L ast year’s Booker Prize ceremony - the first in-person ceremony since the pandemic hit - saw an unlikely figure take the stage. And no, it wasn’t the chart-topping popstar Dua Lipa, or then Queen-Consort Camilla Parker-Bowles, though they made an appearance too, but someone much closer to home. Shehan Karunatilaka, literary rockstar of Sri Lanka, won the prize for his second novel, ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, a supernatural satire about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In doing so, he became one of a handful of South Asians to win the Booker in the prize’s 55-year history, and delivered a speech in Sinhalese for his countrymen.

To South Asians and other cricket loving nations in the world, he was already familiar because of his debut novel ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’, which was declared the second-best cricket book of all time by Wisden. But to the rest of the world, he was relatively unknown. From struggling to even find an international publisher for his second novel, because the subject matter was considered too esoteric for a Western audience, to winning one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, it has been quite the journey.

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In a way, the prize-winning novel is quintessentially The Great Sri Lankan Novel: epic in its scope, with a bevy of characters from all walks of life as well as political and ethnic identity, it mixes tropes from thrillers, crime fiction and magical realism. In the novel, the bleakness and dry wit of Heller’s iconic ‘Catch-22’ meets the zany characterisation and specificity of Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children. It is about the life, death and afterlife of its eponymous narrator, Maali Almeida, who introduces himself as “Photographer. Gambler. Slut.” A hustler and a cynic during his life on earth, who worked with all sides during the war and antagonized many, he now has seven moons (or nights) to figure out who killed him and why. The Booker committee said the novel "fizzes with energy, imagery and ideas against a broad, surreal vision of the Sri Lankan civil wars."

I met with him earlier this year at the Lahore Literary Festival, a few short months after his big win, to talk about craft, inspiration, and the joys and tribulations of literary fame.

HA: You write a lot of characters who are smooth talkers, drunks, gamblers; people who tend to be a little smarmy, a little tricksy. They say you write what you know. So is this the kind of character you relate to, or resonate with?

SK: I guess it must be, no? Because the book doesn’t exist till I have a good voice. For example, I'm writing my third book right now. I have lots of ideas for it, but I don’t have a narrative voice yet. I’m sure it’ll come, but with my first novel, ‘Chinaman’, I tried writing a straight biography first. I was writing a simple third person biography of Pradeep Mathew, and I used a technique where I was interviewing different characters who had met Pradeep, and the one that really resonated was W.G, the drunkard journalist. With that voice I felt I could stretch the truth, tell stories. And I guess you go where your sensibility is. With my second novel, there are many ghosts I could’ve made the narrator, but here was this guy who has seen everything, was jaded and still had a sense of humor about it. So yeah, I’m attracted to characters like that. Because one can get away with talking about sad topics, but with a bit of smirk and a twinkle in the eye.

HA: When we think of South Asian literature, unreliable narrators and magical realism, we think of Rushdie. How do you feel about that comparison?

SK: Oh I'm obviously flattered by it! Because it is his book that opened doors for all of us, showed us we could write in our own voice. There are Sri Lankan writers I admire as well, such as Romesh Gunesekaera, Ondaatje, and Shyam Selvadurai who are very elegant writers. And there have been so many great South Asian writers to draw from, from Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’, to Mohammed Hanif’s ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’. They are all writing in their own, distinct voices and that is quite inspiring. But it was Midnight’s Children that paved the way. We all owe a lot to Uncle Salman.

To tell a story from a drunk uncle’s point of view was interesting for me, because I hadn’t seen that done quite in the way I was planning to do it.

HA: In terms of the narrative voice, one of the things I really admire about Seven Moons was that there’s no italicisation of Sinhalese and Tamil words. Even when you’re drawing from local mythologies, you’re not over explaining; these are things that have seemingly slipped into the narrative. Is this something you did consciously and if so, was it difficult to make sure that it made it that way to the final draft?

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SK: I did consciously do that. For instance, when Random House India was editing ‘Chinaman’, they tried to change the narrator W.G’s language, his syntax, and that’s when I pushed back. Because the way Sri Lankans talk may not always be grammatically correct, but it’s the natural way for us. For example, nobody says “Would you like to have a drink?”Instead, they say “Let’s put a drink” or “Let’s put a shot”. So I wanted to keep the rhythms of the narrative voice.

Also, yes, I was using Sinhalese words, Tamil words, using slang, using turns of phrases and all that. I didn’t want to have explanatory notes because then it’s evident that you’re pandering. And also it’s no fun in the narrative if, for example, a guy is having a kottu roti and a shot of arrak, I put in a footnote saying kottu roti is mashed up bread with curry. Then the story reads like a travel guide. So you write your story how it should be told. A Western reader may not know what aday, aiyo, ammo is, but they will get it from the context. We grew up reading the great Jewish novels with Yiddish words thrown in, a lot of American novels with Spanish in them, and you were simply expected to understand. Besides, it adds a little flavor and spice. We should just write, we shouldn't be trying to explain ourselves.

HA: I really enjoy how the cadence of the dialogue is very Sri Lankan. Even when you are putting English in the mouths of characters who may not actually be speaking English, it doesn’t feel out of place, because they are still speaking in a particularly Sri Lankan vernacular or style. Do you find it limiting to write in English in those circumstances though? Do you feel that with certain characters you struggle with that, and you wonder: how do I write them in English? I’m thinking, for example, of the garbage men in Seven Moons.

SK: Yes, the garbage men will of course not be speaking in English, and likely, the cops or the driver won’t either. And I do think of that. An earlier version of this novel came out as ‘Chats with the Dead’, and then it was re-released as Seven Moons. Natania Jansz, who did all the editing and elevated the manuscript in my opinion, said to me: Your minor characters all kind of sound alike. I think you need to look at that. Maybe I was also showing my class bias, that the middle class characters are rich and nuanced, but the minor characters all seem to be painted with one brush. And in subsequent rewrites, I worked on that. So now the two cops, for example, are not quite good-cop,-bad cop, but they have slightly different morals and slightly different arcs. With the body disposal characters, you get one out and out savage butcher, but one guy who is just a thief and has no other job, and then this traumatized driver. I’m interested in these characters and in figuring out their motivations. In the earlier version of the body disposal scene, I thought of their dialogue in Sinhala and I wrote the scene in Sinhala. Then I did a crude translation to English. But after a while, they started talking in their own type of English on the page.

What I find annoying is when all the characters sound like the author. For example, I love Tarantino and all his movies, but you tend to see that in his characters; even the women talk like Tarantino.

HA: You said class bias, but don't you think it’s also class knowledge? When your characters occupy the same world you inhabit, you can differentiate your characters and add nuance and add these very rich, layered motivations. But with the kind of people that you perhaps know only peripherally in your own life, it becomes harder. Even some of the most celebrated writers in South Asia tend to struggle with this. When writing characters of a certain class, they’re either clearly overcompensating, or they’re writing really flat characters. One author I can think of who doesn’t do that is Muhammad Hanif. He writes like he really knows his characters, and I feel the same when I read you. Do you feel you have to extend yourself to inhabit those worlds that may not be as familiar to you?

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SK: If you’re writing a driver, then it doesn’t hurt to have conversations with drivers. I couldn’t talk to any body disposal professionals of course, but I’ve had interactions with cops. You use your imagination. When you write a character, it’s an act of empathy. For ‘Chinaman’, I spent a lot of time in bars talking to drunk uncles and talking to a lot of my own uncles to observe their mannerisms and speech, phrases they’d use, their relationships to their wives. With ‘Seven Moons’, I’m also borrowing from pulp traditions, these stock characters of the corrupt cop and the henchmen. Plus, these characters appear briefly, as vignettes, often featured in scenes that are almost like self-contained plays. They are certainly much better rounded in ‘Seven Moons’ than in ‘Chats with the Dead’.

Q: Speaking of the journey from ‘Chats with the Dead’ to ‘Seven Moons’, you’ve talked about how the manuscript was improved. However, were there things that you felt like you wanted to keep in the second edition but you couldn’t? Were there details that you were attached to about which you had felt: I wish that had made it?

A: No, not really. You do push back on certain things but at the end of the day you’re both on the same team. So that was the spirit in which Natanya and I were editing. We cut out a lot of Maali’s sexual encounters, even though I felt we needed to show Maali’s promiscuous nature. That’s part of Maali’s story: going to the war zone and having this secret life.

I remember ‘Chats with the Dead’ had this early scene where one of the garbage men feeds a corpse to the cats. It was a gruesome scene where he has these cages of cats that he supplies to Chinese restaurants, and because they don’t know what to do with the bodies, they feed them to the cats. It is a 20 page sequence. My editor said get rid of it. For one thing it’s so gruesome that you’re going to put off a lot of readers, but also, you take so many pages to set that up and there’s not much of a pay off. You can simply hint at it. And frankly, that advice was genius, even though I enjoyed the gruesome shock and horror of that scene. So even when I was resistant, I could always see she knew what she was doing, because with each edit the novel became better. One thing that we put in is the Jaki kidnapping plot. While she also gets kidnapped in ‘Chats with the Dead’, it’s all over very quickly and there’s no real sense of jeopardy, but in this version, Maali has to do something selfless, because the person he loves is in this horrible situation.

HA: So you’re good at killing your darlings.

SK: You have to be, yeah.

HA: I wanted to talk a little bit about your journey as a writer. You self-published ‘Chinaman’. What gave you that assurance that this is a story that needs to be told? That it needs to be out there, that I need to be the one writing it, so much so that I'll put it out there myself.

A: So as writers, we all have this foolhardy notion. Whenever you write, you waver between huge insecurity and this arrogance that this story must be told. I don’t know how useful it is to think I am the shit. It’s more like this story is the shit. I was interested in a cricket story set in Sri Lankan cricket’s golden age, and I had drunk uncles, so I was interested in that, so I thought I’m going to write this story and I'm going to write it as best as I can. It had won the Gratiaen Prize, so it had to be published within a year. So we did the self-publishing thing, got my friends together, got my wife to do the cover, and put it out there. But I always thought that it could do well in cricket loving nations, there could be appeal there. So I had faith, but it took like a year of just sending out manuscripts. I think you should just write a good book and whatever the publication struggles are, you can’t be thinking of that while you’re writing.

Q: ‘Chinaman’ did then go on to enjoy a lot of regional success. But ‘Seven Moons’ has seen the kind of global success that writers dream of. Did you ever want to be famous?

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A: Whenever I played in a band, I never had the desire to be the lead singer or the lead guitarist. I’m the bass player because I think the rhythm section is the soul of the band and you get satisfaction from playing that. So I think my mentality is bass player mentality. You want the book to be famous, you don’t want to be famous.That’s why it’s weird doing all these interviews and photoshoots. But it’ll all die down after a few months because there will be a new Booker winner.

As a writer, you do think: yeah I’d like this to be read widely. Because it’s equally hard writing an unsuccessful or a bad novel. The pact I had made with myself was that I'm just going to keep writing as best as I can. Maybe my 5th or 6th might make it big. ‘Chats with the Dead’ came out and it didn’t do that well - I mean it did okay, but I certainly didn’t think it would get a Booker nomination. I thought it’ll be another South Asian book, maybe I’d still come to Lahore for the festival, but as just another writer. So you have to realize that the fortune, the luck is temporary. I had thought to myself: if this book is bad, i’ll just write the next one. So, I'm still in that mindset. But yeah the second book has gone global and that means at least I have a career now. It just means I can write the third one. But if the third one is crap, I'm back to square one again. There have been Booker winners that you haven't heard from again. There have been cases right? Or they haven’t quite attained the heights. I can’t think the 3rd one has to win a Pulitzer or win a Nobel, you can’t think like that. So I’m happy. This has been great attention. Let’s just hope the books are better and better, and the books can be famous; it’s not necessary for me to be.

HA: I understand what you’re saying, it's a very sensible approach. But something like this does tend to be a life-changing event. In certain ways, such as financially, in terms of the attention that you’re getting, and so on. Has that fame or that kind of adulation tangibly changed your life, or your writing practice?

SK: Well, I haven’t written a thing, that's what’s happened. This morning I wrote a page. I’m not in a routine right now. Someone asked me that now that you’ve won the Booker Prize, can you take a break and rest? I’m like, why would I want a break? I’ve got another book to write, and I’ve got a book after that to write. I’m really looking forward to going back to my boring life after this. Obviously now the success means that more doors are opening but I don’t think it’s going to change my life. You've got to silence these voices. It’s not going to make writing easier, in fact it's going to make it more difficult to write.

HA: It seems you wear a lot of hats. Are you still in advertising by the way?

A: I recently finished my last assignment and I haven’t taken on any new work yet. For the last 8 years I’ve been working freelance. I kind of like having a day job. I get to do an interesting project, it’s only a couple of days a week and there’s money coming in, so then you’re not stressed out about paying the bills. I’ve done it all these years. Let’s see how life settles down after all this.

HA: You also play music and you also write for a magazine. I wanted to ask: do you feel like this prize is a sign from the universe telling you: just focus man, don’t put your fingers in too many pies?

SK: I hadn’t thought of that! Now you’re putting ideas in my head. No, because I’ve always done multiple things. And when you have five things on your to-do list, you do at least two of them. If you just have one thing on your list, it’s quite intimidating if it just says: write a novel. But if your to-do list says, write the magazine article, write a short story, write a kid’s book etc., then it helps. When I'm stuck, I kinda like it, because I can say to myself: this month, I'm just going to write a short story, and take a break from the novel. By doing that, a short story collection turned up! I was just procrastinating on the novel. It all helps, right? I’m not going to have a novel out this year, but I’ll have a few short stories, a few magazine articles, it’s not taking away from anything. So I don't mind having lots of hats on.

HA: Now that you’ve written two novels that contend with the conflict in Sri Lanka, are people treating you like you are an authority on the war?

SK: Well, I kind of shrug that off. I’m not an authority on the war any more than I'm an authority on cricket. Even with cricket, I say I know the period between ’82 to ’99 I don’t know more than that, such as who’s going to captain the team now. And it’s the same with politics. Especially because it’s a bit dirty and you end up being attacked by trolls online when you voice an opinion. The political analysis in ‘Seven Moons’ is not that sophisticated; there are these factions and it’s all messed up and I don’t go into the nuances of who was worse than who. So when I'm asked these questions, I kind of shy away from them. Of course I have political opinions but I'm not sure I want to engage in that. You can infer what I believe from my books and the narrators.

Q: When you got the Booker, the timing was interesting, because there was a lot of mass dissatisfaction with the political status quo in Sri Lanka. And politicians were sharing your win online, calling you the pride of Sri Lanka as a way to promote a positive image of the country at a time of unrest. It seemed like they wanted to appropriate that moment and use that as a way to say, look at what our country has produced, this man who won the Booker Prize. Then I saw that there was a lot of backlash from ordinary Sri Lankans saying you don’t get to claim this man and his success. So how did you feel about that? Did you say anything about that publicly?

A: I’m not on social media, I never have been. I tweet like once a year. It’s a distraction but that said, of course I still stalk people, I just don’t comment. When this happened, my Twitter and Facebook and Instagram all blew up, and I got a social media team that politely retweets or reposts articles etc, so that’s a good shield to hide behind. So when a politician says congratulations I don’t feel the need to respond. I’m kind of thankful that I haven't been invited to any politicians' homes for photo ops and all that, and I'd like to keep it that way. I don’t make any comments on social media.

HA: Best to save your writing for the books.

SK: Yes! Exactly.

HA: So I know you’ve written three children’s books, and there's two more on the way. You’ve talked about how part of the motivation is your own kids' foibles. Is there any other way having children has impacted your writing? Is the way you used to write pre-kids different from the way you write now? Do you think about your kids one day reading your work?

SK: Yeah so I thought it was a terrible idea to have children! It does slow down things. Now they’re 8 and 6. They’re more reasonable now, but they were 1 and 3, and 3 and 5 once, so that was quite challenging.

HA: So maybe that’s why it took you 10 years to write your second novel.

SK: Oh, definitely. I never would have written children’s books if I didn’t have my own. We’re big buyers of children’s books and you know how the best children’s books are so skillfully written. Surreal stuff, clever stuff, funny stuff. So I'm doing a 0 to 5 Years series. What a market, and there’s one born every minute. And then maybe we’ll do a 4 to 8 Years’ one. As my kids grow older, I might get into Young Adult fiction. It's a pain in the ass but it’s a privilege to watch a kid grow up.

HA: A lot of people in South Asia tend to access English books through piracy. How do you feel about that? Some people argue that it’s democratizing knowledge and literature, because there are so many barriers to entry, including language and cost.

SK: Look, I can’t be too righteous about piracy because in South Asia we all grew up watching pirated DVDs and downloading music illegally. Now I’ve got Spotify and Netflix and Apple Music and Mubi, so I guess I'm paying my dues. ‘Seven Moons’ was pdf’d as soon as it won the Booker. So my publisher and I put out a statement appealing to everyone’s decency, but you really can’t stop it. My hope is that there will be enough book lovers out there that will buy the book.

They say if it’s got to the stage where it is being pirated, it means the book has done well. You can look at it that way.

Hira Azmat is a writer, editor, and a Pushcart Prize nominated poet. She has been working in the cultural industries in Pakistan for the last 12 years, as a curator of cultural spaces, and an international arts manager. She is interested in arts and culture, movements and subcultures, literature and good design. She is the Features Editor at Dunya Digital, and can be reached at [email protected].

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