It was not an April Fool’s Joke when a sell-out crowd of readers gathered at the Grimsby Library to hear Yann Martel speak about his newest novel, the High Roads of Portugal. This award winning author of Life of Pi, which has sold over 12 million copies and was made into an Oscar winning film, had also spent the afternoon with the grade 11 english class at the Grimsby high school.
Martel was born in Spain, grew up in Quebec, is a world traveller and lives in Saskatoon with his wife, author Alice Kuipers and their four children (aka bear cubs) from age 11 months to 6 years. Understanding time challenges as a mother of 4, I had the opportunity to ask him how he finds time to write and learned that the family has a nanny during their work hours and that it is helpful to avoid a commute with a home office.
The moderator introduced the High Mountains of Portugal as a book that you must “read, think about and then read again” and I could not agree more. I have only finished the first 2 sections and was struggling with the relevance and some of the bizarre events but now have a better understanding of the author’s point of view and the fact that Yann Martel describes the book as a “literary examination of faith”.
Martel was very humble and commented that “when I hear a flattering introduction, all I can think of is how lucky I am”. After hearing him speak, I think his success is attributed to his creativity, his questioning mind, background in philosophy and his detailed research. He shared that he had grown up in a secular, socially democratic house and that “art was a tool to understand who we were and why we were”. He has been influenced by his study of philosophy before backpacking through India for 5.5 months where he saw many different religions co-existing along with famous pilgrimages.
When talking about the High Roads of Portugal he discussed that this novel was inspired by religion and the life of Jesus. He had been moving a bible out of his writing studio and started flipping through it when he noticed the chapter headings in the gospels which help readers navigate the text and was inspired to write a story using these headings and describing parallels between Christianity and life. He set the novel in Portugal as it had been the first country where he backpacked and travelled without his parents and chose characters to live lives parallel to Jesus with the setting of mountains which truly were no more than hills that these characters had to ‘climb’ spiritually.
Martel shared that others describe his book as 3 novellas but he sees it as a novel with three distinct sections each connected but with its own theme. In the first section, he notes the the of a “religion that posits it isn’t a religion” with a man turning his back against the world, against God and keeping his eyes on the past as a way of dealing with his grief. He sets out on a quest only to succeed but end up feeling shattered after a tragic event. He used specific bible references and phrases such as “who touched me, who touched me” when the main character is infested with fleas which was a direct repeat from bible story with a hemorrhaging woman who touched God.
Section 2 looks at faith as an “engine of life” with a pathologist who has faith which is tested. In this section he discusses that the story of Jesus was told through oral tales, written down in the gospels 40 years later and had the audience think about the kind of story that would exist of JFK’s killing was not written about until 40 years after it occurred. This section describes the miracles of Jesus in two categories, those that benefitted the human body (curing lepers and feeding the hungry for example) and the one miracle that did not fit which the author described as “pointless” when Jesus walked on water. Martel described walking on water as a metaphor to life – Jesus would not sink but mortals would sink and look up to him. The characters in this section also compared the gospels to Agatha Christie murder mysteries since the stories were told by witnesses and had a pattern of events. He discussed that readers forget who the murderer was in the novel just like they don’t know who really was responsible for the murder of Jesus.
The final section deals with a description of a state of grace and sense of home. He was imagining a buhdist monk, meditating on a mountain when he wrote about the senator and did chuckle that he had written about this senator before the days of the Mike Duffy debacle. He notes that a chimp overtakes this characters life and that he enjoys using animals in his novels as “I find them very versatile characters”.
When asked about the inspiration for his story, he shared that not only was he inspired by the gospel headings but that like the gospels, he originally wrote a novel of 82 chapters. He shared that this “drove the editors crazy” and that they were back and forth between the novel and the bible and “didn’t always get it” before they convinced him that this made for a disruptive read. He compared “getting rid of the chapter headings to pulling out his molars” but did shift the novel.
He talked about the large amounts of research for this novel including a trip to a motoring museum in England to take pictures and listen to the sound of early automobiles as well as a trip to Portugal. He noted that his “storyline keeps it all together” and that writing is a way to do paid research which he loves.
Authors have many ways of writing and arranging their work. Martel says he “can’t just sit down and write a novel – I have to write it in pieces”. He describes a very detailed plan where “form must follow function” and starts with an idea, then begins his research taking copious notes and writing quick scenes. He not only takes notes but he adds facts and specific vocabulary that he would like to use. Once he has hundreds of pages of notes and a plan for a story with a “feel of truthfulness as a starting point” he cuts up all his research, places it into envelopes designated based on where the information will belong in the novel and starts writing in sequence. The envelopes become his outline which contain the elements of the chapters. When he wrote Life of Pi, he had envelopes titled turtles of the pacific, ocean currents, winds.
He takes his time writing his novels and has the “luck of not having to worry about the next pay check”. He states he writes “slowly and mindfully”, wrestling with punctuation and enjoying the creation of sentences. Life of Pi took him 4 years even though he had no money, Beatrice and Virgil took 7 years while researching the holocaust and the High Mountains of Portugal took 4-5 years. His first novel was handwritten although he loves writing on the computer where he feels that the novel “remains virtual while it is still floating in my head”. He compares writing to “being a god, creating a world, creating characters, creating stories” but that eventually he has to move on and laughed that after all this time, he still hates “the first sentence of Life of Pi but could not figure out a better way”. He chuckled that a key for writers is “don’t reread your books”.
“in the bubble of creativity, it is electrifying to create something out of nothing”
The audience enjoyed hearing about his letter campaign to previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper which was combined into his book, 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. He notes that Harper refused to share what he enjoyed reading and that it was important for him to know what literature had nourished the imagination of the leader of Canada. After sending 101 books, he never received a personal response from Harper although did get 7 letters from his correspondence staff. He commented that “people who don’t read are arrogant” and that “a paucity of reading means a paucity of imagination” since “literature makes you live many different lives”. He told the readers that if Harper had responded quickly it “would have shut me up” but during his time in office he always refused to talk about what he loved reading. He does wonder what happened to the books.
“What kind of bizarre is it if you don’t talk about the books you love”
The Grimsby Author Series has exceeded expectations yet again! This speaker was engaging, thought-provoking, humorous and other than his brilliant mind, like the guy next door. I am adding him to my ‘list’ of people that I would like to have lunch with! He took his time during the book signing, getting up to take pictures with fans and taking time to speak with everyone individually. I mentioned this blog and he commented how blogs are taking the place of newspaper reviews and that blog authors are reading and writing for the love of literature and that these reviews are seen around the world. I was very pleased to leave with an autographed copy of Life of Pi for myself and my oldest son as well as autographs on my copies of The High Mountains of Portugal and Beatrice and Virgil.