Monday 20 November 2017

Interview with Subodhana Wijeyeratne

We are delighted to welcome on our blog Subodhana Wijeyeratne (author of the haunting story The Hulks in TFF #41), and to ask him about his Tales from the Stone Lotus (Writingale Publishing), a collection of short stories and novellas set on both our world, and others. The book follows the loves and lives of a variety of creatures, from the downtrodden underclass of humans forced to slave on a distant moon, to the fleeting insect-like inhabitants of a planet on an extreme orbit.

Born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, and raised there and in Russia, Subo Wijeyeratne has been writing speculative fiction for nearly twenty years. His favourite writers and biggest influences are Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, James Tiptree Jr, and Isaac Asimov. He currently lives and works in Tokyo, Japan.

TFF: The title of your collection, Tales from the Stone Lotus, sounds fascinating, maybe even slightly mysterious. Where does it come from?

Subodhana Wijeyeratne: It comes from a couple of things. In the collection is a story called 'The Stone Lotus', about this peculiar object that appears in a city on the north, and the one of the men who researches it. My incredibly talented artist friend Sara Gothard (who's provided all the illustrations in the book) did a painting based on the story, which serves as the cover image. In it, there's a bunch of people gathered around it, as if listening for something. If you read the story, you'll see that one of the characters talks about only seeing things if you look for them. It occurred to me that maybe that's what the Stone Lotus does - go looking for stories, from all over the universe, for the people waiting for it back home. Hence the title!

TFF: Who would be the perfect candidate to direct a movie adaptation of Tales from the Stone Lotus, and why?

SW: Seeing as its a collection of shorts, I think I'd like to see what a few different directors make of it. I think The Best of All Seasons would look great in Terrence Malick's hands (a boy can dream). The Opal Gates would be a nice Christopher Nolan piece, and I'd love to see what Darren Aaronofsky does with As Kazanuhr Falls.

TFF: Ideally, next to what other books would you place Tales from the Stone Lotus in a bookshop (or library)?

SW: I'd love to see it between Ted Chiang's Tales of Your Life and Others and Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones. They're two people I strive to emulate - particularly Borges - and I reckon the book can only be lifted by the association!

TFF: Can you tell us about a little-known author you think everyone should read?

SW: She's not necessarily little-known in a certain circle, but I think everyone should read the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. She was an 11th century Japanese courtier, and Pillow Book is basically her diary. Her writing is so fresh, and her personality so vivacious, it just blazes off the page, even after a thousand years. It's heartbreaking and hilarious in turns and I really, really recommend it.

TFF: If you were an aerospace engineer, what would you name your first spaceship?

SW: Tough one! Probably Hedonismbot because he is my spirit guide and Futurama is my Bible.

TFF: Do you think there is a theme or some sort of fil rouge that connects the stories in Stone Lotus?

SW: I think underlying all the stories is the idea of impermanence. I was raised Buddhist (though I've drifted a bit), and nothing strikes me as being truer than the idea that all things change. I'm constantly amazed by how this is true on every level of existence, but in such drastically different ways. I've often wondered how they're related. Is there something about the way energy moves in the universe that means that humans are constantly changing what their definition of 'good' or 'love' is?

TFF: And what is your current definition of "good"?

SW: I think I've had the same definition for a long time - which is to, as much as possible, avoid causing other things or people to suffer. Obviously sometimes this is unavoidable, but I often find that being unkind and not caring about how much pain you inflict on other people is a much easier road to take than being respectful and considerate -- which goes a long way towards explaining a lot about the world, I think.

TFF: If you could ask any author, living or dead, to help you brainstorm a story, who would you ask?

SW: I adore Greg Egan's imagination - his work blows me away every time I read it. I'd love to brainstorm a story with him, or with Ted Chiang.

TFF: You have spent many years living in different cultural contexts, often belonging to a minority. Do you see this experience as a continuous challenge or as something that has enriched you?

SW: It's a bit of both. Moving around constantly means its hard to hang on to friends; it's really amazing how many people just slip away and disappear when you're not looking. But I think the enrichment has been overwhelmingly the stronger experience. Other people's subjectivities - even if they can be infuriating - are fascinating to me, especially when they are far away from mine. The distinctive histories of places are also really compelling. Every time I go somewhere I learn something about that place that explains something else half a world away to me, which is the best feeling.

TFF: What is the most incredible thing you have learnt studying the history of the Japanese space program?

SW: That the Japanese developed a death ray during the Second World War! It was actually a highly powered microwave designed to blow up engine blocks. They tested it on a dog and a rabbit, but it didn't do much harm to non-organic material.

TFF: You have travelled extensively since you were a child. What is your absolutely favourite place?

SW: Japan is hands down my favourite country in the world. I love living here, am fascinated by the culture, and my body is 56.4% sushi by mass.

TFF: Has exposure to many different languages changed your literary style? In what ways?

SW: I'm so high-strung about my own writing that I've not really stopped to think about it. My pleasure reading is mostly, if not entirely, in English. But I did study medieval history at university, and have an abiding love of Middle English. As such I try to avoid overly modern turns of phrase - there's something transient and inexpressive about the way so many people speak today, it drives me mad. I'm particularly against the rise of 'of' instead of 'have' (e.g., people saying 'I should of done X'). But I also get that when it comes to stuff like this I'm mostly like Canute in the sea.

Illustration of "The Hulks" by Miguel Santos
TFF: What is your next project?

SW: I'm working on my third novel, Triangulum, which is a sci-fi piece influenced by ancient Indian texts. Yes, it is precisely as pretentious as it sounds, but I've always wanted to combine the cryptic metaphysics of texts like the Rig Veda with a sort of dark sci-fi aesthetic: huge statues on empty world, layers of history piled upon the characters like invisible chains. We'll see how it goes!

TFF: This sounds fascinating! Who would be the main characters in the story?

SW: The main characters include a criminal who gets sentenced to death, but ends up being castrated by his cellmates (for a variety of reasons). His main love interest is a 'snake-girl', whose bodily fluids are venomous, and who hence cannot be touched. Beyond that there are two characters who are male and female manifestations of the same person, and who often speak and walk in tandem. Rounding up the group of five is the central protagonist, Izme Gulthara, an otherworldly presence with an agenda that could either be transcendentally good, or utterly evil.

Thank you Subo for chatting with us, and best of luck with your projects!

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