Interview: Shehan Karunatilaka

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February 6, 2012 by markstani

Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman (pub. Jonathan Cape), is a riotous, drunken tale of an ailing sports writer’s attempts to track down and uncover the legend of Pradeep Mathew, who may or may not be Sri Lankan cricket’s greatest wasted talent. Last month, it scooped the £50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Here, the author talks about the issues his book seeks to address, and the not-so-covetous price of fame. You can read the review here.

How’s life changed since you won the DSC Prize? Have you bought a speedboat, or anything like that?

Nope. Bought some books and some CDs (yes I’m one of the few who still buy music) and some strings for my bass. Now I’m back at my desk, with the curtains drawn, hammering away at the new book and sending out emails begging for freelance work. Unfortunately I live in Singapore, so 50k might last me a few weeks.

Did you meet Oprah? What would W.G. Karunasena have made of it all?

The gates of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace were locked when I came to see O. I managed to bribe my way inside and had to crouch in a thicket of bushes to peer at Her Oprah-ness. Didn’t get to meet her sadly.
WG wouldn’t have been impressed by Oprah or Rushdie. He would’ve taken the train to Calcutta to see Imran Khan. I was at the Kolkata Lit Fest at Imran’s session, which was just as surreal as Jaipur.

How did the book evolve: did you sit down first and foremost with the intention of writing a novel about cricket, or drinking, or Sri Lanka, or all three?

The novel was supposed to be about wasted talent and I was exploring the idea of a genius operating in anonymity in 80s Sri Lanka. When I realized that he had to be a cricketer and when I realized that the story had to be told by a drunk, the book truly came alive. So what started out as a light-hearted detective story about a drunk and a cricketer, ended up becoming this big(gish) statement about the Sri Lankan condition.

Is the character of Pradeep Mathew based at all on a real person, or real people: a particular lost talent, for example, or an ambidextrous kid you might have once spotted playing on a patch of waste ground?

There are a lot of threads to Pradeep’s character. Failed cricketers like Anura Ranasinghe and Richard ‘Danny Germs’ Austin. Fictional baseball anti-heroes like Roy Hobbs and Sid Finch. And yes I have played cricket with some strange talents on the streets of Colombo. But I think Pradeep’s main influence was a character called Colin McKenzie in Peter Jackson’s 1994 documentary ‘Forgotten Silver’.

Your book has a big ‘wayward genius’ feel about it, from the narrator down. Is this a trait you are particularly attracted to? True greatness, you seem to be saying, whether in sport or literature or music or whatever, comes in glimpses.

I am attracted to one-hit wonders and talents that never quite made it. In my research, I came across an essay by Ed Smith in his excellent book, ‘What Sport Means to Life’ in which he discusses the myth of talent. The idea that performance at the highest level relies more on hours spent training than on natural ability. I do think it’s true that some of those blessed with gifts tend to take them for granted and work less harder than they should.

Cricket corruption is in the news more than ever. Is it still as big a problem in Sri Lanka as your book suggests, and is it in danger of threatening the nation’s relationship with the sport?

I don’t know how much of a problem it is as all of this is cloak and dagger stuff that I’m not privy to. The stories in Chinaman are mostly made up, based on third-hand anecdotes. Though sadly, it appears that there may be more truth to them than I thought.
There are been plenty of rumours circulating, especially with ex-players making allegations, but as yet no concrete cases have come to light. Sri Lankan cricket is in the doldrums at the moment and last thing we need at this stage is a match-fixing scandal.

Clearly your novel addresses some important political and racial issues in Sri Lanka today. Are you optimistic about your country’s future? And what has been the reaction to your book back home?

I am quietly optimistic about our future. For the first time we live in a war free Sri Lanka. There are no more excuses for us to not to become the great nation that our politicians talk about.
That said, the country isn’t without its problems. Old war wounds have yet to heal and there is much discussion online about war crimes, displaced civilians, the murder of journalists and widespread nepotism and corruption.
There’s a lot of work to be done and I think the next 10 years will be the most important in our history.
Reaction to the book has been very kind and overwhelmingly positive. No disgruntled cricketers or politicians declaring fatwas on me so far.

What’s next, literary-speaking?

Have begun a new book, also set in Sri Lanka, but steering clear of old men, drunks and sport. Am still in the early stages so could take a couple of years. But am looking forward to moving back to Sri Lanka and getting stuck in.

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4 thoughts on “Interview: Shehan Karunatilaka

  1. Brilliant!! Do you think like last year's winner HM Naqvi, Shehan might also get publishing deals after the award?

  2. Mark says:

    If he doesn't get a publishing deal after that, the rest of us wannabe authors may as well give up now!

  3. Great interview thoughtful & funny.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great book, very funny and moving.

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