- Ashok Ferrey on creating unforgettable characters and revisiting grief
By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Ashok Ferrey is not an unfamiliar name to the reader of English novels in Sri Lanka. He is an author whose novels easily catch the eye in bookstores, and has received much praise over the years. One element that makes Ferrey’s novels stand out are his characters.
His latest novel, The Unmarriageable Man, was recognised for vivid characterisations of authentic and unforgettable characters. When asked what goes into creating such characters, Ferrey said the reader must have an eureka moment, when they suddenly become sure of what this character looks like, what they eat, how they smell, etc.
However, there is a fine line here. “Too much description or explanation or dialogue from you, and you will find you have embalmed your character. The author’s job is to take the reader only so far; the final intuitive jump he must make on their own,” he said.
The trap of self-indulgence
A reader always wonders how much of oneself the author weaves into a story, and may even unconsciously look for hints of the author and their personal experiences when reading a novel. When asked how he draws from his life while also letting a work of fiction just be that – fiction – Ferrey said this is extremely difficult.
“You have to learn to not fall into the trap of self-indulgence; it is far too easy to turn a tale like this into a misery memoir. The work needs to be strong enough to stand up in its own right, without the props of autobiography,” he said.
Ferrey added that he has said elsewhere that in his work the truth has to hold good as fiction and not the other way around. “You only know you have succeeded when your work strikes a resonance with perfect strangers who pick up the book. You may think that the stories and experiences are all your own; but 50 readers will have 50 different stories playing in their minds, all triggered by your one set of words,” Ferrey went on to say.
He explained that this is the wonder of books, the reason why books are so powerful, and why they are so radically different from films or plays – or any type of visual art, for that matter.
Looking at The Unmarriageable Man, we asked Ferrey if he got a sense of closure through the writing of the story, especially given his own personal grief. “This is the amazing part! Once you spell out your grief on the page and it is there in the public domain for all the world to see, it is almost as if you have given it a life of its own, given it legs to walk away from you,” he said.
However, the author added that grief will never entirely go away, as it loves to feed off you too much. But this is as good as it is ever going to get, in terms of giving you your life back, Ferrey said, promising that it was better than any counselling.
Always the bridesmaid
The Unmarriageable Man is among the four shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize this year. While the winner will be announced on 22 June, Ferrey says nominations still make him feel excited and hopeful, despite the author never having won a prize.
“I’ve been writing for a quarter of a century now, and have been nominated eight times for various prizes all over South Asia. I’ve never won a thing; always the bridesmaid, never the bride, that’s me!” he said, adding that one would thus expect him to be a little blasé about this whole thing by now.
However, the excitement he still feels about being nominated comes from the boost he gets “when someone totally independent likes your work (who didn’t have the book forced upon them by some desperate author down a dark alley one night!) and who thought it worthwhile to shortlist”.
When asked how being shortlisted makes him look at his work differently, Ferrey explained that quite often, others see, in one’s work, qualities that the author themselves were previously only vaguely aware of.
“It’s like that picture you have hanging under the stairs in the dark corner, the one you pass daily without a second glance. Suddenly all your friends – people whose judgement you trust – want to look at it. You begin to see it through their eyes, then, see possibilities you never saw before.”
However, he posed the question: Whose view is more valid?
This, Ferrey said, is like photographing a subject from many different angles. He said: “Taken together, the different snaps add up to a more accurate sense of the subject’s three dimensionality. But remember this. A book once published is no longer your own, other people have a claim on it too.”
Ferrey went on to say that if it is successful, the author finds, to his surprise, that he has only been the midwife and that he is no longer required. All that remains in the author’s care is an unsuccessful book, the way only an unwanted baby remains in hospital.
‘The Unmarriageable Man’
Ferrey’s latest novel, The Unmarriageable Man, which secured the author a spot on the shortlist for the 2022 Gratiaen Prize, is about a young man who has been bullied by his father throughout his young life, who then finds himself his father’s sole caregiver. He has longed all his life to have the upper hand; but when he gets it, he’s suddenly not so sure. Ferrey explained that the story goes on to this young man’s subsequent coming of age in 1980s London, which he describes as “those glorious years when every girl looked like Princess Diana (though not every boy looked like Prince Charles!)”.
The Unmarriageable Man is different to Ferrey’s previous work in that he had to dig deep inside his soul for this book. “It was supposed to revisit the grief I faced watching my father die of cancer 22 years ago. But halfway through writing it, my mother began to decline; then she too passed away. So it was a double-whammy; every day I watched what I had written the day before coming true in front of my eyes.”
Ferrey said this was horrific, adding that it was as if the book was actually foretelling his life, as if it was somehow the master of his fate. “I now realise how much easier (and less painful!) it would have been to invent a story completely from scratch,” the author said.
He emphasised, however, that unlike the father in The Unmarriageable Man, Ferrey’s own father was not at all a bully, and was the meekest, gentlest man he ever met.