According to cliché, you’re not supposed to count your chickens before they hatch. It’s something someone should’ve told actor Rajiv Surendra (Mean Girls), who so identified with the lead character in Yann Martel’s novel Life Of Pi that he thought it was his destiny to play that part in Ang Lee’s movie adaptation. Unfortunately, no one told Lee, who cast someone else. But as Surendra has apparently learned from another cliché, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Which is what he’s done with his new memoir The Elephants In My Backyard (hardcover, digital). Though as he admitted in the following interview, it actually wasn’t his idea to make lemonade.
Photo By Luke Fontana
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is The Elephants In My Backyard about?
The Elephants in My Backyard is my memoir chronicling the ten-year journey I went on, chasing after the lead role in the film adaptation of Life of Pi. The similarities between me and Pi were uncanny: I grew up beside the Toronto Zoo, and Pi grew up in a Zoo in South India…just one of the odd things he and I shared, which relates to the title of my book.
Life is a journey. Make it fun, take chances and don’t be daunted by failure. Figuring out who you really are, and what you really want out of life comes from deep introspection…and that’s often very difficult work that entails struggle, pain and years of making mistakes.
At what point in this whole journey did you decide to write The Elephants In My Backyard? Were you taking notes when you went to India, were you already writing it when you went to Munich?
Last year, I started giving a motivational talk at colleges on the East Coast. I shared my story and found that students were deeply inspired by it. I met a lot of students who asked why I hadn’t written a book…so eventually I took their advice and put pen to paper.
In terms of the writing, did you look at any other memoirs to see how The Elephants In My Backyard should be structured or for any other ideas?
I didn’t look to other memoirs for style or format templates…I knew I needed to just tell this story in my voice. I wanted the reader to hear me and to hear my story in its most genuine form, so I wrote the book as if I were sitting on a park bench with a new friend.
Aside from the text, you also did some illustrations for the book. First, why did you decide to include these drawings?
The drawings are little doodles that capture the essence of each chapter. I knew that an image could say a lot more than whole string of words, and I wanted to convey a ‘feeling’ with each drawing that every reader could interpret for themselves. I’m really happy with how those simple pencil sketches turned out. I sometimes have an idea in my head and find it really difficult to put it down on paper, but these simple drawings were exactly what I had initially envisioned.
Given that you can write and draw, was there any thought to doing this book as a comic?
No, I hadn’t thought of that, actually.
What about as a movie, do you think The Elephants In My Backyard could be adapted into a film?
Totally. I read through my first draft and really saw my story as a film. I feel as though I kind of wrote it cinematically. I wanted to readers to really see how this story played out, in living color. My journey took me around the world, to stunningly beautiful places like the French colonial town of Pondicherry, in South India and the cobbled Medieval streets of Munich, Germany, with skylines pierced with old church steeples. The locations alone would lend themselves well to a film adaptation of this book.
If it was going to be made into a movie, would you want Ang Lee to direct it, since he directed Life Of Pi?
I’m a big fan of Ang Lee’s work. But given that he already had his Life Of Pi fix, I think there’s someone else who would be my dream director: Jean Pierre Jeunet. He directed Amélie and was actually going to direct Life Of Pi before Ang Lee, but it didn’t work out for budgeting reasons. I think Jeunet still feels disappointed he spent so much time and effort on Pi and didn’t get to make the movie. I would love for him to turn my book in to a movie.
And who would you want to play you in the movie?
Who would I cast as myself? Me, duh. I have a great plastic surgeon, so I still look 16. Thankfully.
Finally, if someone really enjoys The Elephants In My Backyard, what memoir would you suggest they read next and why?
To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s sort of a memoir, right? Anyway, it’s it’s my favorite book. Totally unrelated to my book, but it would be a nice change of pace, a palate cleanser.