The Real Oscar Winner: Great Storytelling

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Even before Quentin Tarantino proclaimed in his Academy Award acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay (Django Unchained) that this would “be the writers’ year,” it was impossible not to notice all the exemplary written work—books and screenplays alike (and stage plays, for that matter)—at the root of this year’s big Oscar-buzzed films.

Yann Martel Writer's Digest

Strong storytelling held the ceremony’s spotlight at many notable moments, but one of my personal favorites was when Ang Lee respectfully thanked Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel early in his heartfelt and gracious acceptance of the Best Director award. (And if that sounds like a given to you, I challenge you to start paying close attention to how often writers are acknowledged onstage—you’ll quickly find it’s not as often as one might think.)

I had the good fortune of interviewing Martel for a Writer’s Digest exclusive back in 2010, shortly after Lee had signed on to direct the much anticipated film adaptation (not the first director attached the project, it’s worth noting). “My involvement is totally informal,” Martel explained to me then. “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.”

Obviously that desire to be true to the story paid off for all involved—big time. And as last night’s many Oscar wins for Pi became surreal Cinderella moments for so many talented creative individuals associated with the film, it was another great footnote to Martel’s personal story, too. In his interview with WD, he tried to put the magnitude of the story’s success into perspective:

“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 … 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.”

As the Oscar night recaps roll out (and before they fade) in the coming weeks, I hope you’ll take a moment to read our special extended online version of the archived Writer’s Digest Interview with Yann Martel, an inspiration to storytellers everywhere.

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer's Digest Magazine

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