Rajith chatted us us about his upcoming appearance at the EWF Launch: Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, his view on failure and ambition, his forthcoming novel Ruins, and what he’s excited about in the Australian literary landscape right now. Oh, and of course, his advice for writers (his people, he says) and looking forward to EWF this year.
You are performing at our Program Launch: ‘Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars’. How does the night’s theme of failure and ambition resonate with you?
When I was eight or nine I won a competition. Well, I thought I won… actually, I’m gonna stop there because I don’t want to spoil my talk at the launch.
I think ambition and failure are more closely related than we tend to realise. You pretty much can’t have one without the other. When I look back at some of my (many) failures, they’ve occurred because of ambition, but then I’ve picked myself up and gone, ‘This time I’m gonna…’ and fallen on my face again. So the repeated failure just kept fueling my ambition. I was in a cycle, and not a particularly good one.
Your debut novel, Ruins, is coming out this year – can you tell us a bit about the book and your process for writing it?
Ruins is a family drama set mostly in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during the final year of the civil war. There’s Latha, the servant who’s questioning what family means to her and Anoushka, the fifteen year old who wants to be popular but keep her punk-rock credentials intact. Niranjan, who’s just returned from Uni in Sydney, plans to get rich quick but spends too much time smoking dope. Mano, the father is a newspaper editor who’s trying to rekindle love for his wife; and Lakshmi the proud matriarch, worries about a young boy from her hometown lost in the midst of the war. It’s all structured like this ancient artifact called the moonstone found at ancient temples and castles in Sri Lanka, which represents the path to nirvana – an idea I play with and try to subvert throughout the novel.
I’d been trying to write a novel for around seven years. I did lots of research – worked as a journo at a newspaper in Colombo, did writing workshops in America, quit my job and wrote full-time – there wasn’t much I didn’t do. But what I produced were a couple of shitty drafts that tried too hard to be all clever and postmodern but felt completely flat. It was once I gave up all the pretension that something that felt true finally poured out of me. After that it took just 13 months to write the thing.
Do you have advice for anyone working on a manuscript?
As you’ve no doubt heard over and over, different things work for different people, and this is what I kept telling myself: Read. Forget about getting that book published. Give up on the novel you imagine will have the critics swooning, your peers envious, the book that propels you to international fame and earns you that place in the literary canon. Give it up. Write what needs to be written. Tell that essential story – the story comes out your pores, not the one your ego demands. Read. Okay, maybe watch an episode of The Wire when you have a break. Read some more.
What have you been working on lately?
I’ve just started working on my second novel, which is set in Melbourne. I think it’s going to be quite different to Ruins (I mean stylistically, not just because it’s in Melbourne). Hoping to keep things simple this time. It’s early days and I find I’m still too focused on ideas. Still letting my mind get in the way of the story… I wonder if anyone has advice on what to do…
What are you excited by in the Australian literary landscape at the moment?
We’re in a very exciting time when we’re seeing writers from diverse backgrounds actually penetrating the public consciousness – at least in the literary world. The diversity has always existed but we’re finally, finally taking note. We’re seeing the Maxine Beneba Clarkes, the Omar Musas actually getting some airtime, some space in the cultural conversation. I mean, Benjamin Law even has a TV show! And it’s great for me because I reckon ten years ago Ruins wouldn’t have been published, but it also makes me wonder how many great writers we’ve passed-by.
What aspects of the Emerging Writers’ Festival do you look forward to?
I feel most comfortable around writers – they’re my people, especially the struggling, time-poor ones, juggling multiple jobs and plying their trade at random cafes and libraries. It’ll just be nice to hang out and have good conversations about books and writing and life in general. I also hope to find some new things to read. Where better to discover my next favourite writer, right?
Rajith Savanadasa was born in Sri Lanka. He runs Open City Stories, an ongoing series of interviews documenting the lives of a group of asylum seekers in Melbourne. Rajith was shortlisted for the Asia-Europe Foundation short story prize in 2013, the Fish Publishing short story prize in 2013 and received a Wheeler Centre Hotdesk Fellowship in 2014. His debut novel, Ruins, will be published by Hachette Australia in 2016.
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Early Bird Tickets to The National Writers’ Conference are available now. Taking place over two days, with over seventy speakers, The National Writers’ Conference features panels, conversations, and performances, allowing you meet this year’s Ambassadors and other writers from around Australia.
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