4 questions for Yann Martel about The High Mountains of Portugal

Yann Martel is in town for an event for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, with a new book, The High Mountains of Portugal. We asked him a few questions about his writing life.

Award winning author of Life of Pi is in Ottawa with new book

Canadian author Yann Martel is in Ottawa with his new book, The High Mountains of Portugal. 0:20

Canadian author Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, 14 years ago for Life of Pi, a mythical story about the perilous journey of teenage boy and a tiger lost at sea.  

In his new book, The High Mountains of Portugal, a chimpanzee plays a central role.

Martel dropped by CBC Ottawa on Friday ahead of his appearance at an Ottawa International Writers Festival event, hosted by CBC Radio host Alan Neal, to talk about his latest work.

1. What is The High Mountains of Portugal about?

"It's what I call a literary examination of faith. It's in three parts, and each one has a different emotional tone. So if you really want to simplify, part one is atheism , part two is agnostism, part three is belief. [The parts are set] in 1904, 1938 and the 1980s — one featuring a man who is driving a car he doesn't know how to drive; a pathologist conducting an autopsy in which many things are revealed while his wife lectures him on the gospels of Agatha Christie; part three is a Canadian senator — I wrote that long before Mike Duffy came around — and he lives in northern Portugal with a chimpanzee."

2. In Life of Pi, a ferocious tiger plays a major role in the story. In The High Mountains of Portugal, it's a chimpanzee. Why are animals so central to your stories?

"There's something godlike about animals," says Yann Martel. The author features animal characters in many of his works. 0:55

3. In The High Mountains of Portugal, Tomas, one of the main characters, deals with his grief by walking backwards. Where did you get that idea?

"If you've lost everything what do you do? Either you die, or you stay alive, but in some form you must object. And I thought that would be a good way of objecting — turn my back to the world. So he walks backward to turn his back to the world and to God."

4. Since you won the Man Booker Prize 14 years ago for Life of Pi, everything else you write is compared to the phenomenal success of that book. How does that affect you as a writer?

It's a hard act to follow- Yann Martel talks about following up the mega success of Life of Pi 0:46

Martel previously compared receiving the award to "winning the lottery," in part, because of the windfall of royalties, respect and renown that would surely follow.

Yann Martel wins the 2002 Man Booker Literary Award for his novel Life of Pi in London 0:23

Indeed, Life of Pi became the number one international bestseller, with 13 million copies sold around the world. The novel's acclaim only grew when well-known film director Ang Lee spun it into an Oscar-winning movie in 2012.

Director Ang Lee won an Oscar for his 2012 adaptation of Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi. Fox 2000 Pictures 1:02

Martel will be at Christ Church Cathedral on Sparks St. Friday evening at 7 p.m. for a special event organized by the Ottawa International Writers Festival.