The Writing Life: Manil Suri

In which a mathematician's secret love affair with words becomes a very public romance.

(Jose Villarrubia)
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By Manil Suri
Sunday, February 8, 2009; Page BW11

It was 1984. I'd been working as a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County for less than a year but already knew I needed something more to round out my life. I'd met mathematicians who ate, slept and breathed theorems and was certain I would never be one of them. So one day I wrote a short story. The title was "Unfulfilled Expectations." Going through it, you couldn't help wonder whose expectations remained unfulfilled -- except , of course, the reader's. It was a story only a mathematician would write.

You'd have to pry it out of my cold dead fingers now to read it, but back then the experience was heady, energizing. I agonized about whether to send it to the New Yorker or the Atlantic. (Thankfully, I never submitted it.) The next year, I wrote a second story, and then, a year or two later, another. I made all my characters as abstract as possible. My reasoning was that just as "x" and "y" are symbols that can be assigned any value, characters, too, should be empty outlines, left for a reader to fill in. It's an indispensable idea in algebra but a terrible one in fiction, as it took me some years to learn.

Around that time, a famous mathematician who also happens to be a renowned bridge player gave a lecture at our department. Afterward, a senior faculty member took me aside to complain about the "terrible" talk. Surprised, I asked him how he knew, since the lecture hadn't been in his field. "He wastes too much time playing bridge, so he can't possibly be good," came the reply. I thought my colleague was joking until I saw the conviction on his face. That's when I decided to keep my own hobby a secret -- after all, I was a professional academic. I wanted tenure.

Since I didn't have a computer at home, I wrote covertly in my office after hours, which added to the intrigue of my double life. Sometimes, it got a bit too thrilling, like the Sunday evening I sent a particularly erotic scene to our secretary's printer by mistake. I ran down the hall and saw the pages appearing one by one behind the grill of her locked office, ready to be read first thing Monday morning. I had to call Security to retrieve them.

I began driving down to writers' group meetings in D.C. (the ones in Baltimore were too close to home, I reasoned). I learned a lot from other writers -- several of the participants were MFA students. What I truly appreciated was the opportunity to socialize with people far outside my mathematicians' circle. I even received indoctrination in fiery left-wing politics from the "People of Color, Third World, Gay and Lesbian Writing Group." (It was never clear exactly how many categories one had to belong to for membership.) Sadly, the group split apart (over whether or not to admit a bisexual) before my education was complete.

By the mid-1990s, I had taken two creative writing courses, participated in four different writers' groups and sent dozens of copies of my stories to literary journals (all rejected). My only published fiction was a short translated piece in, bizarrely, a Bulgarian journal. In contrast, my mathematics career was flourishing: I was by now a tenured full professor with research grants, doctoral students and a respectable list of publications. Wasn't it time to grow up? Drop my literary illusions to concentrate on developing a mathematical reputation?

A friend convinced me to give it one last chance, to submit the two chapters of my novel-in-stasis (which I had left untouched for over a year) as a sample for a five-day workshop being given by novelist Michael Cunningham in Provincetown. Something shocking took place at that workshop, something that blew away my notion of myself as a mathematician with a hobby. "You're a writer," Cunningham declared. "You must do whatever is necessary to finish this."

The next summer, for the first time in my career, I gave myself permission not to think of mathematics at all. I went to VCCA, a creative arts retreat in Virginia. The pent-up writing emerged in great stretches at a time. I finished six chapters (almost half the novel) in 25 days. Back at the university, I pretended I'd been writing a math textbook. "It didn't go well," I told a colleague who asked to see it. "I'll have to go again next year."

The Death of Vishnu was released in 2001, irreversibly outing me as a writer. It turned out I needn't have fretted so much. Two professors from my department came up and confessed that they were actors in secret; one even made me promise him a role if the book were ever filmed. The university president had a poster made from the cover and hung it outside his office.

It was a good thing I didn't quit my day job (as every other person I knew seemed to expect I would). My second novel took me seven years to write, at an average of 64.19 words per day (I couldn't resist the calculation). The fact that I had classes to teach, equations to ponder and a Ph.D. student to supervise kept me from getting too demoralized. The book took so long primarily because I had decided to work against my mathematician's grain. I had written Vishnu as succinctly as I might a math paper, but this time I allowed the narrative to emerge more organically, stroke by unhurried stroke, with the stories of secondary characters woven in.

Now that I have two printed novels on my mantelpiece as proof, I feel more comfortable with the appellation of "writer" that Cunningham bestowed on me. I know, though, that I'm never going to be someone who eats, sleeps and breathes fiction -- I'm too happy exercising the different muscles mathematics engages in my brain. I'm having fun these days combining the two endeavors, explaining math's usefulness at artist colonies and sneaking in talks about infinity at literature festivals. I've realized I wasn't too far off the mark in 1984 when I likened variables to characters. In mathematics, one explores the interaction of variables -- in fiction, the interplay of characters. Both mathematicians and novelists aspire in their own way to capture truth. To condense the world. ยท

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