Manil Suri, 48, is by day a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. By night, he is a novelist, creating narratives set in his native India. Dr. Suri’s first novel, “The Death of Vishnu” (W. W. Norton, 2000), was excerpted in The New Yorker and had a $350,000 advance. Norton has just released his second novel, “The Age of Shiva,” to glowing notices. Amy Tan called it “both intimate and epic, a balance of sensual beauty and visceral reality.”

**Q. HAVE THERE BEEN MANY MATHEMATICIAN-NOVELISTS?**

A. Lewis Carroll. He was sort of a mathematician. There are other people who’ve done something similar. Apostolos Doxiadis wrote “Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture,” and he was a mathematician. There’s someone in Argentina who wrote a short novella on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. So there’s a sprinkling of them. But it’s not like medicine, where there’s a tradition of literary doctors. Mathematics and literature, they seem divergent fields. In mathematics you have a lot of constraints, whereas in literature, you can make your story come out the way you’d like it to.

**Q. ARE THERE AREAS WHERE MATH AND WRITING CONVERGE?**

A. Actually, there are a few. If you’re writing and plotting the path of your characters, you have to consider the different directions they might go. “If I move something there, what will happen with this other thing?” Or, “How will the characters interact, if they do this or that?”
In mathematics, in place of characters, you have variables or unknowns. If I’m trying to plot a theorem, I try to imagine these variables interacting with each other. The boundary of their interaction is the theorem.
Q. DID YOU WRITE AS A CHILD?
A. I kept journals. And I painted, too. But the India of the 1960s and 1970s was still a new nation, barely free of British colonialism. The arts were not encouraged, especially Indian arts. I hardly read any Indian writers in school. There were no role models. If you showed any aptitude for studies, you were pushed toward the sciences and mathematics. If you failed at those, you might try something else. On the whole, the arts were seen as a sign of weakness.

Q. WAS YOUR FAMILY MIDDLE CLASS?

A. We were teetering middle class, at the edge of something worse. My grandparents lost everything in the partition of India in 1947. They were refugees from Rawalpindi, which is now in Pakistan. We lived in one room in Bombay, my mother, father and I.
My parents wanted me to become a doctor because that’s what my grandfather had been. Medicine was the last thing I wanted. In college, I took abstract algebra and fell in love with it. I liked how in mathematics you could find definitive answers. When you did a problem and it worked, it was a great feeling, something like a runner’s high.
When a professor suggested that I try to find a fellowship in America, I wasn’t sure. But I’d grown very pessimistic about my future in India. We have a tradition where children stay with their parents after they get a job. So while I loved my parents, I could see myself living in that fishbowl of a room forever. Once I got the ball rolling for studies in America, the idea excited.
And there was something else. I knew I was probably gay, which was completely invisible in India at that time.

**Q. HOW OLD WHERE YOU WHEN YOU ARRIVED IN THE UNITED STATES?**

A. Twenty. I had obtained a fellowship to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. Immediately, I was surprised how easy it was to set down roots here. Unlike immigrants from other parts of the world, I had the language. I’d seen American movies and had read Mad magazine. There was no culture shock.
In America, I finally had a chance to investigate my own sexuality and take small hesitant steps in that direction. Today, I’m with my partner of 18 years.
One thing I was shocked by was how much Americans hated mathematics. You almost needed an antidefamation league for mathematicians. People actually took pleasure in explaining how bad they were at it. There’s a doll here that says, “I hate math.” You wouldn’t be able to sell such a doll in a sari.

Q. WHAT SORT OF MATH DO YOU DO?

A. Applied mathematics. I work in numerical analysis, which helps engineers solve mathematical problems they encounter. If, for instance, people are designing a bridge, the equations that model its sturdiness are so complicated that the solution can only be approximated on a computer. In my field, we formulate the computer algorithms used for this and provide estimates for the reliability of the answer. You wouldn’t want the bridge to fall because of an inaccurate approximation.

**Q. IS THERE ANY CONFLICT BETWEEN YOUR TWO LIVES?**

A. There used to be. For the longest time, I pursued my literary interests away from my professional work.
In math, in academia, there’s a strong pressure to do just one thing. You are not taken seriously if you have diverse interests. I remember a colleague who begged me not to tell anyone that he had a piano at home. He was afraid he wouldn’t be thought of as a dedicated mathematician.
So when I was working on my first novel, I didn’t tell people about what I was doing. When I went off to a writer’s colony, my academic colleagues assumed I was working on some esoteric government project. I had at the time a grant from the Air Force. They only learned about the novel after an excerpt was published in The New Yorker.
Many novelists have undemanding day jobs. But I have a profession which takes up huge parts of the psyche. While I worked, or floundered, on my first novel, I sometimes asked myself, “Why make literature?” I wondered if I shouldn’t devote myself exclusively to doing research and improving my standing as a mathematician. That push and pull has eased some since the successful publication of two novels.

Q. HOW DID YOU PUT YOUR TWO LIVES TOGETHER?

A. Through finding innovative ways to do math outreach. That was the bridge.
Lately, I’ve been giving a talk, “The Mathematics of Fiction,” at literature conferences and writers’ colonies. The idea of deconstructing fiction into its simplest building-block components has a far-reaching mathematical analog which I try to bring out. Here at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, I’ve been designing a course where our students do a creative project that requires the use of math.
Also, for public school students and their teachers and parents in the city of Baltimore, I’ve produced a video, “Taming Infinity,” which is on YouTube. In it, I explain the mathematical concept of infinity. I got some visual arts students to help with that one.

By CLAUDIA DREIFUS for the New York Times

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