Learning How to Write Well

Man Booker Prize-winner, Life of Pi
There’s no formula to writing. The key thing is simply to read, says the novelist. "The best teacher is a cheap, little Penguin classic."
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded April 13, 2010