Shehan Karunatilaka on language, living history, labour and luck.

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Shehan – I’ll start at the very beginning and the very end: when, in the writing of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, did it become apparent to you that the book would start after the fact of death?

The plan was to write a ghost story (just like my first book was supposed to be a cricket story). So I began with a traditional ghost story with jump scares and murders, and the only thing that was interesting in that draft was the ghost on the bus, a dead reporter called Maali Almeida. When I knew the story would be told by a dead man, I had to imagine some sort of afterlife. That took a few more drafts. But the idea of the dead speaking, and imagining the voices of Sri Lanka’s war victims, that was very much present throughout.

There are a few rules about what the book’s ghosts can do: only being able to go where their corpse has been or where their name is spoken, travelling on the winds. How much were these rules – and some of the wider world-making – purely strategies or devices in order to allow the book to function and the plot to move, and how much were they more than that?

I had a bunch of rules that I borrowed from ghost tropes, religions, philosophies and near-death experiences. In the end, they got pared right down, and I only used those that served the plot or character – the Seven Moon deadline, the use of winds, the significance of ears and the power of your name being spoken. But the idea that powerful spirits can whisper thoughts into the ears of the living and influence their actions also became a possible explanation for why some Sri Lankans continue to do strange and absurd things.

The second person is so incredibly hard to do well, but I love your ‘you’. When in the writing and drafting of it did that perspective appear, and why?

I had to imagine a disembodied voice telling a story. I figured that if anything survives the death of your body, it must be the voice in your head. I’m not sure about everyone else’s heads, but the voice in mine is in the second person. It’s speaking to me now. And that’s the way Maali spoke to himself, so I went with that, and the story seemed to flow. It later made sense to me that the second-person narrator and the person Maali Almeida are not exactly the same – something that the audio version of the book cleverly picks up on.

I loved Chinaman, your debut novel. Why did I have to wait so long for your next one? (It was well worth the wait, by the way.)

Thank you. The usual excuses, really. I got married, had kids, moved country, became a freelancer. I didn’t expect to be writing a second novel, so I struggled to find time for it. I’m better organised now, and my kids are better behaved, so the third one might not take as long.

Maali’s character is based partly on Richard de Zoysa, who, like Maali, was a gay man in Colombo in 1989. What was your experience of writing a character whose sexuality is such an important part of the book, but whose sexuality is, as you’ve said elsewhere, not your own?

This was a big challenge, and I took it seriously. I read Vidal, Genet, Crisp and Selvadurai, watched Boys in the Band multiple times (the original Friedkin version) and talked to gay men who lived in Sri Lanka during the 80s. Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke’s ground-breaking play about Sri Lankan Grindr culture, The One Who Loves You So, really opened my eyes to how gay characters can be portrayed without evoking lazy tropes. 

What are you most hopeful for and what are you most fearful of after having won the Booker?

The fear is that I won’t write much of anything over the next twelve months. This was confirmed by a very exhausted Damon Galgut just after the Booker. ‘You won’t write a word, my friend,’ he said kindly, but seriously. ‘It’s one big lit fest for the next year,’ He’s a terrific writer and The Promise is a magnificent book, but I do hope to prove him wrong. The win will bring more readers and less financial uncertainty, but I hope I don’t get too distracted and forget to put in the writing hours for the next book.

I want to ask what I know will be a complex and fraught question, but what I think is an important one. You’ve spoken elsewhere about ‘not being brave enough’ to set a book in contemporary Sri Lanka or its recent past, and instead going back into the country’s history for this book. You’ve written a novel that confronts and bears witness to the atrocities of that history (‘I was there to witness. That is all’ is a very good line at an important moment in the middle of Seven Moons)while also satirising it and finding comedy in it. But of course that history – 1989, and the years running up to it – is living history for many people. Did that, and their experiences and traumas, weigh on you when you were writing The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida? Do you think the book’s recognition risks being co-opted as a way for history to move on from those atrocities.

I hope the opposite. I hope that it’ll encourage more Sri Lankans to write about and unpack the past, and that a new generation of readers who’ve grown up with the internet will go back and read about histories that they’re not taught in schools. History and Sri Lanka may seem to have moved on now, with fresh catastrophes to create narratives around. But hopefully readers and writers can engage with the past and take some lessons from it.

You spoke in Tamil, Sinhala and English when accepting the Booker Prize. How important was that, for you?

I’m glad I was able to thank everyone and speak in all three languages (even though I did a poor job of keeping to my one-minute limit). I’m fluent in Sinhala but not as articulate as I’d like to be, and am only just learning Tamil. But I wanted this to be a victory not just for English-speaking, middle-class Colombo Sri Lankans, but for all Sri Lankans, regardless of which language they read or write in.

Finally, is writing (perhaps life) all just a gamble, a game of chance and probabilities?

That’s certainly what Maali thinks. We’d all do well to acknowledge the huge role luck plays in our life, though people may refer to it by different names. Of course you welcome an outrageous fortune like the Booker, but you need to be aware that no one can keep rolling sixes, and that it’d be foolish to expect to.

Shehan Karunatilaka is the winner of the 2022 Booker Prize for his second novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. His debut novel, Chinaman (2011) won the Commonwealth Book Prize and Gratiaen Prize. Born in Sri Lanka, he studied in New Zealand and has lived in London, Amsterdam and Singapore. He currently lives in Colombo with his family, his guitars and his notes for new stories.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor

Photo credit: Dominic Sansoni.

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