BOOK CHEWING: An Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, author of CHINAMAN

Chinaman is so far my favourite read of 2012. It still puts a smile on my face whenever I think about it and it’s a book I’m desperate to share with as many people as possible. Yes it is a novel with cricket in it but it is not a novel about cricket.  It is about Sri Lanka and its people, its history and the politics that have plagued the country and almost torn it apart. It is about fathers and sons, myths and legends and friends and family. It is immensely funny and fascinating and may possibly break your heart, it did mine. And you don’t even have to like cricket or understand the game to enjoy it (this is proven as I gave it to my Mum who knows NOTHING about cricket and she loved it). Read my blog review here.

I was lucky enough to ask the author, Shehan Karunatilaka, a few questions about his book which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and recently was the Asia Regional Winner for this year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize.

What inspired you to write Chinaman?
Lots of different threads from lots of different dresses. I read Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and wondered if anyone had done a cricket version of it. I watched Peter Jackson’s ’94 mockumentary Forgotten Silver and thought of ways to adapt it to Colombo
But mainly I would say the idea sprung out of my adolescent fantasises of bowling left-arm spin for Sri Lanka and from watching two drunken uncles at a wedding having a punch-up.
I struggled to think of other great cricket novels. Were there any that inspired you?
Cricket’s made an appearance in novels by Dickens, Wodehouse, LP Hartley, Dorothy Sayers, Douglas Adams and, more recently, Joseph O’Neill and Romesh Gunasekera.
But I couldn’t find a novel that used the sport to tell this kind of story. I took that as a good omen. I found inspiration in baseball novels like The Natural and The Curious Case of Sidd Finch and of couse in the wealth of cricket non-fiction as mentioned here. <>
Cricket plays a major part in Sri Lankan life, why do you think that is?
It’s strange, because it’s quite an expensive sport, you’d think soccer would be more suited to our environment. But it’s the only thing we’ve proved to be world class at in 60 years of independence.
Perhaps its because Sri Lankan cricket is born on streets, beaches and hills that we have such a creative and idiosyncratic approach to the game. Maybe it owes something to Buddhist meditation. Maybe we just like standing around waiting for something to happen. I have no idea.
How big a fan of Cricket are you?
Very much a casual fan. If you’re Sri Lankan who lived through ’96, you can’t help but be swept away in what was a genuine fairytale for a poor, war-torn nation. But I stopped watching in the 2000s, when Aussie started winning everything. Even these days, aside from the odd test series, I don’t tune in.
But between 2007-2009 I had to become a cricket obsessive in order to write about one. It was a lot of fun, but I left it behind as soon as I was done.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
The research is what kept me interested in the book. It involved watching cricket matches, downloading stats, interviewing ex-players and hanging out in bars with drunks. Didn’t feel like work.
By the end of the novel I was almost convinced Pradeep Matthew was a real player. Did you have fun blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction?
For sure. There’s lots of in-jokes if you know your Sri Lankan cricket. I wish I had the guts to go the whole hog and have a hoax legal battle between me and Pradeep’s lawyers as a publicity stunt.
Or publish as non-fiction like James Frey. At least he got to go on Oprah. Sadly I chickened out and kept the mythmaking between the pages.
What was your favourite part of the book to write? What was the most difficult?
WG’s voice just leapt off the keyboard after a while and I loved following his digressions. His cricket theories, ramblings, drunken antics and struggle with the bottle wrote themselves.
The bits I had to work harder were the political subplots involving conspiracy theories. I really had to do my homework. The opening and the end were drafted many times, but those are always hard.
The book is littered throughout with facts, figures and diagrams about the game and its rules why did you choose to included these and did you draw them?
My talented brother Lalith did the drawings. He’s a bit of a cricket nerd and served as something of a consultant. My wonderful friends at JWT and McCann Colombo helped with the photographs.
I included the diagrams to avoid spending several pages explaining an arm ball. The photos are there because one of them contains a clue to the ending.
What did winning the DSC Prize mean for you and mean for the book?
Prizes mean I get more press and a bit of money in the bank. Which are both wonderful things. But in terms of day-to-day, I’m still back at the desk grinding out a second book, which I would be doing anyway regardless of prizes.
It does mean that the book gets a longer shelf life, for which I’m very grateful. It’s been a slow burn and I think this is a bit of a word of mouth book. So prizes keep the book alive, which is of course a good thing.
Chinaman is about to be published in the US (as The Legend of Pradeep Matthew) what is it like to see your book published all around the world?
It’s pretty mindblowing. I wrote the book for a Sri Lankan audience, I did think in my wildest dreams that it could make it to India. But I never thought I’d be in Seattle or San Francisco talking about it.
A cricket book will be a tough sell for the US, but I’m just happy to make the trip.
Do you think there is an untapped readership for fiction from Southern Asia?
 I don’t know if it’s untapped. Ever since Midnight’s Children there’s been a steady supply of brilliant South Asian writers and a growing readership. There are a lot of South Asians who’ve grown up in the west and are curious about their parent’s homeland.
But I think ultimately there’s a market for good stories and South Asia is certainly filled with plenty of those and now equally good writers to tell them.
What other writers have inspired you?
Kurt Vonnegut was a huge inspiration for WG’s voice. That curmudgeonly tone that can be bleak and wise and absurd and laugh out loud funny within the same sentence is marvelous. William Goldman, who’s more famous as a screenwriter, is a pretty fine novelist and essayist and I’ve often mimicked his style. But in terms of plot and concept, I’m in awe of Ira Levin, who didn’t write many books, but each one was a classic of its genre.
What have you been reading lately?
Like most, I have several books going at once. A fun book, a literary book (these can be fun too sometimes), a graphic novel, some shorts stories and some non-fiction.
So at the moment it’s the Exorcist by William Peter Blatty (fun and slightly literary), An Equal Music by Vikram Seth (literary and fun), Neonomicon by Alan Moore, Tales of Ordinary Madness – Charles Bukowski and How to be a Mentalist by Simon Winthrop.

2 thoughts on “BOOK CHEWING: An Interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, author of CHINAMAN

  1. This book is superb ! loved it ! Shehan has really done a great job after a lot of hard work …keeps you reading on till the last page !

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