And the winner of the Booker Prize 2022 is…

A conversation with Shehan Karunatilaka and Damon Galgut

Well, it’s already that time of year where literature’s leading fiction award, The Booker Prize, rolls around. And it’s Sri-Lankan writer, Shehan Karunatilaka, who lifted the prize as the 2022 winner with his second novel: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Set within the chaos of war-torn Sri-Lanka in the midst of the civil war, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida centres around Maali, a war photographer, who has woken up dead in a waiting room for the afterlife. With time running out, he has seven moons/one week to lead his friend and cousin to a series of hidden photographs beneath his bed, which expose the brutal truth about Sri-Lanka’s ongoing conflict.

To kick off the beginning of the Southbank Literary Festival, the 2022 Booker winner sat down for his first public event, joined by last year’s winner, Damon Galgut, and author Sara Collins for a live Q+A session.

Photograph: David Parry

The night began by Sara asking both authors to read an extract from their award-winning novels, to provide those who had not yet had chance to read their work a flavour of what was to come.

Karunatilaka then spoke about his novel, describing it as belonging to the “murder mystery genre but grounded in eastern mythology”, as he explored death as a beginning, rather than an end. Galgut, who sat alongside him, expanded on this concept, asking if “maybe you wake up [from death] with more confusion?” as opposed to initially having all the answers.

For those of you curious about what could inspire such an award-winning masterpiece, Karunatilaka revealed to the audience how his novel had originally been planned to be a ghost story. As such, in preparation for his writing, he spoke about how he had initially visited a variety of haunted houses, as well as listening to “horror movie soundtracks”, but had to stop, stating that “[he] was writing at 3 in the morning so it can get quite creepy”.

As his concept changed so did his music, switching up his horror beats for a playlist he named ‘Choons with the Dead’, featuring a variety of 80’s classics to get him into the right headspace. He ended by advising the audience that when using music, remember to choose “nothing with lyrics that distracts you”.

However, not all of his inspiration comes from music, as Karunatilaka listed his top three authors: Kurt Vonnegut (Galapagos), George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo), and Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide), who all had had a literary influence on him for this novel.

Galgut, on the other hand, expressed how normality was key for him, writing his award-winning novel, The Promise, explaining; “it’s quite important to keep your life in the same tracks it runs on when you are working and to not divert yourself too much”.

After an evening of questions on different countries publishing scenes and Karunatilak’s lack of tweeting, the night closed with both authors being asked: is there anything you would change about your respective novels? Karunatilaka replied speedily, “I would not go back to it, even though it’s far from flawless. It’s done.” Galgut seconded his response adding, “it’s part of the process of a novel that you exhaust all of those possibilities in the writing, that by the end there is nothing that you feel can or should be changed”. The night was a huge success with both authors putting on a great show and celebrating two amazing books. So, if you need something to read, why not give The Seven Moons of Maali a try.

By Felicity Phillips

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