Question: Congratulations on your win. You’ve said that you like simple stories and can’t finish Günter Grass or Salman Rushdie… So which authors do you like?
Yann Martel: Did I really say that? Funny, because my favorite book, the one I’d take to a desert island, would be Dante’s Divine Comedy, hardly a “simple story”. I guess what I meant – what I was balking at – were stories that are overly, deliberately convoluted. The Grass I had in mind was The Flounder. Couldn’t finish that. But I loved The Tin Drum. And I love Rushdie. Admittedly, I didn’t finish The Satanic Verses.
Q: This year’s Booker was surrounded by controversy, from the suggestion that US writers should be allowed to enter, to the accidental announcement of your win, and the debates over the number and types of books that should be submitted to the judges. So… were you interested in all the news and gossip around the prize or did it pass you by?
YM: I followed it. But the Booker doesn’t make as much noise in Berlin, where I’m living at the moment, as it does in Britain or in Canada, so I didn’t get the gossip hot off the press but indirectly, through my publicist. It all seemed quite unreal. I only started taking it in once I got to London for the gala.
Q: Do you think American novels should be submitted?
YM: No. It wouldn’t add anything to the Booker as far as British and Commonwealth readers are concerned – we’re already quite aware of good books that come out of the US – and it wouldn’t help Commonwealth writers in the US. The prize is well known there. Opening it up to Americans would make it less foreign, and therefore less interesting to them. There’s another point to be considered: the prize mustn’t become unwieldy. Opening it up to the entire English-speaking world would make it just that.
Q: I’m writing from Brazil. I’m a journalist from a national newspaper, called Folha de S Paulo. I read that you decided to write your Life of Pi after reading a review of the Brazilian Moacyr Scliar. I would like to know if you read his book, or just the review.
YM: No, I never read the book. But since the “scandal” I’ve been sent three photocopies of it, so now I’m swimming in copies of Max and His Cats. I’ll read it as soon as the Booker madness dies down.
Q: What impact do you think literary prizes have on literary culture?
YM: They bring attention to literary books, which is a good thing. If they make people buy a good book they otherwise wouldn’t have bought, that’s great. If, because of that, they buy other books, that’s even better. On the down side, it does create a “celebrity” culture around certain books and authors, casting into darkness other, more demanding works. But I don’t know what we would gain by eliminating prizes, and I don’t see how the jury system for awarding them can be improved. There will always be an element of the arbitrary in literary prizes.
Q: What do you think about globalization?
YM: If by globalization you mean fair trade on a level playing field, it’s great. If you mean hypocritical posturing that favors first-world economies over third-world economies, I hate it. I also take globalization to be strictly an economic term. Cultural globalization is anathema to real culture, which is local.
Q: I finished Life of Pi today. So – which is the real story? Was Richard Parker in fact Pi all along? His evil side (or real side)? Anyway, I loved it. I’m going to read it for a second time, starting tomorrow.
YM: You decide which is the real story.
Q: I’ve read that Life of Pi was rejected by several publishers. Did you become discouraged at any stage? How did you maintain a measure of psychological fortitude? As a writer, I know only too well the anguish of that rejection note.
YM: It was rejected by several publishers, but only in the UK. And only my agent knew that. I only heard of the ones who accepted my book. That’s the good thing about agents: they sometimes keep you blissfully ignorant. Mostly I have had extraordinary good luck with Pi.
Q: What is your favorite type of pie?
YM: Pumpkin pie.
Q: What kind of fractions does a typical “writing day” break down into? 10% doodling; 30% preparing elaborate meals; 5% writing; 55% walking an imaginary dog? How does the day usually shape up?
YM: I’m not that inefficient! I do play a few games of solitaire and FreeCell before I get started, but once I’m working my only breaks are to make tea and answer phone calls. I’m not a fast writer, but I am hardworking: when I’m in front of my computer I can spend hours on end getting sentences down from the dream world on to my screen. It’s a joy.
Q: Martin Amis, writing in reaction to a young novelist’s book which plagiarized The Rachel Papers, said something to the effect that all plagiarism contains something of the death wish – that plagiarists want to be caught and punished. Now that the New York Times has publicly debunked your Powell’s article, How I Wrote Life of Pi, would you please explain how you could have written so many fatal misstatements about the novel from which you so clearly appropriated the premise for The Life of Pi?
It is very curious indeed why you should begin an article ostensibly about the “influence” and “inspiration” behind the writing of The Life of Pi by publicly and falsely ridiculing the novel from which you took its premise. Were you trying to justify its influence? If there is nothing wrong with using other people’s ideas, why would you go to such lengths to condemn the author and book which provided the creative origin for your work? How would your amend your statements now that they have been refuted?
Could you also explain what you believe to be the difference between plagiarism and influence and tell the reader why your writing isn’t an example of the former?
YM: “Debunked”? “Fatal misstatements”? What are you, some weirdo conspiracy theorist? Let me debunk your stupid questions and their many fatal misstatements. These are the facts: (1) 12 years ago I read in an American paper a review of a novel by a writer I’d never heard of. The premise struck me. I tried to find the book in Montreal. Couldn’t find it. Forgot about the book, never read it, end of story. (2) Seven years later, I’m in India. I remember the premise – its bare bones: boy, wild animal, lifeboat – and suddenly all kinds of ideas come to my mind. I decide to write my own book. (3) Five years later, I’m asked to write an essay on how I wrote the book. Which I do, quickly and for no money, and honestly. Clearly I got some of my facts wrong: it wasn’t John Updike and it wasn’t the New York Times. So, I got it wrong. So what? Do I gain anything by dragging in one of the most famous writers in the world and one of the most famous newspapers? I’ll tell you something: I got other things wrong too. I told people the Scliar book was about a Jew who ends up in a lifeboat with a panther. Well, Max apparently isn’t a Jew, and it’s a jaguar. I suppose I’m up to something evil with that one. The mistakes I made in the Powell’s essay were due to poor memory.
And what’s this about me “publicly and falsely ridiculing” the Scliar novel? I suggest you go back to school and learn how to read. I never ridiculed Scliar in any way, shape or form. The Powell’s essay makes clear that I was struck by his premise and that I was reacting to what the review had to say about his book.
In the essay and in every interview I’ve done, print, radio and television, I’ve mentioned where I got my premise. It was public knowledge for months before the Brazilian press decided to turn it into a scandal.
I have suffered from honestly mentioning where I got “the spark of life”. But the idea of a person on a craft with an animal is a premise that has a long history. I could have said I got it from the Bible and no one would have raised an eyebrow.
If you think every author who borrows is a plagiarizer, you clearly know nothing about creativity (or the history of literature). I would suggest this to you: don’t read anything more recent than Gilgamesh, otherwise you might get upset. My God, I’ve wasted a lot of breath on you.
Q: What do you know of the works of the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar apart from the book Max and the Cats?
YM: Since this stupid scandal broke, I’ve learned much about Scliar and his work. In fact, I’ve spoken to the man. He’s a gentleman.
Q: Is your exploration of multifaith in Life of Pi a part of your exploration of the boundaries and blurrings of reality, fiction and storytelling? Is multifaith comparable to a multiple-reality existence?
YM: Yes. And yes. Reality is how we interpret it. Imagination and volition play a part in that interpretation. Which means that all reality is to some extent a fiction. This is what I explore in the novel.
Q: I am not so sure whether the implicit or explicit questions of plagiarism are at all interesting. I am far more interested in this image of the tiger and how that beautiful creature figures in so many novels and stories – one thinks of Rudyard Kipling and others. I always wanted to write a tale about a boy and a tiger. I had a friend who had polio who lived in Malaya, who once walked home followed all the way to the mission house by a man-eating tiger. The animal creates fear and wonderment, and I only hope that more people read your novel.
YM: Thank you. May Richard Parker always be at your side.
Q: I think I understand at least some of the things the narrator learns in the novel, but what does Richard Parker learn?
Q: What is your favorite place to be? And what are your feelings about Canada (not Montreal)?
YM: I’m happy pretty well anywhere on this big, beautiful planet. I love Canada. It’s a wonderful political act of faith that exists atop a breathtakingly beautiful land.
Q: Do you think that “magic realism” is a form of fiction that can only be written by marginalized people, or those who feel a gap between their roots and the country/language they live in? Do you think a writer who did not have such a “gap” in their consciousness could write in that particular mode?
YM: Interesting question. I’m not sure I know how to answer it. I’m a child of a white, western, middle-class family, so hardly marginalized, yet I’ve written a novel that some call magical realist. Clearly I don’t fit the pattern you have in mind. I think art comes from some sense of discomfort with the world, some sense of not quite fitting with it. That sense of not fitting might happen more frequently with peoples who are marginalized, but would that result in magic realism being a favoured mode of storytelling – I don’t know.
Q: I believed it all, up until the island and the meerkats, and then my suspended disbelief started to wobble earthwards… did you intend to create that effect in the reader? To see how far they would follow you?
YM: Yes, I did. I wanted to push the reader till he/she was forced to make some leap of faith. If the island didn’t do it, then I hoped the second story would.
Q: Are you an animal lover? Which are your favorites, and why?
YM: Animals, all of them, fill me with a sense of wonder. To me, they are walking and breathing mystery.
Q: What was your first novel about (I can’t find it anywhere here in England)?
YM: It’s about a boy who becomes a woman at 18, is a woman for seven years and then becomes a man again at 25. It’s an exploration of sexual identity and orientation. It’s more or less successful, I feel. Parts work well, but overall it doesn’t do what I meant it to do.
Q: Do you find writing easy, or difficult? Did you always know it was what you wanted to do? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
YM: I find creative writing a joy when I’m inspired. When I’m not, I can hardly string words together into coherent sentences. So, writing for me is either easy, or impossibly difficult. When it’s easy, it’s still a lot of work. But it doesn’t feel like work.
I came to writing late, after dreaming myself into all kinds of other professions.
Advice? None. You’ve got to do it yourself and in your own way.
Yann Martel (born June 25, 1963) is a Canadian author best known for the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi. Although his first language is French, Yann Martel writes in English : “English is the language in which I best express the subtlety of life. But I must say that French is the language closest to my heart. And for this same reason, English gives me a sufficient distance to write.”