OishiAuthorPhotos-17You say it took you 50 years to write your novel. What took you so long?

Fifty years ago, I was still a young man and didn’t have much to do, so I thought I would write the great Japanese-American novel. I thought it might a take a couple of years. But I had the time.


So what went wrong?

I needed a story. You know, drama with conflict, passion, pathos. Those kinds of things.

Dylan laughing hiresWhat’s the question you most dread being asked?

Grad students ask it all the time: When I write about Rainey Royal getting molested, is that based on personal experience? There’s a story about that in my first book, too, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. But my writing teacher in Los Angeles, the novelist Jim Krusoe, once said: Answer the question you want to answer. So: Can I just talk about writing? I like going to the basement, to dark, uncomfortable places, and seeing what kind of unfamiliar language I can construct for what’s going on. And as a writer, I think the less you say on paper the more the reader imagines.

You were once irritated by a writing instructor who told you he wanted to smell the curry more in your stories about Sri Lanka. How do you make a good Sri Lankan lentil curry?

The key is to overindulge in coconut milk and spices. Cinnamon sticks, coriander, cardamom pods, cumin, cloves, garlic, chilies, onions – all simmering together in a heavy pot along with red or yellow lentils and coconut milk. The best comfort food in the world.

Over the next weeks, Nilanthi listened silently as the village praised her luck. Women who had known her mother rested their palms on her dirty hair and whispered blessings and wishes and called out to the memory of her mother. Nilanthi found it amusing that people treated mutes as if they had lost their ability to hear after their voices disappeared. In her presence, her neighbors said things like, “She used to be such a clean girl.” Or “Cleverness can’t bring luck. Everyone said she’d be a doctor or teacher, and look at her now. Pity. The girl needs her mother.”

Nilanthi had her own conversations in front of the women.  Her mother stood behind Nilanthi as she raised the well bucket to her laundry basin. As she smacked her husband’s clothes halfheartedly against a flattened rock, her mother reminded her, “Don’t be so timid. Really strike the rock with it.” Nilanthi closed her eyes as her mother’s voice continued to whisper. “Do you remember Lalith’s school uniform? No matter how gleaming it would be as he left for school, he’d return it smudged and stained. He’d always offer an excuse. A fierce cricket match. Running after a thief who had stolen a friend’s bike. Somehow he always became the hero of these stories. And a hero certainly needs his uniform shining the next day.”