Big Think Interview With Yann Martel

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
A conversation with the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist.
  • Transcript


Yann Martel: My name is Yann Martel. I’m a Canadian novelist.

Question: Why do you write allegories?

Yann Martel:  Because I think that’s the forte of art.  What art does marvelously is it takes very complex realities and it can go to their heart, it can go to their essence, and convey it in a way that’s both very powerful and emotionally or psychologically accurate.  So I’ll give you a perfect example of a great allegory, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.  Which takes on what Stalin did to the Russian people, and that’s a vast, sprawling complex story.  With "Animal Farm," which is this delightful allegory, delightful fable that takes place on an English farm, you get none of the heavy facts of history, but you get the essence.  So it’s a story of this commune set up by animals and slowly things go wrong.  And it captures exactly in spirit what happened to the Russian people under Stalin.  So it’s a very light, powerful medium for discussing very complex realities.

Question: Why look at the Holocaust in allegorical terms?

Yann Martel:  Absolutely.  In part, because it’s very hard to write a straightforward novel on the Holocaust.  The Holocaust has tended to be resistant to metaphor.  Because it was so dumbfounding, because it was a unique phenomenon, the ferocity of it, the view of the Nazis of the Jews, the sort of idea that they were a disease. Because of its newness to its consciousness, it has resisted being approached by the tools of art.  We tend to look at the Holocaust in historical ways, in the mode of a witness.  So in a sense, trying to approach it as if we were journalists or witnesses, which is why its representation is dominated by either survivors or by historians—which is all absolutely fine, but I think we also need to understand it using the tools of art, because art... Beyond, as I said, conveying essence, art can show something under many, many different angles, and that’s useful, because the more you look at it from many angles, you get different truths, you get a newer understanding of it, perhaps.

So I chose allegory simply because there are very few allegories about the Holocaust.  It has been fiction-resistant.  And I think we need to understand it, in addition to understanding it historically, we also need to understand it through the medium of art.

My feeling is that the literary arts, because they are tethered to fixed meaning... after all, words are highly conventionalized sounds, right?  The word "table" has a fairly standard meaning.  Well, if you increase that, words are tethered to specific meanings and if you string them together, you start being tethered to narrative, to narration.  And once you’re tethered to narration, when it comes to the Holocaust, you very quickly end up on a train going to hell, you end up on a train going to Auschwitz, you very quickly end up in that narrative trope.  So it’s hard to escape talking about it in the very literal, historical manner.

So I suspect that uniquely among human events, because I suspect—because I believe that nearly any human event, benefits from being treated by artists—the Holocaust may be one of those rare instances where other art forms may be more suitable, or as, you know, we need to be aware that they, too, can... their language is important, too.  So to be very clear, visual arts, for example. Visual arts are not so narrative.  A painting has narrative limits.  Installation art has narrative limits to it. But precisely because of that, they can escape the narrative gravity of the Holocaust.  So I’ve seen visual arts that have, that are surprisingly ironic, that apply the tools of irony to the Holocaust, and that’s to the benefit of the Holocaust.

And music, the Holocaust is obviously an extremely emotional event.  Music directly connects to our emotions.  Once again, very limited narratively, very limited narratively, music is.  So, music can also be a very effective way of getting into the spirit of the Holocaust, of what happened in that tragedy.

So what I discovered reading, writing a novel inspired by the Holocaust, is that genocide tends to be story-defeating, unless you are a witness.  And because of that, we need other means to remember that, if we want to get the most out of a mass murder and not just let it slip from our consciousness.

Question: Why not focus on a more recent genocide? 

Yann Martel
:  I consciously chose the Holocaust because it is the defining genocide.  And also, it is unique in the sense that most other mass murders in history were or are politically expedient.  So for example, the other great genocide of the 20th Century is the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey.  Now, that was of course a horrifying event, it was also politically expedient. You have Turkey that was in a nationalist ferment and the Turks were trying to establish their nation after the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, but in the midst of the Anatolian Plateau was this large group of Armenians who did not speak the same language, did not practice the same religion, practice a different culture.  So they were in the way.  So the Turks decided to eliminate the Armenians, a genocide of Armenians, that was politically expedient.  The Turks did not necessarily care about Armenians and Armenia or in Syria or anywhere else.  That’s very different from the Nazis attitude toward the Jews, which was not politically expedient.  In fact, it was inexpedient.  It was crazy to kill people who so contributed to their culture, to their economy.  I mean, let’s not forget, the Jews of Germany paid taxes, contributed to the arts and science of Germany.  It was economic nonsense to eliminate them.  So that view of the Jews as being a disease, like malaria, like AIDS, that has to be eliminated everywhere or else it will come back, that was unique.

So I wanted to take the one that was the defining genocide, that has also proven the most resistant—because in a sense, it’s the closest to our home, I mean, to Westerners.  Darfur, Rwanda, they are in foreign locales, we manage to distance ourselves.  And as I said, there’s also less government involvement, whereas the Holocaust, the involvement of an entire state against one of its own people, that was also unique.  So it’s the one I wanted to tackle because it strikes me as being the defining one.

Question: How long did it take you to write the book?

Yann Martel:  Well, off and on, that amount of time, but I’d also say a lifetime.  I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.  You know, my experience of growing up is that you are born like a little puzzle piece and very quickly you were taught and things snap into place, so language snaps into place, basic arithmetic snaps into place.  So your conscious is like a puzzle that’s expanding slowly.  You are taught history, and history is part of, you know, building your identity, your social identity, your political identity, so most national myths snap, snap into place. 

One of the things, war snaps into place.  War is very simple for a child to understand, it’s, you know, you hate someone, you go to war with them, you go to fight with them, it snaps into place.

One piece that didn’t snap into place was the Holocaust.  It always stayed with me as a, leaving me with a sense of puzzlement... and so that stayed with me.  So I’ve always periodically returned to the Holocaust, reading the books about it, watching the movies.  The first time I backpacked around Europe, I visited Auschwitz.  And eventually as an artist, I said, “Well, what can I say about it?”  Not being Jewish, not being Eastern European, so being a complete outsider to it, how can I contribute to it?

So I eventually a few years ago, essentially in 2001 actually, I decided, well, I’d like to write something about it.  But then the success of "Life of Pi" kept me busy for a while.  But it took me roughly, roughly five years.

Question: Why use literary devices, such as a play within the novel? 

Yann Martel:  The needs of the story. The Holocaust is a mountain from which it’s very easy to fall off.  So I used all the tools, all the climbing tools I can think of, so, there is a play within it.  There’s also a lot of literary references, to Flaubert, to Diderot, to Beckett.  Specifically the play?  Why?  Because I think we tend, when we think of the Holocaust, we tend to see it in very historical terms, which is a way of distancing ourselves.  We think of the Holocaust, we think of Jews, Poles, Germans, Eastern Europe, which for most of us, means "very far away."  Not many of us live in the hinterlands of Poland.  I didn’t want that distance.

So if I set it as a play, stages can be everywhere, there’s theater all over the world.  So as soon as I say a play, people see a stage, and that stage can be anywhere.  That’s useful for me, if I don’t want you to distance yourself historically.  Also, plays are inherently oral, in plays, people speak.  I wanted orality. Why?  Because language ultimately or originally was something oral.  And I find the orality of language is where it’s most powerful.  People are most powerful when they are speaking.  There they are most unself-conscious.  Writing is very much an artifice, you write and then you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  It can become a highly manipulated, manipulative medium.  Orality less so.

So I noticed in my research on the Holocaust, the things that were the most moving for me, were the things that people said.  Whether the victimizers, the Nazis, the guards, or the victims, so I wanted also something oral. To me, that was the truest remembrance of frightened people, are what they say.  Great tragedy can be compressed in things that people say.  Whereas once you get into discursive prose, then it’s endless and it can lose people, because it’s so long.  You know, the tomes of history on the Holocaust can go on for thousands of pages.  Whereas spoken, its summation, it can be summed up in very few words, in fact.  So I wanted orality, I wanted stage, ergo a play.  Also, the play is fragmented, you get only bits of the play.  And to me, they’re like little peepholes onto a greater reality, so you look into that peephole, and you have to start imagining what surrounded that peephole.

Question: What role does religion play in your life?

Yann Martel: Broadly speaking on religion, defining the word very largely and what that means to me is I choose to believe that life makes sense.  That life is not just chemistry, not just chance.  So faith isn’t necessarily a belief in things, it’s just an openness to believing something.  So it’s entertaining the language of transcendentalism.

So I choose to belief that life has transcendental meaning, rather than mere chemical, mere horizontal meaning.  I chose to have, to see life vertically.  And to me, it just makes it a richer experience.  Is it true?  Is it factually true?  Well, I don’t know, but no one who has any kind of faith knows for certain.  You fall in love with someone, you have no idea what the future holds for you.  You have a political faith, you have no idea if your system will work out.  When you have faith in anything, it’s just a disposition to be open and to trust and to move forward that way.  And I find a view of life that entertains a transcendental, that engages with the transcendental, makes things wealthy.  It also, it makes things wealthier in their significance, and it also, it’s a way that makes suffering more bearable.  That’s one of the great limits of secularism.  Secularism is incredibly powerful at delivering things in the here and now.  Good governance, science, human rights, these are all results of the application of reason and their secular triumphs.  But secularism has nothing to say in the face of death and in suffering.

So reason, for example, is a great blood sport in a public arena.  You know, atheists make for great spectacles.  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins.  In their public performances, it’s amazing to hear them, but once you leave that spectacle, in the privacy of the night, when we all walk away, all on our own, progressive getting older, you know, subject to disease and to suffering, suddenly reason is just a tool that doesn’t help you.  If you believe it somehow in a way you don’t fully understand, that doesn’t make logical sense, somehow things make sense, then suffering is a small part of the canvas of a bigger picture that you don’t see.  And in that bigger picture, somehow the suffering of children is a part of the puzzle and you just accept that.  And it may, so it doesn’t diminish the suffering, but it does put it in a context.  So, if only for that reason, you know, an openness to it.

Now, I say that I’m religious, I’m extremely critical of organized religion.  You know, what’s happening... what has been happening recently to the Roman Catholic Church, I’m one of the ones who are delighted at all these revelations of sexual abuse. It’s an outrage that the Church would value its reputation more than the sanctity of its charges, of these children.  And I think, ultimately it’s better for the Church to be brought down several, several, several pegs.  So I’m as critical about organized religion, you know, the Roman Catholic Church, of its homophobia, of its patriarchy, of its sexism, of its history of anti-Semitism, I am totally okay with these attacks.  But there’s also something more afoot there than just that.  And the same thing with other religion, whether it’s Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, they’ve all had their excesses, but nonetheless, there’s something afoot in that kind of thinking, that I think augments a life.

Question: How did you come to religion? 

Yann Martel:  No, my background is totally secular, I’m from Quebec, which is the most secular province in Canada, was the most Catholic, then underwent something called the Quiet Revolution, which was in a matter of a year or two, people left the church in droves.  And as I said, it jumped from the most religious province to the most secular.  My parents are children of that revolution, so I grew up in a completely secular household and I studied philosophy at university, which is a great way of making you an atheist, a rabid atheist, or at the very least, a rabid agnostic.

What brought me to religion was, well, writing "Life of Pi," and what brought me to writing "Life of Pi" was a trip to India.  India is this continent civilization, where for better or for worse, religion is still a, is part of the mainstream of life.  You see temples, mosques, churches, everywhere.  These famous, massive pilgrimages in which, you know, millions of Hindus join into it.  It’s a dazzling site and it makes, it makes India a place that’s both a very real place and a completely imaginary place.  India is one of these places where, I said, there is a concrete reality, you know, that you can experience empirically, and overlaid on it is this extraordinary, imaginary country... this fictitious, this mythological country.  In most Western countries, that mythological layer has been completely stripped away, which is why, I think, India has been generous, not only to religions, open to it, there’s more religions, I think, per square inch, in India than anywhere else, for better and for worse, I’m saying.  But it’s also, it’s been a place that’s extraordinary generous for storytelling.  All kinds of stories are still possible in India.  Which I think for the last why for the last 20, 30 years, so much great fiction has come out of India.  And once again, for better and for worse.  You know, Bollywood is the largest cinema industry in the world.  Now, I think of the 5,000 movies made a year in Bollywood, you know, 4,999 occupy the last bottom rungs of the worst movies ever made, but nonetheless, stories, that place churns out stories like you can’t believe.

So from someone who comes from a Western background, where we are so taught to be reasonable, we are so pushed to be reasonable, do things for, you know, rational reasons... it’s desiccating, it dries you out, which is why I think so many people go to India and in a sense go wonderfully crazy.  They suddenly want to become Buddhists, they want to become Hindus, they start wearing, you know, orange robes and, you know, praying to elephant-headed gods and they do yoga and they, you know, do funny things.  Well, it’s because you’ve been dried out and suddenly you’re drenched in water, it refreshes you.

And so it was India that brought me to that, I saw a face of religion, a side to it that I’d never seen before, and decided to sort of investigate, "Well, what would it mean to have to have faith?  That crazy, crazy phenomenon where you are obdurately not reasonable, what would that do?"  So I posited this character who had lots of faith, Pi, Pi Patel, who practices three religions.  And from being just a conceit, an artistic conceit, I fell in love with my subject matter and I started being like him and thinking, "Well, why not entertain Brahma and Allah and Jesus and Buddha and the gods of Jainism and, you know, and why not sprites and all these other things?  Why not?  Why not?  What’s to be gained?"

I remember for years, I volunteered in palliative care, care for the dying.  And I remember thinking, if you are dying in your bed, you know, if your legs are like two little sticks and you have a mountain of a stomach and you’re rotted by disease, you know, you’re, the flesh on your face is melted away and you’ve lost your hair, what’s the point of being reasonable?  Why not believe in whatever?  You know, whatever?  Jesus, Buddha, any one of these?  Why not believe that someone transcendentally loves you?  Why not believe that?  And so why not live that way?  To entertain that notion that the operating principal of the universe is love?  Why not believe that?  In the meantime, still be reasonable, you know, still use reason to improve your life, but once reason fails you, why not believe in this great plan, you know, this great cosmic plan where ultimate realization is this massive act of love.  Why not?

Question: Where do your characters come from?

Yann Martel:  I don’t dwell on character, honestly, they’re vehicles.  I think of... it’s funny, I’m stumped when I ask that, because, you know, I think more of plot, setting, theme, and from all those, somehow the characters arise.  So my characters are never based on real characters, for example, they are always a vehicle for something that I have, which I hate saying because now it makes it sound like they’re flimsy, and that’s not my, that’s not what I want.  But I don’t, first and foremost, think of character when I write.

Question: How do you start to write? 

Yann Martel:  It’s an idea... which sounds so terribly cerebral.  So it’s not a cold idea, it’s a hot idea.  It’s an idea that’s suffused with emotion, or maybe it’s emotion that has a thought in it at its heart.  So it’s more an idea, so "Life of Pi" was this idea of life being an interpretation, life being a series of facts on top of which you can interpret, and that’s the case, obviously, with our lives.  We interpret life.  Life is an interpretation.  So it was that idea of telling a story with one set of facts, but two stories that can interpret those facts, two radically different.  And in a sense the same thing with "Beatrice and Virgil," there’s a fact called the Holocaust and I’m trying to tell it with one kind of story, an unusual story, not the usual representations we get.

Question: Why pick animals as characters? 

Yann Martel:  I wanted to speak of the Holocaust, but in an alternate fashion and I decided to use animals, I decided to approach the Holocaust in animal disguise.  So I needed animals, I wanted two animals, because they had to have dialogue, I needed orality, I needed a play.  And I needed to find two animals that might represent the Jews.  So trading on positive stereotypes, donkeys are held to be stubborn, they’ve endured, in a sense. Jews are historically have been stubborn in a sense, they’ve held onto their culture, to their religion, despite centuries of discrimination.  At the same time, we hold monkeys to be clever, to be nimble.  Well, historically, Jews have proven themselves to be exceptionally nimble and clever, they’ve adapted to all different kinds of circumstances, all kinds of different countries, cultures, and also historically, they’ve contributed enormously, disproportionately to the arts and sciences.
So trading on those positive stereotypes, I chose, well, here, how can I represent Jews?  Well, here, I’ll represent them as this combination, these two animals, monkeys and donkeys.  It could also be that the donkey is sort of a representation of the body and monkey the representation of the mind of Jews.

Question: Do you think you're pigeonholed as a writer who uses animals?

Yann Martel:  Well, yeah, people who don’t like my stuff will say that it’s a shtick, that it’s a gimmick.  People who love it will just say it’s unique and it’s original.  But, you know, if people, it’s very easy to put anything in a box.  So to say that all my books are the same because they feature animals, would be like saying, you know, like three novels set in India are the same.  Well, just as India, it can be a source of an infinite number of stories.  Stories with animals can be infinitely different.

So for example, a very obvious example, "Life of Pi" and "Beatrice and Virgil," despite sharing animal characters are entirely different novels, completely different novels.  You know, perhaps the, you know, maybe you would say, well, the writing style is the same, perhaps, but really, the theme, the tone, the, even the use of the animals, in the "Life of Pi," the animals are not anthropomorphized, in "Beatrice and Virgil," they are anthropomorphized.

Question: How autobiographical is your work?

Yann Martel:  In Pi, in his openness to religion, a lot.  In Henry in "Beatrice and Virgil," actually very little.  I use Henry in the novel just as a stand-in for the Jews.  So, for example, I don’t play the clarinet, as Henry does, I’m not an amateur actor, as Henry is, but I am a writer, as Henry is.  I did that, once again, as I said earlier, because the artist were famous, Jews are famously involved in the arts, so I wanted a figure who was like that.  Jews of Europe were often multilingual speaking, you know, often Hebrew, Yiddish, and another language at least, Henry is multilingual.  I happen to be multilingual.  But once again, if there are autobiographical elements, I put them in there only because they serve my fictional purpose.

Question: Do you write to get a better understanding of a problem?

Yann Martel:  Absolutely, that’s exactly why I write.  In writing "Life of Pi," I came to an understanding of faith and factuality, faith and reason.  I wrote "Self," my first novel, my obscure first novel, I wrote "Self," which is about a character who was a boy for 18 years, becomes a woman for 7 years, and then becomes a man again.  There I was looking at gender identity, sexual orientation identity, just to work out what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.  I believe art is a great way of exploring the other, any other, sexual other, religious other, ethnic other, geographical other.  So each one is to explore some question.

My first book, "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios," I was exploring what stories can mean, how does a story serve to interpret life?  In "Beatrice and Virgil," I want to see how do we represent enormous tragedy that tends to shut people out, shut people up.  So each one is an attempt to understand some issue, some aspect of life.

Question: What is your writing process like?

Yann Martel:  With that little, tiny germ of an idea, that single idea, and then I think and think and think about it and it leads me to do a research, that research usually gives me more ideas, those ideas lead me to do further research, and eventually I have hundreds of pages of notes as a result of research.  So "Beatrice and Virgil," I went three times to Auschwitz, I went to Yad Vashem, I read dozens of books on the Holocaust, fiction and non-fiction.  Even though the book is not literally about the Holocaust, there are no Holocaust facts in it.

"Life of Pi," I did tons of research on animal behaviors, zoo biology, religion, shipwrecks.  The next one I’ll do research on, let’s see, chimpanzees, on anatomy, on the Island of Sao Tome, which was a holding station for slaves in a Portuguese colony in Africa, I’ll do research on, perhaps I’ll do research on great teachers.  I’ll likely look as Jesus, because Jesus strikes me—just as the Holocaust is the defining, is the defining genocide, Jesus strikes me as the great teacher.  Regardless if you’re Christian or not, an archetypal teacher would be Jesus, but it could’ve been Marx, it could’ve been, you know, Mr. McNamara, my grade nine math teacher, whatever.  I’ll probably look at Jesus in terms of the dynamic of him as a teacher.  So I already have research in mind to flesh out this story.

So, you start with a little germ and then you look at it and look at it and you get other ideas and that leads you on, it’s a wonderful process, actually.

Question: What does your desk look like?

Yann Martel:  It’s totally dull.  I think there’s nothing more uncharismatic than a writer working.  Painters can have glorious studies, you know, writers work with words, which are highly conventionalized things.  The material of the visual artist is not predetermined, so studios can look astonishing.  Whereas I have, you know, it’s a completely, it’s a table with a computer, that’s it.  I have little pieces of paper next to me that are my little notes, and that’s it.  Otherwise, I could be an accountant for, you know, as far as my desk, you couldn’t tell that I’m a writer.

Question: Which writers do you look up to?

Yann Martel:  The standard, the usual suspects. All the great, dead, white males, then, you know, some women, everyone, you know, everyone from Yukio Mishima the Japanese writer, Knut Hansun the Norwegian writer.  The living writer I admire the most, don’t know if he influences me much, but is J.M. Coetzee, the South African, well, now Australian writer.  It’s amazing what he does with so few words.  The most monumental book I’ve ever read, I believe, would be "The Divine Comedy," by Dante.  I love all the Russians.  Dostoevsky, to me, is not necessarily a great novelist, but he’s a great writer.  Tolstoy is both a great writer and a great novelist.  But I also like sort of the slightly lesser known, you know, Turgenev, Gogol, Goncharov all of those, you know, the usual 19th, you know, to me, the apogee of English language writing was 19th Century English writing, those great, you know, naturalistic writers like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and then moving on to 20th Century American literature.  So, as I said, the usual suspects, you know, the Hemingways, Faulkners, Sinclair Lewis, all of those.  Willa Cather, you know, so all those.  You know, I have no, I can’t say there’s any writer, you know, in "Beatrice and Virgil," I used Flaubert, I used Diderot, the play within the novel is very much in a Beckett kind of mode.  But none of those are gods to whom I kneel every day, each has their strength, each has their weaknesses.

Question: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Yann Martel:  I don’t know.  Maybe letting go, like go at it and then, or maybe take a break.  Not let go, but take a break.  Try to figure it out and take a break and get back to it.  I’m saying that actually because I recently heard Martin Amis, who now as an older writer, where as a younger writer, he would just force himself to work through, whereas now, as soon as he has a problem, he gets up from his desk and gives himself time.  So, maybe that.  I don’t know, you know, I think there’s no formula to writing, so, the key thing, I’d say to anyone who aspires to write, would be to read.  The best teacher is a cheap, Little Penguin classic.  Read beyond what you want to write, so if you want to write romance, great, but also read science fiction, read classics.  If you aspire to be a literary writer, if you aspire to be the next John Updike, read Harlequins.  You know, read outside, read beyond the narrow ken of what you, what your particularly like.  So, read, read, read.

Question: What’s the hardest part of being a writer?

Yann Martel:  It’s so damn cerebral, you’re just in your head.  You’re in a sitting position in your head.  I love the physicality of dance, the physicality of painting.  I love the emotional immediacy of music.  It’s so in your head, so that... that drives me crazy at times.  I wish it were more physical, which is I suppose why, in some ways I love theater, because it’s spoken.  Now, the playwright is still sitting, but the end product is more physical.  So I guess that, that that is very, now I say that in the conversation that it’s, there’s no greater representation of reality than a great novel, nothing can beat a great novel, nothing.  Not cinema, not music, not painting.  They all have their strengths, but if you want to capture a past reality, you know, Russia in the 19th Century, nothing will do it better than a great novel by Tolstoy.  It’ll give you, it’ll capture that past reality better than a painting, better than a symphony, nothing can beat a great, great novel.  It is the greatest mode of representation.  It doesn’t mean it’s the favorite one, it’s a real engagement, it’s a real commitment to want to read "War and Peace."  You may want a symphony instead, you may find a painting more comforting.  So that’s the converse side of it, being very cerebral.

Question:  What’s the best part of being a writer?

Yann Martel:  The best?  Yeah, we are story animals, so the best part of writing is that you are in story.  And as I said earlier, I talked about religion and art, I think the two very well together.  Stories at their greatest are religious.  Not explicitly so, but stories at their greatest, define who we are as a species.  We are story animals.  Leopards, pandas, koalas, lizards, are not story animals, they have no stories.  We have stories and that makes us unique and that’s what we’re entirely about.  We are not economic animals, although we do have economies, we’re not political animals, although we do have politics.  At the saddest, saddest thing in human terms, is to have a human being who has no stories.  Because the human who has no stories is someone who has not been loved and has not been able to love.  As soon as you engage yourself in being human, you start developing stories.  Not necessarily good stories, it could be mere anecdotes, but they are part, they are starting to be part of who you are.

Question: How do you deal with bad reviews?

Yann Martel:  It’s hard.  Just today I got a bad review of my book in the New York Times.  The day it comes out, I’m in New York, the Goddamn New York Times gives me a terrible review.  It hurts.  But there’s no secret to it.  I imagine Shakespeare hated getting negative reviews, and you know, there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t like what you do, always, no matter, you know, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dante, I’m sure there are people who told them their stuff sucks.  It hurts.  You know, you give everything to art, as I said, we are story animals, so when your story is rejected, it hits you right here.  You know, if you’re a dentist, if you’re an accountant, you can have bad days at work, it’s just your job, it’s not who you are.  Art, just like religion, it’s who we are.  So when you get a bad review, it’s your entire being that is negated.  And that hurts.  Not that you do it for approval, you’re not pandering for approval.

You don’t do it for approval, you have to let go.  But in people that you care for, you know, you want, you know, you want to impress the people close to you.  You know, you don’t want to have written a novel and then your wife, your girlfriend, you boyfriend, your parents, would have, then sort of have to sort of, you know, lie.  You don’t, you know, so, you know, art is profoundly social, so you want at some level your gift to be accepted.  I say that, but at the same time, it is a free gift, you have to let go.  You have to have that Buddhist attitude of passionate detachment.  Which I generally had, and I just got that review today, so that kind of sucks, but you have to let go.

Question: Why have you been sending books to the Canadian prime minister?

Yann Martel:  Yes, exactly, especially fiction.  Why?  Because fiction, art, is the best way to explore the other.  So, one of the books that I sent Prime Minister Harper of Canada, was "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, which is about a 12-year-old black girl in urban Ohio, I think in the ‘50’s.  And that as far from Stephen Harper’s, who was an empowered, white, middle-aged male in Canada, that’s as far as far a distance likely as you can get in North America.  Well, no matter, you read that novel, you read "The Bluest Eye," and you are that 12-year-old black girl from a highly dysfunctional, African-American family.  So for a few pages, you’ve been that black girl.  The same thing with, you know, Zora Neale Hurston, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," wonderful language, you are an African-American speaking in the African-American vernacular.  You read, "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, another book I sent Harper, you are a Jew in Europe during the Holocaust.

So if a world leader does not read fiction, how do they know what it means to be the other?  In a broad, emotional way, not just factually, you read here, another one, Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart," a fantastic, fantastic Nigerian novel about the encounter between Nigeria and England during the time of colonialism.  How one flawed society met another flawed society, it’s an amazingly powerful, even-handed... it’s not a screed against colonialism, it’s extraordinarily even handed about the tragedy of two people that met who did not manage to meet each other, did not manage to communicate.  If you don’t read any of that kind of stuff, how do you know the world?  How do you know the possibilities of the world?  How can you understand the other?  Therefore, how can you get your vision?  What kind of blinkered vision do you have if you’ve never read a novel, a poem, a play?

You know, we can’t be led by people—and let’s be accurate here, what I’m naming here are middle class, white males—we can’t be led by middle class, white males who have no vision beyond a technocratic, economic vision.  Otherwise, they will lead us like, as if we were a corporation where the bottom line is profit.  And the bottom line of society, of us as a people, an American people, a Canadian people, a Paraguayan people, what you want, is not an economic bottom line, it’s a cultural one, it’s an existential one.  And that economics is one part of it, you cannot have governments that care nothing about economics, that would be crazy.  But you can’t just be about economics.  You know, it has to be about "What are we here for?"  And we are here to be together, to talk, to try to understand life.

You know, culture is not just money for the National Endowment for the Arts. Culture is everything, of which the economy is only a component.  So a leader who knows nothing about the arts, to me, that is scary.  And so look at Barack Obama, bless the man, he wrote to me, he wrote me a letter about "Life of Pi." I’m not even American, he had nothing to gain, he just wrote to me because he liked my book and he wrote to me.  And look at his language, look at his vision.  I’m not saying that because you read books you will be a good leader.  If that were so, you know, literary, you know, reviewers at the New York Times would all be presidents.  No, that’s not the case, but, so, it’s not that readers make, reading makes you a leader, but to lead, you must have read.  To lead you must read, because that nourishes your vision.  So that’s what I’m trying to point out in this campaign, which there’s a blog,, one word, what is Stephen, Stephen with a P-H, it’s a blog, you’ll see all the letters I’ve written, with the books that I send him every two weeks, and it asks people, "What do we want of our leadership?"  I think we want people who have a breadth of vision that you get by reading.

Question: Has he responded to you? 

Yann Martel:  No, not at all, I’ve received five replies from his office, none from the man himself.  And as I said, the contrast between Barack Obama, to whom I’ve never written, who writes to me, a handwritten note. I must be the first person in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to get a letter from the sitting president of the United States.  One handwritten note from my own prime minister, to whom I’ve sent 79 books with 79 letters—nothing.  The contrast couldn’t be starker.

Question:  How would you encourage boys and young men to read?

Yann Martel:  It’s a tough sell, because it goes beyond, there seems to be, and maybe it’s cross-cultural, maybe there’s something genetic, I don’t know.  But you’re right, there seems to be a resistance in young males to reading, so maybe it’s a question of finding the right book.  Maybe the way to pass on the word, maybe they’d like, you know, oral words, maybe they’re more susceptible to plays, maybe.  I’m not sure, it’s a question of education, it’s a question of having their elders, older males read.  I’ve noticed that in reading males, young males read, old males read, it’s the middle ones.  And of course, the problem is, is we are dominated by the middle ones, we’re dominated by middle-aged men.  Historically, they are the ones who have been the rulers and the, there have been, they are the ones who have the most power.  So we somehow seem to miss them.  I’m not sure, I think it’s a question of education, it’s a question of setting by example, it’s a question of finding the right books.  I’m not sure.

Question: How do you feel about electronic reading devices?

Yann Martel:  I think it’s a great idea, I have no fear of it, I think it’ll save some trees and there’s infinite, it has infinite possibilities.  So to have an electronic book where, if you don’t know a word, you tap on it and it’s defined for you, to have a device where, you know, you can append an encyclopedia so if you’re reading a novel set in Paraguay and you’re curious about Paraguay, you can tap and get a map of Paraguay. And to have a book that perhaps at one point, you know, you’re reading an Indian novel, why not have Indian music in the background, to have a book that can then start reading to you, you know?  It’s a great idea.  It’s particularly suited for stuff that’s ephemeral, newspapers, ephemeral fiction.  And if you really like a work, if you’re reading great poetry, then you have it on your Kindle, but also you get it as a book.  So I think they can be complimentary.

You know, every new technology has its limitations, has its dangers.  The danger of the e-book of course is that it’ll be kidnapped by corporations, whether it’s Apple or Sony or whatever, you know... because it is a proprietary, e-books right now are proprietary technology, whereas books, books aren’t, paper books are not, anyone can make a book.  So, hopefully at one point it will be a generic product, like the phone is, like an actual physical phone is.  Anyone can make a phone now, any number of companies.

But as an idea, I think it’s wonderful.  It still needs work, but I have no, I have no fear of them.  I don’t have one myself, but I have no problems with them.

Recorded April 13, 2010