This week on The Grinders of WhatTheHallelujah?! we have a cool cat by the
name of Mike Masilamani, Copywriter, Creative Director, lecturer, Sunday School teacher and more recently house painter. Mike currently works at the Sydney Survivorship Centre, Concord Hospital: doing all things from organising fundraising to being the most enthusiastic guest-student of the knitting class and generally encouraging cancer survivors to regain their mojo. Mike has many “non-achievements” such as being expelled from Loyola College hostel, Chennai and failing all his subjects in his 5th semester. Undeterred he went on to join the family business and won a scholarship to the Chartered Institute of Marketing, United Kingdom. He went on to write a few sick ads, winning a couple of awards for them along the way and pioneered Sri Lanka’s first dating website. We spoke to him about his first book ‘The Boy Who Speaks In Numbers’, that follows The Boy, on his journey to a refugee camp with the Constantly Complaining Cow and the Kind Uncle who Never Speaks for company.
WTH: Hi there Mike, do you mind if I call you Mike?
Mike: Yes, I do mind.
WTH: Congratulations on your new book. I hear your early reviews have all been great thus far. Are you excited for the launch itself?
Mike: To be honest, the only reviews have been from you and your mum and as we all know, both aren’t the most objective audience. But yes, it is an exciting turn of events – something I’ve prayed for, for many years.
WTH: The book initially was written as short story for a children’s magazine that was later performed as a play. How did this evolve into the novella it is today?
Mike: Well if you remember, I used to read parts of it to you and your brother long ago. Then, there came a point, that I couldn’t do that anymore. You two were still young and impressionable then.
At some point, I sent it to my dear buddy Tracy who runs Mind Adventure Theatre Company in Colombo who turned it into a play despite my protest that I hadn’t finished with the story. The story doesn’t end there; a couple of years after we performed it in Colombo it got invited to the Hindu Metroplus Theatre Festival in Chennai. Interestingly it got far better reviews than it did in Colombo. To be fair it had gone through some refinements.
Still later I was introduced to Nia Murphy, a designer then at Tara Books who took it back to Chennai and interested V Geetha the editorial director of Tara Books. There followed what is best described as a master class in writing from Geetha, that in no small measure contributed to what the Boy is today.
WTH: this sounds like no quick and easy feat. How long did the whole process take and did you envision the book as it is today from the beginning?
Mike: You’re right it was no quick and easy feat. I compare it to bringing up a child. I read somewhere that the Talmud says there are 3 things a man should do: plant a tree, have a child and write a book. Since I had limited success with the first two I had to try and do a better job with the third! *laughs* (…)
Then of course there are the illustrations. There is a story behind them too- Rathna Ramanathan, who is responsible for design at Tara spent a whole year illustrating the book herself (which rarely happens) and then decided she didn’t like them! That’s when Mathew Frame took over, responsible for the current illustrations, which I think are awesome.
All in all, I would say the project has taken 6 to 7 years.
WTH: This book was initially written for children, however has clearly taken a more mature turn with darker themes. Who would you say this book is written for?
Mike: That’s a difficult one. I would say it is for everyone rooting for a child growing up through a war. It is a fable of our times.
WTH: Writing as a discipline is a difficult one to cultivate – did this skill come naturally to you? What advice would you give our future copywriters cum authors?
Mike: As you know some of the best writers have been copywriters – Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey to name just a couple. As for me, I’m fond of describing myself as a second-generation wordsmith, as my dad was not only a copywriter but also a journalist.
However none of this automatically qualifies one to be a writer -it is more the love of writing and the determination to make it as a writer. Writing can be a lonely occupation.
One practical tip for would-be writers –read your writing out aloud. Jonathan Swift and Jonathan Franzen are two authors who practice(d) this. Remember that’s how this story started-with your brother and you as my audience. At the end of the day a good novel is really about good storytelling.
WTH: Thank you for sitting with WTH this evening, how can our readers get their hands on The Boy Who Speaks in Numbers?
Mike: The book is currently available in India at Tara Books
And can also be bought online http://www.tarabooks.com/books/. It is being launched in Colombo on the 8th of May and will be available at Barefoot bookshop there. The book will be available worldwide in November 2015 and you can pre-order it at www.amazon.com.
WTH: Looking forward to it Mike, is there anything else on the horizon we should keep a look-out for?
Mike: Stick to Dad, and thank you for asking. Yes there is a second book in the works for the same publisher, Tara Books. It’s titled The Story of Stories, and is an ancient Indian fable that I have been asked to reinterpret, beautifully illustrated by the Brazilian artist Jose Francisco Borges whose works are exhibited at the Louvre and The Smithsonian.