Canadian Author Yann Martel discusses Life of Pi, the beauty of animals, and looking beyond the material world.
When Yann Martel finished his novel about an Indian boy and a tiger adrift at sea, he never could have imagined how successful it would become, selling 10 million copies and winning the 2002 Man Booker prize.
A few years later, when a Hollywood studio approached him about adopting Life of Pi into a film, he didn’t think it was possible. But two years and four Academy Awards after Ang Lee created the visually stunning adaptation, Martel sat down with Taste of Life before a special screening at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Books on Film series.
A sense of place
Born in Spain, and having lived in Portugal, Alaska, France, Costa Rica, and a host of cities in Canada, Martel’s life is as international as the stories he writes. When asked how his own life experiences informed Life of Pi and his other works, Martel comments, “For every author—to some extent—what they write is a reflection of their lives, but none of my stuff is autobiographical. The fact that Life of Pi is set in India and that my next novel is set in Portugal is, in a sense, incidental.”
“I’m not writing about those countries,” he says, “they are just the countries that gave me the story. The setting happens to be international, but in some ways they are very Canadian stories, and I hope universal stories.”
“Any story can be universal,” he continues. “Whether you’re in a village in Mongolia or Saskatchewan, Paris, London, or New York, they are all stages for potentially universal stories.”
Asked about what being Canadian means to him and how it comes through in his stories, Martel replies, “What’s wonderful about Canada — and Toronto especially — is that there’s such a mixture here. It is the world in one city. It’s banal in the city now to see people who are visibly different. Here you have every shade of skin, and I think what is very Canadian in all of this is the tolerance we have for each other.”
A life apart
With his love of culture, one might expect Martel to be living the celebrity life in a downtown penthouse somewhere, but in fact, he focuses on his writing at home in Saskatoon where he lives with his partner Alice Kuipers and their son.
“New York, London, Paris, Toronto, Berlin, they all have a fabulous panoply of restaurants, ethnic diversity, great theaters, great museums, great dance … But they are completely detached from the earth,” he says. “They all live in the same way and it doesn’t matter what country you’re in. When you’re in a smaller city like Saskatoon, it can only be like that a little bit because it just can’t afford to be anything but itself. And that is a benefit. It is a more rooted place because it is smaller.”
On faith and humanity
Martel is not a religious man, and he says he was raised in a household where “art replaced religion.” As he grew older, however, he says he became intrigued “by that strange phenomenon called ‘faith’.”
“What I’m interested in is what’s common to all religions, which is faith, that sense of believing something beyond the material,” he says.
To this day he remains critical of religious institutions, but he laments the loss of human depth as people have moved away from religion.
“As a result of rationality, we have become more literal creatures. We look at what is right in front of us and don’t go beyond it,” says Martel.
“Something that has suffered as a corollary of that is the arts,” he says, “because the arts also are not literal. Art and religion are imaginative ways of looking at life, and they’ve both suffered as a result of this obsession with rationality. It leads to a shrinkage of how we look at our existence.”
“There is something that is profoundly humanizing about religion,” he continues. “Oddly enough, despite it being otherworldly, it brings us back to ourselves in a very centering way.”
In addition to spirituality, modern lifestyles have also become detached from the natural world. Martel plays with this lost connection in Life of Pi and his other stories by making animals not only central to the plot, but primary characters that readers connect with and build empathy toward.
His novel, Beatrice and Virgil, adapted into a stage play by Lindsay Cochrane at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, features a donkey and monkey.
Despite our urban lives, people remain fascinated with animals, and in some ways, that lack of connection to them in our daily lives make Martel’s animal characters a vehicle to lift us out of our ordinary frame of mind.
“Most people on your average day in Toronto, how many animals would they see? A pigeon, a squirrel? Some odd insects? It’s an extraordinarily claustrophobic existence in terms of our relation to other species, so to use animals is both refreshing for me and also, I think, refreshing for readers because people, one of the things they project onto wild animals is a sense of marvel. There’s a certain sense of yearning when we look at wild animals.”
“With animals, you look beyond.”