Born in 1975, Shehan Karunatilaka is the Sri Lankan author of two novels. Chinese (2010) won the Commonwealth Book Award and was declared the second best cricket book of all time by Wisden. The seven moons of Maali Almeida is set in war-torn Sri Lanka in 1989 and is about a dead war photographer trying to find out who killed him; last month it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (the winner will be announced on October 17). Karunatilaka lived among other places in London and New Zealand before returning to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
Congratulations on your Booker shortlist. why do you think The seven moons of Maali Almeida appeal to judges so much?
It’s difficult. I’ve been writing this book for a while, and every time the awards roll, I see the judges say, “We prefer realistic fiction” or “We prefer tomes.” So I stopped trying to guess. This year there are a few satirical and magical books. I can’t wait to meet [the judges] and suck on them and say nice things about how good they taste.
Have you read any of your rivals on Booker’s shortlist?
Rivals! Lottery winning friends. I ordered the books on the long list but they don’t deliver books to Sri Lanka because it’s not an essential thing. I have this shipment waiting over there. So I will be buying a lot of books when I get to the UK for sure.
It’s been 11 years since Chinese. were you writing Seven Moons all this time ?
Well, life has happened. I got married, I had children, two toddlers running around. It slows things down. I didn’t want to write about the current situation – by which I mean right after the [Sri Lankan civil] the war was over, 2010, 2011. I’ve always had this vanity of letting the victims of atrocities speak, because everyone is arguing about whose fault it was. And it took me a while to realize that 1989 was the period I wanted to write about. It’s been through various false starts, and the only thing that survived is this character, Maali Almeida, who was a minor ghost in one of the previous incarnations. And that’s where the book took shape.
Was it important to you that such a violent story be so funny?
I don’t know if it was intentional. There’s a Sri Lankan gallows humor, because we’ve been through a lot of disasters. The place is not as unstable as it was a month or two ago; there is still uncertainty, but there are a lot of people making jokes. I think I could never write an outright horror ghost story, maybe that’s just my sensibility. Even in the 1989 situation, there was a lot of stuffing and it was pretty ridiculous.
The style of your novel is very free and vibrant. Do you follow a tradition?
We’ve had a lot of Sri Lankan writing in English since the 90s: Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera. But for me, the guru was a gentleman named Carl Muller. He wrote The jam fruit tree in 1993, and he was one of the first to use the Sri Lankan way of speaking. And I borrowed a lot from that for Chinese, the idea of a drunken uncle telling a big story. So that’s where this irreverent brand of Sri Lankan writing comes from.
Your love of British pop culture shines through in the book. Does it come from when you lived here?
Nope! It was Sri Lanka in the 80s. We had two channels, and they were showing old British comedies like Fawlty Towers – and top pops, sure, but he was two, so you were watching Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1988. And we had the VHS too. We were the first generation that grew up watching TV.
Tell us about your experience as a musician.
Not much to say ! I had a few grunge bands in the 90s and I’ll probably start a midlife crisis band soon. For the past two years I have played piano, bass and guitar. I’m even considering buying a drum kit, much to my wife’s chagrin. I don’t think there will be an album. The hidden face of the seven moons…
What have you learned as a novelist from the writing process Seven Moons?
I know the process better now. Before, you get a little discouraged; Writing a shitty 200-page draft takes a lot out of you. As now I write the third, I am waiting the first project to be absolute crap. All you know is that it can be done. It won’t be easy, it will probably be harder, but it can be done.
in recognitionments, you name Douglas Adams, George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut. Are they influenced?
Certainly. These are the big three. With Vonnegut, it’s all pretty dark stories, but it’s a riot. They are all hilarious. I have kept [Saunders’s] ten decemberthe Hitchhiker five-part trilogy and a few Vonnegut novels at your fingertips, then when you get stuck, just dive in and get out.
And Cormac McCarthy too. Not a lot of laughs there.
No, but I was writing gruesome body disposal scenes, so I would like [read Blood Meridian] on scalped Native Americans. There’s a lot of raw power. I’m not even sure he has a moral code. That’s right: men are bullies and apes and I’m going to use biblical language to describe it for 400 pages.
What’s the last really great book you read?
This is a grammar connoisseur’s book. The elements of eloquence by Mark Forsyth. Last year, I was obsessed with this book. It’s about those little language tricks across pop culture and the English language.
Did you read a lot in your childhood?
My mother gave me books but I don’t think I read more than anyone else. It intensified as a teenager when I went to boarding school in New Zealand. So I used to read when I was a kid, but these VHS tapes and top pops were more what I was doing.
How and where do you write?
This place here [gestures around office]. But, above all, it is 4 o’clock in the morning. Because I also do copywriting [during the day]. So I write until the kids wake up, around 7am. And in between [working] I waste time playing with the lights, or making playlists. But I’m not leaving this room. I don’t know if it’s sunny outside. It was more difficult when the children kept knocking on the door. Now I’ve trained them not to.