MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We shift now from local music to local writing, with Bookend.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our monthly exploration of the region's literary scene. In this edition, Jonathan Wilson sits down with Manil Suri. Suri is the acclaimed author of three novels, "The Death of Vishnu," "The Age of Shiva" and his new book, "The City of Devi." All of the novels take place in Suri's native country, India, but for more than 30 years, the author has called the D.C. suburbs home. Jonathan Wilson recently visited Suri in Silver Spring, to talk about balancing his life as a novelist with his other life as a math professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Your new novel is called "The City of Devi." It is the third book in a loose trilogy?
MR. MANIL SURI
Yeah, I mean, the books are not such that you have to actually read them one after the other. They've got different characters, but it's like three panels, almost, of the three deities, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, who's the mother goddess.
Talk about how you ended up, you're a native of Mumbai, is that correct, is where you grew up?
Yes, that's right.
So how did you end up in, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in the D.C. area? How did you end up here?
Well, it's a long story. I came to the U.S. to do my PhD in mathematics, and then right after finishing, I got this job at UMBC, and I've been there -- this is my 30th year there, which is hard to believe. But the writing then came as a hobby, and it started about the time I started teaching. So that was way back in '83. And it took me a long time to really get my stride, and you know, I really didn't get anything published for years. But that started in 2001, when the first novel came out.
How hard were you trying in terms of trying to get things published? Were you sending stuff out? Did you have a dream, even before you were a professor, of being a writer?
Not really. It was just a hobby, and I was not sending things out, which was actually a great luxury because I could just concentrate on the craft. I did start sending things out only in the mid-'90s or so, and I got a hundred rejection letters, as every good writer should, I think. So I think that in terms of thinking about myself, I didn't really start thinking about myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a mathematician who had writing as a hobby.
What was it like combining your two worlds of being a math professor at a state school, outside of D.C., and writing these pretty epic novels about a place that was thousands of miles away, across the world? What was that like? Did the worlds intertwine at all, I mean, did you get inspiration from your math students, or were they completely two separate things?
I think they were pretty much two separate things, and that's the way I wanted it. I wanted one to be an antidote to the other. So when I started writing, I would actually come to D.C. -- I used to live in Baltimore back then. I used to – and I would drive down to D.C. and I had these writing groups that I was attending. And they were almost something in secret that I did. Again, I didn't tell anyone in my department, my colleagues didn't know. And the writing groups themselves -- one of them was actually associated loosely to American University.
Another one was a workshop at George Washington University. And then a third thing that I did once I had moved to this area was at the Bethesda's Writing Center, so I've really been, you know, my writing is really a product of local schools and local opportunities.
What was the reaction that you got from colleagues at UMBC?
Well, they only found out about my writing in 2000, when an excerpt from "The Death of Vishnu" was published in The New Yorker. And I think all the people who didn't have tenure bought my book, so that, you know, they were on my good side. So that was perfect. But then a few people, you know, who are readers, did read them and some people have followed all three books. So I'm looking forward to reading out at UMBC again.
In terms of writing about Washington, or the U.S., do you see yourself doing that any time soon, any time in the future?
Well, the next novel that I'm doing is actually not set anywhere. It's a math novel, and it's more abstract, almost, it could be anywhere. It's definitely not India. So in terms of actually writing about -- well, I just wrote a story actually called "The Silver Spring Lakshmi" that was in The Washington Post, and that was set in Silver Spring. So that was very interesting, you know, talking about landmarks that I see every day, The Discovery Building, Wayne Avenue, and so on. So that was fun, so who knows, I might actually go on that way.
Well, Manil Suri, author of "The City of Devi," as well as "The Death of Vishnu" and "The Age of Shiva," thank you so much for having us in your home.
Well, thank you. This has been a pleasure.
If you'd like to hear Manil Suri talk about books that he's read and enjoyed recently, visit our website, metroconnection.org. You can also hear him read an excerpt from his new novel, "The City of Devi."
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