Q and A With 'Life of Pi' Author

ByABC News via logo
August 20, 2003, 11:53 AM

Aug. 22 -- Thanks for sending your questions to Life of Pi author Yann Martel. Life of Pi is the latest selection in Good Morning America's "Read This!" book club series. Check out his answers to several readers' questions.

Q. Our book club read the book last month, and wondered if there were more "mystic" puns such as the use of Tsimtsum [the Jewish mystical term for God's withdrawal] as the ship's name? By the way, I was delighted to find out that "prusten" (a noisy sound used by tigers as a greeting) is a real word, and it seems to work with my cat. Emily

A. Dear Emily, I don't know whether they would qualify as mystic puns, but:

I chose Pi as my main character's nickname because Pi, the number used so often in mathematics and engineering, is an irrational number; that is, a number that goes on forever without any discernable pattern. It stuck me that a number used to come to a rational, scientific understanding of things should be called "irrational." I thought religion is like that, too: It's something "irrational" that helps make sense of things. Along the same lines, I named my main character after a swimming pool to play on a contrast. A swimming pool ("piscine" in French) is a rectangular volume of water, a controlled volume of water. I liked the irony of a boy named after a rational volume of water being adrift in an uncontrollable volume of water, the Pacific. The two Mister Kumars one the science teacher, the other the mystic baker and the zebra. One archetypal man Kumar is a very common name in India, one reality a Grant's zebra, two understandings of that reality one transcendental ("Allahu akbar," God is great), the other materialist (Equus burchelle boehmi, the scientific name for a Grant's zebra). The whole novel in one scene. How reality is an interpretation, a choice of readings, a choice of stories. The island winks at old, discredited proofs of God, notably by Paley, an English clergyman from the 18th century, the argument from design; that is, that if there is a design in nature, there must be one who designed it, just as if there is a watch, there must be a watchmaker. A beautiful proof that has an emotional, intuitive appeal but doesn't hold up logically. As for the other puns, I leave them to you to decipher.

Q. What a wondrous book! Is any of this story [Life of Pi] true? I want you to also know that I loved Richard Parker. Thank you for a never forgotten story that I will tell everyone who is special to me to read. Kathy

A. Dear Kathy,Of course it's a true story. All good art is true. May Richard Parker keep purring the truth to your ears.

Q. Where and when did you get the idea to write this story [Life of Pi]? Do these kinds of ideas just hit you when you least expect it, or do you search for them when you feel like it's time to write another book? Carolyn

A. Dear Carolyn,I think creativity is sometimes a question of being open. For Life of Pi that openness started in 1990 when I happened to read a review of a novel by a Brazilian writer named Moacy Scliar. The review mentioned in passing that part of the novel took place in a lifeboat where the main character is stranded with a wild animal. I thought, "What a wondrous premise. I could do something with that." But the book was written, so I moved on. I completely forgot that review. Seven years later I was in India, meaning to work on a novel set in Portugal, much as I describe in the Author's Note. But that novel wasn't coming alive. I put it aside and fell into despondency. What had I done with my life? Where was it going? The usual lamentations about a life unlived. Quick, quick, I need a story, said my unconscious. That's when India spoke to me, India where gods and animals abound and rub shoulders, India where all stories are possible. Suddenly, that long ago premise burst into my consciousness and Life of Pi tumbled into my imagination. The whole novel came to me in twenty minutes, half an hour, story, theme, incidents, everything: the family, the zoo, the ship, the sinking, the blind Frenchman, the island, the Japanese, the two stories, the idea that life is an interpretation, that between us and reality lies our imagination, which shapes our vision of reality and why not believe the better story, etc. I spent the next four years doing research and writing the novel. That's how Life of Pi came to life. The premise for my next novel came to me after seeing a show of Goya prints. The idea just popped into my head.But you don't need much to start with. One little good idea leads to another little good idea leads to another one, to another one, etc, until you have an entire novel before your eyes.