Illustration by Michael Rea

Shehan Karunatilaka: Since I won the Booker, everybody wants to talk to me

The Sri Lankan writer on struggling to remain unapproachable
January 25, 2023

What is the first news event you can recall?

John Lennon’s death. I didn’t know who he was, but I was astonished to see the newsreader crying on air.

What is the biggest problem of all?

The gulf between the mega rich and the extremely poor. I’m currently doing literary festivals around the subcontinent and it appears more pronounced everywhere I go.

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Let me be a total cliché and say Woodstock in 1969. Sri Lanka’s Aragalaya—the protests against the government last year—captured something of its spirit, though in a very different context.

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

Love Actually. Emma Thompson and Joni Mitchell get me every single time I see it.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Smart people don’t start many bar fights. But stupid people don’t build many hydrogen bombs.” PJ O’Rourke.

What have you changed your mind about?

Children. I thought having them would be a bad idea.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of?

My cousin and childhood hero, Dilshad Wijesekera. He was tall and athletic and was left a quadriplegic after a freak rugby accident at 17. He still managed to get a degree, become a sportswriter and a painter, and stay mostly positive until his death at 34.

What’s changed for you since your Booker win?

My daily routine has pretty much stayed the same, but now everybody wants to talk to me—which is still rather weird. I’ve spent my whole life being unapproachable.

Which current Sri Lankan writers deserve international exposure?

The poet Vivimarie Vanderpoorten; essayist Indi Samarajiva; playwrights Ruwanthie de Chickera, S Shakthidharan, and Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke. There’s the travel and cricket writer Andrew Fidel Fernando; novelist Nayomi Munaweera, short story writer Kanya D’Almeida; and all-round gent Ashok Ferrey. Oh, and sci-fi wunderkind Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. The fact that there aren’t any writers in the Sinhala and Tamil language on this list is my fault, not theirs.

Does your other work—advertising, writing children’s books—add to or detract from your novels?

They all feed into each other. I don’t believe in multitasking, but I do believe in having a long to-do list.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

You’ve already asked me a question about it, so it won’t surprise you; but I do think most people would be surprised to learn that I’m still working as a copywriter, writing advertising campaigns for big companies.

What do you most regret?

Never having a drink with my dad.