The Sunday Leader

A Master Wordsmith: Romesh Gunesekera

By Raisa Wickrematunge

Romesh Gunesekera was always a voracious reader. Yet, quirkily, he says that he never realised books could be written, so he never tried to write when he was young.

Instead, he drew and enjoyed art. His urge to write came later, when he was about 15 years old- and it was something that stayed with him all his life.

Born in Sri Lanka, Romesh lived in the Philippines before moving to Liverpool a few years before university. (He graduated from the University of Liverpool with a degree in English and Philosophy). He says the extraordinary life in the city had a lasting impact on every aspect of his life as much as being a student there did. “University courses in those days were probably looser in structure and as a result perhaps one discovered more for oneself,” he said.

Romesh’s first work was published in 1992 – Monkfish Moon, a collection of short stories. “In Monkfish Moon I tried to map out Sri Lanka in its contemporary form, and that included touching on the conflicts that had affected the country,” Romesh explained. As such, Romesh tried to write stories that brought the real into the realm of the imagination, he said. The violence of the time period he wrote about naturally forced itself into the stories he created. The result was a book in which silence brought fear, and anything built up could be cut down in moments. The book struck a chord with critics – Monkfish Moon was named as a ‘Notable book’ by the New York Times in 1993.

But it was Romesh’s first novel Reef that really propelled him into the spotlight. Romesh had always planned to move on to a novel after short stories. ‘I thought that was the natural thing to do. First you learn how to write a good short story, then you might be ready to tackle a novel,’ he explained. He had not originally planned to set Reef in Sri Lanka, but the story seemed to grow of itself, organically, rooted in a time in Sri Lanka which he felt had not been written about very much – a time of slowly stirring political unrest, seen through the eyes of a young servant boy, Triton.

Romesh could have no inkling that his first novel would have such a positive reception. “I started writing with the idea that novels are slow burners. Most first novels then, and even now, find very few readers,” he said. So he was pleasantly surprised when the book received rapturous reviews across the UK and the US, and even had offers for translations within weeks.

About three months later came an announcement that exceeded Romesh’s wildest expectations- a Booker Prize nomination. “It was the best thing that could have happened,” he said. At that time, in the roughly 25 years since the Booker Prize had first been awarded, there had only ever been one other first novel that had reached the short-list. It was something that Romesh could never have foreseen or hoped for. Romesh still held a full-time job at the time he received news that his book had made the Booker shortlist. He was in a meeting with his bosses when he got the call and had to pretend like it was an unimportant matter so that he could finish the meeting.

Years later, Romesh is still writing, creating worlds. ‘Writing a novel is a time-consuming process. It is a gradual accumulation of the world around you,” Romesh explained. And yet, sometimes, he is visited by flashes of inspiration- ‘Eureka’ moments. In fact, one such Eureka moment led to Romesh’s last novel, ‘The Prisoner of Paradise’ – he was inspired to write the story the moment he saw a nineteenth century house in Mauritius (appropriately the house was also named Eureka).

Romesh spends most of his time writing, but each day is different. A few days before this interview, he was in Mauritius, launching the paperback version of ‘The Prisoner of Paradise’, following in his own created character’s footsteps. He was also recently in Kolkata hosting the University of East Anglia’s first ever creative writing workshop in India, along with writer Amit Chaudhuri. Ideally, however, he says he enjoys having a few hours to himself, working on a story in progress with a few pages to go.

Inspiration has struck in the most unexpected and diverse places – the isle of Jura in Scotland, where George Orwell wrote the dystopian novel 1984, Somerset House in London, where Charles Dickens played as a child, or simply at a friend’s house in Sri Lanka.
Currently, Romesh is working on putting together a collection of short stories which might be considered a companion to Monkfish Moon, and is working on another novel as well, though he prefers not to share further details.

Apart from writing, Romesh was selected to be a judge for Granta’s 2013 list of the Best Young British Novelists, a prestigious list produced once every 10 years – the first one featured the likes of Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

He also has ‘taken a leaf out of Triton’s life’ and enjoys cooking for other people in his spare time, and also enjoys writing poetry, something which he was able to weave into the Prisoner of Paradise. In fact, one of the poems in the book is due to be published in the Asian Literary Review.

Romesh is also involved in the charity organisation First Story. Romesh has been frequently invited to schools where students were studying Reef for their Advanced Level or International Baccalaureate examinations, and sometimes there were also inspired teachers who wanted to foster a creative spirit in their students. Romesh said these times reminded him of his days as a young student – passionate about writing, and he always wanted to do something to encourage writing in schools which didn’t have the resources. When writer Will Fiennes spoke about doing just that for state secondary schools, Romesh was keen to get involved. In fact, he was one of the first writers to get involved in First Story – he ran a weekly after-school writing workshop and produced an anthology of the children’s work at the end of the year. Today, First Story has 20 well known writers who are involved in the project in the long term – not just in London but in other cities in Britain as well.

“First Story gives kids a very special free space in which to express themselves and explore their creativity with language. Understanding ourselves and each other through language -different languages – and the space for free expression is vital for the future of any society,” Romesh said.

That is a sentiment which perfectly illustrates why Romesh chose writing not just as a hobby, but as a profession.

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