With a well-known and much loved literary festival looming on the horizon, we thought it apt to speak to best-selling and homegrown author (and much more).
Ashok who read pure mathematics at Oxford University, forged a career as a builder in London prior to his return to Sri Lanka. He is no stranger to the local artistic fraternity and is also a guest lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture.
We spoke to him this week on everything from Sri Lanka’s literary scene, literary festivals, to marriage, raising children and more! In his spare time, Ashok is a personal trainer.
Could you let us in on your background? What was life like growing up?
Well, I was here till the age of eight, after which I moved to East Africa and lived there till 11. I was then packed off to boarding school in England, where I did my schooling before going off to Oxford University to read for a degree in Pure Mathematics. So I was really mathematician first, before I became an author. After I finished my degree, I hung on and worked as a builder in London till the age of thirty. I had always said to myself that I was going to come back to Sri Lanka by the time I reached that age. It was probably the worst times to return, with the political issues that were going on, at the time. But when you decide to do something, you stick to your guns, against all odds it does work out!
Did you always find interest in authoring books? What sparked your interest?
That’s an interesting question, because I’d consider myself a builder first, then an author. Even when I came here, I still designed and built houses. The writing pops up every now and then, like a recurring disease; once it’s in your blood it keeps coming back once every few years. So every time I’m working on a book, I take time off. However once I finish writing a book, it’s gone and I don’t read it again (because I would probably hate it if I read it again).
You’ve authored around six books, two of them short stories. What do you see as some of the common misconceptions pertaining to short stories?
The very first book, Colpetty People, was a set of short stories. I adore short stories. Sadly for me, every publisher or agent in the west would ask you to stop writing short stories, because they say that you can only crack the market if you write a novel. They feel a novel has more substance. However, I feel a novel is technically more different from a short story, although the thoughts are just pretty much the same. Just because you paint the big picture, doesn’t make it better than the small picture. Many people think a great book has invariably got to be about war and peace. This isn’t true, because it’s scope is huge, but doesn’t necessarily make it a better book.
If you had to pick one book to be your favourite, what would it be and why?
I’m going to have to mention one or two, because there were writers who really understood what life was about. One of them is Evelyn Waugh who wrote Brideshead Revisited. It’s a strange yet beautiful novel, and his command of English is unparalleled. The other is by Graham Greene called Travels with My Aunt.
Your books sometimes have a comic undertone to them too. Why do you choose this method of storytelling?
I’d like to add that I don’t set out to be comic. When my first book (Colpetty People) came out, it was supposed to be a serious book. It was how I saw the world and many would say you see it in a crazy way. But I guess we all see it differently and not in the same way. It may appear comical, but underneath that comedy it’s got a level of bleakness to it.
Do you see yourself writing within the confines of a particular genre?
I see myself young in terms of being a writer. And every time I write it’s a real learning experience for me, so I don’t try to push into one specific genre, I try and explore different areas. My first two books were short stories, my very first novel called Serendipity, which was referred to as an absurdist novel. The next book was deeply introspective and is probably the most personal book I’ve written.
What would you say is your target audience, and why?
I think it’s very dangerous to set a target audience. Having said that, six books later, I have kind of an idea of who likes my books. Apart from bits which are disguised in a certain manner, the rest are innocent, so children can read my books which they actually do. But in general, you have to write for yourself.
Is there anything else that interests you apart from writing?
There’s a huge amount of things, I’m a guest lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture on the History of Architecture. I love to play cards; I was quite good at it back in England. I’m also a bit of a fitness freak and personal trainer.
As a personal trainer, what is the one biggest fitness fad you dislike amongst Sri Lankans?
There’s a new technique called ‘high impact jumping’ that people do, it’s the worst possible thing for your knees. As a personal trainer, knees are the most precious part of the body. You can function without one hand, but once your knees are injured, you are crippled for life.
You’ve been married for 28 years now. Care to share the secret to a happy marriage?
I think in any marriage, it’s a given that you and your partner drive each other nuts. So I think it’s about a lot of tolerance, patience, and the realisation, that however much your partner annoys you, you probably annoy them even more!
Both your children, Rehan and Q, are also pursuing professions in the creative fields – film and music namely. What is the biggest advice you can impart to Sri Lankan parents? Do you think Sri Lankan parents ‘control’ their children’s futures too much?
In a way you can understand it from their point of view as well. Parents want the best for their children, and you want your child to be financially secure. A career in arts does not do that, although I was lucky I was a builder. The life of an artist isn’t a secure life, but it’s certainly getting better. So I think parents try to control their children with the best interests. That being said, I can tell you with absolute sincerity, that Sri Lankans are probably the most talented race on earth. Most of my writer friends have begun life in other careers before they became writers. They have the capability of balancing two areas of interest, which is the case with most Sri Lankans.
The Galle Literary Festival is coming up. There are people that think festivals of this nature are elitist and cater to a very select audience. Care to comment on this idea?
Yes, they are absolutely right, because till we get our sponsorships sorted out, it is difficult to carry out a festival without charging money. It is somewhat elitist, we need to recognise that and work towards that. We are getting there, although if we worked towards subsidising ticket prices, we will get more people. Youngsters need to be able to turn up however they want, because literature needs to be fun, and not rigid. It’s about ideas, thoughts, meeting like-minded people and having fun!
If you were to curate a literary festival in Sri Lanka; what elements would you highlight and why?
If I was to, I’d say it’s important to have a few big names. Having said that, you have a duty to promote your own writers, they may not be up to that standard, so what?
What would you advice for blossoming writers?
Well to any would-be-writer or any person who wants to write, I’d tell them to read, read, and read. Read anything, it’s the best advice I can give. Despite your thoughts and ideas, in terms of language, the things you write might subconsciously come from what you might have read maybe 10-15 years ago. Particularly if you’re a young writer, it’s important, because we’re a multicultural country, our command of English is low in comparison to that of what a young writer in England might have. So reading is that window to the outside world.
By Chenelle Fernando
Photos: Krishan Kariyawasam