Theena Kumaragurunathan on Books and Writing

Theena Kumaragurunathan is a writer who currently works in mass communications. He lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Your book, First Utterance, was published earlier this year. Would you tell us a little bit about it?

First Utterance is a novella made up of short stories, three poems and a play, all linked thematically and narratively to a fictional nation called "Mirage". Essentially, the novel traces the mythological beginnings of Mirage, before diving into a contemporary society akin to modern Sri Lanka -- where madmen are kept away from society because the religious and political authorities feel that madmen can bring about the total annihilation of their way of life.

What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

It's been great so far. Quite a few publications and local critics have called it one of the more ambitious debuts and a breath of fresh air from the standard fare of Sri Lankan writing. From a non-critic's standpoint, what has been most satisfying for me is the general reader: quite a few have reached out to me personally after the launch to thank me for taking Sri Lankan fiction into unexplored literary terrain.

You self-published this book. What was that experience like?

It was painful, but rewarding. I didn't get the kind of interest I was hoping for from local publishers, but that didn't surprise me to be honest: most locally published writing in English is concerned with Sri Lanka's civil war, ethnic tensions or the 2004 tsunami and -- while I completely see the need for such issues to be covered -- I had no interest in writing such a novel.

So the first part of the journey to publishing (the manuscript in its final form was ready by mid-2013) was getting myself to embrace the idea of self-publishing my debut. That took a while for reasons I won't get into here -- basically I wanted a traditional, publisher-led debut -- but once I made up mind to self-publish, it was a case of finding the right team to help me execute the book to match a book that has an established publisher like Penguin or Random House behind it. Fortunately, working in corporate communications and advertising, I had the opportunity to handpick my team. I commissioned three art directors and broke up the quantum of work -- one for the cover, one for the layout of text, and one to bring everything together into a cohesive visual whole. All three people delivered amazing work.

How long did it take to write? Do you have a writing routine?

The idea for the book was hatched in September 2009, but that was just a husk of an idea. I spent over a year mulling how to build on the story. With hindsight, I realize now that was because I didn't have characters -- just an idea of a fictional country that is forever bound to a cycle of destruction and rebirth. The next couple of years involved finding men and women, characters whose plight resonated with me -- so that in the end it would resonate with the audience.

I didn't get into a routine because, being a first book and all, there was a lot of trial and error. It wasn't until 2012 that I knew I had the structure of the book down. Once that happened, then it was just sitting down, turning off the internet, and writing and editing for hours on end. I was done by November 2012 -- my editor insisted on a few minor edits that made the book even leaner, but essentially the manuscript that I had in my hands on November 2012 is the one that found its way to the printer's in December 2015.

The routine while writing required a balancing between my day job and writing late into the night. I contemplated quitting the day job and concentrating purely on the writing, but I am glad I didn't. It's made me into a better, more clearheaded, efficient writer.

Do you have any literary influences?

I've been asked who I read most when growing up and try searching for names and titles, but no one opened my mind back then quite like Sir Arthur C. Clarke did. His influence on my life goes well beyond the literary -- I only wish I had an opportunity to tell that to him in person.

From a purely literary standpoint, his Space Odyssey and Rama novels were incredible, but so were his short stories -- Nine Billion Names of God, for instance. More than anything else, Arthur C. Clarke made me a serious reader -- before choosing the writing life, you have to choose the reading life. He was the reason for that.

My other main influence is the late Gabriel García Márquez. Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude is the closest thing in my life to reading scripture. I've never read a book that is teeming with as much life and sheer magic as Márquez has packed into those pages.

Besides these two men, Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Moore, Mark Z. Danielewski (particularly his House of Leaves), Hermann Hesse, Isaac Asimov's short stories (particularly The Last Question), David Milch and David Simon.

This is your first book. What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

The journey of becoming a writer is finding your voice. That's easier said than done. Part of that is shedding your influences so your writing doesn't come across as some derivative poor man's imitation of the original masters. The other part is throwing yourself into life and experiencing it first-hand: they say you should write what you know so naturally the more you see and experience, the more you'll know about yourself and the world around you, which in turn leads to more things you can write about. That's pretty important I would think.

The final part is pure bloody-minded willpower in the face of odds that are increasingly stacked against finding new writing voices. Publishers are businesses and the chances of them accepting your manuscript in a crowded, volatile market is slim. As aspiring authors, we need to accept that and not take it personally. It took a while for me to come to this conclusion myself, but final advice with regard to the publishing part of becoming a published author is simple: embrace the volatility in the publishing market, embrace the changes in technology and reading habits.

This interview has been edited and condensed.