Apart from Shakespeare and his many works, a literary work that stood out during my school days was Life of Pi, a complex story that was analyzed left, right, and centre. Yann Martel has been crafting beautiful stories since the 80’s, putting together novels of all contexts to resonate with audiences everywhere. His understanding of global culture is in part to his travels, in addition to his upbringing. Combining both of those elements with his unique approach to storytelling, and you have a collection of works that provide a fascinating literary experience.
The Saskatchewan-based writer attended the International Festival of Authors this year as part of the Our Inescapable Nature panel, where he presented The High Mountains of Portugal, and shared the stage with fellow writers Andrew Westoll, Alissa York, and Ania Szado. We had an opportunity to interview him during the festival, where he provided many insights into his life, his inspirations for certain elements in his book, and what lies on the road ahead.
Have a great read of the interview below. If you enjoy reading Yann Martel’s books, do share with us what your favourite book is in the comments section below.
You have traveled a lot in your life. You first did a lot of travelling as a child, moving around with your parents and their foreign service work, and then doing a bunch of travelling later in adult life. Your books clearly showcase a knowledge of the world. How have your travels, and your immersion in different cultures, contributed to how you approach your stories?
I think my travelling has complemented my reading. They’re similar activities since they both involve entering and exploring new territories, in the first case real, in the second case imaginary. A book is a world, and the world is a book. Both charged my imagination, both showed me the many ways we can be. Travelling also introduced me to writers I might not have read otherwise; Alphonse Daudet, for example, or R. K. Narayan. Travelling made me comfortable setting stories on foreign stages, Life of Pi being the most obvious example.
From Life of Pi, to Beatrice and Virgil, to The High Mountains of Portugal, there is an interesting pattern that I have noticed: each book has one or more animals of significance. What is the significance of animals for the stories you tell? Has this always been the case or did it develop at a certain point in time?
I started using animals in such a significant way after writing Life of Pi. I discovered, when writing that novel, how powerful animals could be as narrative vehicles. Animals can be both what they are in their biological concreteness, but they can also be symbols. That duality makes them versatile as characters. And they’re striking. We tend to be cynical about our own species. It takes a lot for us to be impressed by a human being, in reality and even more so in fiction. Meanwhile, a wild animal—a tiger, a macaw, a walrus, whatever—strikes us as impressive by simply being. If you then use that impressive animal as a screen onto which you project human aspirations or fears, then you have a memorable character.
Every creative individual I have ever spoken to has a specific way in which they like to do their work. What is a routine/regimen you follow when crafting your next story? Is more time given to brainstorming ideas, or is it more creating a narrative for an idea that just came to you?
My creative process—where I get my ideas and how I develop them—is an alternation between inspiration and research. I start with an idea, likely one that simply popped into my head. This idea leads me to do research to flesh the idea out. That research usually leads to more ideas popping into my head, which gives me further avenues for research, which lead to yet more ideas, and so on. An organic zig-zag. While this is taking place, I take copious notes. These notes may be ideas for scenes, or actual scenes that I frantically write out, but they can also be points of fact that I’ll eventually need. Whatever they are, I write them down. Eventually I have hundreds of pages of notes. When I feel I have enough, I print them out, take a pair of scissors and cut up my notes into their constituent elements. I put these in envelopes depending on where they belong in my novel. There, I have the framework. When I start writing, I open the envelope that is relevant to the section I’m working on and these snippets are the starting elements of that section. I write, putting up walls and floors and ceilings onto that framework. Then comes the endless rewriting, which is like the finishing work on the inside of the house. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of it you have created that marvel, a novel, a fictional house with a welcome mat and an open door.
Festivals like IFOA provide a forum for writers to gather, discuss, and share. How have festivals like IFOA and others helped you throughout your career? Is there anything missing that these forums could address in the future?
They’ve helped by connecting me with readers and local news media. And they’re a pleasure to attend. Writing is a blissfully solitary profession. I love the solitude of working on a novel. But at the end of the process, it’s nice to break out and meet readers and fellow writers. It also allows me to travel, which is always a pleasure. Anything missing? I would like to see mixed arts festivals. So a writing and musical festival. Or a writing and visual art festival. Or a writing and dance festival. I think such pairings would be very stimulating.
I am all about the next generation, helping bridge the experience that folks such as yourself possess and the yearning to learn that both young people and folks new to the field truly appreciate. What advice, reflecting on your career, would you give to people wanting to pursue a career in writing?
Listen to your mother (and get a daytime job, but hopefully one that doesn’t deplete your creativity). Don’t listen to your mother (you’ve got to live your dreams). Learn the craft (by reading and endlessly rewriting). Do it for the love of your story and its sentences (and not to be published). Don’t expect to make money from it (art is a gift, only rarely a commodity). Know yourself (don’t be deluded about yourself or the world).
What is next on your plate? Anything you can give a teaser to?
I’ve started work on a new novel set during the Trojan War. I’ve written about ninety pages and am immersed in my research. It’s a thrill at this stage. So many alluring possibilities, such a joy to see a story emerging from the void.