Sometime in the early 1990s, Yann Martel stumbled across a critique in The New York Times Review of Books by John Updike that captured his curiosity. Although Updike's response to Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats was fairly icy and indifferent, the premise immediately intrigued Martel. According to Martel, Max and the Cats was, "as far as I can remember... about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther." Whether or not the story was as uninspiring as Updike had indicated in his review, Martel was both fascinated by this premise and frustrated that he had not come up with it himself.
Ironically, Martel's account of the plot of Max and the Cats wasn't completely accurate. In fact, in Scliar's novel, Max Schmidt did not belong to a family of zookeepers -- he was the son of furrier. Furthermore, he did not emigrate from Berlin to Brazil with his family as the result of a failing zoo, but was forced to flee Hamburg after his lover's husband sells him out to the Nazi secret police. So, this plot that so enthralled Martel -- which he did not pursue for several years because he assumed Moacyr Scliar had already tackled it -- was more his own than he had thought.
Meanwhile, Martel managed to write and publish two books: a collection of short stories titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios in 1993 and a novel about gender confusion called Self in 1996. Both books sold only moderately well, further frustrating the writer. In an effort to collect his thoughts and refresh his creativity, he took a trip to India, first spending time in bustling Bombay. However, the overcrowded city only furthered Martel's feelings of alienation and dissolution. He then decided to move on to Matheran, a section near Bombay but without that city's dense population. In this peaceful hill station overlooking the city, Martel began revisiting an idea he had not considered in some time, the premise he had unwittingly created when reading Updike's review in The New York Times Review of Books. He developed the idea even further away from Max and the Cats. While Scliar's novel was an extended holocaust allegory, Martel envisioned his story as a witty, whimsical, and mysterious meditation on zoology and theology. Unlike Max Schmidt, Pi Patel would, indeed, be the son of a zookeeper. Martel would, however, retain the shipwrecked-with-beasts theme from Max and the Cats. During an ocean exodus from India to Canada, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with such unlikely shipmates as a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The resulting novel, Life of Pi, became the smash-hit for which Martel had been longing. Selling well over a million copies and receiving the accolades of Book Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and, yes, The New York Times Review of Books, Life of Pi has been published in over 40 countries and territories, in over 30 languages. It is currently in production by Fox Studios with a script by master-of-whimsy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children; Amélie) and directorial duties to be handled by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
Martel is now working on his third novel, a bizarrely allegorical adventure about a donkey and a monkey that travel through a fantastical world... on a shirt. Well, at least no one will ever accuse him of borrowing that premise from any other writer.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Life of Pi is not Yann Martel's first work to be adapted for the screen. His short story "Manners of Dying" was made into a motion picture by fellow Canadian resident Jeremy Peter Allen in 2004.
When he isn't penning modern masterpieces, Martel spends much of his time volunteering in a palliative care unit.
Back to Top
In 2002, Yann Martel took time to answer some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life?
I would say Le Petit Chose, by the French writer Alphonse Daudet. It was the first book to make me cry. I was around ten years old. It made me see how powerful words could be, how much we could see and feel through mere black jottings on a page.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order, off the top of my head:
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
- The Divine Comedy, by Dante. Simply an amazing book. As complex and detailed as a Gothic cathedral, yet as simple and emotionally direct as a little girl's kiss on your cheek. If there's one book that captures an entire age and people and mentality -- that of Italy in the year 1300 -- it is the Divine Comedy.
- The short stories of Franz Kafka. Weird and revealing, like holding up a mirror to the darker parts of ourselves.
- Hunger, by the Norwegian Knut Hamsun. The odyssey of a man wandering the streets of Oslo, lost and starving. My first taste of the appeal of alienation.
- The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, by the Japanese Yukio Mishima. A simple perfect story, with the scary inevitability of a guillotine coming down.
- The Old Man and the Sea (and also the short stories), by the much maligned Hemingway. For the style, that simple, lucid style that says so much with so little.
- Dead Souls, by Gogol. Funny, strange, outrageous.
- The Death of Ivan Illyich, (or anything else) by Tolstoy. Fearless writing: utterly modern, incredibly wise, technically flawless. A true genius, that Count Leo.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. As magic as life, if only we would let ourselves dream....
- Most anything by Willa Cather. An unfairly neglected writer.
- My own next book. Don't mean to be pretentious here, or to rate my modest talents higher than they are. Nonetheless, it's the truth. My next book -- each one while I'm working on it -- dances in my mind and thrills me at every turn. If it didn't, why would I write it?
These are movies that have had a real emotional impact on me. But I also like grand entertainments like:
- The Idiots, directed by Lars von Trier
- Dark Eyes, by Nikita Mikhalkov
- Korzak, by Andrzej Wajda
- Rien sur Robert, by Pascal Bonitzer
- The Tin Drum, by Volker Schlondorf
- The Deerhunter, by Michael Cimino
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
- Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, by Walt Disney
- The Pink Panther movies
- Science fiction movies
Music moves me -- duh -- and that is like having a window opening on a heightened reality, but the effect is fleeting: When the music ends, the magic, the uplifting, vanishes and the window slams shut. Words, on the other hand, by the nature of how they work, emotions evoked by dint of carefully laid out thoughts, have a more lingering effect. So I'd say that nothing has moved me more than music, but it carries the taint of escapism and I rate it lower than dry words. That said, I love the usual suspects, from Bach to Brel.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
A fat classic I've never been able to read on my own, like The Magic Mountain or À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. They're long, detailed, complex novels, the equivalent of visiting a big, old European city -- so why not have company for the visit? I figure there would be much to discuss reading these books.
Another great book to do would be Dante's Divine Comedy. Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, a thousand characters and their thousand punishments or rewards, a travelogue like you've never imagined, Renaissance Italy, love, hate, etc., etc., etc. -- what more could you ask of a book?
Books are something social -- a writer speaking to a reader -- so I think making the reading of a book the centre of a social event, the meeting of a book club, is a brilliant idea. May books spread the world over!
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
I've partly answered this in the question about my favourite books, but I'd add Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, a handful of First World War poets, Sinclair Lewis, and others that I forget at the moment. As you can tell, I'm hopelessly out of step with my time.
Back to Top