Photo courtesy of Sunday Observer

“Nothing is as exciting for us as to find our own place, or our own stories, in a book. When that happens the self is doubled, we are no longer invisible.” Michael Ondaatje

For the winner of the 2020 Gratiaen prize, Carmel Miranda, her book Crossmatch is a fast paced page turner set in a world intimately known to her. Although it is a crime story, the book minutely documents the complex world of doctors, in this case a medical student, and their work. The book is interlaced with specific medical descriptions and intense situations that capture the high pressure world members of the profession inhabit.

Like Arundhati Roy winning the Man Booker Prize with her first novel, Carmel is also a first time author who has not been published before. She speaks about her inspiration, writing habits and the next step.

How do you feel about winning the prize as a first time author? Did you think you would win?

I’m absolutely thrilled to have won the Gratiaen prize as a first time author. I thought I had a chance but I never thought I would actually win.

When did you start writing?

I started writing about four or five years ago but the book started to take shape about three years ago.

Have you had stories or novels published before?

This is my first attempt at writing and my first publication.

Was there a particular event or incident from your own life that triggered you to write a mystery story?

No, it was more my love for this genre that made me attempt a mystery story.

How were you able to balance your work as a doctor and dealing with your family as well as writing?

There was no balancing involved! If I don’t have the time, I just don’t write. Writing was a hobby to occupy my spare time, the time left over from dealing with work and family. So I could go for weeks without finding time to write, which is not a bad thing because returning to your work after a long break can be refreshing and constructive. It helps to look at your work with new eyes.

Did you use a medical setting for your book because you could draw from your own experiences?

Yes, I found that I had a lot of raw material to draw from, looking back at my own experiences. I also wanted to spotlight some topical issues that I feel strongly about, having come across such issues in my practice.

What did you want to say about the medical profession and how it operates?

I wanted to paint a realistic picture of the medical profession. In my experience, doctors are portrayed quite unrealistically in fiction, especially when written by non-medics. In particular, I wanted to show what it is like to undergo medical training. Doctors are frequently protagonists in fiction, but medical students rarely.

As a first time author was is easy to find a publisher?

No, it wasn’t easy to find a publisher but that didn’t discourage me. I kept thinking of J. K. Rowling whose first manuscript was famously refused 12 times! After a few hurdles I was fortunate to find a publisher who liked my manuscript and was very keen to publish it.

What do you think the quality of English writing in Sri Lanka?

There is a huge variation in quality of English language writing in Sri Lanka. I have read many of these works but consider only a handful to be worthy finished products. I don’t fault the writers themselves, more the editors, proof readers, publishers and even the printers. Even my book probably reflects this and I intend to address any shortcomings in subsequent reprints and new editions.

There are many diaspora authors but not many people living here who write in English. Is it difficult to find an audience here?

One of the publishers I approached told me that if I had written the novel in Sinhala they would have published it immediately! Obviously, the Sinhala market is much bigger (and more profitable) than the English one. Having said that, I haven’t had a problem finding a market for my book so far, although the numbers are not huge. My initial print run was a relatively small one but now I am going into my third. The audience, though small in numbers, is quite active and thirsty for new material.

Do you have ideas for another book?

Dealing with the publishing and distribution of Crossmatch, and now the Gratiaen prize, and continuing with my “other” life has kept me pretty busy in 2021. I have a couple of ideas “cooking” in my head but they are nowhere near being ready to be put down on paper. Many readers have demanded a sequel to Crossmatch but I have no plans for that either right now. Sequels, in my experience, hardly ever match up to the original. All I can say is, watch this space.