An interview with Yann Martel
Enjoy an edited chat transcription with Yann Martel, in which he discusses his Booker Award winning novel.
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 of Books.
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 details.
desigrrl : I love the book too, but I am confused. Why was your main character Indian when you are not an Indian yourself?
Yann 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 anything?
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.
john : 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 the wild?
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 I reaching?
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 say.
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 ship sank.
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 it down
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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Books by this Author
Life of Pi (Martel)
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1. In his introductory note Yann Martel says, "This book was born as I was hungry." What sort of emotional nourishment might Life of Pi have fed to its author?
2. Pondicherry is described as an anomaly, the former capital of what was once French India. Do you think the town made a significant difference in Pi's upbringing?
3. In the Author's Note, Mr. Adirubasamy boldly claims that this story "will make you belive in God," and the author, after researching and writing the story, agrees. Did Pi's tale alter your beliefs about God?
4. Chapters 21 and 22 are very short, yet the author has said that they are at the core of the novel. Can you see how?
5. Early in the novel, we discover that Pi majored in religious studies and zoology, with particular interests in a sixteenth-century Kabbalist and the admirable three-toed sloth. In subsequent chapters, he explains the ways in which religions and zoos are both steeped in illusion. Discuss some of the other ways in which these two fields find unlikely compatibility.
6. In the Author's Note, Martel wonders whether fiction is "the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence." If this is so, what is the essence of Pi and of his story?
7. There is a lot of storytelling in this religious novel. Is there a relationship between religion and storytelling?Is religion a form of storytelling? Is there a theological dimension to storytelling?
8. Pi's full name, Piscine Molitor Patel, was inspired by a Parisian swimming pool that "the gods would have delighted to swim in." The shortened form refers to the ratio of a circle's circumference divided by its diameter, the number 3.1415926..., a number that goes on forever without discernable pattern, what in mathematics is called an irrational number. Explore the significance of Pi's unusual name.
9. One reviewer said the novel contains hints of The Old Man and the Sea, and Pi himself measures his experience in relation to history's most famous castaways. How does Life of Pi compare to other maritime novels and films?
10. How might the novel's flavor have been changed if the sole surviving animal had been the zebra with the broken leg? Or Orange Juice? Or the hyena? Would Pi have survived with a harmless animal or an ugly animal, say a sheep or a turkey? Which animal would you like to find yourself with on a lifeboat?
11. In chapter 23, Pi sparks a lively debate when all three of his spiritual advisors try to claim him. At the heart of this confrontation is Pi's insistence that he cannot accept an exclusively Hindu, Christian, or Muslim faith; he can only be content with all three. What is Pi seeking that can solely be attained by this apparent contradiction? Is there something commmon to all religions? Are they "all the same"? If not, how are they different? Is there a difference between faith and belief?
12. What do you make of Pi's assertion at the beginning of chapter 16 that we are all "in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God"? Do you believe that Pi's faith is a response to his father's agnosticism?
13. Among Yann Martel's gifts is a rich descriptive palette. Regarding religion, he observes the green elements that represent Islam and the orange tones of Hinduism. What color would Christianity be, according to Pi's perspective?
14. How do the human beings in your world reflect the animal behavior observed by Pi? What do Pi's strategies for dealing with Richard Parker teach us about confronting the fearsome creatures in our lives?
15. Besides the loss of his family and possessions, what else did Pi lose when the Tsimtsum sank? What did he gain?
16. Nearly everyone experiences a turning point that represents the transition from youth to adulthood, albeit seldom as traumatic as Pi's. What event marked your coming of age?
17. How do Mr. Patel's zookeeping abilities compare to his parenting skills? Discuss the scene in which his tries to teach his children a lesson in survival by arranging for them to watch a tiger devour a goat. Did this in any way prepare Pi for the most dangerous experience of his life?
18. If shock hadn't deluded him, do you think Pi would have whistled and waved at Richard Parker? What would you have done?
19. Pi imagines that his brother would have teasingly called him Noah. How does Pi's voyage compare to the biblical story of Noah, who was spared from the flood while God washed away the sinners?
20. Is Life of Pi a tragedy, romance, or comedy?
21. Pi defends zoos. Are you convinced? Is a zoo a good place for a wild animal?
22. What did you think of Pi's interview with the investigators from the Japanese Ministry of Transport? Do you think Pi's mother, along with a sailor and a cannibalistic cook, were in the lifeboat with him instead of the animals? Which story do you believe, the one with animals or the one without animals? When the investigators state that they think the story with animals is the better story, Pi answers "Thank you. And so it goes with God." What do you think Pi meant by that? How does it relate to the claim that this is a story "that will make you believe in God"?
23. The first part of the novel starts twenty years after Pi's ordeal at sea and ends with the words "This story has a happy ending." Do you agree?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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