Second Novel in Print, Mathematician Manil Suri Ponders his Overlapping Careers

April 12, 2008


A mathematician at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Manil Suri recently published his second novel and offers guarded hints about a third. Striving for a synergy between his two careers, he has shifted the focus of his mathematical activity to “outreach.” Photo by Jesse Mashbaum.

Some time ago, SIAM News ran a very occasional series of articles about mathematicians who had also achieved success in careers completely separate from mathematics. Not coincidentally, the author of the articles was former SIAM president Ivar Stakgold, whose legendary status among competitive bridge players has been confirmed many times over.

One of Stakgold's subjects was Manil Suri, whose mathematical home is the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Suri's first novel, The Death of Vishnu, had just appeared to glowing critical reception (and would go on to receive several prizes). Stakgold's interview with Suri---titled "A Fundamental Decomposition Theory for Fiction?" http://www.siam.org/news/news.php?id=505---appeared in the January/February 2001 issue of SIAM News.

Early in 2008, it became clear that Suri's first book was no fluke, and the alternative career no passing interest, when his second novel, The Age of Shiva, showed up on bookstore shelves. At a reading in Philadelphia from the new novel, Suri answered questions about his mathematical and literary careers, revealing in the process yet another professional pursuit. Michelle Sipics reports.

It's Thursday, February 7, 2008, and Manil Suri is reading from his second novel, The Age of Shiva, in the Montgomery Auditorium at the Free Library of Philadelphia. A question from the audience---How does he balance his career as a mathematician with his work as a writer?---brings a smile to his face.

"I was waiting for a math question," he says. Before answering, he gives his questioner a DVD of Taming Infinity---a presentation Suri has given at artist colonies, senior citizen centers, and literary conferences, in a sort of mathematical outreach.

Taming Infinity, he tells the audience, is part of the answer to the question. Suri, a tenured professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has been focusing more on outreach than on research since his first book was published seven years ago. He strives, as he repeatedly says, for a "synergy" between his writing and his mathematics, and he wants to take mathematics beyond the classroom and the journal article.

Suri, as you may have realized by now, is hard to categorize. To simply call him a writer is to ignore his merits as a professor and researcher in numerical analysis; to call him a mathematician is to ignore a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Barnes and Noble Discover Prize, a PEN/Bingham Fellowship, and the fact that while maintaining a career as a mathematician he has written two novels, of which the first has been wildly popular and translated into more than 20 languages and the second looks likely to follow a similar path.

Another question from the Philadelphia audience elicits a description of Suri's overall design for the novels. Why, the questioner asks, does Suri call his first two novels part of an eventual trilogy, despite the fact that they are discrete stories with different characters?

Indeed, Suri admits, his second book is very different from the first, and the third will be different from both of its predecessors. The Death of Vishnu focused on a dying man's remembrance of his life. The Age of Shiva takes on a new cast of characters and follows the life of a young Indian woman and her marriage (and of India as a whole). In thinking of the books as a "trilogy," he explains, he's referencing the Hindu trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. In fact, he has said that his third book will most likely be called The Search for Brahma.

Suri's two professions inevitably overlap. He compares both writing and mathematics to chess, with characters and variables, respectively, standing for the chess pieces. He identifies the goal of novel writing as to "optimize the drama quotient." He plainly credits his mathematical background with influencing his writing, particularly when it comes to editing: "Anything that I could cut out, I did. No one needs description, so I just cut it out."

Which is not to say that Suri's books are not deeply descriptive and beautifully rich, because they are. But a reader with an appreciation for the clean, brisk elegance of a well-written journal article could extend that same appreciation, admittedly in a far different light, to The Age of Shiva. We are given what we need to follow the story, to understand, to move, with a bit of thought, from step to step, without unnecessary explanation. It's an exercise in free thought, guided by someone who has already mastered the material.

Material, it must be pointed out, that Suri the mathematician is unable to keep from analyzing for Suri the author. In his blog, he examines the first hardcover copy of Shiva (released on February 4), comparing it with Vishnu:

9.75 inches long and 6.5 across, weighing 27 ounces (which is 4.5 ounces more than its sibling Vishnu). More statistics (perhaps of interest only to myself): whereas Vishnu had about 93,000 words over 297 pages, Shiva has about 164,000 over 455 pages (a 76% increase in total word count and, quite curiously, a 15% increase in average words per page). And yet another statistic: it took me seven years to write Shiva compared to five for Vishnu, which my long-suffering agent and publisher should please note is a 26% increase in productivity, in terms of words written per year.

Suri, who has studied with the fiction writers Vikram Chandra and Michael Cunningham, is quick to point out that he is no Stephen King when it comes to churning out books. Still, an average pace of one book every six years is not too shabby for an author who is also a more or less full-time mathematician. That's not quite good enough for Suri, whose blog posting continues:

Lest I get too intoxicated with my own creation, there are always those statistics to bring me back. 164,000 words in seven years---doesn't that work out to only 64 words per day? I hear somebody gasp.

It's actually 64.19, is all I can muster weakly in response. Another good reason to be thankful I keep my day job.

While Suri is thankful that he can continue to work as a mathematician when he's feeling insecure about being a writer, the rest of us can be thankful that he is so very good at both.

Readers can learn more about Suri, his books, and his mathematical research and outreach at http://www.manilsuri.com.

Michelle Sipics is a contributing editor at SIAM News.


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