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Yann Martel's Writing Process

Question: How autobiographical is your work?

Yann\r\n Martel:  In Pi, in his openness to religion, a lot.  In Henry in \r\n"Beatrice and Virgil," actually very little.  I use Henry in the novel \r\njust as a stand-in for the Jews.  So, for example, I don’t play the \r\nclarinet, as Henry does, I’m not an amateur actor, as Henry is, but I am\r\n a writer, as Henry is.  I did that, once again, as I said earlier, \r\nbecause the artist were famous, Jews are famously involved in the arts, \r\nso I wanted a figure who was like that.  Jews of Europe were often \r\nmultilingual speaking, you know, often Hebrew, Yiddish, and another \r\nlanguage at least, Henry is multilingual.  I happen to be multilingual. \r\n But once again, if there are autobiographical elements, I put them in \r\nthere only because they serve my fictional purpose.

Question:\r\n Do you write to get a better understanding of a problem?

Yann\r\n Martel:  Absolutely, that’s exactly why I write.  In writing "Life \r\nof Pi," I came to an understanding of faith and factuality, faith and \r\nreason.  I wrote "Self," my first novel, my obscure first novel, I wrote\r\n "Self," which is about a character who was a boy for 18 years, becomes a\r\n woman for 7 years, and then becomes a man again.  There I was looking \r\nat gender identity, sexual orientation identity, just to work out what \r\nit means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.  I believe art is a \r\ngreat way of exploring the other, any other, sexual other, religious \r\nother, ethnic other, geographical other.  So each one is to explore some\r\n question.

My first book, "The Facts Behind the Helsinki \r\nRoccamatios," I was exploring what stories can mean, how does a story \r\nserve to interpret life?  In "Beatrice and Virgil," I want to see how do\r\n we represent enormous tragedy that tends to shut people out, shut \r\npeople up.  So each one is an attempt to understand some issue, some \r\naspect of life.

Question: What is your writing process \r\nlike?

Yann Martel:  With that little, tiny germ of an \r\nidea, that single idea, and then I think and think and think about it \r\nand it leads me to do a research, that research usually gives me more \r\nideas, those ideas lead me to do further research, and eventually I have\r\n hundreds of pages of notes as a result of research.  So "Beatrice and \r\nVirgil," I went three times to Auschwitz, I went to Yad Vashem, I read \r\ndozens of books on the Holocaust, fiction and non-fiction.  Even though \r\nthe book is not literally about the Holocaust, there are no Holocaust \r\nfacts in it.

"Life of Pi," I did tons of research on animal \r\nbehaviors, zoo biology, religion, shipwrecks.  The next one I’ll do \r\nresearch on, let’s see, chimpanzees, on anatomy, on the Island of Sao \r\nTome, which was a holding station for slaves in a Portuguese colony in \r\nAfrica, I’ll do research on, perhaps I’ll do research on great \r\nteachers.  I’ll likely look as Jesus, because Jesus strikes me—just as \r\nthe Holocaust is the defining, is the defining genocide, Jesus strikes \r\nme as the great teacher.  Regardless if you’re Christian or not, \r\nan archetypal teacher would be Jesus, but it could’ve been Marx, it \r\ncould’ve been, you know, Mr. McNamara, my grade nine math teacher, \r\nwhatever.  I’ll probably look at Jesus in terms of the dynamic of him as\r\n a teacher.  So I already have research in mind to flesh out this story.

So,\r\n you start with a little germ and then you look at it and look at it and\r\n you get other ideas and that leads you on, it’s a wonderful process, \r\nactually.

Question: What does your desk look like?

Yann\r\n Martel:  It’s totally dull.  I think there’s nothing more \r\nuncharismatic than a writer working.  Painters can have glorious \r\nstudies, you know, writers work with words, which are highly \r\nconventionalized things.  The material of the visual artist is not \r\npredetermined, so studios can look astonishing.  Whereas I have, you \r\nknow, it’s a completely, it’s a table with a computer, that’s it.  I \r\nhave little pieces of paper next to me that are my little notes, and \r\nthat’s it.  Otherwise, I could be an accountant for, you know, as far as\r\n my desk, you couldn’t tell that I’m a writer.

Recorded April 13, 2010

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.

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