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Brothers Judd interview of Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi


Mr. Martel graciously agreed to take time out of his busy schedule, busier since he was short-listed for the Booker, to answer some questions by e-mail. Because of the nature of the interview, answers are somewhat terse, but we had trouble finding much information about Mr. Martel on the Web and we hope this will be helpful to those, like us, who will naturally be curious after reading his great novel, The Life of Pi.

Dear Mr. Martel:

Congratulations on being short-listed for the Booker Prize and good luck.

Second, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.  I'm sure you're busy so please be as long or as brief as suits you.  We've only done
one other interview for our website, so some of the questions may be awkward, intrusive or even foolish, please feel free to answer only those
you wish to, in any manner you choose to.

Without trying to butter your toast, I must say Life of Pi was one of the best novels I've read in the past few years.  But the format at our site is to post a review followed by links to more information about the author, writings by the author, and reviews of his/her work and we found it particularly difficult to find more than cryptic biographical comments about you, so if I could start out with some background:

Orrin Judd: Your bio mentions that you were born in Spain to "peripatetic Canadian parents" and notes your extensive travels. Did you spend much time in Canada when you were growing up? Do you consider yourself "Canadian"? How did you decide to settle in Montreal?

Yann Martel: A scholarship to my father to do his doctorate in Spain provided my parents the golden opportunity to leave Quebec, which at the time of my birth was a deep, dark bottom of a Catholic well.

We moved from Spain to Alaska, where my father taught at the University of Alaska for two years. After that we returned to Canada, to Victoria, to British Columbia, for another academic stint. Then my father joined the department, and we were off again, to Costa Rica, to France, to Spain, to Mexico, to France again, with interludes in Ottawa.

To answer your question, then, I grew up in Canada off and on. It was always present in my mind, if not right at hand.

Yes, I consider myself Canadian. Don't know what else I could consider myself. I settled in Montreal because that's where my plane landed. I was in my mid-20s and returning to Canada after four years in France. My literary career was beginning to happen, which means I had high ambitions but not much money. I needed a cheap place to live. Montreal was that, besides a really neat town.

OJ: Your bibliography lists two other books you've written. Are you a full time writer now? If yes, how long have you written full time?

YM: Life of Pi is my third book. It was preceded by a collection of short stories and first novel [Self].

I have been living from my writing--modestly, mind you--since the age of 28 (I am 39). I have adjusted my lifestyle to do that, which hasn't been that difficult; I hate buying things, I hate owning things. My philosophy is "I'm on this earth for a few minutes only" and "I can't take it with me". I like being light on my feet. I've never owned a car and have had roommates most of my life.

OJ: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you write? Is there a particular place you like? Do you write longhand, type, use a computer? Do you write a set number of hours a day?

YM: My first two books I wrote longhand. Complete waste of time. Pi I wrote on a computer and never looked back. A computer is just a tool, but a might powerful one.

I write wherever, whenever. Not when I'm traveling. Then I only take notes.

I need to be settled to have the peace of mind (and access to libraries for further research) to write a novel. I have no set habits when I'm writing, I write, all day if I'm not interrupted. Which doesn't mean that I'm efficient and produce ten pages a day. I don't. I mostly mull things over, stare into space, write a sentence, get up to make myself tea, sit back down, delete that sentence, write another two, etc.

OJ: Do you consider your writing to have been influenced by any authors in particular?

YM: Yes, pretty well everyone I've read. I believe one becomes a writer by first being a reader. It's reading that forms your literary imagination. So I was influenced by all the writers I read as a child and adolescent, mostly the usual suspects, the famous dead white males, from the Victorians to the early 20th century Americans with a few other writers from other traditions popping in (Knut Hamsun, Yukio Mishima, Dante, etc).

OJ: Several reviewers refer to Life of Pi as being a novel of magical realism. Do you consider this to be true? Would you consider yourself a magical realist? For instance, will your next novel be as fantastical? Have past stories been?

YM: Labels, labels, labels. Makes you feel like a can of Campbell Soup.

I don't consider myself anything in particular. I just do my thing. I don't think the label of "magical realist" is particularly appropriate. Pi is too gritty, too realistic a story to be put side by side with One Hundred Years of Solitude. But I don't really care.

I think reviews pin that label on me to identify roughly the imaginative quotient of the book. And since I believe art is about the imagination, that filter that gives life its flavour and full force, yes, my next novel will have "fantastical" elements, not that I like that word. Makes imagination sound whimsical and irrelevant.

OJ: When a book like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections comes out here in the States there's a palpable sense that he's trying to write "the Great American novel" and, by chance, I recently found a copy of Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes, which says on the back cover: "No Canadian has come closer to the elusive Great Canadian Novel than Hugh MacLennan." Do you consider yourself to be part of a Canadian Literary tradition? or sui generis?

YM: I'm a solitary artist deliberately out of tune, out of touch, with the latest events and the brouhaha of the mainstream. Life is local and now and within.

On to the book itself:

OJ: Apropos of nothing, Rohinton Mistry is also short-listed for the Booker and coincidentally it had struck me when reading your book that Pi somewhat resembled him in the sense of being a storyteller and an Indian fleeing from political unrest at home to Canada for opportunity. Is there any particular significance to Pi's being Indian? Does he reflect a particular immigrant experience in Canada with which you were familiar? Was this the most convenient way to make him Christian/Muslim Hindu?

YM: I think only an Indian could practice three religions the way Pi does. The Hindu tradition is like English language: It takes as its own everything it likes. For example, the 6th (or is it the 7th or 8th?) Avatar (of incarnation, if you want) of Vishnu is Buddha. Hindus have an open if-it-works-take-it-on approach to the cosmos (when they're not descending into sectarian nationalism, that is).  So Pi is, in some ways, very Indian.

I wanted him to be Indian because I wanted to include in my novel the Hindu tradition. And India is a fertile ground for all religions, which can't be said of Western countries these days.

OJ: This is perhaps related to the prior but, this seems like the kind of book that could have been driven by your need to write about Pi himself, because he's so beguiling, but it's also easy to imagine an author being compelled by just the one mental picture of a man in a boat with a tiger. Did you have some such epiphany or is there a specific story or person or some other trigger that was the original basis for the book or is it a product only of the ideas within its pages?

YM: Briefly, this is how it happened: Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review  by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar. About Jewish family running zoo in Berlin in 1933. Business bad (i.e. someone just go elected to power). They decide to move to Brazil. Ship sinks. Jewish zookeeper ends up in lifeboat with black panther. Obvious allegory of Nazi Germany.

Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought "Man, I could do something with that". But book already written, so I moved on and wrote my first novel and traveled.

Five years later I'm in India. Remember premise. Explosion in my imagination. Whole chunks of the novel--the two stories, the blind Frenchman, the many animals, etc.--emerge fully formed in my head.

I spent the next six months doing practical research in India, then reading books in Canada. Then I wrote the book. Came easily. Pi was a constant pleasure to write.

OJ: Was your level of knowledge of life in Pondicherry a product of past travels or did you go and do research for this book?

YM: Just answered that. I spent several weeks in Pondicherry. And returned on a subsequent trip to India to check out specific details (for example, whether the statue of Gandhi on the seaside esplanade was a walking Gandhi or a standing Gandhi.

OJ: How did you go about researching the particulars of travel in an open boat? the behavior of various animals?

YM: Reading books on the subject, and then intuiting my way to something plausible and vivid.

OJ: I don't want to go into too much detail about the end of the story, because of its twist, but I do have a couple general questions. I noticed that some critics differed over what the ending meant and I thought it meant something else. Did you intend to leave it somewhat open-ended or do you have a hard, fast view of what happened? If the latter, I recall reading that Graham Greene used to get upset that people read his book "Heart of the Matter" differently than he intended them to. Are you bothered that people might read your book differently than you intended, perhaps that it might even become a settled understanding of the book?

YM: So long as a reader really reads the book, that is, lets it meet his or her imagination, I don't care how they interpret the book. A book is only 50%. The other 50% is what the reader brings to it. I can't control that second half. I ask that readers bring open-mindedness and intelligence to Life of Pi, that's all. The rest is up to them.

OJ: One of the characters in the book says that it's a story "that will make you believe in God". If it's not too personal, are you a man of faith? Do you believe that Pi's faith is necessary to his survival?

YM: Yes, I have a faith of sorts, which does not mean that I'm not racked by doubts. But that's all right. I have let go of agnosticism and made that leap of faith. Where I'll land, what I'll find, is something that will take me a lifetime to answer.

But to answer your question more concretely, I go to mass every Sunday, I take religious talk seriously (and counter religious nonsense from the inside now, rather than from the outside, quoting Jesus right back at them), and I consider myself a pilgrim on the way to a meeting with God.

OJ: Reviews of the book seem to be uniformly positive--many are even rhapsodic. You've already won at least one prize and it looks like more might follow. I wondered did you know when you were writing the book that it might be something special? Or does everything you write feel the same to you and then you just have to wait to see if it finds an audience?

YM: I knew Life of Pi was a good book. No matter how it fared publicly, it pleased me. I hoped readers would like it as much as I do, and that seems to be happening, but it hasn't been necessary for me to appreciate it.

OJ: Finally, do you mind telling us what you're working on now?

YM: An allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey that are traveling through a land that is both a land--with trees and soil and rivers and skies, etc.--and a shirt--with seams and buttons and button holes and tear, etc.

As they travel, the monkey notices words written in nature. He writes them down on the donkey's back. The words form a poem, "Instructions for the washing of a 20th century shirt", which will both stand on its own and be a commentary on the novel as a whole.

The two animals will be slowly making their way to the capital of the shirt country, the city of Yellow Star, so called because of the shape of the fortifications and the colour of the bricks used. But obviously it turns out that the shirt is that of a Jew during the Nazi era.

I want to see how we can deal with evil, how we live with it and can keep on living.

The monkey will roughly represent the mind and donkey the body. I want to try to create a portable metaphor for the Holocaust, one that can be applied elsewhere, to other situations, in the hope of preventing other holocausts. Too much of the Holocaust is rooted in facts, which limits its application elsewhere (E.G. Rwanda, Yugoslavia, etc.).

OJ: Thank you very much for your time and your consideration.

[We'd like to thank Karli Goldman at FSB Associates for facilitating the interview and for typing with more than two fingers. :)]