You would think that Surya Ramkumar would have no time for anything else aside from her family (she has two young girls) and her job (she’s a Partner at international consulting firm McKinsey & Company). But even if it means getting up at the crack of dawn, Surya makes time to write. For her, writing is not just a hobby, it’s an essential activity. As she says, ‘Writing is how I fulfil my need to create. It offers me a medium to process my thoughts and give freedom to my imagination’.
Surya hails from India but has lived most of her life abroad—Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, and the UK—and has collected great fuel for her fiction along the way. For nearly 10 years, she’s lived in the Netherlands with her daughters and husband. She’s currently a member of our Monday workshop. We recently caught up with her to find out the why’s, what’s and how’s of her writing practice.
Q: What is your writer’s origin story?
A: I have always loved to write, and looked up to great writers as role models. The transition from a hobby writer to a serious practitioner of the craft is somewhat blurred for me. I joined my first writing workshop in 2007, and since then have attended various courses to hone the craft. What made me sign up for the first one was curiosity, what kept me coming was the recognition that this is an art just like any other, and training, apprenticeship and feedback are critical for becoming a great writer.
Q: What does your process look like?
A: I do my best writing between 5:30 and 7:30 AM. I typically write 2-3 mornings a week at my cozy writing desk nestled in our attic room, which is lined from floor to ceiling with books. As for inspiration, I am lucky to have a job and life where I meet people from diverse backgrounds, nationalities, careers and interests. While I rarely write about people I know directly, I get inspiration from my interactions with them. I typically start with either a theme or a character, after which I decide on a form and narrative style. The process of planning and writing tends to be quite iterative, until I have a first draft that I am happy with, at which point I put on the metaphorical editor’s hat.
Q: How has writing had an effect on other aspects of your life?
A: Writing helps me to be calmer, and manage the daily stresses of a hectic life. In difficult situations, I have often tried to write about it from the perspective of someone else—literally, imagining myself walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. Fictionalizing the situation and writing out potential endings to ongoing situations helps me think through them in a more rational but empathetic way.
Q: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from the workshop?
A: If I had to pick one, the most valuable element of craft I’ve learned is paying attention to and deliberately shaping the tone and mood of a narrative. I have also become a better reader, because I have learned to pay more attention to the techniques that writers use, even those whose writing seems so effortless on casual reading.
Q: What’s been the most surprising thing about your workshop experience?
A: I have been amazed and pleasantly surprised by the high caliber and commitment of the teachers and the fellow students I have met. It is an environment where everyone is genuinely committed to helping each other become better writers, and I enjoy the camaraderie and shared passion. When I first signed up, I was apprehensive about sharing my writing with a group of people I had never met. But after a lesson or two, I felt completely comfortable and appreciate the honest and constructive feedback.
Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve written about?
A: I should probably write about weird things more! My writing tends to be quite realistic, not that reality is not weird. Probably the weirdest is floating cloud bubbles of meeting appointments on a CEO’s virtual calendar that then get a life and mind of their own.
Q: What’s on your list of favorite books? And your most hated list?
A: To name a few favorites: Doris Lessing’s “The Grass is Singing”, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories. I don’t quite have a most hated list—if I don’t like a book, I stop reading, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge something until you have fully read it.
Q: What’s a topic or experience you would like to write about but haven’t yet?
A: Recently, I read up on Artificial Intelligence as part of my work, and my mind couldn’t help but wander into fictional possibilities—I would love to attempt to incorporate the blurring of human and tech into a story.
Q: What are your plans for the future? What do you hope to achieve in the next year?
A: I hope to continue learning new skills, both through writing and through reading like a writer. Book by book, story by story, if I can be better at the end of the year than when I started, I will be very happy.