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Behind the Sentences: with this year’s judge Romesh Gunesekera


Spotlight on this years judge Romesh Gunesekera

Our judge Romesh Gunesekera on what makes him return to the page, his writing failures and words of encouragement

Why do you write?

I find it magical and necessary. Writing helps me feel I have restored some momentary stability in the world and in myself.

Where do you write?

I’ve written anywhere and everywhere from Tube stations to hotel rooms. Now, with the lockdown, I only write at home in a loft room. I have a comfortable reclining chair – a hand-me-down – that has a swivel arm with a wooden board just right for a laptop. When I am typing in the revisions I have made on paper, I sit at a glass computer desk that has a large screen where I can see more than one page at a time without hurting my eyes.

What do you love most about writing? What keeps you returning to the page?

When all around there seems to be chaos and trouble, on the page, I can look for some order and peace. It makes sense of the day. It only takes a sentence or two to make that day feel worthwhile.

What is your biggest “failure”, in the world of writing? And did it lead to success?

I try not to dwell on my biggest failures. In any case that, and its turnaround, may be yet to come! My first attempt at a novel, as a young writer, was a very rambling affair and a reaction to my failure to complete it was perhaps a determination to complete story after story after story – and enjoy the shorter form. It led to my first book being a collection of short stories, Monkfish Moon, on which the gods luckily smiled.

What words of encouragement might you offer to other writers?

You can’t do much about luck, but you can work on imagination and craft by reading, and develop perseverance through discipline.

What's next in terms of your output? When can we expect it?

I have been accumulating a series of short stories which I’d like to make into a book, and I am on the next novel. Given the difficulties that the publishing industry is going through with the pandemic and its economic consequences, I have no idea what anyone can expect, or when.

And finally, what's your favourite short story of all time and why?

With novels, I tend to favour shorter ones, but with short stories, oddly enough, my favourites tend to be quite long. My choice is Gogol’s The Overcoat. What always surprises me in this story full of digressions and gleeful omissions is how Gogol charms us and controls the flow of what seems like a crazy narrative. We follow eagerly until we too, like the poor clerk Akaky in the story, realise we are ‘not in the middle of a sentence but in the middle of the street’. No wonder Dostoyevsky says, ‘We have all come from under The Overcoat.’

Interview by Sophie Haydock


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