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The Best at It

In conversation with Maulik Pancholy
By Maulik Pancholy |
DECEMBER 12, 2019

Photo courtesy of Browngirl Magazine
For the newest installment of SAADA's "In the Mix: Conversations with Creators" series, we're sitting down with author, activist, and actor Maulik Pancholy to discuss his debut novel, a middle grade book titled The Best at It (2019).

Pancholy's award-winning career has spanned hit television shows, animated series, the Broadway stage, and films. This includes the Emmy® award-winning Disney animated series Phineas & Ferb and NBC comedy 30 Rock. In his activism work for the AAPI community, Pancholy served on the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under the Obama administration. He co-founded an anti-bullying campaign called - designed to meet the unique needs of AAPI youth - which he continues to lead to today.

What ideas are at the heart of your book and what new way would you like people to think about them?

The heart of the book is learning to celebrate yourself. The Best at It is about a twelve-year-old Indian American boy named Rahul Kapoor who is just beginning to realize that he might be gay. He is struggling with his identity on multiple levels, and in order to prove his self-worth, he sets off on a quest to prove that he’s the best at something. He has this idea that if he can just show the world that he’s a “winner,” then maybe all of his other worries will disappear. The book tackles issues of cultural identity, sexual identity, and anxiety. But it’s also filled with a lot of humor. Over the course of the book, Rahul contemplates what it means to be the best. I think that question is a life long journey. Certainly, even as adults, we are often faced with the need to prove ourselves.

Is there anything in your personal life or that of someone you know that inspired you to care about this topic?

This book is a work of fiction, but it is also very much based on my own experiences. The emotional content of the story is extremely personal. I was a 12-year-old kid who was trying to figure out who I was, who didn’t feel like I belonged, and who was trying to run away from my sexuality. And I compartmentalized my cultural identity – I tapped into my Indian culture with my family friends on weekends and tried to be more “American,” at school. There is a lot of me in Rahul.

For someone who might not be interested in this book’s specific topic, why should they still read this and what do you hope they will get out of it?

It’s been amazing to me to see how many people of various backgrounds are finding a connection to Rahul’s journey. I think most people have felt like an outsider, or have felt “different,” at some point in their lives. So, while the book is specific in terms of what Rahul is going through, I think the story of being comfortable with who you are is one that anyone can relate to. I hope this book offers representation to kids whose stories have largely been omitted from literature, while also opening up dialogue for readers of other backgrounds.

This is your first book. How did you change as an author from the beginning of the process to the finished product?

Writing was a process of discovery. You start by writing one story with a loose outline that changes as you get deeper into it. The story starts to reveal itself to you. Parts that felt important at the beginning start to morph into other things. For me, part of the process was being open to that change. And that can feel scary and risky, but also exciting. I think, over the course of writing this book, that I became more open to living in the unknown.

Maulik Pancholy at Oxford Exchange Bookstore in Tampa, FL

What advice did you receive that really helped you in the writing process or what advice would you have for new authors?

The biggest piece of advice that I received was that first drafts are often bad and that’s OK. You just have to get the ideas out on the paper. And the second piece is that you have to share your writing with others to get feedback. Part of the creative process is getting your work in front of others. That can feel scary, but that’s how you get better. I’ve had the same experience as an actor: you have to get through the bad rehearsal before you can get to opening night.

If there is some social or cultural or political change that could come about from people reading your book, however large or small, what would you like that to be?

In the book I tried to write a lot of conversations across generations. Rahul has conversations with his grandfather, his mother and father, and his classmates. In a lot of books for young readers, the lead character has to tackle their journey all alone. But for me, it was important to have a community around Rahul that he was in dialogue with. What would make me really happy is if the book, in turn, encourages this kind of communication in the real world. I should point out, too, that the characters aren’t always great at it. It was important to me to show that having these conversations is what’s important, even if you don’t always know the “right” thing to say.

What is your next big project, or what are you interested in talking about next?

The book itself is doing really well, and we are now actively in discussions to adapt it into a film or television series. That feels really exciting for me on multiple levels. It would be incredible to have this kind of representation on the big or small screen. It’s something I certainly didn’t have as a kid, and something I think we still very much need.

Maulik Pancholy is an award-winning actor, author, and activist. He is well-known for his role as the voice of Baljeet on the Disney animated series Phineas & Ferb and for playing Jonathan on the NBC comedy 30 Rock.