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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatiosby Yann Martel
Author Q & A
Q: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios?first published in 1993?is a collection of four short stories from your early years as a writer. Why did you decide to revisit and, consequently, re-release this book?
A: Because I felt the stories deserved to meet more readers. When the collection first came out in 1993 it went largely unnoticed in bookstores, despite very positive reviews, the fate of a great many books. In the wake of the success of Life of Pi, I hope readers will give "Helsinki" another chance. I touched up the stories because when I wrote them I was learning how to write (I'm still learning) and like any learner, I made mistakes: attempts at style that fail, descriptions that didn't draw the picture as clearly as I would have liked, etc. Revisiting them ten years after their first publication has allowed me to apply what I hope I've learned about writing.
Q: In the author's note, you said the lead story, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, was "inspired by the death of a friend from AIDS." What are some of the challenges when writing around real-life events, especially those that are so close to the heart?
A: The only challenge in writing a story is to make it as good as it can be. That it bears resemblance to a "real-life" event is incidental. A work of art isn't any better for mirroring factual truth. Written factual truth is the concern of journalists. Writers of fiction aspire to a truth that may encompass the factual, but as a matter of choice not necessity. Art is a statement about the human condition, and the human condition can't be reduced to facts. To take the case of the title story in the collection, yes, a friend of the family died of AIDS. But he was a forty-year-old civil servant who worked at the United Nations. That meant nothing to me. Yet I saw the effect of his death on my parents, their pain and grief. I myself, for the first time, encountered death. I wanted to record that, the effect of death on the living. So I transferred those feelings of grief to a setting I could understand, the university setting, and with characters I could understand, students. I played with "facts" to tell a more accurate truth.
Q: An element of "Helsinki" illustrates the cycle of Paul's last months with historical events that somehow correlate to his fight with AIDS?his ups and downs. For instance, when he feels defeated and angry, there's inevitably a war on the horizon. What did this idea stem from?
A: The friend who had died of AIDS was a lifelong reader of the French newspaper Le Monde. It is a truly great newspaper. Better than the New York Times (and without all the ads). As a result this friend had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary world history. I wanted to reflect that in my story. I had also just read The Decameron by Boccaccio and was intrigued by the possibility of storytelling as a means of understanding life.
Q: The narrators in each of the stories, except "Manners of Dying," share commonalities with one another: they're in their twenties; two hail from the same Canadian city, Roetown; and some have "failed" or "bungled" their university studies or have "never held down a real, steady job." Some characteristics, in fact, that mirror your personal experience. What differentiates these characters for the reader?
A: We become attached with someone the longer we are with them. Different stories with a common narrator gain in credibility, I was also reflecting myself. I was a young man in search of meaning?not surprising, then, that my narrators should share that characteristic.
Q: When you started writing in the eighties?a play that you called a "terrible piece of writing, irredeemably blighted by immaturity" and a second you deemed "an absurdist pastiche, awful"?what did you want from writing?
A: I wanted nothing. Writing sentences to construct stories was a satisfaction unto itself. I suppose I was seeking meaning in my life, trying to escape the oblivion of mortality, staking my claim to fame and fortune, etc, etc, etc, but to be honest I didn't think about any of that. I just did, I just wrote, finding in words and stories both elevation and entertainment. My purpose was, and is, a mystery.
Q: How has your life changed since Life of Pi?
A: On the outside, it's become busier and more complex. On the inside, nothing has changed for me as a writer. The challenges of writing my next book remain the same: Can I do it? Do I know how to tell the story I want to tell? Do I know what I'm doing?
Q: The 1991 Journey Prize for Short Story Writing for The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios; the 2002 Man Booker Prize and the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction for Life of Pi; and international acclaim with comparisons to Ernest Hemingway. Do you ever have to remind yourself: This is my life. This is happening to me?
A: It is extraordinary and unbelievable. At the same time, life goes on. You adapt. You remain happy for the book and for yourself while remaining (you hope) true to yourself. When people say incredible things to you, things that make you squirm, you thank them for meeting your book so openly and so generously. Then you go back to thinking about your next book. Can you do it? Do you know how to tell the story you want to tell? Do you know what you're doing?
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