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5 Questions with Maulik Pancholy

I’m nearly a founding member of B.A.C.A.

I’m suspicious when folks from the acting realm publish children’s books. But I also have a soft spot for anyone that approaches the challenge of writing for kids in a thoughtful, honest way. For that reason, I wanted to talk with actor and debut author Maulik Pancholy about his coming-of-age middle grade novel, The Best At It.

Travis: When did you first think “I want to write a novel for kids”? Were you full speed ahead from there, or did things take a different course?

Maulik: Well, first off, I love books. And I definitely loved books as a kid. So, I already knew the power in telling great stories for young people. I’ve also done a number of animated series, and I’ve seen how kids’ eyes light up when you—at a press event, for example—say something in the voice of a character they watch on TV. And I get to meet a lot of young people through the anti-bullying organization I co-founded, acttochange.org, which we first launched while I was serving on President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders.

So, the idea of writing a book—of creating content for kids that really speaks to them—felt like a world I wanted to live in. I guess the idea really germinated about three years ago, and was born out of how aware I was of the need for diverse stories. I tinkered with character ideas and story arcs and draft pages for nearly a year before my lit agent was like, “You have to trust it! These pages are good. Let’s go out with them.” I was kind of floored when we got multiple bids on the book, and I was thrilled to find a home at Balzer + Bray. But the timing was nuts. I had committed to doing two very demanding plays back to back, the first of which started rehearsal a month after I sold the book. I wrote as much as I could during those rehearsals and performances, but it was after that second play ended when I was finally able to say, “I’m passionate about telling this story. I have to make the space to dive into it.”

Travis: What was the biggest surprise for you in writing your debut?

Maulik: Writing this book filled me with a real appreciation for just how BIG books are: how many layers exist, the details that have to be drawn to make the world breathe, how many trajectories are overlapping and influencing one another as the story arcs toward the finish line. As a reader, I of course knew that; but as a writer, there were times when just keeping track of it all felt like such a massive undertaking. Which, on the flip side, made it so satisfying when it all finally came together. Maybe that was the biggest surprise: how incredible it felt to watch it come closer and closer together with each draft.

Travis: What % Rahul are you?

Maulik: A LOT %. Ha. No, seriously, so much of his inner life and the experiences he goes through are drawn not only from my middle school self, but also my adult self. And I guess I’d say that’s where some of our differences lie as well. As a twelve-year-old, he tackles, with a lot of courage, things that I didn’t even have the language to identify at that age. For example, I didn’t come out—to myself, even—until so much later in life. The books I was reading as I kid weren’t addressing cultural diversity or sexuality at all. My hope is that this book gives a voice to both young readers and adults to talk about things like identity and intersectionality.

Travis: This is important: what snack puts you in peak creativity mode? Or what snack powered the writing of The Best at It?

Maulik: Is coffee a snack? I remember a certain weekend where I had a coffee, sat down at my computer, had another coffee, got caught up in the writing, had even more coffee, swore I was just going to go back to the last two chapters to change a few things so that the chapter I was working on would make more sense, forgot to eat lunch—how was it already 4pm?!—and then ordered a huge Mexican meal and passed out. This was obviously only sustainable for about one day.

Travis: Your favorite episode of 30 Rock?

Maulik: Oh, I’m bad at picking favorites. Instead, how about I offer you two moments of filming that required a total surrender of ego? 1) When my character, Jonathan, held up a “Friends 4 Eva!!!” poster and sang “I Will Remember You” to Alec Baldwin, and 2) when Jonathan got caught on video playing the flute…shirtless.

Thanks for taking my questions, Maulik! Thank you Mitchell Thorpe for making the interview happen.

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.

Comments

  1. BALJEET! I cannot sufficiently express my love for Baljeet, His big death-metal number on Phineas and Ferb about hating progressive education and demanding tests and grades (“I need the man keeping me down!”) was SO GOOD. Also, how did Maulik not destroy his vocal cords doing it? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ149r4NHks) I too am anti-celeb-children’s-book-author as a rule, but not this time; I’m delighted that so many bloggers I respect are saying this book is good.

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