Deshan Tennekoon is a physically rickety but mentally limber writer from Sri Lanka. His books for Think Equal are taught in schools around the world and lots of 6-year-olds think they’re okay. He wrote for The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Asian Design and is still recovering from the shock of once being a Fulbright Visiting Scholar. ‘Podi’, a middle-grade graphic novel he co-wrote is forthcoming from Oni Press (2022). His short comics have been published by Image Comics, ShortBox, Inkbrick and in the Eisner and Ignatz-winning anthology Elements: Fire (Beyond Press). He believes in reckless napping as a fine tool for managing his sanity.
Tell me what inspired you to write Mary Anning’s Grewsome Beasts?
I think it was partly shock and disappointment: as a kid, I devoured palaeontology books but only discovered Anning’s astonishing contribution decades later. People didn’t seem to talk about her much.
Her story is remarkable: nearly killed by lightning as a baby; discovers her first major fossil at age 12; pulls corpses from the sea after a ship sinks at age 16; discovers the first complete plesiosaur fossil as well as the first fossil pterosaur from Britain; wears a reinforced top hat; is meticulous and brilliant in the field and in her conclusions.
And that’s not even half her story. I thought a book for kids was a useful way to honour her life, her mind, and her work.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
Can’t write to music if there’s lyrics involved. That said, each project has days of staring-into-space-and-thinking. On those days, there’s a playlist on heavy-rotation, set to shuffle. This is the playlist for ‘Mary Anning’s Grewsome Beasts’ (some for the energy, some for the lyrics):
- Fiona Apple: Under the Table
- Nellie McKay: Beneath the Underdog
- Cosmo Sheldrake: Come Along
- Seeming: Stranger (feat. Sammus)
- The Monkees: Steppin’ Stone
- Gentle Mystics: Hark
- The Guild: I’m The One That’s Cool (feat. Felicia Day)
- Fiona Apple: Daredevil
- Green Day: Minority
- Beck: Saw Lightning
- Dr. John: Right Place Wrong Time
- Billie Eilish: You Should See Me in a Crown
- Sarah Michelle Gellar (Once More With Feeling OST): Something to Sing About
- Fiona Apple: Relay
- Nah Eeto: Auntie, What Happened To Me?
- Jahcoozi: Read The Books
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
This wonderful letter by a small, knowledgeable human who loves palaeontology:
If you know a kid who loves extinct beasts, I think they’ll like Abigail’s account (run by her grownup: @raisingapalaeo1). I certainly find it inspirational – warms my heart to see such joyful dedication.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I can tell you place and time. Not because I’m playing coy, but because I’m still wading through the research and figuring it out. I know it will be set in Sri Lanka, between the 1500s and the early-1800s.
I want my second nonfiction book to be stranger and longer, and there’s a lot to choose from here. Some of the historical figures include: a princess who foments rebellion to conceal a daring jailbreak; a young Englishman who spends 20 years as the captive guest of a king; a sunken ship full of Mughal silver coins; reports of blood-sucking hedgehogs; and a doctor who performs a mysterious ‘lizard treatment’ and then vanishes from the records.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Given the length of what I write, I am able to (and enjoy) drifting between disciplines and genres. My preference is for the sciences (mostly biology), science fiction (ditto), prehistory, and history (mostly the last few Sri Lankan kingdoms).
Which author(s) inspire you?
Hard question. Here’s a top-of-head selection from a long list of writers to whom I’m indebted, for their uncanny ability to meld rigour, clarity and beauty:
Nonfiction: Carl Sagan, Hope Jahren, Rendell & Whitehead, Dian Ackerman, and Merlin Sheldrake.
Fiction: Ursula K. Le Guin, Ted Chiang, Richard Powers, Igarashi Daisuke, and Terry Pratchett.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I am going to cheat by saying: the string of tiny, idiosyncratic, second-hand bookshops on McCallum Road in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The booksellers are motley crew of gentle, grizzled, old men who are often happy to lend certain books, if you can’t afford the price. If you’re ever in the city with an afternoon to spare, I recommend a visit: every turn between tightly packed shelves reveals new treasure and a giant, leafy tree presides over the small shops.
What is your current or latest read?
I’m hopping between an excellent nonfiction book — ‘The Canon’ by Natalie Angier; and a brilliant, disturbing novel that’s just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize — ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ by dear friend and bloody nuisance, Shehan Karunatilaka. I’m also revisiting Watterson’s ‘Calvin & Hobbes,’ after a decade or so, and still marveling at the man’s craft.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
A trilingual project that’s nearing completion, called ‘Kaputu Kaak Kaak Kaak Kaak’. Written by human rights lawyer and all ‘round good egg, Amal de Chickera, it’s an illustrated book about protest and civic education for children, which talks about about the current crisis in Sri Lanka — how we got here; why people are protesting; and what children can do, c.2022.
We’re producing three editions (English, Sinhala, Tamil) and it’s the first time I’ve illustrated a book (nerve-racking stuff). We’re offering them free at The Internet Archive and the English edition is already out. Here’s a link, in case you’d like to dip in: https://tinyurl.com/2m2scke7 Thank you very much, Stephen, for having me on your site!