We had the opportunity to speak with author S.K. Radhakrishnan about his debut novel, ‘I Have No Earthly Idea’. Through a series of slice-of-life vignettes about love and heartbreak, the novel tells the story of a physical therapist from Madras as he follows his heart across the world to the United States. Beyond his writing career, S.K. is also a practicing, successful administrative chief and neurosurgical physician assistant. Prior to the publication of his first novel, S.K. trained and practiced as a physical therapist in India before coming to the United States in 1994, where he gained his physician assistant training from Wayne State University.
S.K. is currently the administrative chief and clinical neurosurgical PA at Duke University Hospital’s Department of Neurosurgery, where he was also awarded the “Meritorious Service Award” in 2018 for his distinguished service.
Today, S.K. sits down with us to discuss his debut novel, his writing process, personal triumphs, and more.
Hi S.K., How are you? I’d like to start off by asking how you came to pursue writing professionally?
I took all writing assignments in college seriously. Big or small, grade or no grade, I took them seriously. As a neurosurgical physician assistant (PA), I pride myself in writing detailed, thorough history and physicals and discharge summaries. Growing up in India, I learned to speak English in school and was very fluent when I came to America. However, I was not familiar with American slang and found myself in several hilarious and embarrassing situations due to misunderstandings with the language.
A joke is best delivered in the first person, and I used to share these embarrassing stories with my friends. During my PA Surgical Residency at Duke, one of the general surgery residents, Dr. Jeffrey Nienaber volunteered my name at Charlie Goodnight’s (a local comedy club) amateur stand-up comedy night. On a whim, I auditioned and of the 13 who auditioned, I was selected to perform. I shared my embarrassing stories, was an instant hit and was invited back a few times. I started writing for my stand-up comedy but being a PA surgical resident at Duke and averaging 80 hours a week and then a neurosurgical PA, I didn’t have time to make it to the amateur night. However, it did not stop me from writing. All these materials ended up like the idiom “all dressed up and nowhere to go.” So I decided to write a book about these but then it morphed into a full-length novel. The story took me to places I didn’t intend to go. In the end, I was just a conduit for the story that was waiting to be told.
Can you walk us through the process of gaining inspiration for and writing I Have No Earthly Idea?
One of the best pieces of advice I got when I began to take writing more seriously was “write what you know and are familiar with. Naturally, I incorporated the bits I wrote for my stand-up comedy. I took my inspiration from life and the world around me. Being an immigrant myself to the Land of the Free, I wanted to show how welcoming the people in America are. I incorporated several issues that are dear to my heart and issues that impact and affect us all — love, family, culture, food, immigration, alcoholism, bias, child abuse to name a few. I touched on all these subjects with love as the subject and the medical setting as the backdrop.
I chose to write a romance in the medical setting because I am familiar with that setting. Again — write what you know. Being a physical therapist for a decade and now a physician assistant for the past two decades, a medical setting was a natural choice. However, there are hundreds of stories about doctors and nurses and readers love them. How do I make my novel stand apart? I chose to highlight the unsung heroes of healthcare — physician assistants, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists.
The physician assistant (PA) profession has been around for 50 years and PAs are an integral part of healthcare and yet people are not familiar with who PAs are and what they do. Physician assistants are erroneously referred to as physician’s assistants (with an apostrophe “s”) How else to educate people about this noble profession and soldiers of healthcare than make the protagonist of my debut novel a physician assistant?
My interest in writing was fueled by my love for movies, especially good heartfelt romantic comedies. However, it was two books that inspired me to take writing more seriously and write a novel. The storytelling by Dr. Abraham Verghese in Cutting for Stone taught me to write with a purpose, and the inspiring larger than life story of Dr. Paul Kalanidhi in When Breath Becomes Air motivated me to bring my novel to fruition. My love for romantic comedies made it an obvious genre to write in. I Have No Earthly Idea” is my debut novel. I do want to make it clear, I am not comparing my book to these giant literary figures. While I am proud of my work, it pales in comparison to their contribution to literature. I want to give them due credit for being an inspiration for me.
In your opinion, what makes a piece of writing outstanding?
If I can connect with the story, the characters, and cannot stop thinking about it long after I have finished reading, I consider it an outstanding piece of writing. If the story impacts me profoundly if it gives me a new perspective or changes my preconceived notion about something it is an outstanding book. Finally, if a book or article, inspires me to act, or changes my status quo, it is outstanding.
If you were to choose one scene from your novel to see translated into a movie or television show, what would it be?
Being a hapless romantic, I would have to say the opening scene of my novel, which would intrigue people to want to know more. It would be a great hook. Here it is, you can be the judge.
It was a long shot. He had not expected her to show up. He would have understood it if she had not. But here she was — as beautiful as ever. With long wavy black hair, a fair complexion, and a willowy frame, she was the envy of Indian women and men alike. Her eyebrows arched perfectly over her soft brown eyes. She was wearing a pink churidar — his favorite color on her. A quintessential balance of the traditional and the modern, she was modest yet sexy. To him, she looked like a goddess comparable only to the carvings of Ajanta and Ellora caves and the statues that adorn Indian temples.
She seemed to glide towards him. A breeze trailed her — a much-needed relief in the sultry night at Madras International Airport lit with the neon lights of the city. As she reached closer, her fragrance, like the fresh countryside air, replaced the stench of the people around her. There were all sorts of folks — of different ages, colors, and shapes — waiting to bid farewell to their loved ones. She stood out in the crowd.
With one look at her, he felt all the weight on his shoulders fall off. He exhaled a huge sigh of relief. His family understood the gravity of the situation. Although it would be a long time before they could see him again — their son, their eldest brother — they took a step back to give him a moment alone with her. After all, they were all too aware of what it must have cost her to be here.
Not knowing what came upon him, he embraced her. For a moment, he forgot the fact that his parents were standing behind him. He did not realize that his brothers and sisters were gawking at him. He held her close, unsure if he was comforting her or seeking solace from her. She did not hold back either and returned his embrace.
What is the most challenging part of the novel writing process for you?
Several things. Staying true to the story and being a conduit without wavering. Listening to the story as it unfolds and resisting the temptation to give in to the inner voices to alter or change the narrative to what I think the reader would want. I did not want to be presumptuous and did not want to underestimate the reader by thinking for them. You would know this when you read the ending of my novel. It took some courage for me to end the novel the way I did but it shows the trust I have in the readers and value their intellect.
Editing was equally challenging. When I finished writing, my novel was 712 pages and I trimmed it to 410 pages.
Finally, coming up with names for the characters was challenging for me, especially the redhead in the story. She is a complex character from the south who is more than what meets the eye. I wanted a name that captures her essence. After many months of agonizing, I shared my frustration with Devin, one of the nurses I work with. I explained the character to her and she immediately said I would love to call her Annabelle. I was depicting her as a southern belle and the name struck a chord with me. I named her Annabelle Kingston.
How would you describe your voice as a writer? Are there specific themes or ideas in particular that you feel strongly about including in your writing?
If I would have to describe my voice as a writer in one word, it would be “social”. Life is not a genre so why should a book be? I like to include relevant issues affecting society at large. After all, a writer should be a mirror reflecting society. I try to identify issues the society is silent about and give it a voice by incorporating those issues in my story. The themes I particularly feel strongly about are love, healthcare, culture, immigration, family, and focusing on our similarities to disprove myths and common misconceptions.
And finally, can you share with us what has been your biggest personal triumph thus far in your time as a writer?
I was invited by a local TV station for an interview that aired live, which was something special for me since it was my debut novel. But, my biggest personal triumph would be receiving heartfelt messages from total strangers about how much the story impacted them: Some of my favorites are:
- You changed my view about immigration. It is more than punch lines and talking points.
- I have a whole new appreciation for PAs and I am going to find one as a primary care provider.
- Your story taught me to have an open mind when it comes to other cultures.
- There is more to healthcare than just doctors and nurses. Thank you for a story highlighting the unsung heroes of healthcare.
- Your story has inspired me to quit drinking.
- After reading your story, I reconciled with my estranged family.