1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
It was never on my list of things to be. But by the end of my adolescent years I had struck out being an astronaut and a politician, and at university I eventually struck out everything a bachelor’s degree could deliver, from archaeology to zoology – each chosen at one point or another because of the pageant and drama they seemed to promise. I was 19 years old and desperate. I was wasting my time at university, didn’t belong there, but was terrified of the working world. So, I wrote. The first thing I wrote was a play. It was a very, very bad play – the story of a young man who falls in love with a door and commits suicide when a well-meaning friend chops his beloved up to pieces and uses her as firewood, I kid you not – but there was joy in the creating, a thrill in putting characters on a stage and giving them lines. I wrote another equally bad play, then switched to prose, which I thought would suit me better. I proceeded to write a number of bad short stories. I didn’t show them to anyone. I was too embarrassed. Still, each time, it was the same: to play with words, to construct sentences, to create situations, to invent characters and dialogue, was something I found deeply exciting and fulfilling and that I could do hour after hour, day after day. I continued writing, not knowing why or where it would lead me. I never thought of it as a career – and still don’t now.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
I would guess that most books come from the same mix of three elements: influence, inspiration and hard work. Let me detail how each one came into play in the writing of Life of Pi.
Influence: Ten or so years ago, I read a review by John Updike in the New York Times Review of Books. It was of a novel by a Brazilian writer I’d never heard of, Moacyr Scliar. I forget the title, and John Updike did worse: he clearly thought the book as a whole was forgettable. His review – one of those that makes you suspicious by being mostly descriptive, without critical teeth, as if the reviewer were holding back – oozed indifference. The story, as far as I can remember, was about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate, to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther. What could displease Updike about such a story? Was it that the allegory marched with too heavy a tread, the parallel between the black panther and the Nazis too obvious? Did the premise wear its welcome out? Was it the tone? The style? The translation? Whatever it was, the book fatigued Updike, but it had the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine. I marvelled. What perfect unity of time, action and place. What stark, rich simplicity. Oh, the wondrous things I could do with this premise. I felt that same mix of envy and frustration I had felt with Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, that if only I had thought of it I could have done something great with it. But – damn! – the idea had been faxed to the wrong muse. I looked for the book. It was nowhere to be found in Montreal. I chose not to order it. I didn’t really want to read it anyway. Why put up with the gall? Why put up with a brilliant premise ruined by a lesser writer. Worse, what if Updike had been wrong? What if not only the premise but also its rendition were perfect? Best to move on. I wrote my first novel. I travelled. Romances started and ended. I travelled some more. Four or five years went by.
Inspiration: I was in India. It was my second time. The start of the trip had been rough. I had arrived in Bombay. I felt terribly lonely. One night I sat on my bed and wept, muffling the sounds so that my neighbours would not hear me through the thin walls. Where was my life going? Nothing about it seemed to have started or added up to much. I had written two books that had sold about a thousand copies each. I had neither family nor career to show for my thirty-four years on Earth. And if that weren’t enough, the novel I had planned to write while in India had died. Every writer knows the feeling. A story is born in your mind and it thrills you. You nurture it like you would a fire. You hope to see it grow and eventually be born on paper. But at one point, you look at it and you feel nothing. You feel no pulse. The characters don’t speak naturally, the plot does not move, the descriptions don’t come to you – everything about your story is thankless work. It has died.
I was in need of a story. More than that, I was in need of a Story.
I got to Matheran, the hill station closest to Bombay. It’s a small place high up, with beautiful views over the surrounding plains, and it has the peculiarity of not being able to accommodate cars, autorickshaws or motorcycles. You get there by toy train or by taxi, and then you must walk or ride a horse. The closest you get to the noises of a motor on Matheran’s streets are the rumbling, horking sounds of Indians spewing out betel juice. The peace of the place is blessed and utterly un-Indian. It was there, on top of a big boulder to be precise, that I remembered Scliar’s premise.
Suddenly, my mind was exploding with ideas. I could hardly keep up with them. In jubilant minutes whole portions of the novel emerged fully formed: the lifeboat, the animals, the intermingling of the religious and the zoological, the parallel stories. I was telling myself the story as I created it.
I now had a reason to be in India.
Hard work: I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo. I spent time in temples, churches and mosques. I explored the urban settings for my novel and took in the nature around them. I tried to immerse myself as much as possible in the Indianness of my main character. After six months I had enough local colour and detail.
I returned to Canada and spent a year and a half doing research. I read the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I read books on zoo biology and animal psychology. I read castaway and shipwreck stories.
All the while, in India and in Canada, I took notes. On the page, in a smashed-up, kaleidoscopic way, Life of Pi began to take shape. I took a while to decide what animal would be my main animal protagonist. At first I had an elephant in mind. The Indian elephant is smaller than the African, and I thought an adolescent male would fit nicely in the lifeboat. But the image of an elephant in a lifeboat struck me as more comical than I wanted. I changed to a rhinoceros. But rhinos are herbivores and I could not see how I could keep a herbivore alive in the high seas. And a constant diet of algae struck me as monotonous for both reader and writer, if not for the rhino. I finally settled upon the choice that in retrospect seems the obvious one: a tiger.
For the algae island, I chose meerkats because I wanted a small ferret-like creature without the connotations that ferrets have. I wanted a neutral animal upon which I could paint a personality of my choice. Also, meerkat rhymes somewhat with mirage and meekness, which makes no particular sense, but there you go, whoever said writers always know what they’re doing.
The blind, cannibal Frenchman in the other boat came to me in those first moments of inspiration in Matheran; in other words, I don't know where he came from. In my first draft, the scene with the Frenchman was much longer, close to 45 pages. It was one of my favourite sections. It was Beckett in the Pacific, I thought. Which was precisely the problem, my editor told me. It was funny and absurd, she told me, but in the wrong place, like a good joke told at a funeral. The tone was wrong; it broke with what came before and after. So I had to cut it down substantially.
The rest was fun hard work, a daily getting it down on the page that came not without hurdles, not without moments of doubt, not without mistakes and rewrites, but always, always with deep, gratifying pleasure, with a knowledge that no matter how the novel would fare, I would be happy with it, that it helped me understand my world a bit better.
3) What is it that you're exploring in this book?
The nature of belief. The role of imagination in understanding life. The role stories can play in our lives. The nature of religion. The workings of zoos. Humanity’s relationship to animals.
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Richard Parker. He’s colourful.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Dream and speculate away.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
Interviews have merged into one big blur.
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
Would you like a thick, creamy hot chocolate made with real chocolate, Mr. Martel?
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
A book is 50%. The other half of it is what the reader brings. So every review brings something, some perspective, some point, some observation, that is new to me. I’m glad for that.
9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
The usual suspects, the Great Dead White Males of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Hardy, Conrad, Kafka, Hemingway, Hamsun, etc.
10) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Let’s see… If I weren’t me, I’d like to be the Pope’s cat. Or an astronaut. Or a caper farmer in Portugal.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?