We sat down with the multi-talented author of ‘I Have No Earthly Idea.’ S.K. Radhakrishnan. S.K. is an author, administrative chief, and neurosurgical physician assistant originally from India, now based in the United States.
His work in both the medical field and the stand-up comedy arena have lent themselves to his new novel. His expertise when it comes to the medical field can be seen with his numerous accolades; as a recipient of the “Duke Strength, Hope and Caring Award” for his extraordinary provision of compassionate care for patients, as well as the “Henry ‘Buddy’ Lee Treadwell Award” for Recognition of Excellence in teaching at the Duke Physician Assistant Program.
On top of his work writing, ‘I Have No Earthly Idea’, S.K. has worked as a surgical P.A for Duke University Hospital, volunteered with the Special Olympics, as well as made time for mission trips to Uganda for neurosurgery.
In this interview, we discussed the challenges, insights, and rewards of writing his first novel. S.K touches on the importance of an immigrant success story, as well as what it truly means to be a healthcare professional in a world with Covid-19.
Hi S. K.! I’d love for you to start off by telling us a bit about yourself. Tell us a bit about your background in the medical and writing fields. How did you decide to pursue writing more seriously?
Radhakrishnan: I trained and practiced as a physical therapist in India before coming to the United States in 1994. After 13 years of practice as a contract physical therapist in the Midwest – Missouri, Indiana, and Michigan, in 2002, I joined Wayne State University’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program and graduated in 2004.
Wayne State University PA Program Faculty selected me as one “who is most likely to achieve clinical excellence while advancing the ethics & standards of the profession” and presented me with the “Professionalism Award” for the Class of 2004.
I came to Duke University Hospital in 2004 after being accepted into the Duke Postgraduate PA Surgical Residency Program. After successful completion of the residency program, I began my career as a surgical PA for Dr. Allan Friedman in the Department of Neurosurgery. Also, I am a guest lecturer at the Duke PA Program.
In 2006, I was a recipient of the “Duke Strength, Hope, and Caring Award” for the extraordinary provision of compassionate care for patients. In 2013, I was appointed the Program Director of the Duke PA Surgical Residency Program. In April 2018, I received the “Meritorious Service Award” for distinguished service to Duke.
In August 2019, I received the “Henry ‘Buddy’ Lee Treadwell Award” for Recognition of Excellence in Teaching at the Duke Physician Assistant Program. Currently, I am the administrative chief and clinical neurosurgical PA in the Duke’s Department of Neurosurgery.
I took all writing assignments in college seriously and pride myself in writing detailed and thorough history and physicals when I admit a patient and discharge summaries when I discharge them. 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 moments 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, 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 was selected to perform. I shared my embarrassing stories and 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.
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 to 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 write.
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.
Can you take us behind your inspiration for your new novel, ‘I Have No Earthly Idea’?
Radhakrishnan: This is multifactorial. 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 I 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.
When it comes to your new novel, I know it covers intense themes such as heartbreak, self-discovery, and family values- can you break down your writing process for us a bit?
Radhakrishnan: While I included a lot of the material I wrote for stand-up comedy, I wanted to write more than just comedy. I wanted my debut novel to have some meaning and purpose and not just be funny. While for category purposes my novel is categorized as a “Rom-Com”, I chose to write about life. Life is not a genre. Why should a book be? Life begets art and so, I incorporated several issues that are dear to my heart.
At the core, I Have No Earthly Idea is romance and comedy. However, I did not write fantasy and I decided to highlight real social issues that affect love and life. Hailing from Indian heritage, I aimed to highlight traditions, and as an immigrant myself, I wanted to highlight that path as well.
This is an inter-continental journey with part of the story happening in India and the other half in America. In this East meets West saga, I focused on what is common in these two cultures that are a world apart and highlighted what affects us as people. I wanted readers to not only fall in love with the characters but to also be able to relate to them.
Several vignettes in I Have No Earthly Idea work beautifully as independent short stories, each transporting us to an entirely different, richly depicted scene
Aside from crafting the perfect storyline for each of your characters, what were some of the other challenges you encountered, and how did you work to overcome them?
Radhakrishnan: I am a neurosurgical PA Duke Hospital and work with a world-renowned neurosurgeon – Dr. Allan Friedman who specializes in malignant brain tumors. I also work with pioneers in the Duke Brain Tumor Centers – surgeons Dr. Sampson and Dr. Fecci, neuro-oncologists Dr. Desjardin and Dr. Henry Friedman, skilled neurovascular and skull base surgeon Dr. Zomorodi, minimally invasive neurosurgeon Dr. Codd and young but talented neurosurgeons Dr. Cook and Dr. Komisarow whom I have known since they were residents.
I take care of complex neurosurgical patients and adding the role as the program director of the Duke PA Surgical Residency Program, I average 70-72 hours work week. So naturally, finding time to write was a challenge. It took me 5 years to write and another two years of editing before my book came to fruition. Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air constantly reminded me of the value of time and kept me motivated to take advantage of every free moment I had.
One of the hardest challenges was coming up with names for the characters. I wrote under the pen name S.K. Radhakrishnan. I had a tough time coming up with the name of the protagonist. Nothing was good enough and finally, I lent the protagonist part of my first name – Senthil. Talk about vanity. Similarly, I struggled with finding the name for the physical therapist – the leading lady in the first half of the story, and as a tribute, I gave her the name of the person who touched my life when I was young.
Similarly, I had a tough time naming the speech-language pathologist in the book. This character is crucial in the second half of the story. A redhead, a southern belle and I wanted the name to do justice. One day, I was describing the character to one of the nurses I work with – Devin Cannady and she suggested Annabelle Kingston and it sounded just perfect.
I tried to show how cross-cultural semantics affects daily life without falling into the trap of stereotypes. I wanted to keep it genuine and relatable.
Finally, I wanted to write more than something just funny and so I tackled some serious subject matter in the story without it losing its core of romance and comedy. At the same time, I did not want it to be just another love story. I do come from the Land of Bollywood but you will not find the contrived, saccharine ending of many pulp fiction romances here. But oddly enough, although you grieve with the hero, the book leaves you with a lingering smile. Good-natured to a fault, resourceful in tough moments, and charmingly witty, Senthil is a genuinely lovable character, and you desperately want him to triumph.
This is a story about a man who spends his life seeking security, only to lose the one thing he holds most dear. Although it’s filled with subtle, bittersweet irony, the novel is so warm and heartfelt that it leaves you feeling charmed, rather than melancholic.
With the onset of Covid-19, the nation has seen the work of our unsung healthcare workers more so than ever. Your novel highlights the journey of an immigrant in the healthcare sphere, are there any lessons in particular that you feel can be taken from your storyline?
Radhakrishnan: A patient-centered approach is what is needed to overcome not only this pandemic but any illness. A healthcare provider’s role is to do what is right for the patient. The fight against this pandemic has been complicated by politics. The protagonist shows how patients’ lives and the lives of their families are touched when you take care of them unselfishly without bias, but more importantly, how they affect the lives of the healthcare providers. Healthcare workers not only touch the lives of their patients but the patients leave a long-lasting effect on their healthcare providers- a symbiotic relationship at its finest. The story highlights the unsung heroes of healthcare – physician assistants (PAs), physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and shines a light on nurses and doctors. It educates people about who PAs are, what they do, and how to become one.
Another subtle lesson is about immigration’s role in healthcare and the crucial role it plays in healthcare. Immigration is vilified but the protagonist and the storyline show how good and welcoming people are in this country and how the immigrants are productive members of society.
You also have a vision of adapting this to a film or television show. Can you tell us more about this and how this project would lend itself well to adaptation?
Radhakrishnan: I Have No Earthly Idea would make a wonderful feature film or a mini-series for Netflix or Amazon. It has all the elements to be successful – a unique cross-cultural journey of love, self-discovery, culture, and diversity. Through a delightful series of slice-of-life vignettes spanning two continents, I Have No Earthly Idea explores the delicate balance between seeking security and following your heart. While half the story happens in India and the other half in America, it tugs at the heartstrings that are universal and have a broader appeal. The story doubles the audience it can attract. A refreshingly honest tale of love and heartbreak that seamlessly blends romance and the medical profession – a storyline people cannot get enough of.
And finally, what has your time working on ‘I Have No Earthly Idea’ taught you about yourself; or about life?
Radhakrishnan: When I told people I was writing a novel, most of them were very supportive and encouraging. Some raised doubts and said it was a pipe dream and the book will never see the light of the day. While I second-guessed myself at times through the arduous process, I learned the value of perseverance, taking each day as a gift rather than for granted, and if one is going to dream, why not dream big? With discipline and hard work, anything is possible. Writing taught me to believe in myself, and I am stronger and more resilient than I give myself credit for.
One of the most important revelations was while a book can fit into a genre, life does not. I had to be open and honest with myself and learn to be a conduit to let the story unfurl. Writing the novel allowed me to go to places, and tug emotions I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to do so. It was like telling the whole world what I would dare not tell anyone. Working on the novel was a great opportunity to experience and see life from a different vantage point and taught me how so many people touch and enrich each other’s lives.