Saskatoon writer Yann Martel has stepped back onto world literature's centre stage with a quirky new animal novel about the darkest subject imaginable, John Barber wrote in The Globe and Mail earlier this week.
Mr. Martel's latest book, Beatrice and Virgil, has been highly anticipated - fetching a $3-million advance - after his 2001 novel, Life of Pi, won Britain's Man Booker Prize and went on to sell an astounding seven million copies worldwide.
We're pleased Mr. Martel was able to join us for a live discussion. Read the transcript of your questions and his answers below:
Peter Scowen: Hello and welcome to our live discussion with Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi and now his long-awaited new novel, Beatrice and Virgil. If all has gone technologically well, Mr. Martel is standing by to take readers' questions, which will be moderated by me. I'm Peter Scowen, editor of Globe Books online.
11:00 Yann Martel: Hello, everyone. Greetings from New York.
11:02 Peter Scowen: Hi Yann. An opening question: Beatrice & Virgil is a book about an author searching for a way to write about the Holocaust. What prompted you to want to write about such a huge, difficult and inevitably controversial subject?
11:04 Yann Martel: Several reasons. A longstanding fascination with the Holocaust. A desire to comment on it, to wrestle with it in the way an artist does, with his imagination. ANd more simply: because a story came to me, one concerning a taxidermist. I wanted to tell that story.
11:04 [Comment From JaneJane: ]
Hello, Mr. Martel. I met you at your book launch in St. John's a few days ago. I've started reading Beatrice and Virgil and am enjoying it. Near the beginning of the book, Henry mentions that he "has" to write which, he suggests, is a shared characteristics of writers. Do you feel a compulsion to write? Is it really something you feel that you have no choice but to do?
11:07 Yann Martel: No, it's not a compulsion. If it were, I'd have written more books that I have, only four in 20 years. I "have" to write in the sense that it's my way of understanding life. I get a sense of satisfaction in seeing life through the prism of stories. So in writing Life of Pi, for example, I came to understand how and what I feel about faith and religion. It clarified my thinking. And in a similar way with B & V: it helped me understand the Holocaust and how we represent great tragedy. Writing is my way of studying life. It's a thoughtful process, therefore, not a compulsive one.
11:07 [Comment From Andrew BryceAndrew Bryce: ]
Mr. Martel, how do your stories come to you? when you have inspiration, how do you know that one idea is a "good" idea? Is it a feeling akin to that which people often attribute to "true love"? The idea that "I saw her and I just knew"?
11:11 Yann Martel: Good comparison, that, with "true love". But no, not quite, because true love can fade and come to be just fleeting lust. With a good story, the love just keeps on growing. A story for me does start with a moment of inspiration, a germ, that strikes me as wealthy with possibilities. So I quickly tend to it, writing it down so I don't forget it. Then starts a lengthy process of thinking, thinking, thinking in which I go over the idea, looking at it from every angle. Usually then I do research. I very much believe in the writer doing research, to get out of the trap of his/her small mind. I do research, which gives me further ideas, which leads me to further research. And onwards until I have all the material needed for a novel. So it starts with a single germ and then carefully tending turns it into a full garden. So gardening might be a better metaphor rather than love.
11:12 [Comment From MicahMicah: ]
Is there an end goal in mind when authors use narrative to discuss the Holocaust? I don't mean personally, but in a collective sense, are authors working towards some larger goal to explain the Holocaust? And to what end is it entertainment?
11:13 [Comment From Andrew BryceAndrew Bryce: ]
Thank you for your answer, Mr. Martel. Indeed, gardening is more suitable. I look forward to reading Beatrice & Virgil.
11:15 Yann Martel: Good question, Micah. I can only answer for myself. I believe we have to apply all the tools of art to the Holocaust so that we might get to all the meaning it might yield. If we represent the H. always in the same way, in the mode of historical realism, we are missing out on hidden meanings. Now, what each writer's intent might be depends on each writer. But I trust that just as we discuss war in endless numbers of ways, many that have nothing to do with the real nature of war, and it's all right, in the end we come to an understanding of what war means to us, so with the Holocaust. If we let it go and open it up, we will, eventually, be rewarded.
11:16 [Comment From Rob SherrenRob Sherren: ]
Hello Mr. Martel, in the Globe article about B&V it talks about a strong pushback you got from your publishers after the original. How did that feel and how important was it to the story you finally came up with?
11:16 Yann Martel: No harm in entertainment, by the way. But serious art, I believe, aims not only to entertain, but to elevate. To which degree both are done depends on the intent and quality of each writer.
11:18 Yann Martel: I wrote that scene with the publishers because it suited my fictional purpose. To have an author silenced who then meets a taxidermist who is himself struggling for expression with his play--these two characters at a loss for words struck me as the right approach to take with the Holocaust, which so famously takes away the capacity for expression.
11:18 [Comment From MikeMike: ]
How do you think your studies in philosophy influenced your writing process?
11:18 Yann Martel: So I did have a meeting with publishers, but the manner in which it took place was very different, and their message was different.
11:21 Yann Martel: Mike: philosophy taught me critical thinking, the careful parsing of things. I loved it an an undergraduate level. Nothing basket weaving about philosophy. Or rather, the very opposite: in studying philosophy I learned how to weave baskets that could then hold my clearest thoughts. A liberal education--in philosophy, literature, sociology, history, etc--is the best tool for life. To turn university education into factories where utilitarian skills are taught, job skills, is to miseducate our future citizens. We will pay the price for that in the form of a generation of fearful, confused, conservative citizens. There, that's my screed about liberal education.
11:22 [Comment From StephanieStephanie: ]
Hi Yann - where does your fascination with animals come from? Is there a specific reason you tell your stories through them? It's a wonderful, playful way of storytelling.
11:25 Yann Martel: Steph: Thank you. I purr when people tell me that. I use animals because it works for me. We're so familiar with our own species, so cynical about it, even onto to being callous about the sufferings of others, that it makes it difficult to overcome the disbelief of a reader, I feel (perhaps I'm just not good at characterization). But when I use an animal, as I did with Life of Pi, wonders of wonders, readers open themselves up. The metaphorical possibilities of animals in adult literature is sorely neglected. We confine animals to children's literature. As we do children, for that matter. That puzzles me. What is childish about a tiger or a donkey? And must a child in a novel be childish in his/her purpose?
11:26 [Comment From GuestGuest: ]
Hi, Mr.Martel. Your my favorite author. I'm nearly 14, and an aspiring author. How do you always come up with these amazing ideas? I'm basically a fountain of ideas, but where do you get your best ones?
11:30 Yann Martel: Ideas are out there, like spores in the wind. It's a question of openness. A cobbler looks at life through the metaphor of shoes. Shoes move us literally and, when they're beautiful, emotionally. Shoes have a history. Shoes are bearers of cultures. And so on. So the cobbler is open to all the shoes can be. In a same way, I am open to what stories can be. Gosh, don't I sound like Jesus parabling. Just stay open, dear Guest, stay open, read, write it down, think, rewrite, let go, start again, read some more, write it down, rewrite it, and so on.
11:30 [Comment From StevieStevie: ]
Mr. Martel, someone wrote into the Globe this morning responding to your comment that the Holocaust was "impersonal", saying they'd like to see you tell that to a survivor. Although I agree with your take, I'm still curious - did you meet with any survivors during the writing process?
11:35 Yann Martel: Stevie: I didn't mean impersonal in that sense. What I meant was that the drama of the Holocaust involved people who did not know each other. Normally in our daily lives we hate, or more likely simply dislike, people we know or think we know. In the H., the Nazis did not know any, or hardly any, of the Jews they so hated. Because they were Jewish, they were hated, no matter their personality. In that sense, the tragedy was impersonal, was a drame in which personality did not matter. So I would tell a survivor exactly what he/she knew already, namely that his personality, his level of education, income, profession, appearance, language spoken, etc mattered not a jot as to why he was in a camp. The personality of the SS were also irrelevant. They were there to hate and kill Europe's Jews and nothing else mattered. It's in that sense that the H was "impersonal".
11:35 [Comment From StanStan: ]
Besides literature, where do you think conversations about the Holocaust still exist?
11:36 Yann Martel: And no, I did not personally meet any survivors. No need to. There writings of survivors are easy to find.
11:38 Yann Martel: Stan: excellent question. Some of the most thought-provoking "conversations" I've seen on the H. have been in the visual arts. Because language is usually tethered to narrative (poetry is somewhat of an exception to that), language, verbal language, usually tends to fall in the same narrative tracks when it approaches the Holocaust. But visual art, because it is less narrative, can approach the H from surprising, and rewarding, angles.
11:38 Peter Scowen: You didn't meet survivors but you travelled to Auschwitz three times in researching B&V. How did that affect what you knew about the Holocaust?
11:39 Yann Martel: I wrote a lengthy essay on the H and its representations and I argue that perhaps we have to acknowledge that language may fail to deal with genocide and that therefore we may have to rely on other means.
11:39 [Comment From doreen wilsondoreen wilson: ]
Do you hope your book will lead to enlightment for many not ready to face the holocaust hostory?
11:44 Yann Martel: Yes, I went to Auschitz three times (and Yad Vashem, in Israel). Auschwitz is quite obviously a very moving place. Any such place of massacre of innocents would be. But the more interesting point is not that I was there 3 times, but spent a long time there. The last time I was there I was there for over two weeks. Most people bus in and bus out from Cracow. Nothing wrong with that. But to glimpse and then move on will tend to yield a strongly emotional reaction. To glimpse and then stay, for hours and days, moves you and then gets you thinking. It's the thinking-through that is missing, is undeveloped, when it comes to the H, I feel. Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim. You spend time there you start realizing that Auschwitz and Oswiecim coexist, evil and good, side by side, like they do in the human heart.
11:46 Yann Martel: Doreen: it's not for me to say what I hope my book will do. As the author of the book, I had my intent, my ideas. But that's only half the product. What the reader then brings is the other half. Author intent is quickly taken over by reader reception and reader intent.
11:47 Peter Scowen: Has the essay you wrote about representations of the Holocaust been published?
11:48 Yann Martel: No. But I hope to see it published one day. History lives in our bones in some ways, uncontrolled, there, given to us, but also in a more conscious way, in dialogue, in how we think about it, what we want to do with it. I'd like to see my essay published so it can join that dialogue.
11:51 Peter Scowen: There has been both positive and negative critical reaction to B&V. Much of the negative reaction has centred around the question of whether the critic thought your way of exploring the Holocaust was appropriate. One reviewer used the word "perverse." Did you expect a such polarized reaction to B&V?
11:55 Yann Martel: THe Holocaust invites controversy in the way war, for some reason, rarely does. THe phrase "trivializing the Holocaust", which the reviewer you mention aslo used, comes up all the time. INteresting how "trivializing" never comes up when rape and war are discussed, even though rape and war are constantly made less than they actually are. The danger is imposing one way of discussing the Holcaust is that you close down debate on it, you impose an orthodoxy on it. That does the tragedy harm. As for my expectations, I didn't really think about it. People will dislike it who don't want to go off the beaten path when they think about the H. I hope more people will be willing to look at it in different, new ways. NOT with the intent of covering it up, or transmogriphying it, but to exam it anew, from different angles.
11:57 Peter Scowen: I'm afraid we're down to the final moments of this chat. The questions have been excellent and I'd like to thank Mr. Martel for his thoughtful and moving answers. I'd also like to apologize to the readers whose questions we didn't get to. Stand by for the closing question from a reader....
11:57 [Comment From AgnesAgnes: ]
Hi Yann. I'm a HUGE fan of your work (starting with your very first novel Self) and have been waiting eagerly for this book (which I just started reading and am liking very much). Are you getting started on your next one yet? I hope you continue to provide your fans with many many novels in the future.
11:58 Yann Martel: Yes, I'm already thinking about the next one. It concerns three chimpanzees in Portugal. If it sounds improbable, so did LIfe of Pi. I think it will work. Am very excited about it. Thank you to you all for talking with me. It was a pleasure.
11:59 Peter Scowen: Thanks again to Yann Martel and to all the readers who participated. See you next time