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‘Writing is almost biological’: Ashok Ferrey on writing fiction

Having lost his mother at a young age, Sanjay de Silva lives in Colombo, under the thumb of a controlling Sri Lankan father. When his father is diagnosed with cancer, he feels the ground shifting under his feet, the balance of power realigning. Though it is something he has dreamed of all his life, he is uneasy when it happens. Learning that he is entitled to live in England, thanks to his half-English mother, he moves to London.

This is the story of an Asian builder in south London. But at its heart, The Unmarriageable Man is about grief; how each of us copes in our inimitable way with the hidden mysteries of family and the loss of loved ones. Because, as Sanjay is about to find out, grief is only the transmutation of love, of the very same chemical composition – liquid, undistilled – the one inevitably turning to the other like ice to water.

Today, we have with us the author of the book, Ashok Ferrey talking about how the book was born from his own personal experience of dealing with his father’s death.

By Ashok Ferrey 


Recently, I said somewhere that the most difficult part of writing a book is to reach inside your soul,  extract the truth, squeeze it out, then hang it on the line to dry – for all the world to see. By this measure, my latest book, The Unmarriageable Man, was the most difficult one I ever wrote. Twenty years ago my father died – of various complications following cancer – and it was a hugely traumatic time for me. It was precisely this trauma that made me a writer: I remember taking him to the cancer hospital in a tuk-tuk, forcing a banana down his throat on the way there (bitter experience had taught me that after the chemo, he wasn’t going to be able to eat anything for the next 24 hours), and bringing him back home where he collapsed on the bed. I went into the next room, and in an exercise book lying around I wrote (with a pencil) my very first story. It took me half an hour. When I finished I remember looking around the room thinking What have I done? Oh, what have I done? It was almost as if I’d committed a murder, it was so unexpected!

front cover of The Unmarriageable Man
The Unmarriageable Man || Ashok Ferrey


That story, The Perfect House (in Colpetty People) remains today one of the funniest things I ever wrote. It taught me that this process of writing is almost biological – there are unseen forces inside you that begin to operate when you let yourself go. In my case, weirdly, the more stressed I am, the funnier the writing. (This is what I tell young writers who attend my workshops. Stress is Good. Generally, they look at me in dumb incomprehension. Sometimes fear. As if at this point I’ll bring out a large stick.)

Fast forward twenty years. It has taken this long for me to feel confident enough to deal with what happened back then, with my father. Fictionalising it has helped – it allows you to put a certain distance between you and your subject. So this story has been cooking in my brain all this while, which only goes to show that you can’t force your writing: it will come out when it has to; and only when it has to.

So I hope you enjoy this book. I hope it has been worth the twenty year wait.



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