The Rumpus Book Club chats with Ru Freeman about On Sal Mal Lane, war as seen through children’s eyes, and Sinhalese cuss words.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Rebecca: Oh gosh. Where do I start? Maybe here: so I was thinking about how ambitious this novel is—with all of the characters and the history of Sri Lanka. Where did you start with this? Were you planning all of this history from the start?
Ru Freeman: I wasn’t planning the history. The book began as a sort of reflection on the people down a lane, the children, really. And then I began to see that there was this larger story I wanted to tell, and this was the vehicle for that story. I stayed close to the kids—it kept me grounded to do that, in the original story—but now I had this “feel” for the events that were swirling around those children.
Rebecca: Oh, yes! I’m so glad we stayed with the families, the Heraths and the Bollings and Raju. It grounded the novel so much.
Brian S: I will also cop to having spent some time on the Sri Lanka Wikipedia page while reading this, especially as I got toward the end.
Ru Freeman: Ha. Good! I mean, there are other sources, but Wikipedia is a good start.
Rebecca: Oh yes. I tried to explain the history of Sri Lanka’s civil war to someone when I was explaining the book, and I realized I didn’t understand it as well as I needed to yet. I felt like I was learning history here, but I never felt like I was being talked down to.
Brian S: I was impressed with the pacing in this book. It started off lush and maybe even a touch slow, but I could always tell it was building, and tension kept ratcheting up, but slowly, until the last hundred pages or so, and then BOOM! That’s not really a question, though.
Rebecca: Oh gosh, yeah. The pace at the beginning was slow—lots of characters, lots of history to tell. And I kept reading because it was so well-written and because I started to fall in love with the characters. And then everything hit at the end! Did you plan for the pacing to be that way?
Ru Freeman: So to answer the question on pacing, once again, I just let the characters unfold, and where they went is where I followed with the words. It wasn’t so much a deliberate intention to change the pace, but this is in fact how things unfold in real life. You don’t see things coming and then they hit.
Rebecca: Ah, yes! The ending felt as inevitable as the ending of Appointment in Samarra. (Inevitable but NOT predictable.)
Ru Freeman: That’s high praise.
Rebecca: I mean that praise.
Brian S: How did you deal with what must have been the temptation to have some character (or the narrator) just tell some of the history, given that much of your American audience probably can’t find Sri Lanka on a map, much less know the history?
Ru Freeman: I really try to avoid, you know, rolling out the history. The people are so important to me, and what happens to them, how they react, how things happen to them, this is what is important. I feel that if I can tell THAT story well, then people will go and Google the rest and fill in what they need to know. Nobody gets interested in the history just because we lay it out in chronological order after all, so that’s my guide when doing this.
And I was interested in writing something that has meaning in the larger context of global conflicts anywhere. So while this is about Sri Lanka, it is also about war in general. How it happens, how it can end—even though it can seem endless.
Brian S: In this case, it felt a little more about how war can begin, though the tensions had certainly been there for a long time.
Rebecca: Yeah, I didn’t realize until I hit Wikipedia that the civil war lasted until 2009…wait, is that the right year? One of my best friends went to Sri Lanka about two years ago, and I had no idea she was there so near the end of the civil war.
Ru Freeman: Yes. 2009. May 18th is the official end of the war, and it is also the day on which the book comes out in Canada.
Rebecca: That’s a good date.
Brian S: And it was really interesting the way you played with the lack of information that kids have when they’re trying to make sense of the world.
Rebecca: Yes! I felt right there with the kids, in my ignorance, in trying to figure it out.
Ru Freeman: Yeah. That part was not as easy. Because as an adult writer, I know things, but I really had to inhabit their head space, that unknowingness that kids have, but also the things they suspect—slightly, usually, the wrong things, but they do suspect that something is amiss.
Brian S: I could relate to that—not in the sense of facing danger, but in the sense of realizing that big stuff is going down and I don’t really get it. I was 6 when the Vietnam War ended, for example, and 11 during the Iran hostage situation, just getting interested in the news.
Rebecca: Okay, here’s a question I have: so I understand from your background that you grew up in the U.S. but your parents are originally from Sri Lanka, right? Did you have to do much research—I mean, I imagine you did—to feel like you could accurately portray Sri Lankan children and families, especially in those years?
Ru Freeman: I grew up in Sri Lanka, actually. I came here to go to college. So these were events I lived through. War defined my entire childhood and youth and most of my adulthood too—and in the US, it continues to do so since we are, after all, a country at war.
Rebecca: Ahhhh! I’m so sorry I missed that, then!
Ru Freeman: But it was not only this war but the conflict between the communist South and the right-wing government, death threats, and bomb blasts. My brother in prison…a lot of things.
Brian S: I’ve always assumed that in the US, especially in the last 30 years or so, much of the population is insulated from the effects of war. Was that the case in Sri Lanka? Was the fighting limited to certain areas? I’m showing my ignorance here.
Rebecca: Yes, we are a country at war, but I really don’t think we feel that most of the time.
Brian S: Not unless you have friends, family, students in the military, or unless you live in one of those very few places that have been hit with violence in the US. But that’s a small percentage of the country. It’s easy to forget that there’s a war going on, which is crappy.
Rebecca: I just remember living in France and having my neighbors take me to French cemeteries. And my neighbors kept telling me, “We remember what war is like. We won’t forget.” Meaning that Europe—and France in particular—was more peaceful, less willing to go to war or support the U.S.’s wars because they had had war on their soil.
Ru Freeman: You are absolutely right, Brian. This country is at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how many of us know soldiers? I’ve written quite a bit about war and politics on my blog (if you go to http://www.rufreeman.com/blog and click on “American Politics,” you should get a few). In Sri Lanka, it was different. It is a small island, and the war affected everybody. Everybody knew somebody who was killing or being killed. The suicide bombers—in the capital city, etc.—makes it hard to insulate oneself from it. The checkpoints, the military.
Rebecca: So, I have another question for Ru (and I hope it does not sound ignorant): Have you read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things? Did you feel any of its influence in writing this novel?
Ru Freeman: None whatsoever from The God of Small Things.
Brian S: Which brother was in prison (if that’s not too personal)?
Ru Freeman: The one who is a journalist and is now the editor of one of the largest English language newspapers there. : ) You can ask me anything.
Brian S: So I’m guessing he was jailed because of his journalistic activities? As opposed to being a Sonna-esque character?
Ru Freeman: No, he was a student then. He and some others were trying to form a new political party, and they were abducted. It is a miracle that my mother was able to find him. It was a time of the disappeared, much like in El Salvador. We were (and are) a left-wing family. He was much younger then. There were human rights lawyers who agreed to appear for him and the others pro bono, and they filed a case against the government, which they ultimately won. It is a landmark case in Sri Lankan history re: fundamental rights. Some of those imprisoned are now in government.
Rebecca: Wow. Abducted.
Melissa: Hi, sorry to join late. Your book is beautifully written—I love what you say in the prologue about who is telling the story. So reminiscent of magical realism for me, which I love. How do you keep track of all the characters, by which I mean, make them all so rich and complex and consistent? Were they living in your head constantly while you wrote?
Ru Freeman: Hi Melissa. Thanks for that. I write very quickly. I think a lot, so I don’t spend a lot of time actually writing—I do that part very quickly. That helps, for me. To keep track of the characters.
Rebecca: I felt like I knew the characters, like I couldn’t put them away even when I was done with the book.
Rebecca: Ru, did you have a favorite character?
Melissa: Do members of your family or people you knew growing up influence your characters, and if so, would they recognize themselves in the characters if they read the book?
Ru Freeman: I am very fond of Sonna, actually. And Nihil.
Melissa: I love Nihil.
Ru Freeman: Sonna in particular was a very minor character at the beginning but grew into himself in revision.
Brian S: So am I. Sonna is painfully tragic, and I recognized kids I grew up with in him.
Ru Freeman: Great!
Rebecca: I loved Sonna so much, and to me, his death was more tragic than Devi’s. Just because everyone grieved over Devi, remembered her, but who would remember Sonna? Maybe his mother. And Nihil’s book of worries! I loved that he tried so hard to prevent what seemed so inevitable.
Brian S: It wasn’t his death that hit me so hard—that was inevitable. It was that moment when he irrevocably turned into who he would become, and that it was all just a waste that hit me hardest with him. When you could see that it was going to turn out badly. That it couldn’t turn out any other way.
Ru Freeman: Interesting you say that about his death. There was a moment in the editing process where I was debating about writing that scene out more, his death, but in the end I wanted it to be that abrupt and leave him pretty much still dying and being mourned by the reader, rather than my writing it out. Thanks for reminding me of it.
Rebecca: Yeah. I felt my heart breaking. I’m glad you left it where it was, where only we, the readers, would be the ones mourning. I felt like the full weight of Sonna’s death was left for me (the reader) alone to grieve.
Brian S: I think it was a good choice to write it that way, as a matter of fact. The second I read that Raju had picked up the handlebars, I knew what was going to happen. It had to. There was no other way.
The readers and his mother. She grieved as well.
Did you ever consider having one of the other residents of Sal Mal Lane killed as a direct result of the mob violence?
Ru Freeman: No, I didn’t. I don’t know that having three deaths of fully realized characters in the same book would have worked. As it was, between Devi and Sonna, it was tough to strike a balance. And writing Devi’s and keeping Sonna “unsung” helped me to, I think, keep things on an even keel in that regard—emotionally.
Brian S: So an odd question: Did you try to get the publisher to put out a soundtrack of the various classical pieces the children play in this book? Because I would so love to hear those. (Maybe in the e-version—have the music pop up in the background on those pages.)
Ru Freeman: Ha. Interesting! I’m doing a piece for Largehearted Boy where I will be talking about those various pieces. That will have to suffice for now, but good idea!
Rebecca: I think the most unexpected relationship for me was Nihil’s friendship with Mr. Niles. I don’t know how to phrase this into a question other than: How did that come about?
Ru Freeman: There’s something about Nihil’s prescience that gelled with Mr. Niles and his way of being an observer who had already lived through a long history of loss. It seemed destined.
Rebecca: It did. Much of this book seemed destined, nothing forced. Were you always planning on including a glossary in the end? So much of the time I’d go back to look up the word and then you’d explain it in the next sentence.
Ru Freeman: The glossary came after. Graywolf thought that it would be good to include it. I know it was missed in the first novel, so…
Rebecca: I wondered about that! I think publishers are always thinking that way.
Brian S: I only really looked at it near the end, mainly to see the translation of—I can’t remember if it was Rose or Dolly’s—cursing at the men in the mob.
Ru Freeman: Ha. Did you learn something from that cursing, Brian?
Brian S: It was impressive.
Ru Freeman: I know Terry Hong from the Smithsonian’s BookDragon called this a “fan-huththa-tastic book.”
Brian S: Does the name Nihil have the same basic meaning in Sinhalese that it does in Latin, or is that a false cognate? Because it seemed to me like he was kind of empty until his relationship with Mr. Niles—his life was based around protecting Devi.
Rebecca: I also wondered about Nihil’s name and the emptiness of the word.
Ru Freeman: Nihil, frankly, is not a common name in Sri Lanka. And it isn’t a Sinhalese name. It just came out of the blue and stuck. It worked for that boy.
Rebecca: As far as your first book goes: when I Instagrammed the arrival of On Sal Mal Lane, a friend on Tumblr asked me how I got my hands on the book already, because she was already anticipating it being out in May. She was waiting!
Ru Freeman: That’s good to know. Graywolf has created a tremendous amount of buzz around the book—I am very grateful.
Rebecca: Oh, well, my friend on Tumblr had read your first book and I think some other essays, and has become your fan!
Brian S: How long did this book take you to write?
Ru Freeman: The first draft was very quick. My life is very busy with a lot of things, and so I don’t get uninterrupted time. When I do, I can just write all day. So it was like that. I was at Yaddo for three weeks. I wrote the whole thing, took a day off, revised it once. All there.
Brian S: Wow. That’s amazing.
Ru Freeman: Which is not to say it was perfect, but at least it was written down as a book.
Melissa: Wow. (Sorry I keep disappearing—toddler drama.)
Ru Freeman: But, as you all know, then the real work begins…
Rebecca: Did you do much revising after Yaddo?
Ru Freeman: Oh yes. I did.
Melissa: Was it a lot longer before the revision, and did you lose anything you wish you hadn’t?
Ru Freeman: No, it got longer in revision, actually. Things intensified.
Rebecca: It got longer with revision? Wow. I usually see it the opposite way, where things get cut.
Melissa: So you laid an amazing foundation, then built the dream home later.
Ru Freeman: Kind of, yes.
Brian S: I can’t see this book as shorter than it is, honestly. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much without that slow burn to get started.
Melissa: I totally agree and was just going to say the same thing.
Rebecca: I agree, Brian. Without the beginning and middle, where I was starting to get invested, I wouldn’t have felt the ending as such a big loss. The book stayed with me for a long time.
Ru Freeman: Thanks for saying that. It’s a hard decision.
Melissa: In the description of the lane, it builds and builds until at some point, I just immediately visualized the street, the homes, the verandas—all of it—as soon as I picked up the book again. It was all there in my mind, so perfectly painted for me. Remarkable.
Rebecca: Did you get much pressure by editors to cut it before they’d publish it? When I was doing my MFA, I took a fiction class with one writer who said he was getting pressure to cut most of his stuff to 250 pages. Is that still true?
Ru Freeman: No, not really. Fiona McCrae is a really amazing editor. Really smart and very astute about what a story needs.
Rebecca: That’s great. I like it when novels can be what they need to be, when writers can do what the story needs, rather than what the publisher needs.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now?
Rebecca: Oh! I always forget to ask that, Brian, but I’m always so glad you do.
Brian S: Keep that one in my hip pocket, I do.
Ru Freeman: I’m reading Kite by Dominique Eddé (translated by Ros Schwartz). It was recommended by Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Books. I respect his opinion.
Rebecca: My question follows Brian’s question about what you’re reading: What are you writing? What’s next?
Ru Freeman: I’ve got so many NF essays and interviews and stuff to do right now with the book that I’m only dabbling in the other stuff. But I—this week—had a piece up on PEN/Guernica, flash fiction to do with the festival that is a kernel of the new book…I’m thinking.
Rebecca: Oh! I’m definitely going to check that out, then. I might have to form a new Ru Freeman fan club (that’s my gushing!).
Ru Freeman: Form away!
Brian S: Glad to hear it! Probably the best thing that running this book club has done for me is help me find new people to read. Like I don’t already have enough to read, but hey, that’s what piles are for.
Rebecca: I have a serious book-buying problem. And reading. This club is fueling my reading, too.
Brian S: Mine is only made worse by the fact that I actually like reading on my iPad. Hear about a new book? Download it and have it in six seconds! So boned.
Rebecca: I haven’t had a chance to read your first novel yet, but do you feel like you grew as a writer in between the two?
Ru Freeman: Yes, I did. I mean, you always do. Every new thing is a result of everything you wrote before. But this also was a new realm in some ways. That book was very different from this one. It was like staring intently at a diorama for that one—something contained—to stepping back and taking in a vast expanse for this one. Still trying to maintain that closeness, but also being fully conscious of a large whole.
Rebecca: Ahh! I see.
Brian S: That’s the top of the hour. Thanks so much, Ru, for meeting with us tonight, and for writing such an interesting book.
Melissa: Yes, thank you!
Rebecca: Thanks, Ru! I’m so glad I read it.
Melissa: It was a wonderful choice, Brian. It doesn’t always happen that I get both perfectly crafted sentences and a compelling story. I’m glad you are picking my books these days…
Brian S: For the record, I am only one of many who have input into this process. I’m just the face of it.
Ru Freeman: Thanks, Brian. And you can always holler if you have any other questions: email@example.com. Enjoy the evening! If you are on the West Coast, somewhere close to Seattle, enjoy the activism!
Brian S: Good night, everyone!
Author photo by Brenda Carpenter.