Question: How autobiographical is your work?
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.
Do you write to get a better understanding of a problem?
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
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
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.
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,
Question: What does your desk look like?
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.
Recorded April 13, 2010