I was telling. There are definite hints of ethnic issues and conflict. It's after all one of the strongest influences, growing up as a Sri Lankan."
The grand traditional route of publishing a book in any country, not just Sri Lanka, takes years. It's a lengthy process and that is why many authors and writers decide to self publish. Self publication has its own disadvantages. Here enters the option of digital publications; a growing trend that allows readers to purchase ebooks online and read on their desired electronic platform that varies from your phone, to your laptop or to your Kindle. The Other One, as mentioned earlier was initially published digitally, after that is, Jayatissa was discouraged by the traditional route.
"I wanted to find myself a literary agent and found out that that particular species was not to be found in Sri Lanka. This resulted in me looking for agents abroad but I had the unique situation of being Sri Lankan but not having written a book about Sri Lanka. Surprise, surprise. A lot of the feedback was that the book was not about Sri Lanka. I kept getting questions like 'How was this related to Sri Lanka?' And my response was: 'There are plenty of fantastic works on Sri Lanka. This is, unfortunately for me, not a story about the tsunami or the civil conflict.' To be honest, I got a bit fed up with the process. The traditional route can take years when I wanted to publish this within the span of a year. I simply wanted to get something out there and see what people make of it, even if it's worth me writing a second book. So Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing was the best way I could get The Other One out there. For a first time writer, whose main focus was not making a profit out of the project, it was the best option. The response was amazing. Amazon Create Space also allows the service of physical publication which is rather expensive. But people kept asking me where they could get a hard copy of the book, so through one of my friends I published a limited amount of copies. I never intended to enter it into shops, most of the sales were from my friends and some people who contacted me online and made a purchase. Then I received the opportunity of showcasing several copies at the Barefoot Bookshop. Whenever I see my book on the shelf, I still can't believe it."
The Other One is also the first digitally published book that was shortlisted for the Fairway National Literary Award in 2017. "To be honest, I didn't even have copies to enter the book for the award. I remember calling some of my relatives who I'd sent copies of the book to ask them for their copies, just so I could enter the book into the FNLA. That actually made The Other One one of the first eBooks they considered for the award."
According to Jayatissa, the world of Mliss is not dead. There will be a sequel, but not in the traditional sense. "I think these characters have run their course. They have faced their demons, overcome them and have decided to move on with their lives. And I feel as if that arc has come to an end. But I did end up falling in love with this world. What I wanted to do was tie into another story without throwing it away. There is a bit of social commentary and what I thought of doing is taking Mliss, ten years down the line, in the next story with completely different characters and a different story. I've loosely outlined the story and I think I know where I'm going with it. Like I mentioned before, the first story came in bits and pieces. With this, I've started tightly outlining it and then started hammering it into shape. Taking a more organized routine because once I had it outlined, the process moved so much faster and smoothly."
This reader, however, cannot wait for the sequel to hit the bookstores. In fact, this reader had a hard time, writing up this interview in the first place, due to not being able to put down The Other One. Interested? Visit the Barefoot Bookshop; they still have a few signed copies left.
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