Books·How I Wrote It

Mean Girls actor Rajiv Surendra confronts failure in new memoir

Rajiv Surendra's memoir traces his journey from Mean Girls stardom to his pursuit of the starring role in Life of Pi.
Rajiv Surendra is the author of The Elephants in My Backyard. (Random House Canada)

The cult classic Mean Girls changed Rajiv Surendra's life in two ways. First, it introduced him to the world as the unforgettable rapping mathlete Kevin Gnapoor. But it was also on the set of the film that he discovered Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

Surendra's memoir The Elephants in My Backyard, which was on the Canada Reads 2017 longlist, is about his all-consuming six-year journey to portray Pi Patel in the film adaptation of Life of Pi. Weaving in poignant — often painful — moments from his past, Surendra tells a tale of chasing a dream across the world and, ultimately, having to overcome failure. 

Open wounds

I'm a huge fan of Tina Fey. I met her on the set of Mean Girls. She wasn't really super famous then and it has been really nice to see her become this huge icon. I read her book Bossypants while I was living in Munich. I enjoyed it so much that when I went to write this book, I reread Tina's book. The one thing that I realized when I finished reading it again was that she didn't really let the reader in to any kind of trauma in her life. I understood and respected that, but it was insightful for me because I decided I didn't want to do that. I want readers to understand why I did what I did and why I was pushed to go after this part. I felt I could only get the reader to be on my side and understand me fully if I let them in.

I wanted to put the struggle with my dad in the book. My relationship with my dad pushed me to get out of that situation. It pushed me to get out of the house and it pushed me to try to find a world in which I wanted to not only live but work. I thought regularly as a child about what I wanted to do for a career. And the impetus for pushing myself to think about a career was so I could get out of the house and survive on my own. It was unbearable at times. The only constructive thing that I could think about was, "OK how do I get out of this? How do I get out of this and actually thrive?"

Hello, computer

I started writing here in my bedroom and then one day I just took my laptop to a café nearby. There was something about the noise and the bustle all around me that made the work a lot easier. I think it's because I wanted to write this book as a kind of conversation, a casual park bench conversation almost in the tone of Forrest Gump, sitting next to that lady and telling her his story. At the café, because everybody around me was deep in conversation, I inadvertently felt like I was having a conversation with my laptop. I started going every day and I'd spend like six hours there. So, God bless the baristas who put up with with me placing order after order of coffee and hogging a table.

Keeping focus

Yann Martel said to me, "I think you have a great story here. The key is you have to tell the story as a universal story. It's nice to talk about hypnotizing lobsters and tracking down castaways, but people need to be able to relate to the main point of the story. And your main point is how to deal with failure." His advice was really helpful and I kept it in the back of my mind throughout the entire writing process, as well as while I was editing.

I mention very briefly at the beginning of the book that the only roles that I could try out for were terrorists and math geeks. But the greater story is not that of a brown actor who doesn't have the opportunities that a white actor has. The greater story is of a person who is trying to figure out how to materialize their dream. That is something that a lot more people can connect to. 

Rajiv Surendra's comments have been edited and condensed.


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