Sanders: I’m very interested in how failure leads to success. Can you talk about how failure corresponds to your success?
Munaweera: I started writing my first novel in 2001. I dropped out of my Phd program because I had this overwhelming desire to try and write a book. It was a crazy, impractical thing to do and most people did not understand what I was doing. It certainly felt like failure to my immigrant parents and community. I finished the novel in 2009 and shopped it and was rejected by every American house it was sent to. I started a second book. I was hooked despite complete failure. Then in 2011 a small publishing house in Sri Lanka accepted the first book. It then sold in India where it won some big literary awards. This led to America suddenly paying attention. Many of the houses that had originally rejected the book then were involved in a bidding war for the same exact book. St Martins gave me a two-book deal. I’m currently working on my third. It’s all been a wild ride, and I’m very aware that this career is a roller coaster. There are zero guarantees.
Sanders: What is the biggest misconception non-writers have about writing?
Munaweera: That it’s easy and that anyone can do it. That good writing just flows out of the writer without a lot of insanely hard work. That anyone could write a really good book if they just had the time. Sorry, that’s just not how it works.
Sanders: What was the most challenging part of the publication process post-writing?
Munaweera: Constant rejection, depression, self-loathing- all the usual occupational hazards of this particular career.
Sanders: What has been the biggest surprise in how your two novels been received? And how has that varied in different regions?
Munaweera: It’s been really interesting. My debut Island of a Thousand Mirrors was about the Sri Lankan civil war which went on from 1983-2009. It’s about two women trapped in that war. Whan the book came out, there was a dictatorship in Sri Lanka which was “disappearing” journalists and writers, and when I went to Sri Lanka for the launch I was on edge even though I knew my American passport would protect me. There were “reviews” in the newspapers saying that I was an outsider and knew nothing about the war, essentially threatening my safety. At the same time the book was winning various international awards and being lauded in America. Then when my second novel What Lies Between Us, which is about the impact of childhood trauma upon an adult life came out, the tables were reversed. The dictatorship in Sri Lanka was gone and my book won the Sri Lankan National Book Prize. It was really surprising because it’s a rather controversial book and I never expected it to do well in Sri Lanka. This was all in the course of just a few years. So you just never know how a book will be received.
Sanders: How can literature save the world? Or why does literature matter?
Munaweera: I think writing can save the writer. That’s been my experience. Reading and writing have always saved me. Then too, I hear from readers that my books have touched some part of them. That is tremendous. It’s beyond what I could have imagined. So I’ll say reading and writing can save invidual lives. Can it save the world? If enough people read- sure. I don’t have too much hope for humanity. But I have absolute love and devotion to readers and writers.
Sanders: When can we expect your next novel? Any teasers?
Munaweera: I’m working on my third right now. It’ll take a few years. It’s about race, gender and a serial killer.