Tell us something about yourself and your writing journey so far.
Writing for me is just a hobby. I’d love it to be more but I have a few things to learn first, a few hard yards to cover. I work at a school, which is an incredibly rewarding thing to do because I’m working with ambitious young people with great futures ahead of them. As far as my writing goes, I started properly when I stopped teaching economics as it freed up more time. I wrote a couple of novels that I trashed and then started Panther and the Amazing Racist within months of each other. I sent them off to super agent, Kanishka Gupta, who found offers for them both from a number of leading publishers.
I have not read Panther. But the response is just overwhelming. What was the inspiration behind Panther and how different is it from The Amazing Racist?
Because I work at a school I feel like I have a good grasp of what goes on in the minds of young people. So I wanted to write a high school story, with funny elements, love, betrayal, gangs, jocks and geeks. That’s how it started off, and my first draft was called The Papadam King. Then I added in the war thread, because the psychology of recovering from being a child soldier fascinated me. The two threads combined, I think, created a layered story that has much more complexity than The Amazing Racist. It is a more challenging read, but also a more rewarding one, I think.
A genre that you would like to try in the future and a genre that is just not your cup of tea?
I love thrillers and whodunits. In fact my first attempts at writing were in this genre but I felt I was not coming up with tight enough plots and also that I was denying myself the chance to work to my strength, which I think is humour. Having said that, Panther does have some crime based twists in the story which I hope work.
I have never been a fan of fantasy as a reader, but in some ways I think I would like to write it as there is great freedom when things are made up from scratch. South Asia is crying out for an Indian Harry Potter!
You are based in Sri Lanka, you have British roots and you have also lived in India. What would you say your major cultural takeaways?
I think it is the greatest education. Being brought up knowing how to treat people from other countries with respect, without being too stiff, is a great gift. It also greatly helps my writing as I am able to seem original, when I am, in fact, stealing things from various different countries and cultures. I am half English, half Tibetan, my wife is Australian Sri Lankan and my daughter is all of these things. I think that is such a blessing for her.
What according to your personal experiences is the best thing about being a writer and the worst?
I love editing; the chance to go over your work to try to make it better. You don’t always get that chance in life. It is also very exciting to get published and also to receive such glowing feedback. The reviews, thus far, for Panther have been out of this world and people have even discussed making it into a movie. The downside is that having your work judged in public can be quite scary. For example, as a teacher, I never read reviews of my classes in the newspapers, thankfully. Also, having to sell myself does not sit too easy for me, but it is part of the job. I cringe when I think of how much I am promoting myself, but what to do?
Let’s talk about book covers. To be honest, I judged your first book from its cover. It was simply brilliant. I also like the cover of your next release. Is there any anecdote behind the cover design? Please share.
Hachette came up with a cover I liked, but that they felt was too literary for the book I had written. I suggested the empty wheelchair and the ashtray to hint at the story, but not to give it away. The background, I found out so much later, was painted by an 8 year old, which is astonishing. The colours make the book stand out in bookshops.
For Panther, HarperCollins wanted something which represented the story, and also showed some warmth – Prabu, the main character, exudes warmth.
Recently, Twitter gave us a trend #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter. What is your take on the same? What should one not say to a writer?
‘Can I be honest?’ If someone says that you know you’re in trouble.
‘At least you had fun writing it.’
I think the problem is everyone thinks they can write a book and always think they can write better than the author they are reading. Until you try it, you don’t know how complex it is to string together a story which is interesting and believable.
What is your daily schedule like and how do you manage to write and release two different novels and that too from two different publishers in such a short period of time?
When I am writing, which I am not at the moment, I try to write about 2000 words a day, which I find quite easy. I read back what I have written at night and see if it is good enough to keep. I edit first thing the next day and then start writing again. It is never a great challenge for me because I enjoy it and time flies when I am doing it. I wrote these two books at the same time. I would go back and forth between them – i.e. I finished a first draft of Panther, then started the Amazing Racist, then came back to edit the first one and so on. That made it more enjoyable and kept me fresher. I sold both books at the same time, so it is not like I wrote one and then quickly wrote the other.
Who are your favourite contemporary writers?
I find this the most difficult question to answer as so many of my favourite books are written by authors whose other books I don’t like as much. An easier way to phrase this for me would be, who are the authors whose next books I am most excited about. I would say Gillian Flynn, Mohsin Hamid, and ShehanKarunatilaka.
What is the best compliment that you got till date from a fan or a reader?
I think it would be a bit far-fetched to say I have fans, but one reader blasted me (in a friendly way) for making her think about Panther all the time. She said she was so affected by the story that she kept wondering what happened to the characters – as if they were real people she cared about deeply. That to me was a massive compliment.
Did you have any weird experience on your blog tours?
At one book festival, a group of school boys came running up to me for my autograph. I was flattered until they asked who I was. When I told them, they looked disappointed and snuck away.
What would be your advice for aspiring writers?
If you’re serious about it, to never give up because you just get better and better the more you read and write. Having said that, you have to be realistic about what people want to read. There has to be an audience for what you write. Listen to advice, read some books about writing, don’t be scared of chucking what you have written away. More than anything, you need to love writing or I just don’t see how it is sustainable.
Please share an excerpt from your latest release – Panther.
Mr Carter glided over the sandy outfield, more like beach than lawn. His hair, the colour of a Buddhist monk’s robes, pasted down with sweat. ‘What’s eating you, little man?’ He strode past Prabu. Extended his hand out to Coach Silva. ‘I wonder if you remember me.’
Coach Silva squeezed out of his chair. Grabbed Mr Carter’s hand in both of his. ‘Yes. Yes. Mr Carter, the Brit.’
‘Ah.’ Coach Silva adopted an accent more Chinese than Australian. ‘Put another Sheila on the barbie.’
‘Shrimp,’ Mr Carter said. ‘Never mind. Look, we have to make a change to the playing eleven.’
‘Too late, boss.’ Coach Silva caught the breath he appeared to have lost when lifting his jumbo ass off the chair. ‘Team sheet in the hands of the umpire already.’
‘Look, simply no option.’ Mr Carter shook his head, sprinkling sweat on Prabu. ‘The team changes. This champ’s a new player sent to us by the defence ministry. Freed from an IDP camp yesterday.Signed up by our school this morning.’
Coach Silva’s nose pinched towards Prabu. ‘This Tamil boy?’
‘Hang on there, chief.’ Mr Carter raised his palm. ‘Have some respect. He’s a flag bearer for internally displaced people being integrated back into society. Principal Uncle signed up for this.’
‘Team sheet’s in, tactics down,’ Coach Silva said. ‘Not a bugger’s going to tell me to change the team.’
‘BBC’s on its way to film him for the news, shown around Asia. Around the world. The boy plays. Simple as.’
Placing the back of his hand against his forehead, Coach Silva rolled his neck. ‘Once you give the team sheet to the umpire, that’s it. They’re not allowed to return it.’
‘I’ve been in this country long enough to know that money talks many languages.’ Mr Carter took out a thousand-rupee note. ‘One of them is Sinhalese.’
‘Normal times, I can make an umpire dance for a thousand. Not this one. Bugger’s so honest, even turned down a bribe from the Minister of Bribery.’
‘Ah Jeez.’ Mr Carter took his phone out. ‘Hell can we do then?’
‘Give him two thousand.’
It is always a delight to talk to Chhimi. I thank him for taking time out from his schedule. I am currently reading Panther and will share the review as soon as I am done 🙂
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