On a slightly warm but quite ordinary weekday, we rush against the traffic to make it in time for this long awaited interview with one of Sri Lanka’s renowned authors. As I sit and wait for my editor to join us, I’m introduced to two absolutely charming visitors to the interview, as his two pet pooches come to greet me with tongues drooping and tails-a-wagging. (While it may not be essential to this article) I felt I must include how these two angels came to be in the house of this remarkable writer, as it was a tale that moved me. These two adorable doggies were rescued (from terrible conditions sadly), nursed to health and showered with love from the family and transformed into the loyal pets whom I encountered during this interview- yet another sign (among many others) that Ashok possesses an ability to take something simple and turn it into something wonderful.
As our interview begins, it doesn’t take many questions for us to realize that this is no ordinary man who discovered a pen and paper, but rather a writer from birth in a league of his own (who, might I add, possesses an absolutely delightful sense of humour). As he describes his book “The Professional” and the inspirations and experiences which lead to his highly successful novels, we can’t help but be mesmerized and drawn in by the words that leave his lips and float about our heads like little butterflies. The casual flow of words, the tales of past events told in such detail give no subtle hints as to why the name Ashok Ferrey is known across the nations. His work stands out in a generation dead of new ideas, as he draws inspiration from the most common, yet most forgotten details of everyday life, and transforms it into a masterpiece (something he seems to do as easily as breathing).
While we had prepared a set of questions in advance, we were so enthralled by all that Ashok had to say that we traipsed along various topics, asked an infinite number of questions and spent an entire evening getting to know the story behind his success. Had but time permitted us to, we would’ve asked many more questions and listened to many more stories, as it was an experience we knew was going to last us a lifetime. They say, that there’s a story to every man’s success, and our conversation with Ashok showed us that his is a story of interesting encounters, life lessons, extremely hard work and patience, rewarded in its course.
In his path to change the course of modern writing and conventional fiction, Ashok Ferrey stands tall amidst the greatest of writers: the epitome of true creativity.
- This is a commonly asked question, but could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Well, first of all what I’m best known here for is satire. Kind of slightly wicked, off-beat satirical stories about Sri Lanka.
I left Sri Lanka when I was eight years old, and I went to East Africa and then West Africa. So my childhood was mostly in Africa and then I was packed off to boarding school in England, but even when in England I used to come back to Africa for the holidays. After boarding school I went to Oxford where I studied Pure Mathematics and then I had a small building business there- it happened of course completely by accident.
- Coming onto your latest book, “The Professional”, I’ve heard it deals with the concept of time in a big aspect?
Yes, it does, because what happens here in this book is that you have two stories going on- it’s actually a very mathematically constructed novel- so you have two stories; the one in 1980, with the young man, an illegal immigrant living in London during Mrs. Thatcher’s years, (which was basically a time of Capitalism.) The other story is an old man living in a Bambalapitiya flat above a garage of two crotchety old ladies who are forever quarrelling but who also quite fancy him. They have all these fancy theories as to why he’s here and it’s a typical crazy Bambalapitiya set up- and I have to tell you, that it is absolutely from life. So anyway, the two stories run side by side, and it’s only when you’re half-way into the book that you realize that it’s the same person. You don’t realize that the people in the Colombo story are related to the people in the other story, but then at one stage the two stories cross.
The maths comes into place like this; as a mathematician I had always been obsessed with dimensions- so in studying pure mathematics at Oxford we worked out the maths for the different dimensions. So to put it simply you have the first and second dimensions, and the third dimension is the one that we live in, the fourth dimension they say, is time. So someone in the second dimension can see the first dimension in its entirety and someone in the third can see the second in its entirety and so on. So for all of us, our life is incomplete and can go on for another forty, fifty years, but someone in the fourth dimension can see it in its entirety mapped out. We like to think of that person as God, or a superior being- depends on what you call him. In the book, the old man felt like God. He could see his life laid out before him and he then tries to separate it out. So that’s how it uses maths to deal with the concept of time.
- Here you mentioned some characters from real life. Do you always relate the characters in your book to real life people?
Yes, now Colpetty People is full of real life people. In a way I do it because I want to show the outside world how crazy life in Sri Lanka is- we all have stories like this, that are so crazy that if you put it into a book people won’t believe you. In Sri Lanka everyone is inter-related, we all have a connection. That is why I think life is very rich here; it’s a perfect life for a novelist.
- As for the main character, it is said how he seems very similar to you. So are there any personal attributes from yourself that you put in when building this character?
Yes, that is precisely what I’ve done. I’ve taken the personal attributes. In this book there is a simile where the protagonist- Chamath, who (I say) is like water. Water if you pour it into something it assumes the shape of the vessel, and Chamath himself realizes he’s like that and he curses himself for it. He fits into too many people’s lives too easily. And that is from me, I find that in myself in real life. Sometimes it pays to be a bit fussy, but I can’t do that, I bend over backwards, and it tends to work against me. So in a similar way there are lots of attributes to Chamath and attributes to the old man which are me, but what they do is not necessarily me. Only the character studies are me, and I think any author uses either themselves or somebody else as character studies but then they disguise them so that people don’t recognize it in the character.
- How do you usually draw inspiration for your novels, does it just come to you or does it require a trigger?
It’s a little bit of both. In a sense you have to be alive to be triggered. I hold this workshop once every two/ three years, and I always tell young writers this- it’s not a question of saying “I’m gonna sit down today and write a masterpiece”, for me that’s not how it works. You have to be alive, to certain feelings, to certain perceptions- it’s like you can eat the greatest meal in the world, and it could be prepared by the greatest chef in the world, but if you’re not hungry that meal will mean nothing to you. In the same way, as a writer, to get inspiration you have to be alive to be inspired. It’s almost like you need to feel the electricity in your fingertips, and there are certain times in my life when that electricity is there and there are other times when it’s not. So I think that’s what people call inspiration, but it’s not really inspiration, I think it’s a self-induced way where you think ‘I’m going to be alive to these experiences’. If you’re not alive to it no amount of great experiences will help you. Conversely if you have the electricity in you, even a banal conversation or eating rotti and lunumiris can inspire a great novel. The smallest thing can trigger it. I find that those triggers occur when I’m exhausted, or when you’ve been through a very traumatic experience, or when you’re lying awake in bed at 4.00 am in the morning and your mind is going clickety click while you lay half-awake and half asleep. The sad thing is when you wake up in the morning it’s gone, and you can try somehow to recreate it, but it’ll never be the same. The fact is that electricity is there when your mind is working over-time.
- Speaking of writing, do you think that writing is a talent you are born with or is it something that comes with lots of hard work?
There are two schools of thought here. There are two types of writers. I have a friend who is also a writer, now he’s diametrically opposite to me. He is a very very disciplined writer. He gets up at nine o’clock in the morning, he sits at a desk and he writes. When I met him at a literary convention recently I asked him how he got such beautiful sentences and he told me it’s pure hard work. He told me “In the seventh or eighth draft I sit down and go through sentence by sentence and I replace if there’s a weak verb, I replace it with a stronger verb and so on”. I think that is the essence of a really good writer. Now somebody like me, I write from the heart. It just comes out. I do revise it, but not all that much. But there are other writers like me, who leave it (the thought) in their heads and let the mind or the subconscious do the editing. So as I said it’s two schools of thought, and I think the trick here is to do a bit of both.
- Apart from the cultural backgrounds and the connection to Sri Lankan heritage would you say there are any other similarities among your work?
I think the humour- which is something I never realized till recently I was told that I’m a very humourous writer. And apart from that I think I’m always trying to sort out this strange problem- which is something that I think all of us as Sri Lankans have of being an insider-outsider. All of us here are obsessed with being abroad. I think I always try and deal with that, like even in this book, the hero- Chamath, always has a choice to come back home, even though his father is not rich he always has a decent home to come back to, but he prefers to be a male prostitute in London than have a decent life here. So it’s a concept or a common theme I try to deal with in all my books, this insider-outsider problem.
Then there are other little little things which I address, especially in my short-stories, about the things that bug me about life in Sri Lanka. Like, justice for example. Why is it that we can’t get justice, but if you’re a politician or someone with power or a rich millionaire you can get justice. So things like that which bug me, I write about them in my books.
- How would you describe your work? Most writers have a particular genre into which they fit in their work, but I think your work doesn’t fall into one particular genre. What can you tell us about that?
Yes, you’re right it doesn’t, and I think it bugs a lot of people here that it doesn’t fit into one particular genre. I think I’ve always had this habit of not telling people the full story, I only tell them the little bits- it’s not that I lie, but I don’t believe in laying all my cards on the table, because that makes life boring. So I lay one card, and see what people do with that, then when you get a little naughty you lay another card, and they say, “He never told us this!!” So I think I really annoy people in doing that, but it’s what keeps it interesting. People here try and put you into a little category, they see you and they judge you on what they see, or by what you wear, and I think life shouldn’t be like that. You should be defined by your own personality.
- What inspired you to write in the first place? You studied pure Maths in college; you did architecture and then you became a writer- it seems very different areas to excel in.
I think, there’s only one answer to that. I think for me, it’s because I like to create. Writing is not very different from painting a picture or composing music, and I think it’s because they’re all acts of creating something.
- Can you tell us how much research goes into writing one book? How many drafts do you usually come up with?
A lot, a lot, a lot. But research, I’m a lazy guy when it comes to research. I got into a lot of trouble writing my last book “Serendipity” because it was about the war and lots of stuff in Sri Lanka. And the source through whom I found out about how the ethnic war started had got it wrong, and when the book was published and a lot of people were furious that I had got my research wrong. Of course I fixed it when it came to the third print but the damage had already been done. So the point I’m trying to make is that I’m very bad when it comes to research. That is partly because I feel that a book is your own thing, it shouldn’t matter so much that you got one or two details wrong, because you don’t read it for its historical accuracy; you read it for the story. Of course research is important, and there are other writers for whom research is hugely important, but for me it’s more of a moral obligation to get my facts right.
- Are there any authors in particular from whom you draw inspiration from or whom you look up to?
Yeah there are, but they are authors whom no one has heard of now. Most of them have died about fifty years ago. There’s a guy called Graham Greene, I love his stuff, he’s one of my all-time favourites. His work tends to deal with the moral problems, about good and evil and about religion, also he’s very funny, some of the funniest books I’ve read were written by him. Then there’s R. K. Nanayan, for the sheer beauty of that simple line of prose, gently funny. Also there’s a writer called Evelyn Waugh whose work is fantastically funny, and if I want some entertainment I read some of those books- and if the old aunties in my book are funny, I thank Evelyn Waugh because he’s the inspiration for that kind of stuff. Those are some of the authors I like, and as I mentioned, I’m reading “Love in the time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez who virtually invented something called magical realism in the eighties- it’s all magic but it’s realistic enough to be real. I think he was a huge influence on Asian writers who came to write novels involving magical realism, but Gabriel Garcia is the absolute master of it. So those are a few authors that I like- I think I’d read anything and everything, but there are those few who stand out whom you keep coming back to.
- What is the acceptance you get here in Sri Lanka as an English writer? I believe you don’t get the same support as a Sinhalese writer would in this country. What can you tell us about that?
Yes, it’s quite sad actually, it’s a tough life. First of all, because you’re writing in English you’re considered something of a traitor. Writing in English you’re at a disadvantage- which is ridiculous, because Sri Lanka has been a colony for longer than almost any other country in the world, we’ve been a colony for nearly 500 years, so we’ve had lots of other influences, including South Indians and even the Chinese. So why can’t we speak Chinese if we want to? That doesn’t make us any less Sri Lankan. So writing in English you’re viewed with suspicion or people think you’re trying to be clever or show off- which isn’t true.
Then there’s genuine problem that because we have been taught English, essentially quite badly in schools, we don’t quite appreciate literature for what it is. We’ve been taught that Shakespeare is good, Jane Austen is good- there are a certain Gods in the pantheon and others because they’re not mentioned, are not good. So there is that misconception. I think our appreciation and understanding of English writing is slightly old fashioned. So an academic’s view of English literature here is somewhat prejudiced by what they’ve been taught or whatever. Another common misconception here is that to write good English you need to write complicated sentences, they don’t believe that simple words and simple sentences are the essence of a good book- and that is a problem I face as an English writer here, a problem many English writers here face. It’s quite disappointing.
- Did your experiences growing up in Africa and Europe influence your idea, your writing and your perception of life?
They played a huge roll not so much in my writing as in my world view-in my perception of the world, because I’ve seen it from so many different angles. When you see life from different perspectives you see that each civilization has its own things to offer, so there’s certain equality to life. So being to all those places has shaped my view on the world, but of course it’s also good raw material.
- Taking a page out of your life, could you describe an ordinary day in your life?
It’s very banal. People think that a writer lives in an ivory tower, hammering out masterpiece after masterpiece, but they’re very wrong there. My life is currently about taking the dog to the vet, dropping my child at school, things like that- so it’s very ordinary just like everybody else’s. The only difference is you need to learn to zone out- it’s not really a difference because we all tend to zone out.
- You feel most comfortable in what environment?
That goes back to what I said about the water jug. Sadly I feel comfortable in almost any environment. I am the sort of person who is comfortable anywhere in anything, simply because I can zone out. At the end of the day I think as a writer you have to be happy to go anywhere, because everybody has a story to tell.
- What would you say is the best thing about living in Sri Lanka?
I think it’s the richness of its madness- if I can put it that way. It is so mad in the best possible way, that is why writers get so much nourishment here, that they don’t get in the West. In the West, life is so rigid and strictly within the curriculum that there is no room for this type of madness and excitement, but that gives a certain richness to life here. In spite of the injustice and the other little disappointments life is hugely satisfying here.
- What is the bane of your existence, what really gets your goat in society?
In society, I think it’s this idea of putting you in a box. The other thing I think that really gets me is as I said, that there is no justice for the common man. It’s all about who you know. Because there is no discipline, you have to resort to using connections, and what happens is everybody has to resort to who they know, and then it becomes a very bad society.
- If you were given the means and the support to do something big what would it be?
I think what you do to change society- which is essentially what any writer hopes to do- change society and make it better. What I think is a big problem in Sri Lanka, is the young people: the fact that our education system on the surface is very good- it teaches you to pass exams but it doesn’t teach you to think for yourself. It takes away your initiative. You are taught the right answer, so you have generation after generation of Sri Lankans who are technically brilliant because they know the answer but they don’t know why they know that answer, why because they’re trained not to use their initiative. So if I had the means and the support, what I would do is try and change the methods of teaching in these schools. Start by taking away the arrogance of youngsters with first class degrees who think they know it all, and get them to open their minds, to discover their initiative. And also to make room for youngsters to have their time, which is something the old grey-beards nowadays don’t like to do, because they think they’ve been here thirty forty years so they know better than the youngsters fresh out of college, so these young people don’t get their time in the sun until they’re around sixty-sixty five and they then in turn bully their young people. So it’s a viscous cycle and it has to be stopped.
- Finally a word of wisdom for those following in your footsteps?
There is one thing I would always say, if an idiot like me can do it, anybody can- in the sense that you have to be simple minded enough to think you can do it. In other words, don’t be too wise, don’t be too clever for your own good. If you’re foolish enough to think you can do something, and you give it your commitment and your passion quite often you will be surprised at how well you succeed at something you had no idea about before. You need to be tough with yourself and work hard. Give it everything.
- A final word to our readers?
I’d like to say enjoy yourselves, but I’m sure you already do, so it’s hardly advice. J So I’d say, read my books. There’s more to it than the funny “haha”, so read it, and you might disagree, but read it, who’s to say you might find that you like it.
As our interview came to its conclusion (much to our disappointment), we rose to thank Mr.Ashok for sparing time from his busy schedule to not only answer our list of questions but to fill our minds with such great insights that kept us awake into the wee hours of the night thinking and analyzing his words. I seem to be at a loss for words to express how monumental this interview was to us at Elegant magazine, and how wonderful it was to meet with one of the greatest authors of our nation. There is no doubt that he is yet to blow our minds with more masterpieces, and we wish him all the very best in his future endeavours.
By Nichole Corea