Yann Martel on the creation of stories and the importance of letting go of the reasonable.
“There was something incredibly joyful about imagining a story with a setting, with characters and ultimate meaning, and trying to bring them together in loose sentences lined up. It is being like a small god,” says Yann Martel about his book “Life of Pi”, which won the Man Booker Prize. The Canadian author who writes in English speaks French, though it is this distance with the language that helps him write in English, he says.
Martel, in this short interview, says, “Writing chose me, I did not choose writing. Everything else fell away.” He started writing at the age of 27. “When I started I was not very good. Bit by bit, I just got better. Initially I did not know what I was doing. I just wrote this, commented on that. I was just doing it.”
It is interesting to hear how Martel says he contended with his own uncertainty about where he was going. “We are taught to be very reasonable in the West. We value that. Reasonable people make a lot of money, reasonable people get a lot of power. I was fed up of being so reasonable. I thought, ‘What is the point of being so reasonable?’ What does it get me? And thank god I ended up in India at the end of this process. That is where I started doing “Life of Pi”, which is, in a sense, a book that says, ‘Stop making sense.’ Have a vertical view of life rather than a horizontal one; not just the material and chemical one. Don’t worry if it is not true. You do not have to be certain about anything in life. … It is the process, not the knowledge. So just entertain transcendence and you will be the better for it. So, in a sense, it is a totally unreasonable proposition and I am the better for it. Generally, in a way, people are the better for it, for being less reasonable.”
With that rather strong assertion that being unreasonable can put you at an advantage, Martel tells us how he captures such ideas in a story. “You have to do the writing and then tinker with it. I love the tinkering bit, just to see it improve makes you feel better. Even simple things like language. If you are writing in English, it has to be reasonable English… can’t just throw in Albanian… nobody will understand it. So compromises of trying to communicate have to addressed.”
Martel teaches at Trent University, Canada, and says that the other things he writes are all literary and so no compromise is possible there, “because in Western capitalist profit-driven society, art is irrelevant.” Martel is saying this in the wish to convey that writing should reach beyond that which falls within the worldly confines of useful and practical. And yet if it lies way beyond, no one may care about it. It is partially true that art can easily be overlooked, but then how would it explain the growth of art all around?
If art is irrelevant, how come he is read? How does he explain its survival? Martel is quick to add, “The writer ultimately is a free element. You are not responsible to anyone. Art is witness. The genuine artist says this is life, not the good parts or the bad parts, but including the good, the bad, the ugly, and it is that active witness that makes art so necessary and so true. Both art and religion are essentially, at the core, stories. They are stories. And essentially we are story animals. So I think the work of a lifetime is to figure out what your story is. What story are you going to tell of yourself, of your family, of your city, of your country and then, ultimately, of your universe.”
Writing is thus an art that is an eloquent witness, art itself at one level for it is not influenced by the material and commercial world, is a standalone which tells a story specific to each author, each experience, but encompassing a world view.