What It Takes

A mathematician's writing success

By Avis Thomas-Lester

Manil Suri has proved to be a master at pursuing two very different careers that use two very different parts of his brain. At 50, the Silver Spring resident is a best-selling novelist -- his first book, "The Death of Vishnu," was a finalist for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award -- and a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where his research focuses on partial differential equations and numerical analysis.

He's noted in the past that it took him seven years to write his second novel, "The Age of Shiva," a rate so slow that he averaged only 64.19 words per day.

Why he's succeeded: He refuses to give up. "When I have been successful, I think perseverance is really one of the top things that has made it happen, especially when you think about math and proving theorems ... You have to just think about them for a long time, develop these ideas, just kind of stare into space and hope that inspiration will come or the pieces will fit together. Writing is very similar."

What he's had to overcome: Shyness acute enough that his mother enrolled the two of them in a public-speaking class when he was 12. Even now, "I really have to push myself ... so that is something that I'm constantly fighting against."

Why math appealed: It's not medicine. "India in the 1960s and 1970s was a pretty young country, and you were always being pushed into the sciences if you showed any aptitude because that's what the country needed -- engineers, scientists, doctors and so on. I knew that I would end up in some sort of science. My whole family wanted me to be a doctor since my grandfather was a doctor, so that is something that I knew I didn't want to do."

Why writing beckoned:The son of a teacher and a music director for Bollywood films, he always craved a creative outlet. "When I was a kid and weeks went by, and I didn't do anything creative, I felt sluggish. So I was always painting or writing something."

Smartest move: Leaving India at 20 to attend graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "So many others in my class were applying to American universities for graduate school, and I said, 'Hey, wait a minute. I'm doing better than they are, so if they can go, I can go.' " Moving to the United States "freed me in many ways. It gave me access to an education ... It allowed me to discover myself in personal ways. There was great privacy. Nobody interfered in your business. Also it helped the writing because once those other needs were met, I just had that tranquility that allowed me to take the next step, which I don't believe I would have had in India."

Biggest misstep: Antagonizing an administrator and a teacher at his high school in Mumbai and flunking a ninth-grade honors English class as a result. "That taught me how things work and that you had to worry about what other people thought and if you didn't, you have to face the consequences."

Why he still doesn't worry what others think: "The first thing my agent said is if you read the reviews, not to believe them because if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones ... Defining success in terms of what other people think is not the right way to go ... I think ideologically it has to be how fulfilled I feel from the experience and from the result."

What inspires him: Wanting to succeed in his own eyes. "I think that perhaps I have this image of myself and to live up to that image, I have to keep producing something, to live up to my potential...I feel I have to extract everything I can from myself, like squeezing toothpaste from a tube."

Advice to the aspiring: "Make sure, first of all, that you are enjoying what you are doing. If you don't enjoy it, you won't succeed in it, and you'll be doing it the rest of your life. Second, be really patient...People expect instant returns, but if you enjoy something, you can work on it and get satisfaction from the process of getting better at it before you share it with people."


Avis Thomas-Lester

 |  January 6, 2010; 9:15 AM ET  |  Category:  success stories Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The Death of Vishnu was a wonderful book. Our book group took it up at my recommendation--somewhat reluctantly--and it became a favorite. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in great fiction. It opened another world--the best you can ask from any book.

Posted by: commonsense101 | January 7, 2010 2:28 PM
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