Yann Martel's Writing Process

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
A tiny germ of an idea leads to research, which leads to further ideas and then more research. Eventually the writer has hundreds of pages of notes to work from.
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded April 13, 2010