Techie novelist makes waves

Pic courtesy : Tech Goss

She modestly says she has done ‘some other interesting things, like research as a biomedical scientist, solder on rocket payloads, teach French, volunteer with both abused women and abused animals, and work for a nonprofit healthcare organization’. Meet Vanitha Sankaran, techie, whose debut novel “Watermark’ is making waves.

Techgoss (TG): About you please, your family, your education, your work past and present, your colleges… your connection to India. et al
Vanitha Sankaran (VS): My parents and my sister live in the SF Bay area near me.  I also often visit India and have a strong relationship with my aunts, uncles, and cousins back there.  I love travelling in India and have one or two novels planned in the future that will take place in ancient India. In terms of education, I received a B.S. in Optical Engineering from the University of Arizona, an M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Northwestern University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. My most recent job was as a communications manager for the Institute for OneWorld Health, a nonprofit healthcare organization devoted to developing affordable medicines for the developing world.  Our flagship program is in treating visceral leishmaniasis in Bihar, and South Asia in general.  We also have programs in malaria and diarrheal diseases. I am currently working as a freelance writer and editor and am writing my second novel.

TG: What was the starting point of this love affair with words… why and how did the switch from bio-medical engineering to MFA happen?
VS: I have always had a love affair with words.  In this sense, I have a good combination of left and right brain activity!  I wrote fiction while growing up but when I went to college and then graduate school, other responsibilities consumed me.  It wasn’t until the end of graduate school that I rediscovered my passion for writing, not just in fiction but also in technical writing.  That led to my career change from pure science to communications, both in fiction and in the healthcare industry.

TG: What is your first novel about, when did it come out, tell us more about it please? How has it been received in the US/ rest of the world?
VS: My first book, Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages, is coming out from Avon A (HarperCollins) on April 13, 2010.  The book takes place in the 1300s in a small French town called Narbonne and is about the introduction of papermaking into Western society, a milestone that changed the face of the world. Auda, the mute daughter of a papermaker, secretly finds solace and escape in the wonder of the written word.  But this is an age of the Inquisition and intolerance, when difference and defiance are punishable “sins” and new ideas are considered damnable heresy. When darkness descends upon her world, Auda—newly grown to womanhood—is forced to flee, setting off on a quest to discover love and a new sense of self, and to reclaim her heritage and the small glory of her father’s art. The book has already received critical praise from Booklist, The Library Journal, and various award-winning writers, including NYT bestselling author, Sharon Kay Penman.  Details can be found on my website.

TG: Are you totally happy the way it has been written or would you have written it differently if you had written it earlier/ later…I am talking about the impact of events in your life on how you write
VS: I am very pleased with how Watermark has turned out.  This book is the product of eight years of writing; certainly over that time, my life has gone through a lot of changes.  But those changes have helped me to develop my characters into complex characters who have to compete with conflicting emotions and goals.  I’m not sure I would have had the insight to write this in my 20s!

What is the new novel about?
VS: The novel I am working on now is about printmaking in Renaissance Venice.  It touches on similar themes as those in Watermark but in a new time and place, when access to the written word has become even more widespread due to Gutenberg’s printing press.

TG: Tell us about the journal you have founded for encouraging writers/writing…
VS: Back about nine years ago, I was approached by a colleague on a flash writing list about starting an online journal for that style of writing.  Believe it or not, writing flash fiction, or very very short fiction, is fairly difficult.  How do you grab the reader and tell a story in a matter of a page, a paragraph, or even a few sentences?  We have been fortunate to receive a lot of outstanding work, partly, I think, because we pay our writers and because we give personal feedback to every writer who submits to us.  We get hundreds of submissions every reading period and none of our editors, nor our publisher, are paid.  It’s very much a labor of love, but well worth it.  Check it out at

TG: What do you have to say to writers as a writer who has proved herself…
VS: Don’t give up.  Keep trying to learn more about the craft of writing while giving yourself the space to developing the artistic aspect of the process.  You can always learn to be a better writer, through daily writing, reading, and studying the masters.

What was your biomed engineering PhD all about?
VS: My PhD work centred on looking at scattering and polarization of light in different biological tissues.  The idea was that by looking how the polarization properties of light passing through tissue, you can gain some insight into the structure of that tissue, down to a sub-cellular level.

TG: This is a question I ask every techie writer.  Do you feel you have to ‘switch off’ you techie brain to write? And vice versa? Or you can do both the things in the same mode?
VS: There is certainly a process I go through when I sit to write fiction.  Its not a switching off of a certain part of brain so much as re-entering the world I have created in my fiction work.  I can certainly work on technical and fiction writing in one day but not simultaneously as the processes for writing in both areas is somewhat different.  Technical writing involves more of a logical path whereas in fiction, it’s a combination of following plot and giving yourself the freedom to see where the story goes.

TG: Which Indian authors do you like?
VS: In terms of contemporary writers, I am a fan of Kiran Desai’s writing, Jhumpa Lahiri, and in particular of Aravind Adiga’s brand of humor.  However, growing up, my influences were more traditional—Rajaji’s Mahabharata and Ramayana were books I nearly memorized, as well as Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan.

Here is Vanitha’s website if you would like to know more about her.

Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages.


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