ON THE COUCH WITH ... Saradha NARAYANAN
The Freedom to Make the Right Choices
TAN MAY LEE speaks to a cardiologist who decided to hang up her stethoscope and write her first novel
“When people exercise their freedom to choose, most people would make a choice that directly benefits them in some way. That is human nature, after all. But when the question of ‘morality’ seeps in, that little voice inside our heads may question our choices ....”
SARADHA NARAYANAN is a cardiologist who found the experience of writing and publishing her first novel exciting. Why would a doctor hang up her stethoscope and write books? Or did her career have everything to do with coming up with the material for her book? The Freedom of Choice is published by independent publisher Melrose Books in the United Kingdom, which is another unconventional route taken by Narayanan. Here, in this interview, she reasons out the choices she has made as a writer.
What motivates you to put your pen to paper?
As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to write. As a teenager, I used to dabble in poetry—silly schoolgirl stuff full of anger and angst. Then I would read some beautiful lyrical verse—Tagore, Wordsworth or Tennyson, and think “Why can’t I write like that?” When I finally decided to hang up my stethoscope I found that I had the time to really read. And the more I read, the more I was motivated to write. There were all these voices in my head, clamouring to be heard—I just had to let them out on paper.
What do you think is your biggest achievement as a writer so far?
When I finished writing the first draft of my novel, I felt this supreme sense of achievement—I felt like flying.
What does the freedom of choice mean to you?
We are confronted with an infinite variety of choices everyday, so much so that deciding what to eat for lunch can prove daunting! But on a more serious note, the freedom of choice I’m referring to applies to choices we make in life—the freedom to choose our career paths, our religious beliefs, a life partner or to have a baby, for instance. But this freedom of choice comes with a certain responsibility; you have to bear the consequences of your choice even if that choice turns out to be wrong. And you also have to remember that what is right for you may not necessarily be right for someone else. I have tried to explore some of these issues in the novel.
What happens when the freedom of choice leads to destruction or tragedy?
That’s a risk we all have to take. When people exercise their freedom to choose, most people would make a choice that directly benefits them in some way. That is human nature, after all. But when the question of ‘morality’ seeps in, that little voice inside our heads may question our choices: “Am I making the right ‘moral’ decision under the circumstances?” And even if you make the right choice in a situation, this may not be the right choice for your spouse, child, parent or work colleague. This could lead to destruction or tragedy. I am sure we have all made some choices we regret.
Why did you decide to go with Melrose Books?
I travel quite frequently to the UK and subscribe regularly to two magazines, namely Writer’s Forum and Writing Magazine. Independent publishers like Melrose Books advertise regularly in these magazines and the name caught my eye. Most big-time, established publishing houses will not accept manuscripts from first-time authors unless they are submitted through a literary agent. And if you send an unsolicited manuscript it will be binned immediately. Melrose, on the other hand, welcomes submissions from first-time authors and they do not limit their publishing to any one genre. They do fiction and nonfiction and I am told they get submissions from all over the world, especially Australia and New Zealand!
How has your background as a doctor influenced your writing?
Quite a bit actually. My novel deals with organ transplant (more specifically, kidney transplant), an issue that is quite close to my heart. There is a fair bit of medical mumbo-jumbo in the novel, but I have tried to keep it simple and straightforward. More importantly, I wanted to send out the message that donating one of your kidneys should not put you under any additional risk or reduce your life expectancy.
How difficult was it to capture the backdrop of modern KL?
Not difficult at all. I have lived in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya since the age of 14 and am very familiar with the landscape. I also wanted readers in the UK and elsewhere to know that KL is a thriving, modern metropolis with high-tech tertiary-level hospitals that offer advanced medical care. And that we have shopping malls, cafés and Starbucks at every corner! Malaysian readers, I hope, will be able to read the book and say, “Oh yes, I know that place!”
Which do you think is more important: plot or characters? Who are your literary influences?
Plot and characters go hand in hand. Plot keeps the reader turning the pages, while characters make you remember the story after you have finished reading it. Take Sherlock Holmes, for instance: Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories consist of highly imaginative plots, but we remember them because of the central character—Sherlock Holmes. Similarly, Agatha Christie is remembered to this day because of Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. As for contemporary writers, I admire Jodi Picoult who has an uncanny knack for coming up with the most unusual plots—especially those that pose difficult moral choices. I have also enjoyed reading Camilla Gibb, Kiran Desai and Romesh Gunesekera.
What’s the funniest thing you have done in the name of research?
I had to drive to Kuala Kubu Baru and make sure there wasn’t really a Wong Maternity Centre there. I didn’t want to be slapped with a lawsuit! However, when I cooked up the cell-phone numbers, I took a chance. I hope they do not belong to any well-known private investigator!
What’s on your coffee table?
A large bowl of potpouri and some candle-holders!
How necessary is it for Malaysian writers to go overseas to get credible recognition?
In 2006, I co-authored a collection of short stories entitled Snapshots! which was published in Malaysia. We had trouble marketing it even in Singapore. If you want international recognition, I do believe you have to go overseas. In the UK, they have the whole set-up—qualified and experienced editors, literary agents and several publishing houses as well as a ready, voracious, ‘reading’ market. The only problem is penetrating this ‘stone wall’—how do you get your writing accepted and then published? For this you need talent, skill, persistence and a large dose of luck! Rani Manicka, Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng were all published overseas and have become highly-acclaimed authors.
When you imagine yourself being exactly where you want to be as a writer, what do you see? How will you get there?
I don’t think I can imagine exactly where I want to be as a writer. I do know that I have a lot more to learn when it comes to learning the craft of writing, but I intend to continue writing nevertheless. I am toying with some ideas for my second novel. I would also like to try writing in different genres—children’s stories, travel writing or poetry, for instance. How will I get there? Through hard work, I guess!