A ‘Chinaman’ from Lanka: An Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka

“But writing for awards is a mug’s game, and those who do it should have their pens confiscated.” Shehan Karunatilaka



Srilanka, cricket, writing, the next word in line these days is Shehan Karunatilaka. This bass-passionate adman’s debut novel Chinaman: the Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2008 Gratiaen Prize,  the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and the Commonwealth Book Prize 2012. Meet Shehan. I did this interview in Dec 2011, while he was on the shortlist of the DSC Prize. (Of course Shehan went on to win, barely a month after this conversation)

SB:  The DSC : your reactions?

Shehan: When I wrote Chinaman, I didn’t expect it to export outside of Colombo. I thought it might be read in Galle and Kandy, and if translated, in the rest of the country. To get it read in India was a dream and to have it published in the rest of the world was beyond a dream. So now to get on a shortlist is terrific when I consider my expectations when I started.

SB: The reception to the book and the responses that thrilled you?

Shehan: I left Sri Lanka to take a job in Singapore just before it was published. Perhaps I was afraid that Sri Lankans, especially cricket fans, would be offended by WG’s portrayal of the country. The response and the reviews have been fantastic. It was great to get quotes from the likes of Michael Ondaatje and Mohammed Hanif. Most readers get the subtext of the book and understand that it’s about more than just cricket. But for me it’s most satisfying when readers who know nothing about cricket or Sri Lanka engage with the story.

SB:  How tough was it to get a publisher?

Shehan: I had this idea, which I thought would make a good short story. The career of Lanka’s greatest cricketer, who broke world records, disappeared and was then forgotten. I wrote before work every day and after 6 months my short story was 80 pages long and unfinished.

So I quit my job in advertising and spent the next 2 years watching cricket matches and interviewing drunks and writing. I liked how it turned out, though I wasn’t sure anyone else would be interested. So I self-published it in Sri Lanka, which is what many local writers do, simply because print-runs are so small and costs are reasonably low.

I sent queries to publishers and agents in cricket nations around the world but got no bites. A year later I met Amit Varma at the Galle Lit Fest, who gave me some useful email addresses of Indian Publishers. One of them, Chiki Sarkar, grabbed Chinaman and ran with it. She helped me shave off 100 pages, get rid of the boring bits and get it out to the world. She’s the reason we’re having this conversation.

SB: What do international awards mean to you as an author?  

Shehan: It’s like getting a nice present from a stranger, which I’m sure no one would object to. Though these things revolve around luck and subjectivity and it’s dangerous to read too much into them.

It does mean that your book will get written about, maybe read by a few more people and that you have one more line to add to your CV. The prize money is useful, as money always is. But writing for awards is a mug’s game, and those who do it should have their pens confiscated.

SB: Have you read any other cricketing novels in your prep for Chinaman? Like Romesh Gunesekera’s The Match and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland?

Shehan: Plenty. But strangely not those two. Perhaps because like Chinaman, both of those were about more than just cricket. I was aware of them, but felt that reading them might take my story in another direction.

I read every cricket bio and analysis I could find when researching. My favourites were Rain Men by Marcus Beckmann, Armball to Zooter by Lawrence Booth, The Meaning of Sport by Simon Barnes, What Sport Means to Life by Ed Smith and Michael Roberts’ excellent Essaying Cricket.

SB: How much of Chinaman is fact?

Shehan: Everything about Pradeep Mathew is true except for his name.

SB: The book is ostensibly about Cricket but there is a strong under current of SL society. How do you relate both? 

Shehan:Sri Lanka is a fascinating place to live in for a writer because it’s a goldmine of interesting stories that haven’t been told. You could go to our 2000 year-old mythologies, our colonial past or look at our 30-year war, our Marxist insurrections, our tsunamis, our politics or, of course, our cricket.

We’ve just had a gang of politicians embroiled in an LA-style shoot-up on our streets during elections. A few months ago there was an outbreak of “Grease Devils” around the country. For such a tiny island it’s full of wonderful bizarre-ness.

I regret that I no longer live there, though I do keep going back to research my new novel. I can see myself moving back there once this new story takes shape.

Shehan 1

 SB: Are you a writer ‘full time’ now?  

Shehan: I took a break and got a job after Chinaman, to clear my head and replenish my bank account. I’ve spent the last year researching a new book and I’ve just started writing it. So yes, I’m back to waking up at 5 am, though I’m not watching cricket or hanging with drunks for this one.

Sadly the cost of living in Singapore doesn’t permit me to be a full-time writer. So I do freelance writing for ad agencies and magazines to pay the bills and write when I find the time. Not ideal, but currently that’s my reality.

It’s nice that the first book got recognition, but I think I would’ve cracked on with the next one, even if it hadn’t. Writing is too much fun to be influenced by minor things like sales and awards. Though both are very welcome.

SB: Your reading?  

Shehan: I started reading pulp horror and detective stories, which I still have a lot of affection for. Stephen King and Agatha Christie are my Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. My favourite writers are the ones I keep returning to and re-reading: Kurt Vonnegut and William Goldman. My favourite books are The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis and, of course, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.

SB: How obsessed are you with cricket?

Shehan: Not that much. As a Sri Lankan you can’t help being a fan, especially after ’96. But I don’t follow the sport obsessively. Especially given the way Sri Lanka is playing these days. I just had to become a cricket obsessive for 2 years, in order to write about one.

SB: A new book?

Shehan: Yes. Set In Sri Lanka, completely different from Chinaman and, so far, a delight to research. Fingers crossed, it should be done in a couple of years.

This interview was published in the MediaVoiceMag in their December 2011 issue. 


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