Hell no! I want to be asked questions. I want there to be a stream of people thrusting microphones in my face, snapping photographs, and asking me a thousand unanswerable questions which I simple deflect with a wave of my hand and a dazzling smile which reveal my perfect teeth as I keep walking, and pausing – occasionally – to sign autographs and wave and blow kisses. All to the music of Josh Ritter. So it’s kind of a swell but also poignant and about-to-fall-off-a-precipice feeling. Oh, and I’m also rocking some designer bling as I’m doing this. In high heels. Backward. George Clooney may be holding my arm too. Or Jonathan Rhys Meyers (since we share that bit about being expelled from school at the age of 16). I’d be heading off to a rally for some cool social-justice cause or to party hard, depending.
So why are you doing a self-interview?
I’m not. These questions are coming at me from a computer at a remote location where sits The Woman Who “O”wns the World, who is sipping sangria and talking to me via google chat.
How did you come up with this title?
I didn’t. My agent, Julie Barer did. She is very good at titles. She is probably also very good at writing books but has kindly left it to the rest of us. It used to be called A Bend in the Road. I liked that title very much since it contains pretty much everything I could say about the book. The omniscient voice (which is the road), the road that connects all the characters in this book, the road that is pivotal to all that transpires there, the road that is both shelter from and access to the political events beyond it, all this, and the road ahead for the characters and for the country. Journeys, road maps, what will remain (the road that had been walked before), the road that became (what happened there), the road that must be taken (while holding both the past and the future in balance). Not to mention all the connotations of the word “bend” – what is unseen, hidden, the shift of things. But then there was the problem that it harkens back to V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, and, alarmingly, a romance written by someone called Nicholas Sparks. So, On Sal Mal Lane. Which does contain all of the above but with more specificity, setting it in Sri Lanka, with those flowers, that lane. The original title helped me to focus though, so it served me well.
Do you like roads?
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is my favorite book, if that counts. It is one of the most true and uplifting books I have ever read. But roads in general, yes. I like traveling and collecting images and stories. I remember roads only because I remember what I have seen there though; I cannot read maps. It’s a sort of intuitive finding-my-way for me. And I love the people I meet everywhere along the road. Wherever I go.
Is there anywhere you are going on the road with this book that you are particularly thrilled about?
Because it is on the absolute opposite corner of where I am now in every way. It is a place I have never been in, never experienced. In fact, it is probably everything that I am not, literally and metaphorically: wide-open, fluid, laid-back. I like placing myself (and the book) in the wake of things that are in direct opposition to what I am about, including my politics. That is why I write, after all, to create the opportunity to do that. Besides, I had wanted very much to read at Elliott Bay Books when my first book came out and for one reason or another it didn’t happen. It feels a little magical therefore, to be going there with this book. A right time, a right moment, the right book, the right people both taking me there and receiving me too.
Must all your choices have meaning?
Everything? How about a shoe? Does a shoe-choice have to have meaning?
Probably more than most other things. Hence the many references to feet and shoes in my first novel, A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Shuster, 2009). Think about it. If you wear the wrong shoe with a dress, you will feel uncomfortable about your whole appearance. If you feel uncomfortable about your appearance, you will be too preoccupied with that to pay real attention to anything that is going on. If you aren’t paying attention (and feeling less-than about yourself), you will turn down the invitation to an off-site event. If you don’t go to that off-site event you will miss meeting Jonathan Rhys Myers. And if you miss meeting him you may never look as cool as you might have had you been walking down those steps in front of the paparazzi with Jonathan Rhys Myers. Ever. All because of that one stupid choice you made about your shoes. Try living with that, honey. That’s the kind of regret that will do you in. Every. Choice. Has. Meaning.
Did you read that in O Magazine?
I learned the hard way. Through experience.
Want to tell me about it?
Okay then. You’ve mentioned Jonathan Rhs Meyers a few times. Do you know him?
Would you like to know him?
So why do you want to walk down the steps with him?
I like to accessorize.
Are you always this shallow?
Not when I write.
Aren’t you afraid people will only remember you as a shallow fluff-ball who likes dresses and shoes and parties and Manhattans (shhh, I heard), and pretty boys?
No. I am more afraid of becoming a serial bore by being, relentlessly, She of Depth and Seriousness. Those things have their place. But so do pretty dresses, and make-up, and high-heels, and hearts over the ‘i’s in your lover’s name, and imaginary movie-star moments, and soundtracks to ones life. And swings. And rocking your inner Beyoncé. And blasting “99 Problems” in your car because you are pissed off over not getting what you wanted from McDonalds.
As a feminist don’t you have a problem with rap lyrics that use the word bitch?
As a feminist I have the good sense to, as Jay-z puts it, “press fast forward,” or, when I feel like it, to turn up the volume. I also don’t have a problem with Barack Obama calling me pretty.
Do you have an idol?
If I had to pick just one it would be my older brother, Malinda. He is tortured by his inadequacies, but he is gilded by his virtues. My favorite kind of character.
An American idol?
Because she is complex. A broken-fixed essential corner puzzle piece in the fabric of the world I live in. She is a mother who can leave her crying son at home and take to the road to talk to strangers and thereby strengthens and transforms both his life and theirs. She is a wife who can say, “I’ll show you slut,” at 1 a.m. in a bar and you know she could but she won’t. She is a superstar who has hung on to the “OMG!” we all carry inside but most are too self-conscious to express.
Do you like people?
Yes. I’m one of those people-people people. You know the Lyle Lovett, “I love Everybody, Especially You” song? That’s me. I do. Unless of course I don’t like you. Which also happens, I’ll admit, and not infrequently. But generally, I feel a burning desire to know more about every person I meet, to identify the essence of their beauty somehow, because everybody has it – some spark that they carry that is their brand of beauty. Like jewels with feet. Some tiny ones, some big ones, some ruby chips, some veritable Kohinoor diamonds, but they are all there right in front of us and I’ve always been drawn to shiny, sparkly things.
Is your new book a shiny, sparkly thing?
My country was once known as Ratna Deepa – the island of gems. And like the star sapphires, cat’s eyes and rubies that are found in the deep brown mud of her rivers, the good of the people of Sri Lanka is similarly dispersed: hidden sometimes, flooded sometimes, deprived in drought sometimes, but it is still boundless and present. I write of that beauty in On Sal Mal Lane, and while I write, while I speak of it, I get to bear witness to that.
RU FREEMAN is the author of the novels On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl, which was a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and has been translated into seven languages. She is an activist and journalist whose work appears internationally. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.