Big Think Interview With Yann Martel
Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal and Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also the award-winning author ofThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (winner of the Journey Prize), Self, Beatrice & Virgil, and 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs—tree planter, dishwasher, security guard—and traveled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Canada, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.
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, WhatIsStephenHarperReading.com, 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
A conversation with the Man Booker Prize-winning novelist.
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The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.
A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.
- A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
- The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
- The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
Several years ago, a meta-analysis of studies on human fertility came out warning us about the declining sperm counts of Western men. It was widely shared, and its findings were featured on the covers of popular magazines. Indeed, its findings were alarming: a nearly 60 percent decline in sperm per milliliter since 1973 with no end in sight. It was only a matter of time, the authors argued, until men were firing blanks, literally.
Well… never mind.
It turns out that the impending demise of humanity was greatly exaggerated. As the predicted infertility wave crashed upon us, there was neither a great rush of men to fertility clinics nor a sudden dearth of new babies. The only discussions about population decline focus on urbanization and the fact that people choose not to have kids rather than not being able to have them.
Now, a new analysis of the 2017 study says that lower sperm counts is nothing to be surprised by. Published in Human Fertility, its authors point to flaws in the original paper's data and interpretation. They suggest a better and smarter reanalysis.
Counting tiny things is difficult
The original 2017 report analyzed 185 studies on 43,000 men and their reproductive health. Its findings were clear: "a significant decline in sperm counts… between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50-60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand."
However, the new analysis points out flaws in the data. As many as a third of the men in the studies were of unknown age, an important factor in reproductive health. In 45 percent of cases, the year of the sample collection was unknown- a big detail to miss in a study measuring change over time. The quality controls and conditions for sample collection and analysis vary widely from study to study, which likely influenced the measured sperm counts in the samples.
Another study from 2013 also points out that the methods for determining sperm count were only standardized in the 1980s, which occurred after some of the data points were collected for the original study. It is entirely possible that the early studies gave inaccurately high sperm counts.
This is not to say that the 2017 paper is entirely useless; it had a much more rigorous methodology than previous studies on the subject, which also claimed to identify a decline in sperm counts. However, the original study had more problems.
Garbage in, garbage out
Predictable as always, the media went crazy. Discussions of the decline of masculinity took off, both in mainstream and less-than-reputable forums; concerns about the imagined feminizing traits of soy products continued to increase; and the authors of the original study were called upon to discuss the findings themselves in a number of articles.
However, as this new review points out, some of the findings of that meta-analysis are debatable at best. For example, the 2017 report suggests that "declining mean [sperm count] implies that an increasing proportion of men have sperm counts below any given threshold for sub-fertility or infertility," despite little empirical evidence that this is the case.
The WHO offers a large range for what it considers to be a healthy sperm count, from 15 to 250 million sperm per milliliter. The benefits to fertility above a count of 40 million are seen as minimal, and the original study found a mean sperm concentration of 47 million sperm per milliliter.
Healthy sperm, healthy man?
The claim that sperm count is evidence of larger health problems is also scrutinized in this new article. While it is true that many major health problems can impact reproductive health, there is little evidence that it is the "canary in the coal mine" for overall well-being. A number of studies suggest that any relation between lifestyle choices and this part of reproductive health is limited at best.
Lastly, ideas that environmental factors could be at play have been debunked since 2017. While the original paper considered the idea that pollutants, especially from plastics, could be at fault, it is now known that this kind of pollution is worse in the parts of the world that the original paper observed higher sperm counts in (i.e., non-Western nations).
There never was a male fertility crisis
The authors of the new review do not deny that some measurements are showing lower sperm counts, but they do question the claim that this is catastrophic or part of a larger pathological issue. They propose a new interpretation of the data. Dubbed the "Sperm Count Biovariability hypothesis," it is summarized as:
"Sperm count varies within a wide range, much of which can be considered non-pathological and species-typical. Above a critical threshold, more is not necessarily an indicator of better health or higher probability of fertility relative to less. Sperm count varies across bodies, ecologies, and time periods. Knowledge about the relationship between individual and population sperm count and life-historical and ecological factors is critical to interpreting trends in average sperm counts and their relationships to human health and fertility."
Still, the authors note that lower sperm counts "could decline due to negative environmental exposures, or that this may carry implications for men's health and fertility."
However, they disagree that the decline in absolute sperm count is necessarily a bad sign for men's health and fertility. We aren't at civilization ending catastrophe just yet.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
A year of disruptions to work has contributed to mass burnout.
- Junior members of the workforce, including Generation Z, are facing digital burnout.
- 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice, according to a new Microsoft survey.
- A hybrid blend of in-person and remote work could help maintain a sense of balance – but bosses need to do more.
More than half of 18 to 25 year-olds in the workforce are considering quitting their job. And they're not the only ones.
In a report called The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that as well as 54% of Generation Z workers, 41% of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation.
Similarly, a UK and Ireland survey found that 38% of employees were planning to leave their jobs in the next six months to a year, while a US survey reported that 42% of employees would quit if their company didn't offer remote working options long term.
New work trends
Based on surveys with over 30,000 workers in 31 countries, the Microsoft report – which is the latest in the company's annual Work Trend Index series – pulled in data from applications including Teams, Outlook and Office 365, to gauge productivity and activity levels. It highlighted seven major trends, which show the world of work has been profoundly reshaped by the pandemic:
- Flexible work is here to stay
- Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call
- High productivity is masking an exhausted workforce
- Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized
- Shrinking networks are endangering innovation
- Authenticity will spur productivity and wellbeing
- Talent is everywhere in a hybrid world
"Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says in the report. "Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity much more broadly – inclusive of collaboration, learning and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today. All this needs to be done with flexibility in, when, where and how people work."
Organizations have become more siloed
While the report highlights the opportunities created by increased flexible and remote working patterns, it warns that some people are experiencing digital exhaustion and that remote working could foster siloed thinking. With the shift to remote working, much of the spontaneous sharing of ideas that can take place within a workplace was lost. In its place are scheduled calls, regular catch-ups and virtual hangouts. The loss of in-person interaction means individual team members are more likely to only interact with their closest coworkers.
"At the onset of the pandemic, our analysis shows interactions with our close networks at work increased while interactions with our distant network diminished," the report says. "This suggests that as we shifted into lockdown, we clung to our immediate teams for support and let our broader network fall to the wayside. Simply put, companies became more siloed than they were pre-pandemic."
Burnout or drop out
One of the other consequences of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been the phenomenon of digital burnout. And for those who have most recently joined the workforce, this has been a significant challenge.
The excitement of joining a new employer, maybe even securing a job for the first time, usually comes with meeting lots of new people, becoming familiar with a new environment and adapting to new situations. But for many, the pandemic turned that into a daily routine of working from home while isolated from co-workers.
"Our findings have shown that for Gen Z and people just starting in their careers, this has been a very disruptive time," says LinkedIn Senior Editor-at-Large, George Anders, quoted in the report. "It's very hard to find their footing since they're not experiencing the in-person onboarding, networking and training that they would have expected in a normal year."
But it is perhaps the data around quitting that is one of the starkest indications that change is now the new normal. Being able to work remotely has opened up new possibilities for many workers, the report found. If you no longer need to be physically present in an office, your employer could, theoretically, be located anywhere. Perhaps that's why the research found that "41% of employees are considering leaving their current employer this year".
In addition to that, 46% of the people surveyed for the Microsoft report said they might relocate their home because of the flexibility of remote working.
A hybrid future
In looking for ways to navigate their way through all this change, employers should hold fast to one word, the report says – hybrid. An inflexible, location-centred approach to work is likely to encourage those 41% of people to leave and find somewhere more to their tastes. Those who are thinking of going to live somewhere else, while maintaining their current job, might also find themselves thinking of quitting if their plans are scuppered.
But remote working is not a panacea for all workforce ills. "We can no longer rely solely on offices to collaborate, connect, and build social capital. But physical space will still be important," the report says. "We're social animals and we want to get together, bounce ideas off one another, and experience the energy of in-person events. Moving forward, office space needs to bridge the physical and digital worlds to meet the unique needs of every team – and even specific roles."
Bosses must meet challenges head on
Although the majority of business leaders have indicated they will incorporate elements of the hybrid working model, the report also found many are out of touch with workforce concerns more widely.
For, while many workers say they are struggling (Gen Z – 60%; new starters – 64%), and 54% of the general workforce feels overworked, business leaders are having a much better experience. Some 61% said they were 'thriving', which is in stark contrast to employees who are further down the chain of command.
Jared Spataro, corporate vice president at Microsoft 365, writes in the report: "Those impromptu encounters at the office help keep leaders honest. With remote work, there are fewer chances to ask employees, 'Hey, how are you?' and then pick up on important cues as they respond. But the data is clear: our people are struggling. And we need to find new ways to help them."