Hot off the press is the first novel from Australian author Rajith Savanadasa, Ruins. “A stunning debut novel from a fresh voice in Australian fiction, for fans of Zadie Smith and Rohinton Mistry,” says the press for this one. So we asked around and tracked him down to answer a few questions.
Hey Rajith, congrats on your debut novel. Can you tell us what Ruins is about?
“Ruins is set among the noisy streets, crowded waiting rooms and nightclubs of Colombo, where five family members grapple with life at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.”
Five family members? Share a little about these characters.
“Latha, the family’s servant of two decades, questions her allegiances when a long lost brother appears at her doorstep. Anoushka, a 16-year-old high school student, tries to win back her friend while keeping her punk rock credentials and alternative lifestyle hidden from her parents. Niranjan, who has recently completed a degree in Sydney, is ready to get his start-up off the ground, but is continually distracted by wayward friends and petty squabbles. Lakshmi, the proud matriarch, is haunted by stories of young men gone missing from the war torn East where she once lived. Mano, the head of the family, feels increasingly impotent under pressures of government censorship and intimidation in his role as editor for a local newspaper, and looks to women other than his wife for validation. When the family takes a trip to the ruins of an ancient city, Latha discovers a painful truth, the consequences of which ripple through the family, leaving it irrevocably changed.”
Far out, so there are a lot of layers to this story.
“Structured to reflect and re-interpret the semicircular stone slab known as a moonstone (or Sandakada Pahana), Ruins examines issues of class, ethnicity, war, religion and connectedness in modern Sri Lanka. It introduces equality as a crucial component to the idea of nirvana, the lotus image at the centre of every moonstone.”
And what compelled you to share this story?
“I wrote Ruins to reveal the complexity of wartime life in Sri Lanka, to show how people who aren’t directly involved in the struggle are affected. I also wanted to provide a counterpoint to the fundamentalist Buddhist ideology that dominates national life, and reclaim Buddha’s teachings as a personal philosophy rooted in the progressive tradition.”
How did the idea for this book form?
“The journey of Ruins spanned around seven years. In 2007, my final year of uni (I did a Bachelor of Engineering at RMIT), growing tired of the dry, technical subject matter, I decided to try a few creative electives. I chose an introduction to philosophy and creative writing. Both subjects went rather well, but writing was the one I most enjoyed. I also felt like I’d changed a lot – that I’d gained a different perspective and essential critical distance from Sri Lanka (where I grew up) and I had to write about home, about its culture and politics. It had to be a novel.
“In 2011, I quit my job and spent a year writing a draft. I researched heavily, even spent a few months working as a journalist in Colombo. I tried to be clever and post-modern but… almost everyone who read it said it wasn’t working. I gave up the idea of writing a novel and started doing volunteer work for a local council and an organisation called DECC (Darebin Ethnic Communities Council), helping asylum seekers settle into the community (this was in 2012, prior to the re-introduction of offshore detention for asylum seekers).
“Realising that some of the conversations I was having were too important to keep to myself, I started a website called Open City Stories, where the verbatim transcripts of our conversations could live. The process of listening and transcribing made me re-think storytelling and realise how a complex story can be told simply for maximum effect. In December 2013, I wrote what I thought would be a short story – but my writing group insisted it was a novel. Around 12 months later I had completed a full draft of Ruins.”
So what’s your typical writing routine?
“I don’t have a set routine but an ideal day would start off with some exercise, then I’d try reach a certain word count by lunchtime, have some lunch, send off some emails and return to writing, ending when I reach my daily target, hopefully before dinner. But I’m a slow starter and it takes weeks for me to get to a stage when this actually happens. I procrastinate quite a bit and it takes some effort to stop listening to music or reading about politics or books or movie reviews. I sometimes resort to programs like Freedom or Focus Booster to keep me disciplined. It takes a bit of effort to get the momentum rolling.”
And what are you working on next?
“I’m working on my second novel. I’ve only just started and it’s set in Melbourne and follows a new migrant (or asylum seeker) trying to prove to the authorities – and to himself – that his fear of returning to his home country is genuine. I’ve been sitting in on some asylum seeker appeal cases in county courts (as research) and found them fascinating, especially where interpretation of a story makes such a huge difference. I’m planning on focusing on the linguistic differences with this novel, which would provide a fresh take on the migrant story.”
What’s your advice for aspiring writers ?
“I have a day job as a content writer for a large telco. This keeps the bills paid and gives me the freedom to take time with my fiction. It’s a long game so the structure is important – I try to keep things evenly balanced and get a routine going, to stay fit and healthy… it’s also easy to get ahead of oneself and think of the novel as a finished product. Instead I try to keep the focus narrow and on the work – characters, scenes, structure of the story and worry about all the other aspects later on.”
Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa ($27.99) is published by Hachette Australia. And it’s out now.