Author Interview: Sydney Srinivas talks biographies, research and more

Sydney Srinivas is an enthusiastic story teller with 7 biographies published to date. The subjects of his writing make up an impressive list: Alan Turing of The Imitation Game fame, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Marie Curie and mathematical genius from his native India, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His nonfiction has been published in 2 languages, English and Kannada – a dialect spoken by 64 million people in the state of Karnataka, Southern India.

Srinivas had a lucky break that most writers only dream about when he was commissioned to write the books by 3 publishers: Prism Books (in English), Vasantha Prakashana and Nava Karnataka (both in Kannada). To date he has enjoyed a following in Australia, India, USA and Europe.

Author/Biographer Sydney Srinivas…

Writing for pleasure came later on for Srinivas. He is firstly a mechanical engineer with a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science. His working life has encompassed teaching positions in universities in Germany, Japan, USA and Australia. He has 60 journal papers and 72 conference presentations to his credit from this period. One could say he has technical writing under his belt! Srinivas already had 4 published textbooks to his name from this prolific period before he started writing biographies.

Now officially retired from his ‘day job’, Srinivas keeps a busy schedule as a radio broadcaster co-hosting for a local Indian programme on 2RRR, where he discusses items of literary interest. He has shared the subjects of his biographies on AIR Bangalore and presented them in schools and colleges in India. Srinivas also writes music and dance reviews for Sydney based newspapers Indian Link and Indian Down under. He has produced Indian cultural programs for SBS, including ‘Gokulanirgamana’ a musical in Kannada and programmes for TVS (Television Sydney).

Srinivas has cultivated his own quirky sense of humour from straddling two cultures, his native India (he hails from Bangalore and regularly visits family there) and Sydney’s Inner West where he has lived since 1987 with his wife Usha. In between his obligations you will find him writing his next project at his oval shaped oak dining table.

With his trademark wit, he explains the challenges of penning biographies thus:

Writing fiction with your own ideas is like taking your wife shopping. Writing non- fiction about a 3rd person who you have not met is like taking somebody else’s wife shopping.’

Srinivas makes special mention of the collaboration and assistance of his weekly writing group in the preface to his most recent biography to be published, of Albert Einstein. The proceeds from his biographies are used to purchase books for distribution to rural schools in India.

There are many books already written about your subjects. What is it that sets your biographical interpretations apart from other accounts?

I believe it is due to my personal storytelling style. I write biography as if it is relaying a story. I don’t ignore the scientific aspect of the person’s life. I have also written many stories of fiction throughout my lifetime and I appreciate and understand science, being an engineer. I also possess a sense of humour, which helps!

S. Srinivas is not your real name. Why do you write under an alias?

My real name is Karkenahalli Srinivas. In fact, Srinivas is my given name (or ‘first name’ as we would refer to in Australia). Hence I am addressed as Srinivas. Just for fun I call myself Sydney Srinivas, a practice in India where the person includes the town where they come from as a part of their name.

Did you find the task of writing a complete book daunting? What has proven more difficult – the research, finding the time to write, sticking to a plan, editing your work?

Every scientist is different, every biography is different. The most difficult challenge is to describe the scientific achievements in simple words so that an average reader can grasp a complex subject. If that reader then attempts to read more by him or herself, it is a bonus. I prepare a strategy for each project and work from there. I leave room for changes and additions as the book progresses.

You research your subjects ‘on the ground’, by visiting their birthplaces and other areas where they lived. What effect do these trips have on you and your writing? Does your wife come with you on your trips or do you prefer to travel alone? (she must be very patient!)

The trips have been very rewarding. When I write about Trinity College or Woolsthorpe Manor (England) or Kumbakonam (India) I can visualise these places. In Kumbakonam for example I visited the house where Ramanujan lived and I walked up the street to his school and college where he studied. This enabled me to capture an authentic sense of place. I have also seen the cot below which he hid himself and did mathematics to avoid being noticed by his concerned parents. I have sat on the same pial (small platform) in front of the house where he sat and developed theorems in mathematics. And been inside the temple which gave him so much peace and comfort.

My wife comes with me most of the time. She is also as enthusiastic as I am. She encourages me and also promotes whatever I write through her own networks.

In your preface to your biography on Albert Einstein you wrote that you are indebted to the collaboration of your writing group. How crucial has it been for the success of your writing to belong to a writing group?

Very much so. The group has helped me improve my English and write in a more organised fashion. Some of the Indian English is slowly vanishing from what I write. I am getting very good ideas from the group; the writing has become consistent now. As an example, my book on Einstein was read out to the Open Genre Writing Group at the NSW Writers’ Centre for almost a year. The feedback and constructive criticism and suggestions have improved the quality of the book and my writing.

Does the process get any easier the more you write?

It is the first chapter where I introduce the subject and attempt to attract the attention of the reader that is most difficult. I have a small group of trusted reviewers who are writers themselves. They read what I have written and suggest changes. Only then do I send the manuscript to the publishers.

You had a lucky break – you were commissioned by your 3 publishers to write your biographies. How did that come about?

They already knew my background since 1975 when I was living in India and writing newspaper articles.

What were the pitfalls of the publishing experience you had to deal with and didn’t expect?

Fortunately I haven’t experienced any pitfalls to date. My publishers are very approachable. There is no contract or legal document signed. Everything has proceeded in a friendly manner. Fate takes precedence; to date there have been no strict deadlines.

When did you decide to start writing biographies? Was there a defining moment or did it just happen?

I was already writing articles for Indian newspapers in Sydney (Indian Link and Indian Down under) as well as in India. 4 years ago, I was asked to give a talk on Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in Liverpool (Sydney) by the Hindu association Manthana. After the talk I was requested to write it in the form of a book, in English. Editors in Bangalore saw that book during my visit there and pleaded with me to write the same in Kannada. That is when everything started.

A publisher in India, Prism Book House, wanted me to write about Srinivasa Ramanujan in English. That came about, then Einstein followed. The book about Ramanujan was launched in Sydney by another professor and mathematician, Michael Hirschhorn from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Your books have been sold in Australia, India, USA and Europe. On which continent have you had the most success? Do you attend a speaking circuit to bring awareness to your work?

My books have been sold mostly in India and to followers of my work in the USA. Many Sydney siders have shown interest. I have not attended any speaking circuits to date.

Do you choose your biography subjects or do they choose you?

The choice of whom to write about has been solely mine. The only exception is Henry Ford, on whom I was requested to write in Kannada by another publisher in India (Nava Karnataka) for a series of titles about people who have contributed to mankind.

From your list of 7 biographies penned so far, is there a common approach you have used with your subjects?

Of the biographies I have written (Alan Turing, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Marie Curie and Srinivasa Ramanujan), the aim was to bring out their scientific achievements and also any other feature of human interest in their lives. I have tried to highlight any struggle these people took to achieve their goals. I like my writing to be the telling of a personal story, not just stating the facts.

One female is in your list, Marie Curie. Why her in particular?

Her life was a struggle. A Polish woman trying to establish herself in Paris with no money. She wasn’t allowed to attend tertiary education in her homeland. She and her elder sister Bronislawa (she was referred to as Bronya) made a pact: Bronya would go to Paris to establish herself while Marie remained in Warsaw to work. Marie sent money to Paris to support her.

When the time came for Marie to join Bronya in Paris, she travelled 4th class as she couldn’t afford any other fare. Most days she couldn’t eat a meal and she almost broke down from malnutrition. Bronya took her in but the house was too busy for her studies thanks to frequent visits from politicians and notaries. Bronya had a busy social life which matched her exuberant personality.

The Curie family contained no less than 5 Nobel laureates: Marie Curie, Pierre Curie, his daughter, son-in law and also the second son-in law. They shared four Nobel prizes. This is an astonishing achievement.

Is the fact that your other subjects are all male merely a historical fact, i.e. a reflection of the times?

Absolutely, it is a historical fact, a sign of the times.

You donate a percentage of the proceeds of your books to a reading programme in India. Would you like to share your reason behind this?

I do not accept any royalty for my books. Instead, I ask my publishers to donate copies of my books freely to rural schools. My brother in Bangalore assists with this process. One publisher has a list of schools to send books to free of charge on my behalf. In addition, when I hand over copies of books to friends and others in Australia, I appreciate if they can make a donation, say $10 a book. This money goes back to India for the purchase of books which are then distributed to the schools in rural areas also. The scheme has worked very well. With the help of my brother, I myself have contributed liberally to this cause from my other incomes.

Do you have any other advice you would like to share with aspiring non-fiction writers reading this article?

Apply your heart and soul and first understand your subject’s achievements. Unless you make this your own, you cannot write effectively as a third person.

You have also made special mention of your wife Usha in your latest book. Do you think living with someone who is a writer has its difficulties?

I have thanked her because she gives me the emotional space I need to do my work. She is not a writer herself, but she enjoys reading. By the same token, I give her space to pursue her love of gardening, her favourite hobby. We support each other.

What are you working on now?

Isaac Newton in English, Charles Darwin eagerly waiting to be written in Kannada.


Writer’s Edit would like to thank Sydney Srinivas for taking the time to speak with us about his work and inspiration.

Zita Fogarty

Zita has always wanted to be a writer and has kept a journal since the age of 11. She left school early to become an apprentice chef before her father found out about her poor exam results. Cooking led to many adventures worth writing about, such as meeting Elton John and catering for an intimate wedding on the Hawkesbury River with no vehicle access or electricity. Now Zita is out of the kitchen and in front of the computer, doing what she was destined to do. Follow Zita on Twitter and read her blog here.

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