The dead are all around us. Off the cleared path, Shehan Karunatilaka gingerly picks his way through the graves at the Borella cemetery. We’re keeping a wary eye out for snakes and spirits in the undergrowth but neither make an appearance. Shehan doesn’t seem keen on encountering either - he’s only here for the stories the ground staff can tell him. Having returned to Sri Lanka for a month, Shehan has begun researching the subject of his new novel. The pages of his orange notebook are covered in a patchwork of scrawled lines in Sinhala and English - evidence that he’s made progress. Still, he filled seven of these notebooks before he was ready to write ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’ and the Gratiaen Prize winning author says he expects his new novel will demand even more study.
“If the first one was based around Moratuwa, Colombo and Kandy, this one is a little more expansive. It moves out to the rest of the country,” he says. Exactly what he is looking for in these places though, Shehan is keeping close to his chest. He concedes that the book will include supernatural elements, and then seems to regret having said even that much. It’s a lesson he learnt with his first, doomed novel ‘The Painter’. He wrote it with little preparation and then promptly buried it - treating it as if it were an exercise in how not to write a novel. “With my first book, I talked to everyone. I did more talking than I did writing. With the second, I told people it was about cricket, and that was all...After it’s done, that’s when you should talk about it,” he says. Plus, Shehan harbours a superstitious streak – it’s an unlucky thing, discussing a book before it’s complete, he says, in earnest.
It’s tough to argue with his methods when ‘Chinaman’ is being counted among the most promising literary debuts to be made by a South Asian author in recent years. Having been picked up by Random House India, the book was also published by Jonathan Cape UK. In the transition, it lost a significant amount of weight. The Indian edition is tall, svelte and yellow and Shehan says the book is so much the better for its missing pages. “I always thought it was too long...I was just waiting to have someone say this is what you have to do to fix it.” That person turned out to be Chiki Sarkar from Random House. Her focus was on making the book comprehensible even to an audience that knew nothing of the island.
Shehan was relieved to finally find a publisher, but says if he knew he was going to get a publishing deal he would have stuck around in Sri Lanka. Instead, in 2009, he moved to Singapore with his wife Eranga to work as the Creative Group Head at Iris. “That was a huge change from sitting in my sarong and writing every day.” After nearly a year and a half there, Shehan believes he’s done his penance and is finally ready to get back to writing. But even before he can put pen to paper, the fun has begun, says the author. He has a game plan and it’s simple: keep “collecting stuff” till October and turn out a first draft or at least a few sample chapters by the end of the year. “If it’s working, if it’s making sense, I’ll get full on into the writing next year.”
Though the first draft will necessarily be written in Singapore, Shehan knows he’ll have to come home often. Sri Lanka remains his literary home, its culture and mythology offering a rich, nearly unmined vein of information. So much so, that the author has his next seven books mapped out. “I can’t imagine ever telling a story based outside Sri Lanka – there are so many waiting to be told here,” he says, adding, “It amazes me that people who are writing here are writing stories set in Boston or in Canada...Sri Lanka is the place to write about.” Still he feels he needs to be “on the ground to do so.” Consequently, he leaves his aunt’s house in Orchard Road (where ‘Chinaman’ was written) to travel often, intent on “reacquainting” himself with the landscape. Everywhere he goes, he takes a notebook. “I lost my phone on this trip but if I had lost my notebook I would have been devastated. It has two years worth of notes,” he says, revealing that paranoia sometimes has him photocopying entire notebooks. Next, he’ll create a wall of notes for easy reference. “Once you have a full wall then you start writing,” he says.
As he speaks, a miniature silver sword gleams in one earlobe and a diamond stud twinkles on his nostril. Pinching his left eyebrow, Shehan says he’s considering a third piercing there. It’s a look well suited to his alter ego – he still plays the bass and misses having a band around him. He’s considering hijacking some 19-year-olds and brainwashing them until they want to play his kind of music. At 36, Shehan says he’s becoming set in his preferences.
Luckily, one of them is for travel. He’s been invited to Cape Town and to the Ubud Writers’ Festival in Indonesia this year. He’ll also be going back to India, where he was last seen at the Jaipur Literary Festival. He’s ready to put in the time. “I want the book to be famous, just so I can write another one.” Still, he keeps a low profile at these events – “I hang out with the nobodies like myself,” he says wryly. In the meanwhile, back in Sri Lanka, this is the most fun he’s had in a long time. “I just love the whole process of not having to go to office and just waking up and writing. It’s the thought of that that’s kept me going through these one and half years.”