INTERVIEW: ‘TO WRITE A GOOD BOOK, YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED TO START AGAIN’ — SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA

Published March 5, 2023
Shehan Karunatilaka discussing his Booker Prize-winning book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, with Moni Mohsin at the Lahore Literary Festival
Shehan Karunatilaka discussing his Booker Prize-winning book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, with Moni Mohsin at the Lahore Literary Festival

How do you feel about the attention you’re garnering after your win?

I like it, but now I am at the end of it. You know, we are not talkers, we are writers. We want to go somewhere and write quietly. I’ve got a new book that I am excited about so I just want to write more.

Pakistani readers might relate to many elements in your book, such as enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and the involvement of both state and non-state actors in violence. Did you anticipate resonating with people beyond your own country?

No, you don’t anticipate that. After my first novel, 2010’s Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, I took a long time writing The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida [originally published in 2020 by Penguin India as Chats with the Dead]. While writing, you don’t think about what the world is going to think. I wanted to write a murder mystery which any reader could appreciate and used 1989 Sri Lanka as my canvas.

But the experience is certainly of the Subcontinent. We have a lot of similarities with Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India in what you’ve just described: extrajudicial killings, dead bodies turning up. I knew that, at least in South Asia, this is the story and, if done correctly, people will be able to see their own societies reflected in it. I was mainly writing a South Asian dystopia and we have so many dystopias in South Asia.

I think of myself as a genre novelist — detective stories, murder mysteries. The story has to be good, otherwise if you’re just preaching about politics then you may as well write non-fiction. But of course, using Sri Lanka’s history, there are so many unsolved murders and untold stories. It all happens in the Subcontinent. We have a lot of great writing coming out of Pakistan, and I know there are a lot of untold stories that are the same as those of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan novelist Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2022 Booker Prize for his novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, about a murdered photojournalist whose spirit tries to communicate with his living friends in an attempt to solve the mystery of his own death. Eos chats with the celebrated novelist — in Pakistan for the Lahore Literary Festival — to know how he feels after winning the coveted prize, how a story evolves and how his own writing process works

Did the plot change as you wrote? Sometimes, as characters develop, they take the novel away from what the writer intended. Does the end result of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida match what you started with?

My first plot was very different. It was set around the time of the [2004] tsunami, with 10 people on a bus and, one by one, each has an accident. It was a ghost story, but the draft didn’t work, so I threw it away. But there was a ghost on the bus: Maali Almeida. I said to myself, okay, let’s forget all other nonsense and just talk about this ghost.

The story evolved so many times. I wrote maybe 200 or 300 pages, then deleted and started all over again about four times. The plot changed. The ghosts and the rules of the afterlife, all that did not come at once. It came very slowly. How do ghosts interact with each other? How do they interact with humans? What do the seven moons mean? There were a lot of things I had to research and rewrite. The book went its own way.

That’s the good thing about writing — you write every day and the characters decide their own way. The magic did happen, but it happened over seven years. Each time the draft failed, I saw what went wrong. To write a good book, you need to be prepared to start again.

When Mohammed Hanif’s novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes was translated into Urdu, it was confiscated by the authorities. Your book mentions real people and doesn’t spare anyone involved in the violence of the 1980s. How did Sri Lankan authorities react?

When the Booker happened, there was a lot of euphoria and celebration, but now people have had time to read the book and respond to it. I look online — not at the reviews, but at the comments, to see what people are saying about it. But the events happened so long ago. Had I been writing about 2009, or 2019, or 2022, it might have been a bit more controversial.

Secondly, the political analysis in my book is not very deep. I just identified the factions and the players and the main character, Maali, says they’re all bad. Also, this is not something I was making up. This is accepted history. People know 1983 and 1989. There is a small minority of trolls who ask ‘why are you portraying Sri Lanka as a barbaric killing field, writers [only do that to] show it to the West. That’s how you win prizes.’ Such talk always happens. There is no one to defend, everyone [from 1989] is dead. [Laughs]

One review described the story as magical realism. Do you agree?

No one can tell what’s magical realism or fantasy. Magical realism is almost like, you can have a dragon, but if it’s just a normal fire-breathing dragon, it’s fantasy. But if the dragon is a Marxist, it’s magical realism. It’s a bit strange.

I like magical realism because it gets you mentioned along with names such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and there is a great tradition of literary magical realism. But I did not think of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida in that way. Again, back to genre, it’s a murder mystery and a ghost story. We have had ghost stories long before magical realism, through folklore. I was just thinking in those terms. Of course, I had to imagine what the afterlife looked like and what dead people do. I suppose it all goes into the supernatural, whether its magical realism or fantasy or supernatural horror story. I was not really thinking that I was writing in the tradition of Marquez.

One character, the Dead Priest, explains through sexual imagery, how foreign forces — the Portuguese, the British, Indians — exploited Sri Lanka. That’s quite postcolonial.

The Dead Priest, or the Mahakali, says it himself that we’ve messed everything up ourselves. It’s true that there were international interests, but he says “we are to be blamed” and I can’t disagree with that.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Sri Lanka — then known as Ceylon — was a place of great potential. Now look. Even after the end of civil war in 2009, there was investment and there was a lot of optimism, especially among the new generation. Ten years later, we were bankrupt. This idea of trying to blame the British for dividing or conquering us is not right. We divide and conquer ourselves. We just celebrated 75 years of independence on February 4 and it’s very ironic. How are we independent when we’re in debt to everyone? We have creditors. Other countries own vast parts of us. Are we, in fact, independent? Sri Lanka’s wounds are mostly self-inflicted. The outside interests may be taking advantage of that.

How do fiction and reality blend? How much research do you put into your work?

I do a lot of research for my books. I spend a third of the time [spent producing a book], maybe a year, on research. With my first book, Chinaman, I researched all the cricket matches and then used that as a canvas on which to plant a story that’s not completely invented. It almost seems like it could have happened.

For The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida I read about 1989, about different political factions and unsolved murders. I had a vague memory of it myself. All the ghosts in the story are based on real unsolved murder cases. I watched horror films. I read ghost stories, religious texts, philosophy, near-death experiences. Sri Lankan folklore has it that, after death, a spirit hovers around from seven to 90 days before going to the next stage. It worked for the story, so I used it.

I like mixing real events with fiction, making readers wonder ‘Did that match actually happen?’ or ‘Did that massacre actually happen?’ I don’t know how the next book will turn out, but I do a lot of research. The situation and stories come from my notes, and then I fictionalise it all.

The interviewer is a member of staff based in Lahore.
He tweets @IrfaanAslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 5th, 2023

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