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On the Cusp of Something Big with Manil Suri

Manil Suri You are a mathematician, a professor in Applied Sciences, who writes an average of one short story each year to share informally with friends. You start a novel, but you abandon it. Eventually, you begin another, and at an academic workshop at George Washington University the writer Vikram Chandra calls your first two chapters trenchant. Then, upon returning to your workaday life, the novel goes nowhere for a year.

But another workshop, this one with Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award-winner Michael Cunningham, gets you back on track, and now here you are only two months after publication, the buzz of the book industry, a hot debut novelist on book tour, sitting for your third interview of the day. Already your book is slated for translation into thirteen languages.

"In just a few pages, Suri immerses us in a world almost unimaginably foreign from our own, yet universally understandable," Dan Cryer wrote in Newsday, calling the novel "a seamlessly constructed, quietly eloquent work of art." The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, USA Today, The Boston Globe? even Time magazine has published a rave review.

The Death of Vishnu is part-sitcom and part-meditation, a brilliant counterpoint of action and stillness. How will the Asranis ever live down the shame of their daughter's elopement with the Muslim boy upstairs? Can Mrs. Pathak recover from the public humiliation of her disastrous kitty party? Oh, and is God dying in squalor on the second floor landing of their Bombay apartment building? "I could have written a whole novel about the Pathaks and Asranis and it would have been kind of funny and entertaining," Suri explained modestly, "but I wanted to have other things in there, too."

Dave: Is it true that you gave chapters of The Death of Vishnu to your mother as you were writing them?

Manil Suri: I sent her the first chapter and she loved it. Then a few months later I sent her the second chapter, and there was silence. I finally pressed her and asked, "How did you like it?" and she said, "Well, the first chapter was so much funnier," with this wistful tone that only mothers have.

When I wrote the third chapter, I had that in mind. I made it a lot funnier. I actually pulled in a character that's based on my aunt: Mrs. Jaiswal. My aunt was also in the movies, and she loves playing cards. She was scandalized, of course, because in the novel she cheats. She doesn't in real life.

Dave: How long ago was this? You started writing Vishnu in 1995?

Suri: I wrote the first two chapters in '95, then I was kind of stuck—not because of my mother—but it took me about a year and a half before I wrote the third chapter. Then things went pretty quickly, and I had a good first draft by about October of '99. It took about a year more to cross every t and the rest.

Dave: While you were writing Vishnu, you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham. How much had you written when you enrolled?

Suri: That was in 1997, when I was stuck. I told myself that if I were accepted into the workshop, I'd force myself to write the third chapter before I went. That's what I ended up doing.

I went to the workshop with three chapters. He read them all, and he was very enthusiastic. He gave me a lot of confidence that I didn't have before. He told me that I had to finish it. Once I took that workshop, I knew I was going to write the book.

Dave: Was that your first experience in a literary setting, outside the world of your mathematics background, or had you been participating in workshops before?

Suri: I'd been part of informal writing groups with friends since the mid-eighties. We'd exchange each other's work. Each group would last only about a year or a year and a half at most; it would disintegrate and a new one would start. I was lucky because I was always going to groups where the writers were at the same level or a little better than me. That really helped.

Just about when I was starting this book, I took my first writing course at The Bethesda Writers Center. It was run by a friend of mine, Jane Bradley, who's a writer, herself. I remember reading pieces of what I'd written at the workshop.

That same year, I took a course with Vikram Chandra at George Washington University. Again, it was a course for lay people. There were about fifteen of us. That was very good, too. At the end of it, I'd written an outline, and he liked it. He said it looked "trenchant," that's the word he used. So I had two chapters and an outline, and all I had to do was write this trenchant novel. Which is when I got stuck. It took Michael Cunningham's workshop to get me unblocked.

Dave: Was there anything in particular that helped you see forward in the novel? An event or an insight?

Suri: Michael stressed the idea of putting myself in the characters' places and going forward from that point, seeing what they did. He also pointed out that he'd like to see the Asranis and Pathaks disappear for a while, the people on the first floor, and see some other characters introduced. I had to top them somehow, he thought. They were so mean and nasty that readers would expect something to top them, and the only thing I could think of was some kind of madness—that's how I came up with Mr. Jalal, who's teetering on the edge, between something completely rational and irrational.

Dave: I'd read forty or fifty pages of the book when someone asked me what it was about. I said, "Well, there's this guy dying on the second floor landing of an apartment building, and there are two feuding families?" I still didn't know what it was about exactly, not beyond the scope of the summary on the book jacket.

It's true: as you read further into the book you find that those families play only a small part in the story. As you were writing, how did that come about? It seemed unpredictable. Was it difficult to control the progression in that respect?

Suri: I had that in the outline. I was attracted to the vertical structure: I would try to pull Vishnu and the reader up through the floors. I remember Michael Cunningham saying that there was a wonderful sense of vertical motion through the building, and urging me to follow it. So that was always in my mind. I could have written a whole novel about the Pathaks and Asranis and it would have been kind of funny and entertaining, but I wanted to have other things in there, too.

Dave: The novel goes back and forth between scenes in the building and scenes in Vishnu's memory. How did Vishnu develop as a character?

Suri: In fits and starts, I think. There was a real person named Vishnu, as I say in the front of the book, and it was his death that sparked the novel, at least the initial idea. But I didn't really know the actual person; I would just see him occasionally when I was growing up. He lived on the steps, and he would say hello to me. That was it.

When I was writing his story I wanted to fill in the color of his life. I also wanted to take the reader away from the confines of the staircase. Structurally, that's quite limiting. A friend of mine said to me, "How many different ways are you going to describe the staircase?" His memories provided an opportunity to pull him out of the building—with Padmini, his mistress, and his mother and so on. It gave me more freedom with the setting.

Dave: When Susan Orlean was here to talk about The Orchid Thief, I asked her one of the reading group questions her publisher supplied in the back of her book. I found reading group questions on the web site for The Death of Vishnu, so I figured I'd ask the same of you.

Suri: Oh...

Dave: The question is: Which character did you find the most compelling? Was there someone you became particularly attached to in the writing?

Suri: In terms of identifying with a character? Mr. Jalal was probably the most interesting simply because he was quite unformed in the beginning. When I wrote the outline, I didn't know who this person was or what he was going to be.

I remember the first scene with him: I thought of it while I was in park in California, and I just started writing it down. It just gushed out. Then after that, when I had a better idea of what he was going to be, somewhere in between logic and reason and faith and believing, caught in the balance between them, I started drawing on my own background, my mathematical background, and contrasting it with questions about faith and spirituality, putting them in Mr. Jalal's mind. I was reading religious texts to do research, and I felt like I was going on the journey with him.

Dave: You read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time while you were writing this book, right?

Suri: Yes, and the Koran as well, because Mr. Jalal is a Muslim. That's the first thing I read. Then I read the Gita, but I wasn't just reading it from his point of view; I was reading it as something for Vishnu—because Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu.

Originally, I was going to write about a revelation: Vishnu may or may not be a god. I was going to have a snake appear, perhaps. It might have been Mrs. Pathak or Mrs. Asrani who noticed. Snakes are holy in India so that would have been the device to pass the question into the book. But then Mr. Jalal took over, and once I'd read the Gita, that central scene from the eleventh chapter, it seemed the logical thing for Mr. Jalal to see.

Dave: Part of what a reader gathers from the setting is the constant noise of the contrasting voices: different religions, different classes, all these people coming together in this one building.

Suri: I wanted to give people a taste of the experience of being in India, and that's what happens there: there are a million things happening, coming at you from all directions, so there is a lot of noise and a lot of smell, for example. That's what I was trying to recreate. It takes some adjusting.

There are some Hindi words that I use, but usually in context—and incidentally, there's also a glossary on my web page—but beyond that, it's simply a matter of immersing the reader in a different culture, doing it in the gentlest way possible so the reader isn't scared away.

Dave: Have you read Pico Iyer's work at all?

Suri: I have.

Dave: When he was here about a year ago, he talked about translation as a new measure of a book's success—how many countries has it reached? He points to a developing core of global writers who can reach a broader, international audience, a readership not limited by national boundaries. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of his examples.

The Death of Vishnu certainly won't be limited to an American readership. Already, plans are to translate it into thirteen languages.

Suri: If I'm successful presenting this story to the United States, then I should be successful presenting it anywhere because the book wasn't written with an American audience in mind. I wrote it more for myself. American audiences shouldn't be any different from Dutch or German audiences in terms of whether they'd like it.

There are definitely some things an Indian reader would pick up on whereas a Western reader might get something that Indian audiences don't, particularly because I've lived in this country for so long now. But if publishers here liked the book, which they did, then it made sense that publishers elsewhere would also recognize qualities that would be interesting to their readers.

Dave: Someone said to me about it, "Oh, another Indian novel," and I didn't know exactly how to respond because it didn't feel to me like other Indian novels I've read. Vikram Chandra, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, or the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri? But on the other hand, there are so many references to Indian movies and songs.

Suri: It was released in India first. I went there in January, and the readers and the press, especially, really liked it. They welcomed it as an Indian book, "a Bombay book" is what several people called it.

Dave: You're on sabbatical now, right? You've talked about writing a trilogy. Have you started the second book?

Suri: I worked on it last September. I went to a writing colony where I wrote a few sections and an outline. I was supposed to be there for a month, and I was, but after about fifteen days I was called to New York for a promotional event and it completely ruined my concentration. When I went back I couldn't work on it anymore, and I haven't worked on it since. I'm just waiting for all this hoopla to die down and so I can get back to it.

Strangely enough, I'm able to work on mathematics while all this is going on, but not writing.

Dave: What's the difference in your approach? How is the work different?

Suri: In some ways, they're quite similar. If you get into a novel and you're searching for the next step in the plot, it's similar to being deep inside a field of mathematics, searching for the next theorem or how to prove it. You have to let your mind wander around the corridors until you somehow find the crucial step that gets you to the next stage. That part is similar.

One of the differences is that in mathematics you really have to study a lot to unravel some problem, before you can get at its core. At least with a book you can make some progress.

Dave: Will you continue to do both?

Suri: That's the hope. For the next several years, my priority is to write the rest of this trilogy—that's the main goal, which it hasn't been in the past. In the last couple years it was shifting toward finishing this book, but now I think that's the primary thing.

Dave: Was writing a hobby that turned into something more or has it always been a clear goal you'd set out to achieve?

Suri: It was a hobby. I seemed to have aptitude for it, so I felt I should do it. I'd almost feel guilty if I didn't, so every year I would make a sacrifice, an offering to Fiction. That would be my way of putting it off for another year. And of course it was fun. I always liked having written something, having the story in my hand.

It became more serious in '92 or so when I started writing a novel, which I never finished. I only wrote four or five chapters. Then when this started, it became even more serious. It's been a gradual process.

Dave: Do you read a lot of fiction?

Suri: I do. I started when I was a kid, but it was more popular fiction then, bestselling authors. I started reading more serious fiction only in the last five or ten years. I read a lot of Indian authors to find out what else has been written, for one thing. But also people who might be in the news. I really liked Waiting by Ha Jin. But I haven't read the classics, or very few of them, and I'd like to, but I don't think I have the energy or the time to get to them.

Dave: We're asking readers on the web site to name the best book they read last year. Does anything come to mind?

Suri: I read Disgrace by Coetzee last year. I would probably say that. It was quite amazing.

Dave: Do you read math books?

Suri: No, not often. But I recently read one because my publisher thrust it into my hands: The Universal Computer. It was very good, actually—I read it straight through, I couldn't stop—but it was being marketed as a computer science book when it's actually a math book. That was my input to the publisher, in case they're coming out with a paperback.

If something is lying around I may pick it up, but I wouldn't go out of my way to get a math book. The problem is that a lot of the popular math books are written at a level that, as a mathematician, it's a little difficult to put up with. You've seen it so many times before, the same facts and figures.

And as long as I'm ranting?

Dave: Please, rant.

Suri: Well, a lot of the mathematics books one sees are about subjects which don't really occupy the time of most research mathematicians. Popular math writing—an example would be the movie Pi, for instance; the character is calculating Pi to a billion places. That's interesting, but it's not what I do or what people I know would be interested in. We do applied problems. If I'm successful with this book, maybe I'll start preaching about other kinds of math!

Dave: How did you become a mathematician?

Suri: I was always interested. Also, in India, if you were good academically, you were usually pushed into the sciences. I was going to be a chemistry major, then I decided on physics, and finally a professor who was teaching us abstract algebra was trying to get me to switch and he succeeded. I was going to go into pure math and do the kinds of things I've just been ranting against, but by some coincidence, the name of one university that only taught applied math was included in the list of graduate schools I applied to. I ended up doing applied math, and now I rant.

Dave: Was that at Carnegie Mellon?

Suri: Right.

Dave: You're still in the same part of the country, not too far away.

Suri: Yes, I finished there and I joined the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, and I've been there since. It's the only job I've ever had. It's been since '83.

Dave: You can call writing a job now, I think.

Suri: I guess I can.

Dave: How has it been for you, going on book tour? What's the outsider's perspective to the whole experience?

Suri: It's sort of like teaching calculus where you say the same thing again and again, except that in calculus you say it once every semester or year. Here you do it once or twice or three times a day.

I guess the challenge is to make it fresh for yourself each time. To think of slightly different answers. You might think of something you hadn't before. That's one aspect.

The other aspect that's very nice is the audiences you reach. I've written so many math papers, and probably a bestselling paper would be read by twenty people. Here, you see a group of people actually wasting their evenings coming to hear you read! You're on the radio and you know people are listening. People are buying your book, actually paying money for something you've written!

In math, you have to pay money to get things published because it's so expensive to get things typeset. The idea of an enormous audience is wonderful.

Dave: And your mother wound up liking the finished novel?

Suri: When she finished the book, her comment was, "Well, I'm used to books that start 'Once upon a time,' so don't get my comments wrong," something like that. She's read it twice, and she liked it a lot more the second time. Manil Suri 2-7-2001

It was a qualified yes.

Manil Suri visited Powell's City of Books on February 7, 2001 to present his first novel, The Death of Vishnu. Cool timing. The cusp was palpable. The acclaim for Vishnu hadn't yet reached Portland, but we all knew it was only a matter of weeks.

Sure enough, the following week Vishnu entered the Powell's Top 20.

We had a little extra time between the interview and his reading across the street, so while I packed up the recording equipment and shut down my computer, he hung out in our office checking his email and calling friends.

Subsequently, Mr. Suri became the first author to sign his name on the wall of the staircase coming down from our digs.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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