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Yann Martel emphasises the importance of the arts in understanding human empathy.
courtesy Geoff Howe

Yann Martel: well-written and well-read

The author of Beatrice and Virgil and Life of Pi talks critics, politics and arts

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From a struggling student with a philosophy degree to an accomplished author with a worldwide audience -- Yann Martel has lived the stereotypical struggle of an author. Though his first book, Self, published in 1996, wasn't a commercial or crtiical success (reviews were mixed), Martel kept at it. Five years later, Life of Pi was both. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2003, sold millions of copies and Ang Lee is in the process of bringing it to the silver screen. His latest novel, Beatrice and Virgil, was published in April of 2010. Martel took the time to talk to the Gauntlet from his family home in Saskatoon in advance of his appearances at Calgary's 2010 Wordfest.

Gauntlet: The Canada Council for the arts really helped you with your first book Self, did it not?

Yann Martel: The first Canada grant I got was, I think, $15,000, which is a lot of money when you're a student. I didn't smoke, I didn't drink, I didn't have a car. I always wore the same clothes, you know. I was living in Montreal, which is a relatively cheap city to live in. That money, aside from the fact that it was a boost in confidence, I really could live off that and just write and that makes the whole difference. Art, just as any great idea, comes out of moments of leisure. And that's the danger of our capitalist system is it presses us so badly. People are so stressed about work and family that they have no leisure time. It not only means that they can't enjoy themselves and take in leisure products like art and movies and books and stuff like that, but they don't have time to sit back and think and have an idea and get perspective on their lives. You can't write when you're incredible stressed and pressed. You need a few moments where an idea will pop into your mind and you'll think about it and develop it. Grants give you that moment of time.

G: In the author's note for Life of Pi, you state that Self "vanished quickly and quietly." Did any of the reviews for Self offer insight for when you were writing Life of Pi?

YM: Generally not. Most reviewers have to read the book quickly and they don't have many words. For Beatrice and Virgil I haven't read the reviews. I've been told some of the reviews are both positive and negative, but I've hardly read them. After Life of Pi, I very quickly stopped reading them. I like meeting readers because it's a natural dynamic encounter. Reading 250 words in which someone must explain the story and then have a stab at their view of it -- it just doesn't get interesting. So not particularly. But I remember particularly encounters with readers -- and with Self too. There are a small number of people that really, really like Self. Those living encounters are interesting because you can actually have a chance at dialogue. Newspaper stuff I generally don't read -- not because I'm afraid or because it's depressing or uplifting. Generally I just let those be.

G: What is a better vehicle for criticism?

YM: Newspapers are devoting less and less space to books and what's taking over is the role of blogs. What struck me, especially in the United States, is that there are still millions and millions of people whom love reading and some of these people like writing too. You have any number of blogs that are book review blogs and their credibility is established by the books they choose, and you can often tell by just reading a review, the quality of it . . . What's great about blogs is that there is no limit of space -- these people do it for nothing and so there's no vested interest and they aren't pressed by lack of time or lack of money because they are doing that and a million other things to try to survive. I've noticed that with Beatrice and Virgil, my publisher Speigel and Brau, they target these bloggers to encourage them to read your book. What's great is that these are taking over the role of newspaper reviewers and that's an interesting development . . . It's not warped by economics or they aren't being told they only have 250 words or you must do it quickly, or you can only do one book a month. They do it often as they want and they come and they go.

G: You've been sending Prime Minister Stephen Harper books for the last three years. What inspired it?

Y: I went to Ottawa and there was this pathetic celebration for the Council of the Arts. I realized there's a terrible disconnect between the political class and the artistic class and I thought, "That's not good." We have a prime minister that, my sense is, hasn't read a novel since he left university. My question is: do we find that acceptable? Do we find it acceptable that our elites don't read? How can you be a thinking person and never read a novel or a play or a poem? Not that I'm saying that you read 10 books or novels and you'll therefore be necessarily a better person, but overall the effect of reading literature is that it increases empathy, it opens your heart, it opens your mind. When you read a novel, you enter the skin of those characters and you live their situations . . . Do we want leaders who never explore life in that way? And if we do, I just don't know how these people get their knowledge of the human condition. I don't know how Stephen Harper is expected to sympathize with people who are different from him -- whether it's gays, recent immigrants, or women or Africans or Newfoundlanders -- if he hasn't accessed that through art, through novels, plays, poetry, songs. It's just the best way to explore the human condition. Do we want leaders in politics or in business who never explore life that way? I don't. That's why I've been sending books to him.

G: Have you gotten a response?

YM: No, nothing, just five replies from the PMO, from his office. Standard forms that you would get if you wrote to the Prime Minister. So while I was touring for Beatrice and Virgil, I asked other writers to send books for me, and two of them have received replies. But they are all the same thing. "Dear Mr. Martel, we wish to acknowledge the receipt of your book and your letter. Be assured your gesture is regarded with gratitude. Yours truly, whoever."

G: How long do you think you'll keep doing it?

YM: As long as he's still in power. I don't think it's going to be that much longer. They'll be a election, whenever it is, and I don't think he'll get a majority. If he gets another minority, that'll be three minorities in a row, which has never happened in Canadian politics. If he gets a third minority, he'll get pushed out.

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