Yann Martel can recall the exact time when he decided to write Life of Pi. In 1996, with two little known books to his name, Martel decided to backpack to India and was “struck” by what he saw.
“If I visited Sweden Or Switzerland or South America, it would have been a very different book. I come from a secular, temperate country, so in other words, we have no animals and no Gods. When I came to India, there were lots of Gods and lots of animals,” he says.
This not only set him on a new path but also on a journey where he discovered the “magical thinking called religion” (something he was hitherto unexposed to his entire life until then) and a fascination for animals. It drove him to write Life of Pi, his 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, which has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide.
Youth Ki Awaaz spoke with Martel on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Fest on faith and religion, what drove him to writing and why he is obsessed with big ideas.
Shikha Sharma (SS): What got you to write Life Of Pi?
Yann Martel (YM): I visited India. If I had visited Sweden Or Switzerland or South America, it would have been a very different book. I come from a secular, temperate country, so in other words, we have no animals and no Gods. When I came to India, there were lots of Gods and lots of animals, and that struck me. The animal and the divine, the divine and the animal.
Hinduism is full of animals, and it’s not only Gods like Hanuman and Ganesh, but in that, every God has an animal as a vehicle. You see that in other religions too: the proximity to the human, the divine, the animal. But I think we tend to forget that while living in a society. So, I suddenly noticed it, and it struck me. And I decided to explore the idea of religion, of faith. But I’m not religious; I come from a secular background. That said, I was drawn to this magical thinking called religion.
SS: And how did that end up changing you?
YM: You write a book to understand something, and once you understand it, you are changed. So, I still don’t like the negative things in religion—the patriarchy, the sexism, the homophobia—but I do realize there’s something else afoot here. It’s not JUST about repressing women and blacks and gays and Jews. There’s something else happening in that magical thinking that is beautiful to me. It’s like art—through the imagination you are changing reality. So absolutely, it did end up changing me.
SS: You are one of those writers whose books feature animals in one form or the other. Is it deliberate? Do you have an end purpose in mind for doing it?
YM: Well, I was drawn to it in Life of Pi. I realized animals could be a way, a vehicle for telling a story. Because it can be what it is—beautiful, marvellous, strange, but it can also be a symbol. And once you have something that’s a symbol, that’s very rich, because it can symbolize different things to different people. So, in mathematics, it’s like the letter X can be used to stand for any number. That’s like a story. An animal in a story is like an X; it can be any value. So, that’s very useful for a writer—having something that can carry a heavy load of symbolism.
So, a story with an animal, especially an adult story, opens up the reader. The reader wonders ‘what does this animal mean?’. I’ll give an example. If I wrote a story about a dentist in Delhi, he’d be a dentist in Delhi. Whereas if he was a rhinoceros dentist from Delhi, you wonder, why a rhinoceros? What does it mean? You are interested. Why a rhinoceros? So, it’s a very useful storytelling tool.
SS: But there’s also a risk involved in this. Isn’t it? Because you are experimenting with a tool, and you are trusting the reader will get it. What if it doesn’t?
YM: That’s the risk you take with art—you try to create something, and you hope it will connect to the reader, and there’s no magic formula. You hope it will connect, and you hope that they will understand, and in this case, Life of Pi worked. A lot of readers connected with it. But, creating a novel is hard work. You write and rewrite and rewrite, and the purpose of doing that is not just to make it beautiful. It’s to make it comprehensive, so that the reader will access it and get it, but not in a flat way like ‘oh, that is what it means’, not like a murder mystery ‘oh! He did it, and now it’s sorted’. No, it has to be ambiguous but well hinged.
SS: Does a story come to you, or do you go looking for it? How do you go about crafting a story?
YM: You learn to write by, first of all, reading how other people have written, how they have told their stories. Then, you start doing it yourself and then it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of luck.
SS: And rejections?
YM: Oh yeah. When I was writing short stories, there were a lot of rejections. Constant rejections. Absolutely.
SS: What would be your advice to young people who want to write a book?
YM: Before you can write, you have to read. There are no shortcuts. So, if you need to write, you need to read, you need to read widely. And not just the trash, not just the classics, but a bit of everything. While you are reading, you should look at how does it read? How did the writer do it? What words did they use? What sentence structure, what scene structure? You have to look at it critically, analytically.
And then to write, you have to do it. You have to write; you have to sit down seriously and write. And then, you have to be careful, but you also have to be careless. You have to be spontaneous, yet also think. You have to know what form you are using. If you are writing a short story, it comes with its own set of rules. You can ignore them, but you have to ignore them knowingly. You cannot ignore them because you don’t know them.
You don’t have to learn creative writing. I learnt by reading. That’s all. I don’t particularly believe in creative writing. It can improve your writing, but it cannot make you a writer.
To write a good novel, you can learn about structure, but you can’t apply someone’s formula. Because to that person, it wasn’t a formula. They came upon it on their own. So, I said there are no shortcuts. You also have to let go. You know if you have only one story to write, you know, it will be the second one that will be the better one. So, you need perseverance, and you need luck and talent. So, read. If you are not willing to read, you are likely not a writer.
SS: It seems to me that you are always obsessed with a big idea. What’s the big idea you are obsessed with presently?
YM: My next book is going to be about the Trojan war. I aspire to discuss these big ideas because it’s so much work writing a book. I think why should I do it for a small idea? In the next one, I’m looking at the Trojan war, and what myths mean to us. Because the Trojan war is largely a myth, yet it’s the foundational story of the Greeks and sets their foundational themes in fiction. And that’s fascinating to me because we live in a world that claims to be real, scientific, logical, I think we forget that ultimately we dream first. We dream, and then we are.