British Columbia

Yann Martel talks about his new book and writing to Stephen Harper

An odd connection between Agatha Christie mysteries and the Gospels is part of what Yann Martel says inspired him to finish the book he started before Life of Pi.

Martel's new book, The High Mountains of Portugal, was released in February

Yann Martel's new book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is out now. (CBC)

Man Booker Prize winning author Yann Martel has just released his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal.

The book has been described as an intersection where loss meets a quest for meaning that spans across decades and three different lives.

The author, also known for the international bestseller Life of Pi, was in Victoria Friday night for an event at Bolen Books.

But before that, he joined All Points West host Robyn Burns for an interview.

You started writing this novel before your international bestselling novel, Life of Pi, was born. What happened, why did you put this story down?

The cover of Yann Martel's new book, The High Mountains of Portugal. (
I didn't know how to write it. I was too immature as a writer. Those who've read Life of Pi will remember the author goes to India meaning to work on a novel set in Portugal. It was only in the last few years that I figured out what I was trying to do and how I could do it. So it was a question of maturing into the project.

When I went to India it was pretty depressing. I had gone all the way to India meaning to work on this novel and it just wasn't coming to life. So, yeah, I had one of those dull existential crises that people have and I thought, what am I going to do now? I thought of writing Life of Pi instead, and I did well with that one. In hindsight, it was a blessing that the Portuguese novel didn't work out.

When was that moment when you realized you had matured and it was the perfect moment to pick it up again?

A number of events. I happened to be reading some Agatha Christies and that triggered an interesting connection. I noticed there were a lot of similarities between the Gospels and the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie.They operate in the same way. In a very obvious way, the passion of Jesus is a murder mystery. So that was one instance. I noticed the Gospels have chapter headings, and I wondered if I could tell a story using those chapter headings.

Whether one likes Christianity or not, one thing that's interesting is the life of Jesus resembles all our lives: he was born, he grew up, he tried his best and he was crucified. There is a parallel there that is quite unique among religions. I just wondered if I could write a story that was broadly an allegory on the life of Jesus. That thought brought back all of these Portuguese ideas that had been in the back of my mind for quite a while.

Yann Martel (left) stopped by CBC Victoria for a conversation with Robyn Burns. (CBC)

You sent former Prime Minister Stephen Harper a book every two weeks with a note attached explaining its importance. From 2007 to 2011 you sent him more than 100 books and letters and never received a response. Since his departure from office have you heard from him?

No, no, not at all. I think very early on he decided not to reply to me. Which, to give a shocking contrast, out of the blue one day, I got a letter from Barack Obama. He and his daughter had read Life of Pi, so they took five minutes to write a very elegant little note thanking me for the book. Meanwhile, my own prime minister, to my gift of 101 books and 101 carefully crafted letters discussing the books, I never heard from him.

Our politicians are accountable to us in many ways. For example, in their financial holdings. It strikes me that their imaginative holdings are also accountable to us. The dreams of our prime minister might become our nightmares. From his or her dreams, presumably, come their policies. So it strikes me, we want to know their imagination and what fostered it. And so to have a man who never travelled and never read much makes me wonder, how does he think he could lead us?

With files from All Points West

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, talks about new book The High Mountains of Portugal


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.