The Slight Madness that Make Us Sane: A Q&A with Yann Martel

Life of Pi, 2012, Ang Lee, Fox

The 37th International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto runs from October 20-30 and  has been attended by a number of outstanding authors, including Canada’s own Yann Martel, author of the international bestselling novel Life of Pi. Martel, who currently lives in Saskatoon, is also the author of 2016’s The High Mountain of Portugal — a book which explores love, faith and grief through the eyes of three men who all find themselves in the high mountains of Portugal at one point or another.

I count Yann Martel among my favourite authors and can say without a doubt that his work has had a lasting impact on me. In fact Life of Pi was part of the reason I decided to study religion when I went off to university, so I’m honoured to welcome him to WWAC to talk about his work, his success and and more.

Your most recent work, The High Mountains of Portugal, is divided into three parts and each part tells the story of a differentThe High Mountains of Portugal, Yann Martel, Penguin Random House, 2016 person at a different point in time. Why did you choose to break it up in this way and, other than the location, how are the three stories connected?

Part One of THMOP is about absence, Part Three about presence, and Part Two about aspiring to presence while being bedevilled by absence. I’ll let readers decide what absence and presence I’m talking about. So the division into three parts came naturally and organically. Various elements connect the three parts. A chimpanzee, for one. But also there are causal connections, repercussions that cascade from one part to the next.

Did you have the opportunity to travel to the different areas of Portugal your book visits? If yes, what did you do while you were there?

I had already been to Portugal a few times. For the purposes of writing this novel, I visited Lisbon and the northeast of the country. But the Portugal of my novel, especially the parts that take place in the imaginary High Mountains, are a mythologized Portugal. This is no travelogue. It is a journey through states of being as much as a journey through an actual country.

Faith often plays a significant role in your novels. Can you tell us a little about what drew you to the topic originally and why it continues to play an import role in your work?

I’ve come to see that reading a novel and having faith both involve a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to stop being quite so reasonable.

My background is entirely secular but I became interested in that curious, un-modern phenomenon called faith as a result of writing Life of Pi. I’ve come to see that reading a novel and having faith both involve a suspension of disbelief, a willingness to stop being quite so reasonable. It’s only once you choose to believe that the magic of a novel and of a religion begin to work. Both activities, reading and believing, involve an act of will and a suspension of rational literalism. And in an age where everything can be bought and sold, everything quantified, where we are encouraged to be (deadingly) reasonable, I’m attracted to the leap of faith of art and religion, to their slight madness that make us sane.

The second part of The High Mountains of Portugal spends some time looking at the work of Agatha Christie. How is her work a good fit in a story about a pathologist named Eusebio in the Portuguese city of Braganca?

Dr. Lozora’s wife, Maria, points out the astonishing similarities between the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and the Gospels. Think of the role of the witness in both. And isn’t that the most apt way of describing the Jesus event, as a murder mystery? But Maria has a greater purpose in pointing out this similarity…

You’ve written a number of compelling animal characters throughout your career, from Richard Parker in Life of Pi, to the monkey and donkey in Beatrice & Virgil and most recently the chimp in The High Mountains of Portugal. Why do animals often play such a central role in your stories?

Because they work well as characters. They are interesting both in themselves, as beings we share this planet with, but also as symbols. It’s remarkable how much we project onto animals. We project our dreams and aspirations on them, we project our fears. That makes them versatile characters. Also, few writers of adult fiction since, to give just one example, Franz Kafka, use animals, so I feel uncrowded when using them.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001, Seal BooksBack in 2002, Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize and was a number one international bestseller, with 13 million copies sold around the world. How had the success of that novel affected you and the work you have done since?

It’s made me busier. It’s made me money. But these are external things. On the inside I’m the same. Prizes and fame don’t change you as a writer. They may bring to attention what you’re good at, but they don’t eliminate your weaknesses. And each new novel you write is a new endeavour. You have the same questions you always have: Can I do this? Do I know what I’m doing? How do I make it work? and so on.

You’re also married to fellow writer, Alice Kuipers. What is it like having two writers in the house? Do you have similar writing styles/methods?

It’s nicely complimentary. We both appreciate the other’s work, we both value the world of books. And we write very different stuff, so there’s no rivalry.

Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re in Toronto for IFOA this fall?

I haven’t looked at the program yet. I hope to catch an event or two, catch up with friends, perhaps visit the AGO.

If you’re in Toronto on Saturday October 29, 2016, you can catch Yann Martel, along with fellow authors Andrew Westoll and Alissa York, at 3:oo pm. More details can be found on the IFOA website.

Christa Seeley

Christa Seeley

Books Editor. Maple Flavoured Darth Vader Fangirl.