Author Shehan Karunatilaka was awarded the 2022 Booker Prize on October 17 for his second novel, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. In his acceptance speech, Karunatilaka thanked the book’s publishing team, independent British publishing house Sort Of Books, for believing in his “weird, difficult, and strange” book, which he says some UK and US publishers found too “difficult and confusing.”

Karunatilaka spoke with PW about the award, why truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and more.

Walk us through the journey to have this “weird, difficult and strange” book find the right publisher. Why do you think the book was the right fit at Sort Of Books?

In the Indian subcontinent, my first novel Chinaman had acquired something of a cult following and some loyal readers over the years, so publishers were eager to acquire my second novel, Chats With the Dead, as it was then called. But U.K. and U.S. publishers found the novel difficult and confusing.

I knew Mark Ellingham of Sort Of Books and had written a travel story for him. He and his wife Natania Jansz had always been a generous and incisive readers of my drafts. They agreed to take it on, but warned me that there would be substantial edits on the text.

We carefully operated on it over the pandemic and the final result was Seven Moons. I’m not sure many other publishers would have been as patient and diligent with this story.

The book is considered a work of fiction and fantasy, but it centers on a very real war that has had devastating consequences on Sri Lanka as a country. How would you describe the impact Sri Lanka's civil war has had on your life?

I grew up with bombs, assassinations, curfews and a decades long war. But I wasn’t as traumatized as those who lived in the North and East of Sri Lanka and suffered deeply and lost the most.

Why was it important for you to tie the story in Seven Moons to this real conflict? The story could have just as well been written about a fictional conflict in a fictional country.

My first book was written as if it were a true sports biopic of a forgotten cricketer. And I enjoyed mixing fiction with fact and keep the reader guessing as to which bits are true and which were made up. This one was more fictionalized but all the historical details are true. The truth has always been stranger than fiction and mostly difficult to fathom.

In your Booker acceptance speech, you said that you hope Seven Moons is still read years from now in a different Sri Lanka. How do you hope and envision that Sri Lanka and its people will differ from the Sri Lanka of today?

I lived too long in this country to believe in its many false dawns. I’d like to believe that the young Aragalaya generation will learn from our mistakes and create a peaceful and prosperous nation. But I’m not sure I’d bet on it.

Now as the recipient of the Booker Prize, how has your view of the publishing industry and accolades changed? How do you plan to use the influence of your prize to bring about change

I have a lot more friends in the publishing industry now and a lot more prospects. The award will certainly transform my writing career. Wasn’t even sure I had a career after just one book.

My dream is to build libraries across rural Sri Lanka. Not sure I’m quite in a place to accomplish that. But hopefully if I keep writing, I might get there.