The following is an edited chat transcript with Yann Martel, which took place on October 2, 2002 at WrittenVoices.com.
Reproduced by permission of WrittenVoices.com
Becky : what was your inspiration in
writing Life of Pi?
Yann Martel : Pi was inspired by two things:
India, and a so-so review I read ten years ago in the NY Times Review
Becky : what was the review?
Yann Martel : The
review was by Updike of a Brazilian novel. He panned it, but the premise (of a
Jew in a lifeboat with a black panther in 1933) struck me.
Terri : had you visited India prior to deciding
to write the book?
Yann Martel : Terri, I've been to India three
times, each time with a backpack, dazzled by it all.
Terri : but did you go after you'd decided to
write the book?
Yann Martel : Yes.I did research the second time I was there, and then went back to clear up small
desigrrl : I love the book too, but I am
confused. Why was your main character Indian when you are not an Indian
Martel : Desigrrl, Indian because India is a place where all stories are
possible. You forget that the imagination
can take hold of anything and contemplate it and love it and describe it.
Becky : Why the three religions in your book?
sam : Good question Becky. I have a similar
one, why these 3??
Yann Martel : Becky, the three religions
because I wanted to discuss faith, not organized religion, so wanted to
relativize organized religion by having Pi practice three.
I would have like PI to be a Jew, too, to practice Judaism, but there are two
religions that are explicitly incompatible: Christianity and Judaism. Where one
begins, the other ends, according to Christians, and where one endures, the
other strays, according to Jews.
Terri: this one might be too personal but I was just wondering
if you're a religious person??
Yann Martel : yes, I am, in a broad way, and riven with
doubts, which is what keeps faith alive, I believe
Terri : but you don't necessarily belong to a church or
Yann Martel : Terri, I go to mass every Sunday, but love going
to mosques too. Muslims pray in a beautiful way.
sam : Why do you think people connect to this
book at such a personal level?
Yann Martel : Sam, I think the book connects
with people in two ways: 1, it's a great yarn, 2, it goes deep, talks about
spirituality in a real, serious, concrete way, untainted by cynicism.
Terri : in reading the reviews, do you think
people are "getting it"?
Yann Martel : about getting it, not sure, but
that's all right. In time, I hope they will. Most people look for the proof of
God IN the story, rather than in the fact that there IS a story.
amagmom : Mr. Martel, did you research people
lost at sea? Have you heard of Richard Van Pham lost at sea for 3 months
was found roasting sea birds?
Yann Martel : yes, I just read about Van Pham.
IN fact, in Canada, it was on the front page of the paper, mentioning how it
resembled my story.
Terri : how do you feel about the book being
compared to The Old Man and the Sea?
Yann Martel : people always seek to compare.
They can take the new, but only if it is somehow connected to the familiar. We
need that in our lives, the mix of the new and the old. But
of course I'm flattered about the comparison with Old man and the sea. Hemingway
is a great writer.
Are you surprised by the books popularity? And the Booker short list?
Yann Martel : As for the Booker, it's
wonderful, I'm ecstatic--and I hate being made to feel like a racehorse, that I'm
in competition with other writers.
Elvis Parsely : What was the inspiration for
Richard Parker? There is a lot of symbolism in the image of the tiger.
Yann Martel : Elvis, I wanted an Indian animal.
At first I had an adolescent Indian elephant. But that was too comical. Then a
rhino, but rhinos are herbivores and didn't see how I could keep a herbivore alive for
227 days in the Pacific. So finally I
settled on what now seems the natural choice, a tiger.
Chris : Was your opinion of zoos different
before you did the research?
desigrrl : Your research on the zoos was good.
After reading your book, I started thinking that zoos are not such bad places.
Becky : yes, your bk definitely made me look at
zoos in a new light
Terri : I have to admit that you certainly
changed my mind on the whole zoo thing. My husband is delighted that he can now take
our son to one without feeling my wrath. :)
Yann Martel : A zoo is not an ideal place for
an animal--of course the best place for a chimp is the wilds of Tanzania--but a
good zoo is a decent, acceptable place. Animals are far
more flexible than we realize. IF they weren't, they wouldn't have survived. But
my opinion about zoos came after research. Initially I had the opinion that most people have,
that they are jails.
john : I guess you can say that if a zoo is a
jail, then so is civilization a jail for humans. Would we be better off still in
Yann Martel : John, a zoo is an artificial
territory, an approximation. Civilization is our natural territory.
john : What's so natural about sitting in an
office all day and getting back and forth to it in a large metal container?
Yann Martel : sitting in an office for TOO long
is not natural, perhaps, so that's why we should change it. I didn't say that
out-and-out capitalism, which reduces humanity to dollar figures, is natural.
john : So, Globalization is a zoo? And
corporations, the IMF and the World Bank the zoo keepers? I can buy that.
Yann Martel : We
think we live in a global village. We don't. The world is a big and
beautiful and incredibly varied place. It can only be known locally, with your
two feet on the ground. We should stick to our own gardens, as Voltaire said.
sam : About globalization, I thought the
animals in the boat represented qualities of either companies or countries. Was
Yann Martel : Sam, the animals might embody
certain traits. We think of tigers as being ferocious, etc. But to my mind, it
was the other way around: the humans embodied certain animal traits.
So tell me, someone out there, is
something about the book you DIDN'T like, that wasn't convincing, etc.
amagmom : I did not like that the Mom Died! That hurt.
Becky : I wish more could have lived too but I
don't think it would have made the story better
Yann Martel : Amagmom, yes, that was hard. But
I wanted a story so horrifying that people would choose the first one. After
all, in both stories, the mother dies. So why not choose the better story, I
amagmom : Having the mother die did make it
more personal as opposed to just crew he did not feel attached to. I also did not understand why the
Yann Martel : The ship sinking was for me
symbolic of the things, the accidents, that happen to us in life, inexplicably.
Steve Red : What complaints have you heard
about the book that really bothered you, Mr. Martel?
Yann Martel : Steve Red, no reviews have really
bothered me. Some people didn't engage themselves in it as much as others, but
that's normal. Not every book speaks to everyone.
Chris : Any tips for aspiring writers?
Yann Martel : Chris, just do it. Get it down on
the page. Work hard. And then let go. Ask yourself why you want to write. You
have to be clear about that.
mikey : I'm curious, what are your working on
now and where will the story take place.
Yann Martel : Mikey, next project is an
allegory of the Holocaust featuring a monkey and a donkey. It will be set on a
country (with trees, rivers, etc) that is also a shirt.
It sounds grim, but I want to
create a portable metaphor for the Holocaust that we might apply in other
circumstances, such as Rwanda.
amagmom : Where did you get the jacket cover,
it's great. It is what drew me to the book. Why doesn't the jacket
tell more of the story? I read about it on the internet and then saw it at the
bookstore. But when I suggest to others, they read jacket and then put
Yann Martel : Amagmom, yes I love the cover
too. It's the British one, actually.
Elvis Parsely : Do you think Pi represents a
part of everyone, or perhaps an ideal part.
Yann Martel : I always have sympathetic
narrators, who will be easy for readers to slip into.
janice : Whenever I mention the title people
immediately think it has to do with mathematics. There was no intent on your
part for that, was there?
Yann Martel : I chose the name Pi because it's
an irrational number (one with no discernable pattern). Yet scientists use this
irrational number to come to a "rational" understanding of the
universe. To me, religion is a bit like that, "irrational" yet with it
we come together we come to a sound
understanding of the universe.
Martel : thank you , everyone, for being here.
It's wonderful to speak with readers. That's what a book is, a meeting of minds.