Interview with Manil Suri

So I got the opportunity to interview Manil Suri, the writer who I have admired since some time now and it felt amazing speaking with him and interacting with him and talking about books that he has written, their plots and his thoughts. It is always a surreal experience speaking with a writer. When you want to uncover some questions and know something more about the writer and what led him or her to write the books he or she has written. Here is another interaction with another writer of great quality and who has many more books to write.

Manil Suri

1. I read somewhere that you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham when Death of Vishnu was just in its initial stages. How has that affected your writing style, if it did?

It did not affect my writing style at all. What I got out of it was that it was he was so encouraging. He made me see where I wanted to go with my writing. I had barely written two to three chapters when I met him. He was able to anticipate the problems I would have, from the allegorical plot to the number of characters, whether too much had been written or spoken about them.

He gave me the confidence I needed. I was not a full time writer then. Someone who is not published needs the encouragement and Cunningham gave me that.

2. The trilogy is distorted in its approach, which I loved and yet it connects so effortlessly. How much of a task was this? Also, how come earlier it was supposed to be a trinity of Gods that ends with Devi?

Well it was like when I was doing The Death of Vishnu, I had no idea that it was a trilogy. The original idea was Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva is supposed to destroy things and Brahma is the one who creates. The way it turned out was the first book was more of a contemporary times novel and the second one was more of a book in the past and the third book is about the future, maybe it occurs, maybe it does not.

It was a very organic and unplanned process. It was one book after the other. I was still trying to keep them separate. Some connections are to be made and they are sort of in there, in all the three books.

The shift to Devi from Brahma: Just before I published the first book, I met Devdutt Pattanaik, and I told him about my idea about writing these three novels, with these varied themes of trinity. He told me that that is one way of looking at it, but some people look at it from Vishnu, Shiva and Devi’s perspective.

That’s where the Devi idea came about. Academically also it does make sense. I knew that the city would play a major role for sure. Until I was half-way through, I did not know whether it was Brahma or Devi. There had to be someone to save the city. The saviour then had to be Devi.

3. A mathematician and a writer. I am sure you must have been asked this several times, however how does it all add up? Does any influence the other?

Yes I think it does but not as much as one might suspect. But not something that I can easily put my finger on and say, “I had this followed because I am a mathematician”. For instance at times, I did try and follow the decision tree making process to writing. A character makes one move and then different moves which affects the narrative as well.
The danger in that is that it rarely provides the complete picture. With this book, I did all the plotting, and realized that the ends were not working. I finally decided that more or less I experimented writing it in a mathematical manner and then gave it up. I was relieved that I did not have to work on it. But later, I looked beyond the mathematics. I saw something more to fiction, than cold reasoning that numbers provided. I actually started seeing the main characters and then started connecting those, to give form to this novel.

4. “The City of Devi” reads so fast and yet there were so many times, I had to put down the book and mull over the intricate parts. Was this intentional to your writing?

Yeah it was. On one hand, looking deeper, other structures and metaphors, and dig deeper, try to put more in there was always the concern. It did finally work out the way I wanted it to.

5. The book of yours that touched me the most and which I ended up reading on a Sunday afternoon was The Death of Vishnu. How did the idea come to you? How did it all work out?

There was really named someone Vishnu. I was a kid in Bombay, growing up at that time. He used to wave at me. I guess he lived around our area. It was around 1994 or in 1995 that he died on the steps. The municipality came and took his body away – that was kind of a springboard, from where I wanted to start my story. At first I thought I will write a story about the neighbours. I then slowly began to think that there was more to it than a short story. The scary part was that people started saying it was novella, and it ultimately took the form of a novel.

The Death of Vishnu

6. Your novels are all about faith – sometimes the lack of it and sometimes the point when it becomes a little too much to handle. Does this affect you as a person?

Well, it certainly is something that is deeply invested in various parts of my life. Different terms of my own faith, you would call it – it can be seen very deeply in the first book, my own faith and lack of it. From one perspective as a mathematician, I brought about the rational, cold and unrelenting attributes in Mr. Jalal. He had to discover his faith and I had to voice through him all the questions I had in my mind.

Faith in a person – that’s what plays out more visibly in the last book. Faith in someone you think you know and someone you trust and what does that mean. I tried to work on a spectrum. I guess for myself, it’s always a question of faith, which is the opposite of rationality. I don’t care about the evidence but I believe in it. For a mathematician it is bad news, because you need evidence and proof.

7. Your love for the city by the sea. How would you explain that? Though you live far from it, does Bombay continue to enter your dreams?

Oh yes it does and you would think that I spend 20 years here, and 32 in US, that I should be able to write more about where I live now. However that did not happen. It is almost that I transferred the obsession of Mumbai to the US. I could not imagine writing anything deep – with reference to any other city. It had to be about the city I grew up in. It is definitely a very deep-rooted connection; I guess I was not aware of, however it definitely is there. I renew it each time I come here. On the other hand, capturing Washington DC in my books would not have the same effect. It would be flat. I don’t have the same kind of connection with the city.

8. Your literary influences.

When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of bestseller fiction, from Harold Robbins to Arthur Hailey to James Hadley Chase. It was the “rites of passage” almost for people growing up in the 70’s.

I read all of that and after that serious fiction – R.K. Narayan to the others. I think the first kind of real kind of lit fiction that I remember reading was Shame by Salman Rushdie. This was in the late 80’s. I did not have much of lit fiction education till later. I slowly started reading more lit fiction like some of the Indian authors in the last couple of decades. The big thing was Salman Rushdie – huge larger than life. I always end up comparing my writing to his at some point or the other.

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

9. Dystopian fiction has always intrigued me, and yet going by what you have written earlier, I would not imagine something on those lines to come from you. How did that process develop?

With dystopia, there is more futuristic and speculative writing involved, about what might happen, 70 years from now and 100 years from now, nuclear war has come and gone and that is lot easier to write and you can arrange the landscape. People have to accept the landscape. The difference in my book is that it is set in near future, which is harder to relate to and you have to give it more depth and angles.

The near future was definitely harder to write about. The near future has the uncomfortable characteristic of being near. How am I going to make this believable if someone reads it two years down the road? That was the question. I had to cancel the dates and make it believable. It is also after all a love story too.

10. The dual-narrative structure in the book is what kept me going last night, up and about to finish the book. Did the narrative at any point drain you as a writer?

The City of Devi was a very complicated book to write. I had to almost structure it like a thriller. Hold back bits of information and give some. The hardest thing was to write about India and what happens in the world at the same time – apportion between the two narratives.

The right narrator had to be on stage when certain actions demanded that. If something has happened and say it was Jaz’s turn to narrate things, he better be talking.

It was actually a lot of technical stuff like that. Towards the end, the cutting back and forth, happened more frequently. At the same time, it had me picking up the pace alternatively, which helped the book.

11. Now that the trilogy is over, what is next on the cards?

There’s this thing that I am working on which is completely different. A combination of sorts – a math novel infused with fiction. I hope it works best for me. It will for sure be a different experience for the reader.

This was the end of a great interview. I had so much to learn from the man – his insights were amazing and the way he communicates is stupendous. I had a great time for sure.

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