Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Half English, half Tibetan, Chhimi Tenduf-La grew up in Hong Kong, London, Delhi and Colombo, where he now lives with his wife, Samantha, and daughter, Tara. We loved The Amazing Racist, and his next book, Panther, releases this July!
tgbc: What inspired you to write The Amazing Racist?
Chhimi: I wanted to show a lighter side to Sri Lanka as an alternative to war-based fiction. The book highlights what, in my opinion, is great about the country but also what is a bit iffy. My ultimate aim was to make people laugh and cry, so I moulded the story and setting to try to meet that end.
There were, perhaps, a number of events that inspired me, but probably more than anything it was the country itself; it is so unique, beautiful but also hilarious. There are so many extraordinary characters, both in a good and bad sense, untouched by political correctness.
I just wanted to write a book people could identify with; whether they are South Asian, or have been here, whether they are in a mixed-race marriage or have strong views for or against them. I also wanted to write something easy to read, for people who are not big readers and who find some novels to be pretentious.
A review of the book in the New Indian Express said that it did not take itself too seriously and that was a very important motivation. I didn’t want to be too precious about the book or preachy about the subject matter. After all, what do I really know?
tgbc: How important are names to you in your book?
Chhimi: All the characters are named after people I know. I did this to make them buy the book. This has caused me a few issues because some of my more self-centred friends have asked why I have not used their names. I have just finished editing my second book and have added in a few hairy miscreants named after such friends.
I also had to be very careful not to name the dodgy characters after real people. This didn’t work. I recently met someone called Thilak, who is almost exactly how I imagine the Thilak in my book to be.
tgbc: What insights about Sri Lanka did not find place in your book?
Chhimi: I tried to avoid the actual war. I think when most people hear of Sri Lanka they think of the war, the tsunami and cricket. Of those, only one thing brought happiness, and cricket is a huge part of life and identity here. In much the same way, people who have not travelled equate India to Slumdog Millionaire and a certain type of literature. I tried to make this a happy easy read, showing the opulent side of Colombo.
There is also an endless list of Sri Lankan plus points I did not get to. Those not blessed with wealth are still ridiculously generous; for example, 20,000 passers-by help you if you crash your car. Also, I notice more and more now I write and try to observe, just how friendly and polite people are in the smaller street shops. So much so that I argued with a shopkeeper the other day, trying to get him not to give me a freebee.
I hope it comes out how much I actually love the country. It’s easy to take a place for granted, but the process of writing has got me to appreciate Sri Lanka much more.
Like anywhere else in the world, we have our issues here too, but I see great promise in the younger generation.
tgbc: Who is your favorite character in the book (apart from the racist himself)?
Chhimi: Priyanga, the lawyer, as that is someone based entirely on a friend. I’m not concerned about him taking legal action, as he would likely mess it up. He’s a great guy, but he has also done things like paid $400 for a lap-top which turned out to be a box full of bricks, and sat in the witness box even though he was the lawyer.
I see everyone else as part of a supporting cast for Thilak. He is the person every reader says they identify with; the person everyone says they feel like they know.
tgbc: Who are your book mentors?
Chhimi: I’ve had advice from Ashok Ferrey about the aftermath of releasing a book. He has been so generous with his time and support, so I will try to make sure I do the same for other aspiring authors, should they ever ask me. I have also been into Shehan Karunatilaka’s writing Bat-cave and it was fabulous to discuss my book with a genius like him, albeit too late to incorporate his suggestions.
I don’t have any literary heroes as such; I almost prefer to read a book without knowing who the author is. Anyone can make things up and write a story. My heroes or mentors in life are more likely to be doctors, educators or anyone who makes sacrifices for their children. My mentors are my wife and my mother.
tgbc: What do you do when you are looking for inspiration, or facing a writer’s block?
Chhimi: I have not had writer’s block yet. Part of my books are observational comedy, and living in Sri Lanka I see something hilarious every day. I never sit down at my computer and wonder what to write. I just write and worry about it later in the edits.
I think the reason for this is that writing, for me, is just a bit of fun. I love doing it, and I don’t take myself too seriously, so there’s no pressure on me at all. If no one likes what I write, so be it. I would still do it because it is enjoyable.
I know my writing is flawed, so it can only get better. Some writers may think, well I have put my heart and soul, blood and sweat into this, how dare people criticise it? No one likes rejection or criticism, but if my books get either, I can say to myself, well at least I enjoyed getting to this point. I guess, it’s like a hangover in that way. No one likes a hangover, but the process of getting there is superbly enjoyable (or it used to be when I was a few years younger).
I get inspiration by observing people; if someone says something funny, I will try to remember it. Likewise with any emotional story I may hear. I don’t go looking for inspiration though. When I find it, accidentally, then I rush to my computer.
I was surprised that The Amazing Racist received such positive reviews, both from the press and in blogs. Thus, I feel maybe I will start worrying more about writing because if someone buys my third book because they liked my first two, I don’t want to let them down.
tgbc: Your regular working/writing day?
Chhimi: When I am in the zone, I like to get to work early to start writing while no one is there, but I am finding this difficult now as I hate to leave home without seeing my daughter first. I somehow find a couple of hours to write, and whack out about 2000 words. Then I leave work relatively early to spend some time with my daughter and edit after she is asleep. In between, sometimes, I talk to my wife, but only if the battery on her phone is dead.
tgbc: A quote you swear by.
“If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried”
This quote, if I am very honest, does relate to my life. In sports, if I didn’t win I would pretend I wasn’t trying to win. If I never got published, no one would have known that I had written at all.
I am growing up a little, so maybe this is less relevant to me now. I hope.
tgbc: Your comfort food?
Chhimi: I love a quality bag of crisps. I have just returned from three weeks in Australia where I put on about 9kg. For the next month, my comfort food will be carrots and celery, and, if I really deserve it, maybe an apple.
tgbc: Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? Love? Action? Racy?
Chhimi: I guess when I try to write something romantic, it comes across as being as fake as when I try to say something romantic to my wife. I express my love through jokes instead of with gifts, flowers and kindness. It’s a cheaper way to get a smile.
Also, sometimes I identify the need for a scene to link two others. I struggle with those as I have to think about them and not just write and see what happens. It is perhaps an obvious weakness of my craft that these scenes seem forced. Maybe in future books I will insist on perforated paper for such scenes so people can pull them out – or I could try to make them better!
tgbc: What next?
Chhimi: Panther, released by HarperCollins India in July, is about a former child soldier winning a cricket scholarship to an elite international school. Initially I thought of it as Young Adult, but it should have equal appeal to readers of all ages. It explores how someone with a past he wants to hide from can be abused, while he tries to fit in and deal with the usual problems or rivalries, friendships and love – much like me trying to fit into the literary community (just joking). It has dark humour, but is also potentially a little more harrowing than the Amazing Racist.