The Craft of Storytelling

An interview with I had with author Brandon Ingram for Colombo Spirit.

English language fiction writers in Sri Lanka have, in the past few decades, risen to meet their colonial counterparts, proclaiming to the world that the likes of Chinua Achebe weren’t the only post colonial writers who could tell the world their story and tell it well.

Our authors are being read, reviewed and appreciated at a rapid rate and not merely within the island anymore. From Michael Ondaatje to Carl Muller, Shyam Selvadurai, Romesh Goonasekera, David Blacker, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten and most recently Shehan Karunatilake to name a few, we have ourselves a large volume of good writing that demands that the world stand up and pay attention.

Some writers wait until they deem themselves worldly wise enough to laud their perspectives on the world, while others feel ready to pass on the lessons they learn every day, and as a result Sri Lanka has a wealth of different genres, writing styles and stories on offer for any kind of reader, provided they come to the table with an open mind.

And that is exactly what young author Brandon Ingram asks of his readers. His books deal with subjects that we often find uncomfortable; his first book, The Fairy Dance, launched when he was just 21 years old, dealt with child sex tourism along the island’s coastal belt. His second, Living their Lie, plunged into the heart of same-sex relationships and extra marital affairs. One wonders where the subject matter and the motivation came from.

“For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be a writer,” proclaims Brandon who wrote his first published piece at 14, a poem initially written for his mother (Corrine Almedia) on her birthday. He is 25 now, and in the process of finishing his third book to be launched this year and ideating for his fourth.

Between his first published piece at 14 and his first book at 21 was a seven year lapse. Fiction writing played a virtually non-existent role in his life as he opted merely to write for himself and his work. He began a career in television, hosting Fan Club and then went on to become an advertising writer, climbing up the career ladder at a rapid pace. From a meager allowance as a trainee writer at the age of 17 to a Creative Partner in one of Colombo’s leading agencies today, Brandon is very much established as a sought after resource in the marketing communications industry. ‘That is where my journey with writing really began,’ he says of his career. It was his advertising ideas and writing that reminded him of his dream to one day become an author. It was in fact a campaign he was working on against child sex tourism that gave him the inspiration for The Fairy Dance to begin with.

Writing a novel and writing for an ad campaign however require polar opposite skills. With a novel, not only is the craft of writing different; one’s art of weaving that craft into a story also needs to be a finely honed one. How has Brandon’s craft been accepted by his readers thus far? “I know of two completely different kinds of people who have read my books; the first kind believe that the writing could improve or that it’s pretty basic in terms of craft. But those were answers completely focused on the writing. There are others who tell me that they’ve read my books and cried. They say that they feel like I am sitting next to them, telling the story myself. That tells me and teaches me something; that even though I may not have perfected the art of writing and telling a story yet, I have possibly come a great distance in how to tell a story. As a writer, that I believe is my strength”.

Brandon has been going through many more drafts with his new book than with his previously published books. The one to be published this year has gone through 11 drafts already. He seems to reevaluating himself and his skill, demanding more of himself. “In retrospect, if you take my first and second book – to me now, The Fairy Dance, in terms of writing, is crap. I think that I need to improve my craft of writing.,” he says. “I think I have a long way to go before I can be proud of having my books on the shelf with someone I am really proud of, like Paulo Coelho. Through him, I learned how to tell a story.” Brandon sums up his own philosophy of writing, by saying, “I believe that while you can tell a good story and not be able to write it, you can’t be able to write a good story and not be able to tell one.“

For someone who’d repeated to himself that he would be an author someday like a mantra, Brandon was in a state of complete disbelief when it finally happened. “It felt like my whole life I had known that that moment existed but for some reason when it was happening, I couldn’t believe that it was”.Launching a book however isn’t generally the be all and end all of it; having it critically accepted and widely read is the next challenge any author faces. Funnily enough, the book sales for Brandon’s first novel picked up only after the success of the second, making readers go back to the bookstores looking for more work by the same author. “Lots of people read my first book, second”.

With his new book, Brandon is once again, “telling us a story and addressing another one of those uncomfortable issues, not talked about much”. But what is it about specifically? “At this point I don’t really know. I have a plot. I have a lot of emotion. But unlike the other ones, where I could clearly tell you that it was about child sex tourism or same-sex relationships, this one doesn’t quite work that way. It’s about several things actually.”

For his fourth book, already in the process of its initial drafts, Brandon is playing around with the idea of balance through elements of surrealism and fantasy. He tells us that he is working with three different characters’ perspectives, from three distinctive places in their lives. “What I am trying to do is to remind people that hate is not the opposite of love, it is merely an extension of it. I am trying to distinguish between what we believe is wrong or right and why we come to those conclusions.”

Brandon’s journey as a writer and as an individual hasn’t been a conventional one; from the onset he was adamant that academia wasn’t the path for him. “Growing up I was very certain that I didn’t want to study. On occasion I regret that decision but… not really. I’m not putting it down to anything but I am saying that everyone chooses their own path. I was really lucky to have a mother who both understood & supported my decision to not study”.

There’s evident admiration with which he counts Enid Blyton as one of his favourite authors. “Before there was J.K. Rowling, there was Enid Blyton. Writing a story for children is far more challenging than a story for adults because kids’ imaginations are so vast and can go so many places with what you give them, and if you don’t give them enough and have forgotten how to be a child yourself, then you’re doing an them a great injustice.”

Brandon’s unwavering belief in his faith and in himself is what he feels that has brought him thus far. At the end of the day, he deals with topics that people feel he isn’t ready to at his age and reading Brandon’s books are challenging, if not in terms of language, then in terms of story and subject matter. What do his readers feel when they finally turn the last page? What do we get out of it? “I want to have opened their minds a little more. My own grandmother told me that even though she didn’t quite agree with me writing about same sex relationships, she now understood it better. That’s how I want them to react”. He has no doubt that his ability to do so will increase with each coming book as he grows as a person and a writer with each passing day.

Brandon the teenager grew up never wavering in his dream of becoming an author someday. Brandon in his 20’s has taken that self-belief and evolved into the person he is today. “My belief in God never changed its mark irrespective of what life threw at me and it has helped me in turn to believe in myself at all times”. The world is ready to see how much that belief has continued to help you grow both as a storyteller and writer Brandon – your third book had better do just that.

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