In 2001, you’d have had a hard time finding even a devoted bookworm who knew the name Yann Martel. In 2002, after his second novel, Life of Pi, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a reader anywhere who hadn’t heard of him. Winning the Booker wasn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to fame and fortune—but what it did do was draw readers to a particular book by one relatively unknown Canadian author. And that particular book, as it turned out, spoke to people around the world in a way that no other contemporary title had for quite some time. The story—of a shipwrecked boy alone at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger—had readers thinking, talking and writing about such heady issues as, well, the meaning of life. As such, once unleashed into the world, the story took on a life all its own. It was, in other words, an instant classic.
And Martel—well, he was a bit swept up in the media storm. As the child of diplomats, he’d lived a global childhood and become—after a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, followed by years of vocational indecision—a serious and thoughtful writer, having published a short-story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and a novel, Self, to little fanfare in the ’90s. Now, he was touring to promote Pi, vetting art for a special illustrated edition, shelving other writing projects for a time, being flown first-class to New York to meet with potential directors for Hollywood’s Pi film adaptation—taking it all in.
Still, Martel stayed true to himself, and his home country, by beginning a side project, “What Is Stephen Harper Reading?” advocating for the arts by sending a recommended book, along with a personal letter, to the prime minister every two weeks—and posting it all on a website (whatisstephenharperreading.ca). There, site visitors can glimpse what is perhaps the most envied—and most completely one-sided—book club the world has ever seen.
And then he started writing a new book of his own.
By now, much has already been said about Martel’s long-awaited return to bookshelves with his new allegorical novel, Beatrice and Virgil. But perhaps Martel himself put it best in a conversation with WD just before its April release. “Whether it meets up with expectations, I don’t know if it will. I kind of doubt it. You know, Life of Pi sold 7 million copies, and it’s still selling, it’s going to be turned into a movie directed by Ang Lee, it was translated into, what, 41 languages? That kind of success is a freak success, so there’s no point even comparing.”
Beatrice and Virgil begins with a writer, Henry, who’s struggling with his next project after writing a book that sounds an awful lot like Life of Pi. The resulting tale is a rendering of the Holocaust in true Martel fashion: with a little help from a taxidermist, a donkey and a howler monkey.
Read on for Martel’s take on writing, reading, living and breathing a life in the arts.
You have a background in philosophy, and it seems you’re creating a whole new philosophy of storytelling—of blurring the lines between story and storyteller, narrator and author, even fiction and truth. Is this something you set out to do?
No, because that would imply an act of self-consciousness, which I didn’t and still don’t have. You know, when you start creating—unlike cooking, for example, where you take set ingredients, and usually you follow age-old traditions—when you create in the arts, there are fewer conventions. You have to find your own approach. And that you just do spontaneously—you start writing and things come out a certain way.
The one thing I do do consciously, that I’m aware of, is that each book tackles an issue I’m interested in. Each book is an intellectual autobiography. So, in Helsinki I was interested in exploring what stories could do. In Self I was exploring sexual identity. In Life of Pi I was exploring religion and faith and its relation to facts. And in Beatrice and Virgil I was looking at the Holocaust. These are all issues that at one point or another have interested me in my life, and the only way I feel comfortable dealing with them is dealing with them imaginatively—turning them into stories. That’s what makes sense for me, and also passes the time pleasantly.
With Life of Pi, you’ve said you wanted people to be unsure whether or not the story is true, and it seems you’ve gone for a similar effect in Beatrice and Virgil. Why do you think that makes for such powerful storytelling?
Because it involves the reader. … So, for example, in Life of Pi, it’s which is the true story, what really happened out there: the story with animals, or the story without animals? The reader has to involve himself, herself, and sort of decide.
Beatrice and Virgil is a different kind of ambiguity. I’m more asking the reader to react in an ahistorical way to the Holocaust. … I just wanted people to feel in a new way for that tragedy, because I think the attitude is, by and large, been there done that. We have a very automatic reaction to it, because the modes of storytelling with the Holocaust have been very, very limited. It’s been limited to nonfiction, to memoirs and histories, and there’s nothing wrong with that inherently—we need to know what happened before we can integrate it into our lives—but there’s been relatively little true fiction on the Holocaust. We’ve yet to unleash our imagination fully on the Holocaust the way we’ve done it with—war, for example. All kinds of fictions have been created about war, and we feel that’s fine. We haven’t done that yet with the Holocaust, so I’m trying to get beyond that literal, factual way.
To me, Beatrice and Virgil is less of an ambiguous work than Life of Pi. But I still want the reader to feel that element of surprise, just as the Jews in Europe didn’t see it coming, or were in denial. …
What do you think other writers could learn about the creative process by rethinking boundaries in similar ways?
Well, I think every writer has to do that for themselves, unless you’re a genre writer. If you write genre fiction, you follow the rules, and you have to follow them because readers expect that. The strength and weakness, I suppose, of literary fiction is that it has no such conventions. A great literary work can be completely, completely unpredictable. Which can sometimes make them very hard to read, but it gives them a great originality. Writers have to decide where they stand in that continuum of genre-driven fiction to literary fiction, and you can do that only by playing by the rules, and then breaking the rules and seeing where you’re comfortable. Any writer will be happy and good only if they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. You have to play around until you find something you’re comfortable with.
Because Life of Pi was such a breakout hit, this is your first experience of having to follow up a prior work in the face of all these external expectations. What’s that been like for you?
I was thinking about Beatrice and Virgil before Life of Pi did really well. Now it looks like Life of Pi was this big monumental work, but when I was writing it, I was a poor writer living in Montreal. Two years before I finished Life of Pi, my income was $6,000 for that year, so I was way beneath the poverty line. Now, I had roommates; I don’t smoke; I don’t drink; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t need much money; I had my parents who lived just down the road, and so I did laundry with them and I’d eat their food sometimes. I got by absolutely fine, I was totally happy.
And I was writing a novel that featured zoos, and most novel readers don’t like zoos, they think zoos are jails. And I was writing a novel about religion that respected religion. … I was looking at faith, which is highly, highly unfashionable in mainstream Canada.
So I was writing a novel which, to me, was profoundly unfashionable. The success it had afterwards was a marvel, and I loved it, but it was completely beyond my control—and in a sense not really my doing. I’m just lucky this book struck a chord with so many people. It was obviously published at the right time, my publisher did a good job of publicizing it, and then I was lucky to have the Booker Prize jury, you know, five people who happened to like my book more than another book. And, you know, change those five people, and another book would’ve won. So there is a certain element of luck involved, too.
So, the pressure for me, I haven’t really felt it in the sense that, I’ve loved the success of Life of Pi, but it’s been something completely external. On the inside, Life of Pi was this intimate work about a boy, in a lifeboat, with a tiger, and the story was about faith and how you read reality and how life is an interpretation. All the success was sort of fun, but it was external. So when it came to Beatrice and Virgil, I just closed the door on that outer noise. Because each book is a different book. Each book makes different demands on you. For each book, you say to yourself, you know, can I do this, do I know what I’m doing, does this work, if it doesn’t, how do I fix it, and the previous book or the next book is irrelevant to that process.
In a sense, I don’t care what happens to Beatrice and Virgil in terms of sales or prizes. I did this book to understand the Holocaust. … Whether it meets up with expectations, I don’t know if it will. I kind of doubt it. You know, Life of Pi sold 7 million copies, and it’s still selling, it’s going to be turned into a movie directed by Ang Lee, it was translated into, what, 41 languages? That kind of success is a freak success, so there’s no point even comparing. With Beatrice and Virgil, I’m happy people are attracted to it because of Life of Pi, [but] it’s a very different book. If people like it, great. If they don’t, well that’s a pity—hopefully they’ll like the next one and, you know, life goes on.
Beatrice and Virgil starts out an account of a writer’s frustration with his publisher. Do you find the business side of writing to be creatively stifling in the way it is for Henry?
It can be. It can be. It always has been, I think. The world always makes clear to you that it doesn’t need another novel, another poem, another play, another painting. Which is not true, it does. But, it needs only so many.
We live in a horrible capitalist world … where it’s all bottom line, profit, stuff like that. People want to escape. And the world of art’s a wonderful world. The world of art involves your whole being. When you are an artist, it’s not just a day job, the way being an accountant, or a doctor, or a lawyer, or a bus driver is. All those jobs, if you don’t like it, you can actually leave and do another job. Whereas artists—it involves everything in you, which is why when you do poorly as an artist, it’s devastating. You know, a dentist gets yelled at by a patient, the dentist will just say, well, I’ll have other patients the next day, and that’s fine. Whereas a writer, you get a bad review of your book, it’s everything in you that’s negated. It really hurts to get a bad review. And this I say at any level, not just when you’re a beginning writer.
So, publishing, absolutely, the commercial side can be totally soul-killing. The fact is that any given book, there’s no obligation to buy it. So when there’s an economic downturn, the publishing business hurts.
Another thing is there’s been this corporate takeover of publishers. A perfect example: Alfred Knopf, the original Alfred Knopf was a wonderful New York publisher—he didn’t earn a lot of money. He read good books, good manuscripts, and he published them. And he had great taste, so he became really famous. He didn’t earn a lot of money, he was just a publisher. But now you have these massive companies, and the people at the top level make a fortune. And who do they squeeze to justify this? They squeeze the writers.
It’s a harsh market—but, that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. I suppose you listen to your mom and dad and get a day job, but you have to try to adjust it so that you can have those hours in which you can write. Then, if you have success, great, and if you don’t, well, so be it. In some ways you have to be very Buddhist; you have to let go of expectations.
When I started writing in my early 20s, I’d finished university. I was just waiting for life to start, and a finger to come through the sky, break through the clouds and point at me and say “You will be a lawyer,” or, “You will be a bus driver.” And that finger never came, and in the meantime, I just started writing little stories, just to pass the time. I used to compulsively go through university calendars, trying to figure out, OK, I’ll go back to university, and what am I going to be? I’d go through the whole alphabet of professions, and nothing really appealed to me. So I just kept on writing these terrible little short stories, until I slowly got better.
But I never expected to make a career of it, never, and I still don’t. You know, if this book does terribly—well, that’s the way it goes. You cannot plan a writing career the way you can plan a career in any other profession. And it’s the same for all the other arts professions too. You have to do it cause you want to do it, because you can’t breathe otherwise. And whether you succeed, it’s so hard to predict.
Of course, success makes you more confident and opens doors. But those doors can be closed, and other people’s doors can suddenly open.
A few years ago, you spoke publicly about writing a flip book that sounded like the one Henry’s publishers reject in Beatrice & Virgil. Was that opening scene taken from your experience—did you have a book rejected by your editors?
Yeah—in a sense, yes. It wasn’t done in quite the way that Henry has to undergo, but essentially the result was the same. I spent, gosh, at least two years writing this essay, and my publishers weren’t keen about it. They had one good argument, which was, if you have a novel and an essay tied together, and the essay is explicitly about the Holocaust—and my novel is explicitly, I discuss representations of the Holocaust—and if you pair that to a novel, that will necessarily limit how people read that novel. They will necessarily read it in the light of what you said in your essay. To me, that wasn’t a problem; to them, they thought, well, you’re putting your novel in a box. Now is that ultimately a sound argument? I don’t know. But anyway, I finally said, “OK, I give up.” Now, interestingly enough, the hardcover in Canada will be a flip book in the sense that there’ll be two front covers. There’s no flip book inside, but it references what was discussed in that scene with Henry and his publishers.
In the arts, you have to be true to yourself, but you also have to compromise. Art is a social activity. Art is about connecting to readers, or viewers, or listeners, whatever, and so you do have to listen to them, you have to balance carefully being true to yourself and trying to be, to a certain degree, accessible. And so, you know, it was a compromise. I still hope to see that essay published.
That was my next question.
Let’s see how B&V fairs. None of them seemed particularly enthusiastic. In this economic market, nonfiction is very much a specialty product, and I guess they say an essay on the Holocaust is not exactly a formula for bestseller, so they’re not keen.
Big bestsellers make lots of money and get lots of publicity, but midlist books—those are being squeezed out.
Once you moved on from that, how long would you say you actually spent writing this book?
It took me a long time to figure out how I could write about the Holocaust from the perspective of someone who is not Jewish, who is not German or Eastern European, who is a total outsider to it, and yet who is troubled by it enough to want to comment on it. Other writers have done it incredibly well. And also, even, how can I tell a story about the Holocaust? There’s something very story-killing about the Holocaust. One murder can yield six million stories, but six million murders have tended to yield only one story.
When I won the Booker in 2002, I was teaching a term at the Free University of Berlin, and I was thinking, Perfect. Where better a place to write a book on the Holocaust then in Berlin, in the heart of the empire that caused that terrible tragedy. So I was already thinking about it and planning on doing lots of research and writing, and then the Booker happened and all hell broke loose, and I stopped. But I was still thinking about it. So I’d say about seven, eight years, even though it’s not a very long novel.
I assume, like Henry, you get a lot of mail—including a very well-publicized letter from President Obama. Do you respond to your readers?
I do—although it’s funny, I haven’t responded to President Obama yet—it’s kind of silly, but I should respond. I respond to all my readers.
What sorts of letters are the best letters?
They’re all wonderful, because you know, it’s such an odd thing to do, it strikes me, to read a book and then to write to the [author]. First of all, it’s not like a book has on the front page the author’s address. These letters take these incredibly circuitous routes. And I imagine the writers, some of them must feel they’re kind of, as I say in the novel, throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean. And so that touched me, that they’d make that much of an effort.
You write your book with something in mind and then these complete strangers really take to your book, and it’s very touching, so I think the least I can do is reply to all of them.
On the other side of the letter writing, you’ve stayed with the What Is Stephen Harper Reading project for almost three years now. I’ve seen other people have found his lack of response to you frustrating. Do you find it so?
Well, frustrating—I find it surprising. I’ve sent him 76 books, 76 letters, not a single reply. I’ve gotten five replies from his staff, but very impersonal letters—they’re on the website. You know, “Dear Mr. Martel, thank you for your book, we appreciate your letter, thank you very much for your kindness, yours truly, someone’s name.” I’m surprised that as a citizen of the arts that he would never reply. I figure I’ve called him out: I figure, in fact he is a man who has not read a work of fiction since he left high school, since he was told to read one. And he does feel a degree of shame and maybe even a degree of want, a lack in that, but he doesn’t want to admit to it. ‘Cause the fact is, if he wrote to me an honest letter, saying, “Dear Mr. Martel, You know, you’re totally right, I haven’t read much, I guess I’m not really interested, maybe I haven’t read the right books, maybe you’re right but that’s the way I am, and I’m very busy being Prime Minister but, you know, some of the books you’ve sent me do strike me as interesting, when I find a moment I’ll try to read them, that’s the best I can do, Yours Truly Stephen Harper.” If he gave that kind of honest reply, that would completely take the wind out of my sails. ‘Cause if I persisted after that, people would say I’m an arrogant prick, they’d think, listen, the guy’s told you he’s very busy and he’s apologetic and he’s sorry but he will try to read, what more do you want out of him?
But he hasn’t. And the longer this silence lasts, in a sense the more embarrassing it becomes, the louder it becomes—and there’s this public witness, this website. And the point of that is to ask, Listen, people, do we want a society led by middle-aged white men who have no imaginative involvement with the arts? And if that is the case, where do they get their vision?
For example, one of the books I sent him was The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. That book is existentially as distant from Stephen Harper’s life—in fact, of mine too—as possible. … If a politician, if someone who has power, has never read any of these kinds of books, how do they know what it’s like to be someone else? And I think the danger is that if people like that don’t read with an open heart these kinds of books, that means they’ve only lived their own narrow life, and I think it makes them subject to being more ideologically rigid, which is in fact exactly the case with Stephen Harper.
After his term is over, do you think you’ll continue?
Are you joking? No, not at all. I can’t wait for him to lose. It’s been a lot of work. It’s been fun—I’ve discovered or reread books, and that’s wonderful—but no, I can’t wait for him to lose power, not only for my country but just for myself.
Not just through your actions but also through the themes in your stories, it seems very important to you to combat indifference. Can you explain why that compels you?
Well, because I think indifference in itself is not a good thing, in any field really, but especially in the arts. You can be indifferent to the sciences, for example. There’s something totally impersonal in science. You drive your car, you don’t have to know how it works, you just have to hope that it’s safe.
The arts is totally different. Art is the greatest tool for thinking about your life, for examining your life. It’s a whole-person thing. And it permeates our life. People who say they don’t care about the arts, it’s not true. The way you dress, the way you eat, the language you speak, these are all cultural emanations. To be indifferent to the arts, to never read a book, never see a play, never read a poem, never see a movie that isn’t a conventional Hollywood blockbuster, all that basically means you’re shutting down your appreciation of the human experience.
On a more practical basis, art makes you think, art is about rebellion. And if you never have revolutions, then you sink into convention, and that to me is a formula for societal unhappiness.
To me art is partly to entertain, but partly also to upset. You need those two. That’s vital to keep our society alive. So as a writer I’m just part of that, and I think every writer does the same. I think every writer, in one way or another, is trying to just push people a little bit and say, “Hey, have you thought about this, or have you realized this, or have you felt this?”
Do you feel it’s the social responsibility of writers to ask those questions?
I’d say no, actually. It’s up to each artist to decide why they do what they do. The other great thing about the arts is that it’s truly free. I have no boss—sure, I have publishers, but they just publish my books, they don’t write them. When you write, when you paint, when you compose, when you dance, you’re totally free, you’re absolutely free, you do what you want.
That’s in a sense why art is so dangerous, cause it’s the last place of total freedom. And that’s why the arts can be dangerous to political regimes. You have an artist who is not beholden to anyone.
So [writers] should feel free to criticize, but there shouldn’t be an obligation. If there’s an obligation, that’s a way of restricting their freedom. It’s up to each writer to decide what they want to write.
Are you working on another project now?
I already have a project, in fact, that I’ve had in mind for about 20 years: a novel featuring three chimpanzees, set in Portugal, and it’ll be about the role of great teachers in our lives. Everyone has that teacher, either literally—teachers at school who’ve been inspirational—or mentors, whether parents, or people who’ve guided us as adults. To each follower, what happens when their guru dies? I’m sort of intrigued in that: the phenomenon of the passing of the great teacher.
This fall after the touring I’m going to start my research.
And how long will you be touring?
I’m touring for about 7 weeks in North America.
And are you actively involved in the Life of Pi film at all? I saw that it’s switched directors a few times.
Yeah, now it’s Ang Lee, and they never say “green light” in Hollywood, but last I heard they’re going to start shooting in September in Taiwan, and as far as I know it’s starting to happen. My involvement is totally informal. They bought the book, they can do whatever they want with it, but they’ve been very kind, they’ve kept me in the loop. My experience has been very positive. But they’re just doing it because they’re gracious.
They’ve been really, “We want to do the best movie possible based on this book.” They have been in fact tougher on the direction than I would have been.
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