Conversations: Author, Screenwriter – Rupinder Gill

Conversations with Rupinder Gill: Author, Screenwriter

Rupinder Gill’s first book, On the Outside Looking Indian (read the Storyacious book review), is a funny and witty memoir about a year full of urban adventures that she has called her “second childhood”. It was short­listed for the Stephen Lea­cock Memo­r­ial Medal for humor writing.

During that “thirty going on thirteen” year, Gill undertook various activities that she had missed out on during her somewhat conservative Indian-Canadian childhood.

Her story transcends race and culture because, of course, practically everyone has some long-held and unfulfilled childhood desires. And, there’s just something about stories of people re-inventing their lives that draws us all in irresistibly – whether to live vicariously through their adventures or to seek inspiration for our own.

Gill is also the kind of multi-media storyteller who we celebrate at Storyacious. Having written for CBC radio and TV and publications like The National Post, McSweeney’s and The Rumpus, she is currently writing for an upcoming TV comedy in Canada and also working on her next book. She divides her time between Canada and New York City.

Thanks for making the time for this conversation, Rupinder. Your interview with Canada’s Globe and Mail provided some great insights into both your memoir and your writing career. We’ll focus on a few different questions for this conversation.

Let’s start with: how did you get to writing as a career choice?

RG: I came to writing after many attempts to do anything but writing. I had always had an interest in writing but thought of it as a career for other people, so I charted out a course for myself in the business side of television. I was a television publicist (Alliance Atlantis and BBC Canada) for a number of years and publicizing all of the great and creative projects of others made me want to try the creative side for myself. I’m always the first to say how lucky I’ve been with all of the encouragement I’ve received in writing. I met an agent who encouraged me to write the book and it all spiralled from there. It kicked off my desire to write other things and gave me some creative confidence so I started writing humor pieces, and eventually, finally, pursued television writing – which is what I currently do until someone is wise enough to change their mind about allowing me to do so.

The memoir is witty, funny, self-deprecating and inspiring (and not just to people of Indian origin). In the book, you explain your rationale for the year-long quest to reclaim or recapture your childhood. But, at what point did you decide that the entire experience would be good as a book as well?

QA with rupinder gill on the outside looking indian

RG: I was actually just doing the experiences when a friend suggested I meet an agent. He encouraged me to write about it, something I had never planned on and never felt all that comfortable with. Wanting to write is one thing. Writing about yourself? No, thank you. But once I sat down and gave it a shot, I found that I was really enjoying the chance to tell my story. Letting people into your life is a bit of a harrowing experience but I’m so glad I did it, in the end. The basic thesis of the book is “better late than never” and that’s how I approached my late start in writing.

For many authors, their families give them a lot of rich material. Do you agree? And, how did your family react to being featured so prominently in your book?

RG: My family definitely gave me a lot of fodder and they still do. They’re all pretty funny and they were all fine with being featured in the book. In fact, my little sister read the early drafts to fact-check them for me, because I have a terrible memory. Please don’t let her know people are given monetary compensation for this work; I paid her only in snacks.

And, who are your inspirations as a writer and humorist? Which writers do you enjoy reading today?

RG: I will read anything and everything out there, but I do love humor or books with a humorous tone. Jack Handey’s What I’d Say to the Martians is one of the best humor books to exist and always makes me laugh. I also read a lot of memoirs – three cheers for Tina Fey and her Bossypants. However, my early inspirations in humor were not authors but funny folks on the television, since I watched it every day after school. Bea Arthur tops that list. I’d be proud to grow up to be Dorothy Zbornak (from The Golden Girls – US TV sitcom, late-80s, early-90s). I already have the shoulder-padded blazers ready to go.

What is your take on humor writing or performance today from people of Indian origin?

In the US, Mindy Kaling had recently said, in Parade magazine, how she still gets asked, in interviews, about how she’s so different/unique (often, at the expense of talking about her art).

Earlier this year, Aziz Ansari had said, during a NPR Fresh Air interview: “I never saw an Indian person on TV unless it was like Gandhi or a James Bond movie where he goes to India or they’re showing the Kwik-E-Mart guy. There was no one Indian on TV.”

What was it like for you, growing up in Canada?

RG: I’d say I had a pretty similar experience to Ansari’s. Growing up, there were no Indians in the media. Nobody I saw in television or in films looked like me, and none of the books I read contained characters who had my background. It’s great to see how different that is today. People are seeing that, no matter a person or character’s race or ethnicity, we can all relate to one another.

And, at home, how did your parents take to your writing career? For many conservative first-generation Indians in the West, generally speaking, writing is still not taken seriously as a full-time career option (of course, there is an increasing number of exceptions).

RG: I am very, very lucky because my parents have been amazing and supportive of my career choice. My dad had aspired to be a writer when he was young but, as is the case with many immigrants, he left his home in hopes of creating a better life for his family. My siblings and I benefitted from that sacrifice though he never got to pursue his dream. I’m always conscious of that when I write – that I get to do what I’d always dreamed of because someone else had to give up theirs.

That’s great – having that kind of support. Makes a huge difference.

Back to the book….. Have you kept up with all the new things you learned during your year off? Driving, swimming, tennis, tap-dancing, etc.? Have you taken on any new activities since the book was written? Tried out ones that you didn’t get to?

RG: I’m pretty sure I’d still die in deep water as I’m still a terrible swimmer. I play tennis, dance, etc., whenever I have the opportunity. But, the bigger takeaway for me from the whole experience was to take risks and I try to do that as much as possible both in my professional and personal life.

Agree. It’s like the laws of motion – once you get going in that direction of being open to trying new things, you can, generally, keep going.

Oh, there was an article that the book had been optioned. What’s the status? Who would you want to see as you on the screen?

RG: The book was actually optioned to be a television series. It’s still in development and my first choice to play me in any vehicle remains Ryan Gosling. I’m pretty firm about that. It’s an artistic decision.

Terrific choice. Ryan Gosling just staring into the camera for 2 hours would be enough for his many fans. And, hey, he’s got the blue eyes too.

Finally, what are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

RG: I’m grateful that people continue to be foolish enough to let me write. I’m currently writing on a brand new comedy series called “Working the Engels”, which will debut in the winter. I’m also working, very slowly but surely, on the second book. It’s a prequel/sequel to the first book, about all the weird and wonderful jobs I’ve had that led me to writing. I still write short humor stuff when I can, and write  ’to do’ lists daily, where items 1-5 are “Write more”.

That prequel/sequel sounds like fun. I hope we’ll get more on that time you spent blogging as a pretend-teen.

Rupinder, thanks so much for answering our questions. We wish you great continued success in your writing career and look forward to reading more from you.
RG: Thank you.