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DateLine Sunday, 3 February 2008

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'Writing till I drop' - Carl Muller

Carl Muller, a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist, is the eldest in a family of thirteen. He joined the Royal Ceylon Navy as a signalman, at the age of eighteen, and later moved into journalism.

In spite of ill health Muller has been prolific, with two volumes of poetry, an educational book for children, two anthologies of short stories, 'historical fiction' such as Colombo (1996), Children of the Lion (1997), a collection of essays and several monographs.

But his most renowned is probably his Burgher trilogy, The Jam Fruit Tree (1993), Yakada Yaka (1994) and Once Upon A Tender Time (1995). This year sees two new, long overdue collections of his poems, A return to rhyme and other lines, by Godage Publishers and I am modern man by Sarasavi Publishers.

Q: You term your work as 'Faction' why?

A: I use the word faction because, while I maintain that mine is a work of fiction, it is based on factual experiences and real-life characters who have been disguised but easily recognized.

Q: What is your opinion about comedy in novel?

A: I am all for comedy in my novels. Our life is becoming a tired old world. Everybody is rushing around to make ends meet, grumble at the cost of living, are sick of the highly politicized state of the country. If I can make my readers laugh, I think I am doing them a good turn.

Q: You have only a few collections of poetry, why?

A: I never seriously considered poetry until I found out that for strange and most unaccountable reasons, most Sri Lankan publishers did not wish to publish poetry collections. They would always say that the readership was small and that they could make nothing out of the publication. I began to write poems just as a sort of strike back to this attitude.

Q: What inspired you to deviate from your typical subject matter and write a historical novel - Children of the Lion, what were your intentions?

A: This is not any sort of inspiration. My editors at Penguin India suggested it in two particular books - Colombo novel and Children of the Lion. David Davidar, the then CEO of Penguin asked me to produce the books on this theme. I had to abandon my usual frivolity and get down to something very serious.

Fortunately I do have the aptitude to switch style - a part of good newspaper training, where you can cover a deadly serious affair today and tell of a crazy musical farce tomorrow. This is why the mind must govern the way you write.

Q: How did you feel when you won the State Literary Prize for one of the best novels you wrote? (Children of the Lion)

A: The suggestion that I submit Children of the Lion for the State Literary Award came from a dear friend, Tissa Devendra. I did so and got the award. It told me a thing or two.

You can be recognised for the madcap writing, like the Jam fruit tree that won the Gratiaen, as well as for the massively researched, very serious, like Children of the Lion. Whereby you will cater to all manner of readers.

Q: In your novels you chose to focus on the hoi polloi Burghers, is what you portray true Burgher nature, or is it purely for the sake of entertainment?

A: First let me remind you that 'Burgher' does not relate to race. As such, we cannot talk of a 'true Burgher nature'. There is a splendid variety of Burghers and the Burgher family I wrote of, were of a particular middleclass family, who liked to live for the day and enjoy themselves, while at the same time, faces life's many crises, but take it all with much aplomb.

I may have upheld the rollicking parts of their lives, but my books were not deliberately fashioned to be entertaining. I told it as it was.

Q: Does the language you use in your novels represent true Burgher speech?

A: The Burghers did not speak the way I used the language in my work. I was focusing on one particular family circle. There were the better-spoken Burghers too, but come to think of it, it all depended on their level of education.

After all there was no 'Burgher language', but the language taught by the British, to which, there were added hints of the Portuguese tongue, the free use of Sinhala and even Tamil. This would bring on a sort of lilt in the way they spoke. Ordinary speech took no heed of correct presentation at all. Standing sentences on their head seemed to be quite a conversational art!

Q: How has the response been for your use of a hybridized language?

A: My use of the language has met with some scorn by the Burghers who wish to show that they never spoke that way. Their prerogative, I guess. If they are satisfied with the way they speak, they are free to pass off as the Burghers who cannot even claim to have a national language of their own!

Q: What is your opinion on Sri Lankan science fiction?

A: Thanks to the vast encouragement given to our young writers by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, some of our writers have also begun to stretch the very limits of space. This is both imaginative and bold. It also tells us that we cannot just internationalise our work but 'universalise' it.

Q: What inspired you to write Exodus 2300?

A: Exodus 2300 was written because I wished to bring in an Armageddon scenario and also follow the gist of the 'Last days of Earth' according to the Bible account by St. John. But I had to also find answers to things that had been troubling my own imagination. My inspiration was really no inspiration. I have my own innermost beliefs but religion must be realistic to be effective.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: Keep writing until I drop. What else can an old man of 73 do?

sajitha@sundayobserver.lk

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