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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[…]

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.”

Question: Which writers do you look up to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded April 13, 2010