Life of Pi author Yann Martel compares writing a novel to building a cathedral

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Canadian novelist Yann Martel describes himself as a "methodical writer".

On Friday (July 8) at the Indian Summer festival in Vancouver, the Saskatchewan author explained how he meticulously planned Life of Pi, which became an international bestseller and won the Man Booker Prize in 2002.

He began by telling the audience at the SFU Woodward's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts that he arrived in Mumbai on December 31, 1997. He got the idea for the book in January, and travelled to the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, making sure to drop by the city then known as Pondicherry.

"I started going to temples, mosques, churches, synagogues," Martel said. "I started paying attention to what was around me, trying to absorb Indianness somehow."


Yann Martel describes the writing process for Life of Pi.

Martel was joined on stage by the Indian actor Tabu, who will play the mother in a film adaptation of Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.

For six months in South India, Martel took notes and remembered details, all the while reading the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads to brush up on his understanding of different religions. Throughout this process, Martel was also writing scenes.

Upon his return to Montreal, he spent two more years researching his book, paying special attention to such topic as shipwrecks, zoos, and biology.

He said that he approached the writing process like an architect. Each chapter was anchored by notes in separate envelopes, creating a master plan.

"I just went from envelope to envelope until I got to 100 chapters," Martel stated. "I can't imagine personally writing any other way because what happens in chapter 10 will affect what happens in chapter 90."

Some authors, he noted, say that their characters speak to them. He added that Michael Ondaatje, to cite one example, is much more guided by his intuition, which leads him to write spontaneously.

Martel, on the other hand, stated that he plans everything out, creating a book "brick by brick".

"It feels like the construction of a cathedral," he said.

As a result of this process, he admitted he's a "very slow writer".

"I'm 48 and I've only written four books," Martel conceded with a smile. "I've been doing it full-time since my late 20s."

Martel discusses the filming of Life of Pi

Martel also spoke about the filming of Life of Pi. He said he was "delighted and honoured" that he was flown to New York to meet the director, Ang Lee.

"Twice, I was sent the screenplay to look at and give my feedback," Martel told the audience. "Apparently, it's the first time Ang Lee has done that."


Yann Martel says Ang Lee sought his input.

Martel noted that the authors of Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm didn't have this opportunity.

"When you sell your book to Hollywood, they can do what they want," he said, which elicited laughter from the crowd.

He also mentioned that after seeing the production challenges, he realizes it was far easier to write the book than film the movie.


Yann Martel describes the differences between writing a novel and filming a movie about a novel.

He said the Taiwanese are "in love" with Lee. "He's their cinematic superstar. The Taiwanese government was very generous in helping him."

Martel also took some time to discuss correspondence he's received from readers of Life of Pi, including U.S. president Barack Obama. "I get so many letters from Americans—complete strangers—on how the book touched them," he said.


Yann Martel told a funny story about Barack Obama writing a letter.

He cited one example of a woman who went to Belize on holiday, where she was kidnapped by a taxi driver and assaulted for three days. Throughout this ordeal, she kept telling herself: "He's the tiger and I must survive him."


One woman told Yann Martel that his "tiger" inspired her to survive being kidnapped and assaulted.

Martel said that he writes books on things that interest him. He grew up in Quebec, which he described as a "secular province".

Life of Pi offered him an opportunity to explore his curiosity about religion. "I grew up with no gods in my household," he said.


Yann Martel says he grew up in a household with no gods.

Related article: At the Indian Summer festival, film star Tabu talks about Bollywood, privacy, and acting in English

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

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