Sandglass: flirting with death
By Afdhel Aziz
"I'm a deeply melancholic optimist," is one of the things Romesh Gunasekera said during his animated and fascinating talk at the British Council last week. It kind of sums him up perfectly for me. The last time we met was a couple of years ago, when I was a struggling student and he was the author of the moment, with Reef's Booker Prize nomination.
He still found the time to let me interview him, and waited patiently in a McDonalds' while I rushed to make our appointment.
When I see him today , he looks more relaxed and convivial. Perhaps doing innumerable press tours and interviews to promote his books has given him a kind of professional joie de vivre. Or it could be because he's away from the cold, grey climes of his adopted home and here in warm Sri Lanka. Whatever the case he looks less restrained , sporting a rather fetching pink shirt and shoulder length hair.
Romesh, it looks like you haven't had a haircut since we last met
I had it cut just before I came here !
How are you coping with the media frenzy on your arrival ?
(While we talk, there are camera crews, other journalists and people from bookstores hovering around waiting for him)
It's actually died down a lot - but there are still translations of the book coming out in French, Italian, Norwegian. I'm on my way to the Philippines for a University conference there and I grabbed the chance to spend a couple of days in Sri Lanka.
Has it changed much?
I don't know. I still haven't seen enough of it to know ! I'm just taking it all in, it's been a couple of years.
Visiting any special haunts ?
Since the next book is about death, probably the cemetery !
You've got a morbid frame of mind!..
You were the one who talked about haunting!!..
What's it like being able to write full time ? Was it like bye bye job ,nice knowing you ?
Life isn't that simple. But I realised I needed time to write my next book and also handle the paraphernalia that comes with it .It's great fun..but a bit anxious. It feels like I've been waiting a long time just to write full time, to write in a different rhythm and to have the time to do it. One of the things I did was sit down and reply all the letters I've left lying around for the past four years. Whether I should have is a different matter.The pace changes…. But where I thought I had all the time in the world, it never seems to be enough.
Work expands to fill the time allotted to it ?
That sort of thing..I was telling someone earlier there is writing as in the actual writing of the books, and the writing that is living life.
How about your new book ?
I'm in the last stages of it, and the title still hasn't been decided on.. The last book "Reef" was a "what am I doing here" kind of book, and so it occured to me the next question should be, given the shortness of life, "how do you know what you're going to do?" It's set in Sri Lanka and Britain, like the previous books, but the balance is different.
Does it have an immigrant perspective like Hanif Kureishi?
Well, the character does tend to straddle both worlds. It's not the same protagonist or perspective as "Reef", it's got a different kind of flavour. I hope it's fun but it deals with someone dying in London .
Unexpectedly dying ?
No, not the kind of thing they expect, but dying of old age.
You're being very tantalising aren't you ?
I hope so ! I'm looking forward to it coming out - it's got a bit of love and a bit of murder in it. While "Reef" was about ordinary people , this is about extraordinary people having fun.
What are you calling it, what's your working title ?
I don't know if I should tell you. Oh, alright the working title is "The Sandglass" - as in hourglass
It's got the right resonances of time and dying I guess.
Hmmm..also some of the marine analogies of “Reef”.
Has there been anything happening with the film and television rights of "Reef" ?
Yes, there has been some interest.
Who would you cast in it, if you had the chance ?
I don't like to speculate on things like that.
Is it because of "kata vaha"?
Why did you choose to write another novel and not a book of short stories ?
Because I like the idea of novels. I like the idea of having a relationship with a novel.
A love-hate relationship ?
Not hate, you can't have that because it spoils the book. You can have difficulty though .
Like marriage ?
More like dealing with a child I think. You grow as much as it grows. It's a way of seeing the world, a way of handling reality.
Ever considered branching out into other aspects of literature ? Poems, plays, screenplays ?
I've written some poems..I think "Reef" had a poem in it. I will get back to them. I've done occasional bouts of travel writing for magazines, and I was doing something for TV but I didn't have the time. I like the freedom of prose fiction…..but screenplays and plays are something I would like to do.
Let me play devil's advocate for a second and ask you what’ll happen if your next book backfires?
I'll write another one. It's a great luxury to be a writer in any country but it's an option I've taken. Of course I might be in a completely different job three months down the line. It's not cut and dry When did we meet last ? About two years ago ? Back then people were asking me the same question: how did you manage to find the time to write a book while working ? Ever since I started writing full time they all ask me "Do you need all that time to write?" Amazing. For me writing is an urgent business.
Creeping mortality kind of urgency?
No, there are some writers whose work is of supreme importance to their life and it's like every sentence I write keeps me alive.
I've often thought that the two things writers are afraid of are aridity and death. The fear of your flow of words drying up before you die, or of dying before you get everything in your head on paper.
It's the idea that every word you write could be your last, and by extension every book could be your last, so you have to put everything of yourself in it.
So how do you know when your ideas will dry up ?
It goes back to the idea of a relationship you have with a book, where you keep trying to bring the freshness back in different things. But I'm not keen on newness for newness sake. A striking image isn't enough, the thing has to be an organic whole.
How about the other aspects of your life ?
You mean there's another aspect to life than writing ?! Life is OK. Life goes on. You know me, I’m very evasive. But life is good.