Yann Martel
Photo by Emma Love

Yann Martel: “You have to open yourself”

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Short Profile

Name: Yann Martel
DOB: 25 June 1963
Place of Birth: Salamanca, Spain
Occupation: Author

Mr. Martel, would you call yourself an unreliable narrator?

I hadn’t thought of that, actually. In my writing, I always try to leave space for interpretation. So it’s not that I’m unreliable as much as it is that I’m open. After all, fiction is a choice. Art is inherently a choice. You have to be able to interpret it the way you want, because otherwise there’s no reason to involve yourself. In my first novel, Life of Pi, the narrator, Pi, tells two stories. That’s a device that I chose because I wanted the reader to be confronted with a choice. I’m just aware of that, the need for freedom of interpretation.

Of Life of Pi you’ve said, “Of course it’s a true story. All good art is true.” Is that what you meant by that — that the truth is open to interpretation?

What I meant was a “truth” as beyond just mere factuality. In our age of rationality, we tend to place enormous importance on factual truth. And I’m not saying that factual truth isn’t important, but it’s not the be all and end all. I think for most of us in the way we live, facts are just the starting point. You know, gravity exists, we can’t deny gravity. Well, what do you do with that gravity? That’s the beginning of the story. So quickly we leave those facts behind and I think a lot of life comes down to interpretation. That was certainly what Life of Pi was about: the richer the interpretation you have of life, the richer your story will be. And that’s a value in itself.

So you think there are different layers of truth?

Different kinds of truth. There are factual truths, emotional truths, psychological truths… Art is kind of truth in that it is true, it is valid. It does something that is positive, so to me, it somehow fits into the realm of a greater truth. Great art is all about truth, about human affirmation. Our vision of ourselves, our vision of society is all about storytelling.

“You can’t just leave it at the embellishment. You have to embellish something that’s worth embellishing.”

Is it necessary to embellish the truth in order to write a good story?

Well, already, storytelling is a blend of fact and fiction, isn’t it? But in the end, you don’t want a dull story. There’s absolutely no reason to read boring literature. Or if it’s merely plot-driven it is like sugar, you know? It’s exciting, but you burn it fast and you’re left with nothing. “Embellishment” makes it sound like it’s decoration. I don’t think it’s embellishment. It’s simply picking and choosing to bring the truth to the fore: setting up vivid characters, situations, unusual events… Those are part and parcel of creating stories. You can’t just leave it at the embellishment. You have to embellish something that’s worth embellishing.

Has storytelling always been of interest to you? Have you always had a powerful imagination?

I read a lot in my childhood, in my teen years, and my early adult years. One of the foundational experiences of my youth was reading. Have you ever read Watership Down by Richard Adams? I remember that was an amazing book, it was so thrilling! But that’s not the only way to do it. Movies can also be thrilling. I remember the first time I saw Star Wars or the first time I saw Jaws when I was a kid. Movies can also be totally involving, but for me, it is a much more flattening experience. You’re passive. The spectacle they feed you is extraordinary — the images, the music — but what’s great about a book is that it’s so personally involving. You create the story when you read these little black squiggles on the page. Initially you’re suspicious but then you somehow fall into it.

Author Stewart O’Nan said that although writers create the story, it’s the reader who brings their whole life to it.

Absolutely. A reader brings his book to life. Cinema is highly manipulative, you know. If the camera focuses on a phone, you can damn well bet that that phone’s going to ring. And music, you know, in Jaws the cello tells you the shark is about to appear. Dun-dun. Dun-dun. People who don’t read are often middle-aged white men. They’re factually obsessed. They’re obsessed with ruling the world… And it’s their loss! Reading really is a rich way of living one’s life. It’s a great way of learning about the world. I’ve only been once to Russia. Everything I know about Russia, I got from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov, Gogol, Turgenev… So, it is a wonderful way of travelling, in a sense.

But you have travelled a lot in real life as well, right?

I did travel a lot as a kid because my parents were diplomats, so I lived in France, in Costa Rica, in Mexico and then I travelled on my own.

Did that influence your writing?

I suppose in some ways, yes. I guess having lived in different countries, I saw that there were different ways of being: linguistically, culinarily, in terms of dress. My mind was open earlier, not only by travel, but also because I had good teachers. I liked school. And that lead on eventually into my writing, I imagine.

“That’s what life’s about: the stories that you build.”

Do you think your writing would be different if you’d stayed in the same place all your life?

I don’t know. I mean, who’s to say? I can’t re-live my life in a different way. I hope I would still be a writer… Maybe a very different writer. I’m not sure I’m a writer because I travelled, but I think I was influenced as a writer because of my travels. Reading was, as I mentioned, important in that respect. I was lucky that my parents really valued writing, and my father is a poet, so… I think travelling was one element among many.

Both Life of Pi and your new book, The High Mountains of Portugal contain those elements of travel or journey or adventure. Does good fiction necessarily have to be about something out of the ordinary?

No. There’s great realistic fiction. There’s Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro. Fiction is a vast, vast thing; from, you know, hardcore pornography, murder mysteries, Marcel Proust, magic realism à la Marquez… There’s great fiction from people who are just very quiet observers of domestic life. It’s a universe. Everyone has one story in them, their own little story. Everyone has parents, grew up somewhere, and out of that you can create a story.

But not everyone does.

There’s nothing sadder, I find, than people who have no stories, who have nothing to say about their lives, who are just immersed. That’s an impoverished life. Great art comes from some sort of openness to the human experience… You have to have a feeling for the form, and in order to do that you have to open yourself. Just as in life you have to be open to other people, to other perspectives — it’s the same thing when you write. That’s what religion’s about, that’s what literature’s about, it’s what life’s about: the stories that you build.