Author's wise words for aspiring writers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 September, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 September, 1998, 12:00am

Wannabe authors who expect Sri Lankan novelist Romesh Gunesekera to teach them how to write a bestseller during his creative writing workshop at the British Council this week will be disappointed.

'You can't do that,' he said before the two-week course which started last Monday as part of the Eye on Books Festival, the public part of which begins on Thursday.

The author whose first novel, Reef, was shortlisted for the literary world's most prestigious award, the 1994 Booker Prize, said: 'You can teach people to write in the sense of giving them the basic skills but you can't teach talent, obviously.

'And this [course] is a very basic thing. It isn't about refining a novel that you've written, it's really about starting to write and whether it's going to be meaningful, and if so what kind of thing is meaningful for you.

'It isn't a course where at the end you produce a book or a bestseller.

'It's much more about finding out whether you are interested in writing and where your aptitude is.' His aim was to develop the participants' imaginations and identity - the opposite of teaching people a formula they can apply to become the next John Grisham or Danielle Steel. In fact, he said, teach was probably the wrong word, though there would be exercises in producing dialogue and plots.

The course, running most evenings this week and next, is the first of its kind in Hong Kong and drew twice as many applicants as there were places. The 20 members chosen by the British Council had to submit works they had written, but Gunesekera said he was more interested in their ability with language, willingness to participate in a group - 'if they are incredibly introverted, as many writers are, and don't like being with people, it's not going to work' - and their sense of humour.

About half the group were school age, with the rest older, providing a good mixture, he said. Hong Kong and Asia are not new to him, what with his own background of life in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, a spell as writer-in-residence at Singapore's National Institute of Education in 1996 and experience of drawing up British Council policy for the region from Malaysia to Japan as assistant regional director for East Asia. But he hoped to find out more about Hong Kong's literary scene during his visit.

Creative writing courses have been popular in the US for years and are now fashionable in Britain, with writers such as Ian McEwan to show for them. Gunesekera, 44, reckoned courses like these could put people on the right writing track - whether poetry, novels or non-fiction - but they might put some people off too.

'If I had been through a workshop, I don't know whether it would have shattered any illusions or whether it would have given me some pointers for the future,' he said.

But if there had been such a course, when he was growing up in the Philippines where his parents moved to from Sri Lanka, he probably would not have gone, he said.

'I started writing when I was 14 or 15. I was very keenly into it.

'I grew up with the belief that everybody in the world had the sacred ambition to be a writer, and I thought it would be the right thing to do.

'I read a lot and it suddenly struck me that someone wrote these books - I started reading American writing and suddenly realised that these writers were still alive.' This and a community of journalists and friends interested in hearing his work encouraged him.

But writing at that stage was just for his own and family enjoyment, although he had short stories and poems published in magazines. Only in his 20s did he decide to try to widen his audience by publishing - and then began 10 years of letter-writing, hopeful submissions of work and the disappointing letters of rejection 'because it was no good'.

'My writing workshop was the publishing industry,' he said, in which the feedback he received, via the letters, was sometimes blunt and came only spasmodically.

Yet, he said, Reef 'couldn't have been written 10 years earlier because the best things you write come out in their own time, you can't force them.' Having Reef named as one of the six Booker shortlisted works topped such a voyage of discovery.

'You can't ask for anything better, really.' That included winning. 'I don't think winning with your first book is necessarily a good thing.' His perseverance should be comfort for those attending his course who may be frustrated that two weeks of wisdom from a near-Booker winner does not transfer to them the formula for immediate success.

Too many writers worried about publication and success before they arrived there, he said.

'First, you have to write something rather than worrying about what you're going to do with the millions from your bestseller. Too many writers go to their grave doing that,' he said.