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Original Essays | April 29, 2013 2 comments
Chefs don't have time to write. While I was working on Smoke and Pickles, I was running a restaurant — a daily regimen of testing recipes,... Continue »
How I Wrote Life of Piby Yann Martel
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.
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 of fine, reddish earth 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.
Where did that moment of inspiration come from? Why did I think that religion and zoology would make a good mix? How did I think up the theme that reality is a story and we can choose our story and so why not pick "the better story" (the novel's key words)?
I could give approximate answers. That India, where there are so many animals and religions, lent itself to such a story. That tensions simmering just below my level of consciousness were probably feverishly pushing me to come up with a story. But in truth I don't know. It just happened. Some synapses in my brain started firing off and I came up with ideas that were not there a moment before.
I now had a reason to be in India.
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 other disaster 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. The other animals in the lifeboat ? the zebra, the hyena and the orang-utan ? arose naturally, each one a function of a human trait I wanted to embody, the hyena cowardliness, the orang-utan maternal instincts and the zebra exoticism.
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, meerkats rhymed somewhat with mirage and meekness.
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 algae island floated into my imagination from the same dark luminous place from whence came the meerkats, the Frenchman and, indeed, the novel as a whole.
The rest was hard, fun 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.