The Elegant team interviewed Chhimi Tenduf-La about his most recent book Panther. In my opinion it is a wonderful heartwarming story that captures the innocence of a courageous child soldier who fights for his life.
Chhimi is a man of many words and with a charming personality. Ever since his rather nomadic childhood he has always had the urge to write.
After many failed attempts at writing the perfect novel, he learned that there is no perfection to writing and believes that we all learn through our mistakes. He recently published The Amazing Racist and Panther, the latter of which became his most famous work in 2015.
He currently resides in Sri Lanka with his wife and daughter. Sri Lanka has been a crucial part of his life. He is quite observant and brings the Sri Lankan culture and society to life in his stories. He adds that he is inspired by the people he meets on a daily basis. Thus he is a writer whose skills are in a constant state of evolution.
He serves as an inspiration to aspiring writers who wish to follow in his footsteps.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and personality to start with?
I was born in England, but then moved to Hong Kong, Delhi and finally to Sri Lanka, where I have lived, on and off, for 33 years. I went to Colombo International School, which my mother founded, and then boarded at Eton until my father was diagnosed with his first cancer. I went back to the UK for university and then taught for a gap year here before I went to work in London for Ernst and Young. Sadly, my father got cancer again and this time we knew he would not make it so I moved back here to be with him.
I love sports, but my interest is more passive than active now. I was national swimming and springboard diving champion here when I was about eleven, but when I swam in England I got thrashed. Otherwise my sporting brilliance is more in my head than on the field. I like to think I am amazingly sporty, but I’m not.
Where did you meet your wife?
At Sugar, in Colombo through a mutual friend. She was a criminal lawyer in Australia but moved back here to do some charity work. Since we got married it has been the best, most rewarding four years of her life (well, I mean mine really). We have a three year old daughter and my wife is currently pregnant.
Are you first and foremost a writer?
No, I would love to be but if I was, I would be broke. Before you write, you think there’s a lot of money in it but that is only the case for the superstars. I get about 30 rupees per book. If there’s a film or series made from one of my books I may get a little more money but I would still need another job, and I love working at a school anyway. There has been talk about Panther being made into a film, but as of yet it is just a pipedream.
What led you to writing and becoming an author?
When I was young, I would write short stories, which were meant to make people laugh.
I started writing books when I was about 17 but I never finished them. They were handwritten, illegible and very silly. At that age, I would lose concentration and do something else like learn to play the guitar for about a day before quitting that too. I started writing again when I stopped teaching economics a few years ago. I first wrote a rubbish book but it was good practice. You learn your technique. I sent the rubbish novel to someone professional just to tell me what I was doing wrong. You have to get the technical things right at least or an agent will look at what you send them and say this guy hasn’t tried.
What inspired you to write PANTHER?
Panther started as a high school story about a guy coming from outside town and joining a Colombo school. I had a friend like that when I was at CIS. I had a girlfriend at the time and when I held her hand this friend would grab any girl’s hand thinking if this guy can do it so can I. This friend of mine wasn’t a child soldier, obviously, but I added in that thread to create suspense and to examine the psychological effects of war on children.
Panther is a book full of teenagers, did the children at your mother’s school serve as an inspiration for some of the characters?
That’s a dangerous question, but no, it’s actually based more on me and my friends when we went to school. We were naughty then. There is also a bit in the book about cheating in exams. We had a friend, whose father was in the police, and he was the worst cheat of all time. He would literally sit on the lap of the best student, during exams, to copy answers.
My mother keeps numbers down in her school, so the kids there can’t get away with much. The teachers watch them all the time. They’re very good kids.
Where do you draw your inspirations from? The idea, all based on your childhood or any other inspiration?
As a Sri Lankan, when you read my books I am sure you would recognize the characters and say he is just like my uncle, for example. I have just stolen these character traits from real people that we all know. If someone says something funny, I’ll write it down and base a scene around it. Sometimes that works, sometime it doesn’t. Sri Lankan life is so rich, diverse, amusing, rewarding and beautiful that it inspires me.
When I read your book, I noticed you have observed the Sri Lankan culture very well. Did you do a lot of research?
I researched things like the psychology of a child soldier and how they suffered and the fact that they try to block out the past but they can’t. More generally, about Sri Lankan culture, it’s just I have been here so long, and because I am a foreigner I am always observing and learning more about the culture. This fascinates me so I find it easy to write about.
What are the ideas that you get when you write the book? Do you take suggestions from other people?
I’ve never shown what I’ve written to friends until it is published. You can get so many ideas, too many suggestions and then you can lose your direction. I’d rather that if I make a mistake, or write something bad I am the only one who can be blamed. Anyway, the publisher will suggest changes if they think something doesn’t work.
Are you happy when that happens?
For sure because they are professionals with more experience than I have. I would be a fool not to listen. Anyway, it is not like they say make this change or else! I have to be happy with their ideas.
What is your writing process? Do you plan the start, middle and end before writing?
I do to some extent but it doesn’t necessarily stay like that. After I planned both books, they completely changed. I started in one direction, and steered off in another. When I write, I write something in the morning and I read it back in the evening. If I’m lucky I’ll read something back and wonder how I came up with it. When that happens, by chance, I go in that new direction.
What made you decide each character’s personality in PANTHER?
A lot of the characters are based on people I know. In the book there’s a really nasty English cricket coach who abuses boys. He was based on someone I read about. There’s a famous English journalist who they found was abusing kids. The police came to question him and he just jumped out the window and killed himself in front of them.
Coach Silva is based on an alcoholic cricket coach I knew when I was young. He coached us at 8 in the morning, already drunk, slurring his words. Yet, he was a very good coach. He used to say, ‘I have three loves in my life; my wife, cricket and.. and…and.’ He could never remember what the third thing was because he was too drunk.
How did you feel when you got to the last word of the book?
I didn’t really feel massive fulfillment because I never thought there would be a problem finishing the book. I didn’t know if it was any good until I sent it to my agent. When the agent liked it, I was happy because it meant I was getting somewhere. Once the good reviews started coming in I felt comfortable and the thing is even if you have 15 good reviews and then one person doesn’t like it, you dwell on that one person but you shouldn’t. You can never please everyone, and some say if you do then you have not taken risks. I don’t think I will ever feel great about something I write because I will always know it could have been better.
Did you know you would come this far as a successful author?
It would be a stretch to say I am a successful author. I just write as a hobby. I never felt I had to be published because as a writer, I can get better with age. Had I wanted to be a cricketer, my dreams would be over at my age. There was no pressure with writing. With time, you can just get better and better.
Am I happy I have come this far? No, because I’d like to go much further, I’d like to be much better than I am and that’s the thing with being a writer – there is no reason why I can’t write a much better book than I have already.
What are some interesting tips you would give to someone who has the ambition to write?
My experience is that you should just write as much as you can. People who want to be authors have to know that they can physically sit down and write. Later they can worry about how good it is.
You should enjoy it even if it doesn’t start off well. The secret is to keep trying and to read books about writing. There’s a lot of good books about how to write just so you know the technique.
There are also free websites like YouWriteOn.com. You can upload a story and then another aspiring writer on the website will rate and comment on it. Then you have to do that for other people as well, which is good because you learn what mistakes to avoid. At the end of the month, the 5 with the highest ratings get feedback from a professional publisher in England.
There are also literary consultants you have to pay for. You can send them what you have written and then they’ll give you a report on it. That’s really helpful because they’re quite honest. When I sent one manuscript, they said the story was promising but so mismatched. Despite that they also said that they had no doubt that I would be published one day but that I needed to hone my craft.
You also have to be able to ‘kill your darlings’. What that means is, you might write something which sounds brilliant but if other people say that it sounds nice but it doesn’t fit the story, you have to be prepared to delete it. However happy you are with something, even if it is the favorite part in your manuscript you have to be prepared to bin it.
How have your books been received internationally?
The reviews from Indian papers have been fantastic. I am thrilled so far. Panther, in particular, has received critical acclaim from book editors who are notoriously hard to please. The reviews have said Panther is a triumph, that is moving, vivid, has razor-sharp wit. The problem with reviews is every day I am scared about waking up to a bad review. So far, that has not happened but I am sure it will. Like I said, you can’t please everyone, as much as you try to.
In conclusion what message do you want the readers to get from PANTHER?
In the reviews so far, they have said they felt the story was very optimistic even though it was hard hitting and brutal. It was optimistic because Prabu never gives up. Whatever hits him, he stands up to it with a smile. He’s just happy to be where he is and making the most of the chances he has been given. So the message is, whatever has happened to you in your past even though it comes back to haunt you, you can overcome it. Because he has had such a bad life, and because he knows he could be judged because of it, Prabu does not judge others. He takes people at face value, and wants to get on with them regardless of who they are. He doesn’t just want to fit in, he wants everyone to fit in.
By Kaviru Samarawickrama