Working with Words: Rajith Savanadasa

Born in Sri Lanka, writer Rajith Savanadasa’s debut novel Ruins was published by Hachette Australia this month. Rajith runs Open City Stories, a website documenting the lives of a group of asylum seekers in Melbourne. He was shortlisted for the Asia-Europe Foundation short story prize in 2013, the Fish Publishing short story prize in 2013 and received a Wheeler Centre Hotdesk Fellowship in 2014.

Rajith spoke to us about using foreign words when writing, how he thinks he’d really get along with Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire and the importance of really listening – to music, opera, theatre and everything else.

Rajith Savanadasa

Photo: Craig Peihopa

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first was probably a piece that ran in the Catalyst, the RMIT student magazine. It was my first year in Australia and I’d just been to Big Day Out and had my mind blown seeing so many bands that I had only heard on CD or MP3, in the flesh – I just had to write about it. I then walked into the Catalyst office and dropped it on their desk and walked out.

What’s the best part of your job?

I have a day job as a copywriter for a major telco. The best part of that job is the company – my team’s full of creative, interesting, funny people who are very good at what they do.

As for writing fiction, I think it’s pretty great that I can justify sitting in a room making stuff up. It’s very satisfying to have your concepts or ideas explored within a world you’ve created – this world could be, at least in your head, identical to the world we live in, and the idea could be completely bonkers, but in fiction they can co-exist and I reckon that’s pretty cool.

What’s the worst part of your job? 

The worst part of my day job is having to follow a very rigid process to get things done. 

When I write fiction I make a lot of false starts. My friends joke that I’ve started at least 20 novels but I just take a bit of time to figure out whether an idea is a bad one. If I’m still happy with what I’ve written down two weeks later, it’s probably half-decent. 

Ruins, a novel by Rajith Savanadasa

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

My novel, Ruins, being picked up by Hachette Australia. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I think the best advice I got was: ‘be humble’. I think it’s true in terms of getting words on the page and not getting too far ahead of yourself (stop imagining your book launch etc.) and also getting your ego out of the way and letting your characters speak for themselves.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

That I use too many foreign words and long names in my novel. And this was written by someone who’d ‘been to Sri Lanka and loved the people’. 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Well, I did finish a degree in Engineering, so probably that. But if I had a choice I’d probably be doing something related to music. 

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Yes, it absolutely can be taught. The opposing view just goes down the essentialist path and I disagree with that. Aspects of craft are learned and not passed on by your ancestor. Sure, not everyone can be Junot Díaz, but part of the deal is that you figure out what you are and realise there’s value in whatever that is.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer? 

Everyone says reading is important, and it is. Read widely and deeply but also listen to music and podcasts and the news, watch television and movies and theatre and opera, and meet different kinds of people and listen to them, really listen and reflect on all the things you’ve seen and heard...

Read widely and deeply but also listen to music and podcasts and the news, watch television and movies and theatre and opera, and meet different kinds of people and listen to them, really listen and reflect on all the things you’ve seen and heard...

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I like my e-reader, but I’m still more attached to physical objects.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m going to say Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire (yup, the TV show). He’s smart, has plenty of great stories to tell and tells them well. And he’s quite funny in a sly kinda way. He’s also a bit wacky (what’s with the miniature furniture?) and also has a warm, kindly personality. I just feel we’d get along.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Hmm ... probably Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. I found that in my dad’s collection of sci-fi when I was like, twelve or something. It’s about these aliens who, with mere hints of their immense power, bring about peace on earth – but only to shepherd humans to a new stage of evolution.

Essentially, we become beings of pure energy. There’s a part where someone stows away on an alien ship and comes back to find nobody left on earth and I just found that so devastating. It was also when I first connected some of the notions in science fiction with Buddhist philosophy (which we learned in school in Sri Lanka) and made me realise there could be many slants to the same idea.

Portrait of Rajith Savanadasa

Rajith Savanadasa was born in Sri Lanka. He runs Open City Stories, a website documenting the lives of a group of asylum seekers in Melbourne. Rajith was shortlisted for the Asia-Europe Foundation short story prize in 2013, the Fish Publishing short story prize in 2013 and received a Wheeler Centre Hotdesk Fellowship in 2014. His debut novel, Ruins, will be published by Hachette Australia in 2016.

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