Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome Romesh Gunesekera: a booker-finalist author with an illustrious writing career spanning decades, and a very kind, insightful teacher.
I’ll be giving away a signed copy of Romesh Gunesekera’s Monkfish Moon, (a slim, but as remarkable a book as I’ve ever read) collection of short stories. I’m re-reading it after a span of years, and find the prose almost hypnotic in its efficacy and beauty.
1. At what age did you start writing fiction? What prompted you?
As a child, I enjoyed escaping into books. The idea that someone wrote them was not important to me. Even when I became aware of authors behind books, I didn’t appreciate that they were among the living. I was probably about fourteen when I realized that some people spent their time writing stories and turning them into books and that these people were writers. As soon as I discovered that, I wanted to be one.
2. What are your preoccupations as a writer? Do you have an ideal reader in mind as you write?
When I first started writing, it was mostly for myself and a few close friends. I wanted to put what I felt into words and communicate through a written language. When publishing became a goal, I was still writing mainly for someone like me: a reader seeking both distraction and meaning from a page.
3. For someone new to your work, which of your works should they read first?
I don’t think it matters. Whatever they find first, or appeals most. Hopefully it will be love at first sight. If not, find another. I try to write books that can be approached from different angles, but here is a simplified guide, if you need one.
If you like short stories, start with Monkfish Moon.
If you want a short novel, try Reef.
If historical fiction is your thing, then The Prisoner of Paradise might be the one.
For those keen on speculative fiction, and dystopia: Heaven’s Edge.
Cricket fans, and maybe photographers, should give The Match a go.
Family drama: The Sandglass.
For a glimpse of post-war Sri Lanka try the most recent: Noontide Toll.
4. Who are your writing influences, the authors whose work has inspired you?
Everything you read influences you. Sometimes even the books and authors you don’t read, but hear about, influence you. Some of my biggest influences might surprise those who might have read my books and liked them, as the influence may not be obvious and there may not be much of a trace in the writing e.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, V S Naipaul, Graham Greene among novelists; Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Coleridge, Keats, Walcott, Ginsberg among poets. Shakespeare, of course, influences everyone. The list can go on and on.
5. From the vantage point of decades of experience, what advice would you give to someone starting out on the writing life?
Find your special pleasure in writing and try to return to it. There isn’t a fast track, or a slow track; only your own track.
6. What is your writing routine like?
It varies by book and by year. Nothing stands still. At the moment, mornings are better for writing than evenings. But there was a time when it was the other way around. The routine also varies at different stages in a story. Little and often is good to begin with, but at some point it becomes almost all consuming and everything else gets relegated. I try to establish a routine for each book otherwise it will not get written. But the discipline is also important to allow yourself to live the rest of daily life.
7. As a writing teacher, what qualities do you appreciate in your students? Where are you teaching next?
I would hope for the same qualities one finds in good readers: (a) An open mind (b) A sense of humour (c) An interest in the imagination (d) An engagement with language (e) Respect for others. A student also needs to have a willingness to share opinions and the products of their writing.
I am teaching a fiction module for the MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London from January to March 2017.
Later in the year (30 Oct – 4 Nov 2017) I will teaching on a one-week residential course at Moniack Mohr, the writing center in Scotland, focusing on the short story. My co-tutor will be Michele Roberts.
8. You write both short stories and novels. Do you find either form more challenging than the other?
They are both equally challenging, but they work to different rhythm and offer different pleasures — once you get over the hurdles. I often find the one I am involved in too challenging and yearn for the other.
9. Your books are very character and language driven. Do you begin writing a book knowing some of the events in it in advance, or do you discover them as you write?
The answer is not clear cut. I begin thinking I know some of the key events but I discover how little I know as I go. Everything is there to be discovered: the events, the characters, the beginning, the end. Just as well too … Part of the joy is in discovering a more interesting character than you had first imagined and then finding the language you need to handle the situation.
10. Could you tell us more about your forthcoming publications?
There are many things in the pipeline — stories, novels, poems — as always, but I don’t know how long the pipeline is at the moment. Keep an eye on my website or Facebook, and you might know even before I do.
Are you a reader, a writer, or both? Have you read any of Romesh’s books before? Do you read more short stories or novels? What is the ‘special pleasure’ you take in your writing?
As a reader or writer, do you have questions for Romesh Gunesekera? He has very kindly offered to respond to comments. From his workshop I know him to be a very thoughtful answer-er of questions. I asked him a fair number at his workshop. Please ask yours!
Using a random number generator, I’m going to give away a signed copy of Monkfish Moon to one of the commenters on this post, so have at it!
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Fascinating interview. 🙂
I haven’t read any of his books, but the stories sound interesting.
Great interview. Romesh is definitely a prolific writer from what I gather from here. He has written across many genres!
Wow! Like always Damyanti, this was a great interview. So true that writing style changes at each phase and it’s okay that way. Loved reading about Romesh.
Where do you see yourself in years to come?
Now, as you are not only a writer or a teacher, but also source of inspiration of many, so isn’t this feeling exhilarating in itself! What will you advice the forthcoming writers, and where do you see the boat of literature world going? Which genre, you think, will be more read and appreciated in the years to come?
Waiting for your replies.
I’m intrigued to be introduced to a writer that I didn’t know before any one of whose books I can’t wait to get my hands on.
My question to Romesh would be one that I’m struggling with. As a writer who has a job as a teacher I find it hard to switch off when I’m writing. In the sense that once I start writing I don’t want to stop – to get to bed to wake up in time to catch the school bus – and therefore I sometimes never get started at all, thinking of how annoying it is to stop. I have tried to overcome that this January and am happy to be writing again – but it really is so difficult, specially when you are consumed with the story. Or – you realise that you have this brilliant idea and haven’t had the time to put it down for ten days and soon it may be gone. Basically I want to know how to be more disciplined.
I love character-driven books, so I now have another author to put on my ever-lengthening list, thanks to this wonderful interview. Thanks.
(Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
– ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
“It takes a village to educate a world!”
I always enjoy an insight into the author’s mind. I love to read about his writing process and interestingly it is never the same for two of them. However the one common thing is discipline. I wonder though does the author write more for himself or for the reader? Does he try to meet the reader’s expectations? Does he even have a specific kind of reader in mind?
Enlightening interview, Damyanti!
I realise this is an unfair question, asking one author about another, but I wondered if Romesh had read Paul M M Cooper’s ‘River of Ink’ a novel based in Sri Lankan history and myth written by a young British writer. It seemed the author had managed to absorb himself in Sri Lankan culture in a short space of time.
I enjoyed reading this post, Damyanti. You have introduced me to a new author and have triggered my curiosity. I am going to have to check out Mr. Gunesekera’s books. I love character driven books.
Michelle, I’m pleased to tell you that the random generator has picked your name. Will message you for your address!
How exciting. Thank you.
Its fun writing stories. I wrote a star trek adventure on my blog titled Northern Star Trails Park Algonquin. Youll have to search for it in the short range scanner.
Hi Damyanti and Romesh … definitely added Romesh to my wish list of authors to read. I like the idea of your range of stories – short and longer – that give you a flavour as a writer to pursue, or us as readers choices along your authorship path.
While writing and finding your voice as you express: Find your special pleasure in writing and try to return to it. There isn’t a fast track, or a slow track; only your own track. – makes total sense to me … fascinating interview – encouraging to read. Cheers to you both – Hilary
Warm greetings, Damyanti and Romesh,
What interesting questions posed and such thoughtful responses. I can only think of influence that has impacted my writing style. Of course, that we be the pureness of writing that is written from the heart by Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar.
A peaceful, hopeful 2017 and thank you for bringing awareness of Romesh.
In peace, hope and kindness,
Which authors have influenced my writing? That made me get off my chair and do a quick scan of remaining library books. We’ve moved so many times over the years so books have had to be culled. There are many authors on my shelf. I suppose what you read over time does impact on expression though I know I haven’t consciously copied any author style. For me it’s a dream, or experience that influences.
Hello! So nice to meet you. My question for you would be,” How much do you listen to editing advice and critique of your work when it comes to changing any core idea or format?” I look forward to reading your work!
Thanks for reading and asking. When you are writing to communicate, all responses and critiques are valuable. So I do take note of all editorial advice and feedback, but you need to understand where it is coming from and whether some other factor might be interfering. It is always a negotiation with yourself. If you are writing sci-fi, for example, then feedback from someone who doesn’t like sci-fi at all is unlikely to be helpful, unless they happen to be won over by your story! In imaginative writing you are always being tested as to what is the core of the story. Good editing advice will try to understand what you are trying to do and help you do it better. Good luck.
Romesh, Do you work with an outline to beginning and ending (and perhaps know the ending), or do your characters direct the storyline? Both? Or do your stories lay out in front of you as ideas? I’ve had characters take me on wild rides that changed my stories so I am curious.
Thanks for the question. I don’t always know the ending, but I usually do have an idea of where an ending might be and set off on a journey towards it. It is not so much that characters take over, but the characters do shape the story. To some extent, we as writers are trying to find the right ending for the story. It isn’t easy. Some writers believe it isn’t really possible to find the right ending. But one thing is for sure: stories do change as you write and rewrite them. So, enjoy the ride!
Damyanti, this is an awesome interview, once again. In answer to one of your questions, I feel that a person must be a reader if they want to be a good writer, so, yes, definitely. I tend to read more short stories (and essays), although I work a nonfiction, biography, poetry chapbook, play, or novel into the mix at times.
Unfortunately, I’ve not read Mr. Gunesekera’s work before, but I will definitely seek it out now as I can relate to many of his answers. Especially Monkfish Moon. If I were able to ask him only one question, I thought it would be about revision, but others have asked that, so I’d like to ask a little different revision-related question:
(1.) You’ve no doubt heard the writing maxim (not advice per se) that writers at some point just have to abandon their work and move on. With a short story, how do you measure that the work is ready to abandon, whether than means abandon and submit for publication or abandon to come back to later or abandon completely as it’s not up to your standard (at least for a greater length of time)?
Thank you so much for sharing your time and insight, Mr. Gunesekera. As a so-called middle-aged writer, I will continue seeking my own track!
Thanks for this. It is difficult to know when to stop revising. If you are in the publishing process, sometimes the decision is made by practicalities. Samuel Johnson, for example, would finish his writing only when the messenger who would take it to the printers was at the door. With one of my books, I was editing until the courier van came to pick up the manuscript (in the days before everything-by-email). But for a general rule on when to stop before submitting or letting go, I reckon it is time when you reach that point that Oscar Wilde, as well as others, have described: where you find you are now only putting back the commas you took out the last time you looked at the page.
Such wisdom… I always enjoy reading your blog.
I love this remark by Romesh: “When publishing became a goal, I was still writing mainly for someone like me: a reader seeking both distraction and meaning from a page.”
He put that so well. I aspire to that even though I write genre and not literary.
Thank you for the wonderful interview.
I have a few questions –
1) As a learning writer, I get stuck at midpoint. What is your advice to get over the overwhelming midpoint and reach completion?
2) What is your process of revising and polishing your drafts?
Thanks for the two questions. 1. Getting stuck. You might need to try different strategies. But midpoint might be the point at which you need to get an overview of the story. You may need to rethink where the story ends, so that you can complete it.
2. Revising requires you to take an objective view of your writing. Sometimes just leaving it aside for a while, until you can read it without filling in the blanks, will help. Sometimes getting someone else’s reaction will help you see it through other eyes. Try anything that helps you detach yourself a little bit from what you have written. Time does that, different environments do it too. If you write on a screen, then print it out and see what it looks like on paper. Hope that helps.
Thank you very much for answering. That helps!
Lovely interview, and a very interesting author!
Thanks for such an insightful interview, Damayanti!
What an enjoyable read Damyanti! Excellent questions with deeply humble, and modest replies. I’m with Susan, what a lovely face he has – I’m curious to read his soul! Blessings, Deborah.
Very inspiring interview. The author is so humble and the books are intriguing.
Great interview, Damyanti.
My question for Mr. Gunesekera is – Story writing usually takes multiple days to finish, so how do you stay connected to the core story because everyday the mood may vary, the routine may vary and sometimes you may have a writer’s block.
How do writers keep a hold on what they have to write? How do you do it?
Also, how do you decide if you want to write a particular story? What compels you?
Thanks. This is difficult for most writers. To stay connected to your story, it is best to have a routine. Make it your habit. If you start writing a novel, it may takes months or years to finish a draft. In that case the story and characters have to be important to you, and you need to be obsessed with them. For me, I try to make the story the place I want to be.
I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks 🙂
Enjoyed this Damyanti thank you! What a lovely face he has –
Hello Mr. Gunesekara. It was a pleasure reading this interview.
I’d like to ask you something that’s been bugging me for a while now. Your book has been shortlisted for a major prize, so it might be fair to say that it is close to the best literature we can have. But, does the satisfaction of having put out a superlative book wither away with time? Does an award-winner look at his/her book retrospectively after a few years and begin to see more lacunae in it? And if yes, do they talk about it? How does their new insight into their creation affect them?
I know this question is quite subjective and might differ from author to author. Would like to know your thoughts though.
I think all I can say is that when you are writing something imaginative, you just have to do your best. You give it your all. For me, a good book doesn’t fade. It is made to last. But not all writers want to produce that kind of book. For some something that flowers briefly is what they want. There is room for all.
Thanks for a great interview, Damyanti. I’m curious to pick up one of his short stories.
Great interview. Find your pleasure in writing.. Good advice for those trying to relate to their own drafts
These interviews are always inspiring.
Thanks for sharing this, Damyanti.
Great interview, Damyanti. I have read some of Romesh Gunesekera’s short stories and Reef. Also, over the years, I’ve heard some of his interviews on a few podcasts and found his thoughts on the writing process rather insightful and helpful.
I’m curious as to what particular themes are moving him to write these days and why.
And, what books are currently on his nightstand/e-reader.
Nice to know you’ve read some of the books. Thanks for that. I still write fiction because for me it is the best way to make sense of things. The way I see the world is constantly evolving, so the books grow out of each other. As for reading, I try to put up lists on the website and good reads from time to time.
sir, My fiction needs many flash backs depicting different scenes of different age timelines. Like in slum dog millionaire movie. Any helpful tip, how to go in that flow so readers don’t get confused?
Thank you both for this opportunity to clear doubts of readers and writers!
You’ve identified the problem and the solution. It is very easy to confuse your reader, and not very helpful to do so. So, it sounds like you need to simplify the story and to guide the reader. Good luck!
Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Gunesekera’s work; it’s new to me and I’m always grateful to discover new writers! A couple of questions: one, how might Mr. Gunesekera describe the discovery of his voice in writing–are there words, turns of phrase, or particular syntactic constructions he finds are common in his work? Are there any specific usages he actively works to avoid or eliminate? Second, what advice does he have for querying authors in terms of how long to continue sending it out to agents and when to shelve a piece and move on? 100 rejections? Or only after querying every single agent who reps a particular genre? Thank you both for your time!
Thanks for the questions. Voice is a difficult thing to pin down. Your voice as a writer develops over time.It is more than the turn of phrase etc and not one you can manufacture. The voice in a book, or a story, is something you have to find as a writer.
Your question about when to give up with a story, is impossible to answer. There are people who find success after a very long, hard slog. You need to persevere, but also to move on. I would encourage you to write the next thing while you are waiting to find out the final result of the first piece. But if you are just doing the one story or book, try to make it better before you send it out again. Good luck.
Damyanti, thank you for bringing this interview to your blog page and to Mr. Gunesekera for offering to answer questions.
Mr. Gunesekera, I have two questions: 1) Have you ever been “stuck” in finishing a story? Are there times where the words flow easily for pages on end and then you’re not sure how to end it? 2) Has there been a significant moment in your writing career when you stepped back from a finished work and were overwhelmed by the words you wrote?
Thanks for the precise questions. Can be answered simply:
1. Yes, yes.
I really enjoyed this one, Damyanti. I love Romesh’s entire response to question #1 and many other things besides. One example is “There isn’t a fast track, or a slow track; only your own track.”
This writer loves some of my favorite authors. I know I’d love his writing if they inspire his work. Thanks for introducing him and his books.
What a wonderful eclectic writing bio!
I would like to ask Mr.Romesh Gunesekara, What motivates you to keep writing? Is there an unstoppable urge to say something? Also when you create a character or scene does it come from some place in your memory or is it fully fictional?
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
And thank you Damayanti for this opportunity!
Thanks for the questions. The urge comes from simply enjoying putting words together and making a sentence, and then a paragraph and a story.
Characters and scenes are always a mix of memory and invention. Both are vital ingredients.
Do you start out a draft thinking “this is going to be a story about …” with a rough storyline in mind, or do you just write and let the story find you? How do you know when a story is “done”?
Thanks for the questions. I do have some idea about the story when I start, but it changes over time. I don’t think I know when a story is ‘done’, but there comes a point where it seems nothing more can be done … for the moment!
Romesh certainly writes a variety, which goes back to the variety he reads. I think that helps an author big time.