Q and A With 'Life of Pi' Author

Dear Deborah, During my research I came upon a curious coincidence. Edgar Allan Poe published his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in the 1830s. In it, Pym and a friend leave Nantucket on a ship. It capsizes and the two find themselves on the hull of the ship with another survivor. Starvations leads them to killing him and eating him. The character who is lunched upon has the name of Richard Parker. Forty years later, in real life, a yacht called the Mignonette left Southamptom for Australia. In the Atlantic it broke apart and the crew of four scrambled onto a dingy. They survived for 17 days. On the 17th day the captain killed the cabin boy, who was in a coma, and he and another crew member ate him. Two days later the three survivors were rescued by a Swedish ship and brought back to Southampton. They spoke openly of what had happened to them. For the first time in British history, they were tried and convicted of murder. Up till then, cannibalism in the high seas was taken as a given, a terrible thing that had to be done when your ship sank and push came to shove. The cabin boy's name was Richard Parker. There was a third Richard Parker in another ship that foundered. I liked that coincidence, that name that kept on coming up in my research. I decided that would be the tiger's name.

Q. Your book is the most artfully, skillfully book I have ever read. However, am I reading too much into the story? I woke up at 3 a.m. this morning, having finished it yesterday, and began worrying about the horrible-surreal situation the boy found himself in with his mother and two crewmen — and seeing the horrible cannibalism they were forced into and all the symbolism. I kept wondering what the island and its inhabitants represented. Is it another manifestation of being alone on an island, coping the only way they could figure to? And what about the electrical current at night? I appreciate your time, and I hope you keep writing, and I look forward to more books. — Ruth

A. Dear Ruth, The island, ah, the island. The most frequently asked question: What does the island mean? It means what you choose to see in it. My narrative strategy in writting this book was to write a story that was progressively harder to believe. Will you believe that a boy could survive with a tiger? Yes? Good. Will you believe that the boy could go blind, the tiger could go blind and they could meet another blind man in another lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific? Yes? Great. Now will you believe in this crazy carnivorous island? I figure most readers will not believe it. Their suspension of disbelief will break down and readers will start making excuses for Pi: He's starving and hallucinating. In other words, reason will kick in. That's fine with me. But I hope that when readers get to Part Three of the novel and read the other story, the one without animals, that their revulsion at that story will be such that they, like the investigators, will choose the first story as the BETTER story. But I wanted that better story to have something unbelievable about it. I wanted it to get beyond the reasonable and the plausible. BECAUSE every great thing in life — be it religion, love, any ideal — has an element of the unreasonable to it. We are not computers. We need the pull of the unreasonable to get us through life. The island represents that unreasonable element in the first story.

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