Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Yann Martel on why Life of Pi didn't make him a better writer

The author of The High Mountains of Portugal answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

If you've been entertaining the notion that the stratospheric success of Life of Pi has left Yann Martel living the high life, he's ready to bring you back down to earth.

Turns out Martel slogged away at his latest novel, the captivating historical treasure hunt/surrealist love story The High Mountains of Portugal, in much the same laborious fashion as he always has. Just possibly with fancier chocolate milk this time around.

Below, Yann Martel answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Nino Ricci asks, "Do you think you would be a better writer if someone just gave you a big whack of money and you didn't need to worry anymore about earning an income?"

I can answer that question fully and confidently. That's exactly what happened to me. I made a whack of money with Life of Pi. And no, it didn't make me a better writer. It made me a writer who had more time (mind you, busier, too, so my time is more eaten up by this, that and the other), but it didn't improve my writing. I'm still the same writer I was when I had no money, with the same strengths and weaknesses. 

2. Donna Morrissey asks, "Who has been your favourite character to write so far, and why?"

The main character in Self, my little-known first novel. That character was a fictionalized version of myself. I used facts from my own life, but only to make that character seem plausible, and then I had something entirely implausible happen to him, something that could only be fictional. So it was fun balancing the truly autobiographical with the plausibly autobiographical.

3. David McGimpsey asks, "If you were to pair your latest book with a signature cocktail, what is that cocktail called and what's it made of?" 

I don't drink, so this question falls flat for me. I'll say chocolate milk.

4. Will Ferguson asks, "What is the dumbest and/or weirdest question you've ever been asked at a book signing or interview?"

None that I can remember. It strikes me that anyone who comes to a reading and waits in line to meet a writer is likely to have thought carefully about what they are going to say. So I've had naïve questions put to me, but none that I would say were "dumb." 

What I do remember clearly is the man who said to me in a quiet voice so no one would hear him that he read Life of Pi while he was in jail and it saved him. Or the women who wrote to me to say that when she had cancer she thought of the tumour as a tiger in her lifeboat and she was determined to fight for her life. Those sorts of things. 

5. Kate Pullinger asks, "Have you ever written anything that you wouldn't want your mother to read?"

My earliest writings were efforts that only a mother should read, they were so embarrassingly immature. Now I show her and my father everything, the way I do to anyone. I don't write much. To me, novel-writing — my main artistic activity — is a true labour. It's a bloody hard artifice to pull off. So every time I do it, every five, six years, you bet it won't be something I wouldn't want to show my mother. 

6. Linda Spalding asks, "What moves you to tears?"

The usual: human suffering that is made convincing. 

7. Camilla Gibb asks, "If you weren't a writer, what would you like to be?"

Easy. I'd be a teacher. A great teacher is an agent of transformation. A great teacher is a Prometheus who takes little clay figurines and breathes life into them. We are nothing without teachers, whether they be our parents, actual teachers in schools and universities, or gurus and mentors later on. It's not lawyers and doctors who should be at the top of the social pyramid, it's teachers. 

8. Patrick deWitt asks, "What is the last thing you read that made you feel actually jealous?"

Oh. Too many to mention. Most anything by J.M. Coetzee or David Mitchell. In fact, nearly everything good that I've ever read, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Agatha Christie. If I could, I'd time travel with a horde of great books and show up at various publishing houses a couple months before their actual authors came in with their manuscripts. That would be the good literary life. 


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