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Who's in the Video
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[…]

Martel never bases his characters on real people—they’re always a vehicle for something he wants to express.

Question: Where do your characters come from?

Yannrn Martel:  I don’t dwell on character, honestly, they’re vehicles.  Irn think of... it’s funny, I’m stumped when I ask that, because, you know,rn I think more of plot, setting, theme, and from all those, somehow the rncharacters arise.  So my characters are never based on real characters, rnfor example, they are always a vehicle for something that I have, which Irn hate saying because now it makes it sound like they’re flimsy, and rnthat’s not my, that’s not what I want.  But I don’t, first and foremost,rn think of character when I write.

Question: How do yourn start to write? 

Yann Martel:  It’s an idea... whichrn sounds so terribly cerebral.  So it’s not a cold idea, it’s a hot rnidea.  It’s an idea that’s suffused with emotion, or maybe it’s emotion rnthat has a thought in it at its heart.  So it’s more an idea, so "Life rnof Pi" was this idea of life being an interpretation, life being a rnseries of facts on top of which you can interpret, and that’s the case, rnobviously, with our lives.  We interpret life.  Life is an rninterpretation.  So it was that idea of telling a story with one set of rnfacts, but two stories that can interpret those facts, two radically rndifferent.  And in a sense the same thing with "Beatrice and Virgil," rnthere’s a fact called the Holocaust and I’m trying to tell it with one rnkind of story, an unusual story, not the usual representations we get.

Question:rn Why pick animals as characters? 

Yann Martel:  Irn wanted to speak of the Holocaust, but in an alternate fashion and I rndecided to use animals, I decided to approach the Holocaust in animal rndisguise.  So I needed animals, I wanted two animals, because they had rnto have dialogue, I needed orality, I needed a play.  And I needed to rnfind two animals that might represent the Jews.  So trading on positive rnstereotypes, donkeys are held to be stubborn, they’ve endured, in a rnsense. Jews are historically have been stubborn in a sense, they’ve heldrn onto their culture, to their religion, despite centuries of rndiscrimination.  At the same time, we hold monkeys to be clever, to be rnnimble.  Well, historically, Jews have proven themselves to be rnexceptionally nimble and clever, they’ve adapted to all different kinds rnof circumstances, all kinds of different countries, cultures, and also rnhistorically, they’ve contributed enormously, disproportionately to the rnarts and sciences.
So trading on those positive stereotypes, I chose,rn well, here, how can I represent Jews?  Well, here, I’ll represent them rnas this combination, these two animals, monkeys and donkeys.  It could rnalso be that the donkey is sort of a representation of the body and rnmonkey the representation of the mind of Jews.

Question:rn Do you think you're pigeonholed as a writer who uses animals?

Yannrn Martel:  Well, yeah, people who don’t like my stuff will say that rnit’s a shtick, that it’s a gimmick.  People who love it will just say rnit’s unique and it’s original.  But, you know, if people, it’s very easyrn to put anything in a box.  So to say that all my books are the same rnbecause they feature animals, would be like saying, you know, like threern novels set in India are the same.  Well, just as India, it can be a rnsource of an infinite number of stories.  Stories with animals can be rninfinitely different.

So for example, a very obvious example, rn"Life of Pi" and "Beatrice and Virgil," despite sharing animal rncharacters are entirely different novels, completely different novels.  rnYou know, perhaps the, you know, maybe you would say, well, the writing rnstyle is the same, perhaps, but really, the theme, the tone, the, even rnthe use of the animals, in the "Life of Pi," the animals are not rnanthropomorphized, in "Beatrice and Virgil," they are anthropomorphized.

Recorded April 13, 2010