Happily Never After
By Dawn Ius
Though she’d been to New York numerous times, Sri Lankan author Amanda Jayatissa made the long journey for the first time post COVID for a very special reason this past spring—to attend ThrillerFest, where she would accept, in person, her ITW Award for Best First Novel.
She recalls stepping onto the stage, tears of gratitude flowing, and admits she was in shock—not only to win this award in the company of some of her literary idols, but also for the recognition the win would bring to her home country.
“Sri Lanka is going through a very difficult time right now, and the judges selecting a book that’s partly based here, at a time like this, was extra special for me,” she says.
Jayatissa follows up her award-winning debut with YOU’RE INVITED, a story that whisks us away to a Sri Lankan wedding that has no happily ever after—it is, after all, a thriller. In this exclusive interview with The Big Thrill, Jayatissa talks more about the inspiration for her sophomore release, the importance of weaving her culture into her stories, and, perhaps most importantly, what her character’s favorite treat might be from the cookie shop Jayatissa co-owns.
This was such a fun—and twisty—novel. What can you share about the inspiration for the story?
I remember sitting at a fantastic Sri Lankan wedding, admiring how beautiful everything was—the decor, the outfits, the gorgeous couple. Completely by chance, I happened to look over at the groom’s mother. It was just for a split second, but I caught it. A look of pure anger and frustration flittered over her face. It got me thinking about how much we never truly see behind the scenes of these events. And of course, being a thriller writer, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a dead body were thrown into the mix.
One might call this an “excessive” wedding celebration—is this a fairly common level of intensity for weddings in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankan weddings are usually large affairs. A hundred guests is usually considered a “small, intimate gathering,” and most venues don’t cater to less. It’s also often less about the couple, and more about celebrating two families coming together. No expense is spared, both by the bride’s side (responsible for the wedding) and the groom’s (who throw an equally large function after the couple return from their honeymoon, known as the “homecoming”). While the wedding in YOU’RE INVITED is a little excessive, it barely compares to some of the Colombo society weddings I’ve seen over the years.
Obviously other Sri Lankan culture has been woven into the narrative—amid murder!—and it truly deepens the reading experience. What about your country and its cultures were important for you to highlight in YOU’RE INVITED?
Having grown up in Sri Lanka, it has obviously colored my experiences greatly. Weaving Sri Lanka into my writing is less of a conscious choice and more about who I am. I love my country, I am proud to be Sri Lankan, and I love giving readers from different parts of the world a chance to experience it (both the good and the bad).
Weddings, by nature, are intended to be happy occasions, but of course there are exceptions. What makes them so ripe for a thriller writer?
I think anyone who has been a part of a wedding can attest that it sometimes feels like a pressure cooker, waiting for just the right moment to explode. Of course tensions run high when combining different families and their values, different tastes, and perhaps different expectations. It’s the perfect setting to introduce a little external conflict (like murder!) and watch how everything unfolds.
Amaya is such a complex character—but her wants are so achingly familiar and relatable. What can you share about how she developed as a character for you?
It’s a running joke between my husband and me that I write my main characters based on how I feel. When I wrote Paloma in My Sweet Girl, I was frustrated, and that frustration showed. I wrote YOU’RE INVITED about a year into lockdown. Things looked like they were improving, until they weren’t. We thought we’d have moved past the horrors of 2020 by then, but there I was, in 2021, unable to leave my house, our businesses struggling, feeling anxious. This anxiety found its way to Amaya. She was struggling to get a grip on a situation she felt she had no control over, which is very much a reflection of how I felt at the time.
Sophomore books are notoriously difficult to write—so much pressure, and perhaps more so when your debut is so well received. How did you overcome those pressures?
Book Two Syndrome is very real! It certainly helped that I wrote most of it before My Sweet Girl was published, so there was less pressure, but of course there were moments where I was convinced that I was a fraud, and that any moment now my publisher would realize that everything was a mistake and recant my contract. Luckily for me, both my agent and my editor are super encouraging and there to talk through plot holes and writer’s block, which definitely took some weight off.
What can you share about what you’re working on next?
Not much, I’m afraid, as it hasn’t been announced yet! But I can say that I’m really enjoying working on it and am looking forward to when I can talk about it.
I read that you co-own a cookie shop—which might be the most amazing “other” job in the world. From the cookies available at your shop, what do you think would be Amaya’s favorite?
Amaya rarely eats when she is nervous (which, in the book, is almost all the time), but when she’s happy, I think she’ll eat a red velvet cookie. It’s a little unexpected, just like she is.