In an exclusive interview, the 2002 Booker Prize winner talks about the unique planning process behind his best-known novel — and making the fantastic feel believable
One runs out of ways to describe Zoom backgrounds. Two years into the pandemic, such things must be said. Yann Martel’s is cream. There is a window, there is a standing desk. There is Martel, in glasses and a blue t-shirt. He is in Saskatchewan, western Canada – his chosen home territory, though it doesn’t take long to find out that he was born in Spain and partially raised in France, Costa Rica, and Ottawa; also that he travelled extensively through India, Iran, and Mexico as a young man.
I am interviewing him from London. As he puts it, he is consistently seven hours younger than me. We’re meeting, digitally, to talk about his archive for Life of Pi – which neither of us has access to.
‘Regretfully,’ I am informed a few days before our conversation, by Library and Archive Canada, where Martel’s papers are held, a few days before our conversation, ‘there has been a hold put on rush requests.’ Oh yes, I email back, by now au fait with the art of abashedly asking for digitised holdings to be sent to me at short notice. How dreadful. Could I pay my way out of it? (You usually can.) No chance. Short of flying to Ottawa and examining it myself, the soonest I could see the material I’ve asked for is July.
Which leaves me at two removes: unable to view the papers that, as the Booker Library’s archivist, I’m meant to be interviewing Martel about, and almost 4,000 miles away from the man himself, whose attention is politely pulled away sometimes by phone calls, sometimes a poorly daughter, or the ignominiously blinking timer in the corner of our windows counting down the minutes Zoom cares to allot us (we are forced to reboot our call midway through speaking).
It’s frustrating on both counts: authors tend to be reserved, and their archival holdings – when institutionally managed – obscure. Martel and his papers are neither. His archive catalogue alone makes for better reading than most novels: I end up copying fragments of it into my diary such as –
‘A letter by Martel discussing Indian literature, the morality of sperm donations (a means of extra income for Martel in his student days) and Martel’s progress on his novel Life of Pi’
‘A letter detailing Martel’s opinions on government budget cuts in the cultural sector. While Martel opposes the cuts (“A government with no sense of cultural identity is one that erases itself from the annals of history”), he disputes the common assertion that the cuts will diminish Canadian culture and lead to Americanization, as art comes from artists, not institutions, and artists – with or without funding – cannot resist the imperative to create (“If need be, writers will self-publish…orchestras and opera companies will go to the street and busk, dancers will dance for nothing, and painters will paint with their excrement.”)’
‘…a work-in-progress: a play about spectators at a play, who are waiting for the play, Waiting for Godot, to start. The play has very little dialogue in the traditional sense, and most of what the audience hears are the thoughts of the spectators broadcast through a loudspeaker. The spectators’ thoughts are sometimes heard alone, and at other times overlap with those of other spectators so that the two are heard simultaneously. The script consequently rather resembles a musical score. Even in draft form, the work demonstrates Martel’s undeniable genius and originality.’
Life of Pi is Martel’s third novel. It is narrated by Pi (Piscine) Molitor, who grows up as the son of a zoo manager in India. As a boy, Pi practices not only Hinduism but also the teachings of Christianity and Islam – in his eyes, all different yet equal ways of knowing God. In 1976, when The Emergency is announced, the Molitors’ zoo animals are sold, and Pi and his family embark on a Japanese freight ship to North America. It sinks a few days into its passage. Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.
On hearing his book called as winner towards the end of the 2002 Booker ceremony, Martel did not demure. He did what any of us would do if we were being honest: he leapt into the air and punched it with one fist. Then he punched it with the other, for good measure. He roared YES until his face turned red, and took the person nearest to him into an ecstatic hug; he bounced up and down like a child when it was done and then immediately hugged someone else.
Search as much archival footage from past Booker ceremonies as you can – you won’t see anything like it. You won’t see anything like it in future either: ‘I feel like I’m in the arms of a beautiful woman,’ Martel announced breathlessly on collecting the prize, a remark too sincere to come from anywhere other than the early noughties if issued by a man. And so I do not, for all these reasons, want to be meeting Yann Martel over the washed out grain of Zoom. I want to meet him in person.
But Zoom it is.
Writing Life of Pi initiated the process Martel has used for all his books since: a system of envelopes that structure his research and writing. ‘I’m puzzled that it seems to be so strange or different to most people,’ he tells me, ‘Because I don’t know how others write their books. I can imagine writing a haiku not needing to have a system. But once you’re talking about a novel that’s over 200 pages, I don’t know how you would keep all the various ideas in your head.’
The envelopes themselves come in two sizes: eight and a half by eleven inches, and a few smaller. He holds them up for me: they’re plain, yellow-ish brown postal envelopes, labelled with Sharpie in Martel’s block capital writing. ‘Into those, I would put all the ideas. It’s a way of taking notes in an extensive and extended way. My process in writing a novel is that I get an idea. It has to be more than an anecdote; it has to be something that can be reread by me, and by readers several times. An idea that has depth and breadth.’
In the first stages of his research, Martel compiled a digital file of the material he would need: paragraphs from 19th and 20th century books about survival at sea, extracts from articles about zoo biology and the question of how animals can be successfully enclosed in confined spaces, passages from religious texts, and subsequent writings on them, as well as snippets from the book as they came to him – a way of thinking aloud.
‘But the file ended up being 600 pages long, all over the place,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘So I printed it out and cut up each section. They went into envelopes which were ordered by their place in the novel. It meant that when I actually started writing, I could just open up the first envelope, which was the author’s note. And then go to the next envelope, which concerned Pi in Canada – little things about University of Toronto, and so on.’
The idea of art is that you impose order on disorder. Art, much like civilization, is trying to order chaos so that it is not only more meaningful, but safer, better— Yann Martel
The envelopes were arranged chronologically in columns on the floor, providing the backbone for each chapter as he wrote. When finished with one, he would mark it with an X – ‘like crossing out an item on a list’ – and move on to the next.
That’s quite striking, I tell him. And it is. Most people think of writing as a stationary process: you sit down at your desk or your table, and then you stay still for the duration of the task. In Martel’s case, writing necessitates movement: a cycle of shifting to a space laid out with structured research and thought, and then back to the blank page on his computer.
‘Yes,’ he allows. ‘That process allowed for a nice mixture of reflection and spontaneity: the need to reflect on all these notes, and the spontaneity needed to bring them together. It assured that I had the stamina to keep going, but also a sort of lightness – as if I were sprinting – when something just came into my head. It gave a nice bounce.’
‘I think what you want to have in a book is this sense that it was written in one breath,’ he goes on, ‘In the case of Life of Pi, particularly, it was all very planned in my head, and through these envelopes. From the very first sentence, I already knew what the last sentence would be, I already knew that there’d be 100 chapters. The idea of art is that you impose order on disorder. Art, much like civilization, is trying to order chaos so that it is not only more meaningful, but safer, better.
‘I knew right away Life of Pi was going to be a story that would diverge. I’d be telling two stories based on one set of facts. I would start with one fact first: one story, which would be told for much longer. And right away, I knew that tone had to be gritty and realistic. It couldn’t be a fable. The second would be an alternate telling based on those same facts. All of that was thought through.’
In the novel’s final third, following his rescue after over 200 days at sea, Pi is interviewed by Japanese transport officials, who refuse to believe his story. When offered a more believable but crueller alternative, they admit to preferring his original account.
Thinking through the novel precisely, Martel tells me, was an essential process to stretching what a reader could believe in it. It’s a large ask, by any account, to imagine that one could survive 227 days at sea with a tiger. ‘Everything in part one was preparing the reader for part two,’ he says. ‘In part two, we start with the shipwreck. Of course, one can believe in a shipwreck: they happen all the time. But how can we believe that Pi could have been in a lifeboat with a wild animal? Well, we could because of what I wrote in part one about territoriality, and because we know Pi has a zoo. That’s all kind of plausible, and the reader, so to speak, climbs on board.
‘Then there is the question of his survival. How could a reader believe that? Well, because I told you about dominance and submission between animals and their carers in the first part, and so on. So the reader still goes along. And then there’s the [carnivorous] island. It was the hardest part to pull off because I wanted to stretch the limits of what you could believe. That’s the point where spontaneous belief starts to crumble: rationality kicks in.’ Yet all of this is informed by Martel’s approach to magical thinking.
‘In part one I had to spoon-feed the reader notions about religion – because, to me, most urban Western readers are secular; possibly also anti- religious. I was trying to discuss a very difficult theme of religion, without wanting to be, in any way, evangelical. I wanted them to consider this alternate, other form of magical thinking, which has been blighted by a lot of extremism. I had to present it in a sympathetic light.
‘Part one is needed to open the reader up. But once I was in it, the writing very much felt spontaneous. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been joyful. If it’s just a chore, writing up the sentences because they’re preordained, there’s no fun at all. And, in fact, the writing was an utterly joyful experience. It was such a good time writing that book.’
I find that we live in an age that is obsessed with facts, and that reduces everything to a kind of objectivity. Which to me is problematic. You can’t just operate on facts— Yann Martel
This is a continuous theme, as we talk: the relationship between facts and what one would rather believe, between materiality and faith – the turning of planned envelopes of research into a narrative, which in its early days of publication was in danger of being mislabelled as adventure fiction or YA, but which actually concerned the question of the stories we choose to tell ourselves and others. This is a concept central to the novel itself. There is an argument to be made for Chapter 22, a mere two sentences long, being the most essential part of the book:
I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story.
On re-reading Life of Pi before I spoke to Martel, it occurred to me that the question the investigators who interrogate Pi at the end of the novel ask – in essence, should we believe the impossible tale we’ve just heard? – is one not just for Pi, but for the reader as well.
‘Absolutely,’ Martel nods. ‘The key question in the whole novel comes at the very end when Pi asks which is the better story. He doesn’t ask, which is the true story? Which is the better story. And the point of that, for me, is to relativize. What is the notion we have of truth, when we equate truth to factuality?
‘I find we live in an age where technology and science has so triumphed – and with good reason. It’s extraordinary what technology has yielded. You’re in England, I’m here, but we’re talking: I’m seeing you, you’re seeing me. I have four doses of the covid vaccine; my daughter has three. But nonetheless, these are nothing but tools. They still don’t tell us why they should be handled. A computer doesn’t give, in and of itself, a reason to be used. A phone is only useful if you have someone to call. Before that, walking over and talking in person was just as effective.
‘I find that we live in an age that is obsessed with facts, and that reduces everything to a kind of objectivity. Which to me is problematic. You can’t just operate on facts. It’s very diminishing of who we are. The one problem I have with science and technology is that it’s largely impersonal. If you rely too much on the objective, you start relativising your own importance.
‘I term both art and religion magical thinking. Which just means: it transforms reality in a selective way. Though it has to operate logically, of course. It has to happen in a way that does no harm to yourself or to others.’ But religion functions on symbolism, Martel continues. It’s not that he thinks people should be expected to believe in Jesus walking on water.
‘We are, presumably, better for it,’ he says, ‘We are better for believing more than we are for believing less in the long term. That was the trick in part one of Life of Pi. Yes: I wanted you to believe in what happened, but I want that to be stretched – up until you get to the second story, which is totally believable, but which represents man’s inhumanity to man.’ This, to him, is the lesser option. ‘I wanted that second, more realistic rendering of the story to show that what we’re all willing to believe is that we’re going to be beasts when we’re in difficult circumstances – when the fact is that’s not true. You see that in Ukraine all the time: people helping each other at the peril of their own lives. That is more who we are.’
There comes a point, for all the politesse I was raised with, where I can’t resist asking whether Martel has ever been tempted by any kind of spirituality himself. It happens just after he speaks about his gratitude for having been connected to a network of readers across the globe through his novel; about having kept letters from readers who were ill, whether mentally or physically, and connected Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker to their own relationship with their failing health.
For all the exuberance of his winning moment in 2002, and the eclectic, intelligent wealth of his archive holdings, he is much more careful than I expected – generous, to be sure, but methodical in what he chooses to say, and precise in following up his points with evidence, whether researched or anecdotal.
Yet when he describes having been afforded the ability to meet strangers on the common ground of his writing, and to hear their interpretations of his text, it’s the warmest his voice sounds during our call. I do what some people’s parents tell them never to do. I ask about his own, personal, relationship with religion.
‘I’m not dogmatic,’ he permits. ‘But if there has been religious thinking persistently for thousands of years, in all kinds of expressions…to me they’re like wells being dug into the earth, trying to reach some divine water beneath it. They’re all different attempts, just as there are different ways to clothe the body, or feed the body.
‘To live a life with zero religion and zero art is to be barely human. And both are corruptible. We all know what the corruptions of religion are. There are corruptions of art too: some of our most revered artists are not particularly kind people, like Pablo Picasso or Marlon Brando.’
‘But art and religion really are to me the territory where we most deeply explore our humanity. And so now I very much have a religious perspective in the sense that – why wouldn’t I believe that this all makes sense? Why wouldn’t I believe that underpinning all these facts, there is something greater? It does no harm, and it enriches my life. In writing Life of Pi, I saw the core function of each religion. Each one had something that was deeply endearing.
‘One thing I love about Islam, for example, is its egalitarianism. Of course, there’s that big difference between men and women, which is problematic. But otherwise, it’s profoundly egalitarian. There’s no better place to pray than a mosque. It’s not like a Christian church where the well-behaved people who are rich sit at the front and the unwed mothers scurry like mice at the back of the church. Muslims don’t have any pews. The person next to you could be a banker; they could be a beggar. There is a mixing of people.
‘As for Christianity, I love its incessant emphasis on love. I loved Hinduism’s profundity. It’s like Greek mythology. There’s so many myths that map the human psychology. Each one had a strength. Each one has a way of looking at life that is profoundly enriching. And so I’ve taken to those. In a sense, I am a religious man, but not in a dogmatic way. I certainly have problems with what Christians have done with Christ. But I have no problem with Christ himself, as portrayed in the Gospels.
‘The same thing with the Quran, which believes in the unity of people: the brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. Now each one is peppered with issues. Obviously, I’m not in any way, condoning organised religion. But that religious practice has endured for thousands of years, is in some ways absolutely fascinating. And whether you believe it or not is not the point. You just engage with it, you think about it, you reject what you don’t like.
‘You don’t want the cafeteria approach either. You don’t want to pick and choose. But just to be in dialogue with that is exactly like being in dialogue with books. If you don’t read it, how do you expand your mind? You’re sort of missing out I think, in some way. And you can totally reject it, which is fine. If you’re an atheist, that’s fine. But then what replaces that book, if you’re an atheist, and you know, what is your humanism? Is it environmentalism? Is it Manchester United? Whatever that belief system is, you’ve got to have one, because otherwise what are you living for?’
Our time is almost up. His daughter, who has been seated patiently beside him for the interview’s duration points out with the alacrity of a literary agent that we’ve overrun our originally planned half- hour. To close off, I ask the question I ask all Booker authors: who, in his Booker cohort, does he particularly admire?
‘Obviously, Salman Rushdie is brilliant,’ he says at once. ‘And I remember being struck by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a kid. But my favourite living writer is J.M. Coetzee. I find him the most amazing writer because he does so much with so little, and I like that spareness. I met him once, at a literary festival.’
He grimaces slightly. Yes, I smile with some irony. It’s difficult meeting people you admire. ‘Well, there was a dinner,’ he recalls, ‘I was sitting down, and suddenly my partner called, so I left to answer the call. And in the meantime, Coetzee came to sit down. Then this wonderful Israeli writer named Etgar Keret sat down next him for three quarters of the meal, but had no idea who he was. And I thought, f***, I could have been sat next to Coetzee. But how would I have handled it? I wouldn’t have wanted to put him in a shell by saying “I like your writing.” I might have more likely talked about a book he might have liked…’
When we end the call, I am left, as one often is, with the dry kind of silence that accompanies finishing a Zoom meeting: the fact of not having travelled, and the collapse of the illusion that you have been close to someone. In the run-up to our speaking, Martel suggested that we hold off until mid-June and meet in person, at which point he would be in the U.K. with his family – but, for various reasons, my deadline did not permit it.
F***, I think. I could have been sat next to Yann Martel.