Q and A With 'Life of Pi' Author

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Aug. 22, 2003 -- 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.

Q. What's your favorite story or book? Did it influence you to become a writer? If it wasn't a book that influenced you, or another writer, what was it? — Brenda

A. Dear Brenda,The single most impressive book I have ever read is Dante's Divine Comedy, the translation by John Ciardi. It's brilliant in every way, in structure, in content, in language. Did it and every other great writer that I've read influence me? Most definitely. They formed my sense of language, my vision of what could be done with words. They told what stories were. They showed me inner and outer worlds I never would have seen otherwise. But did Dante, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka, Willa Cather, J.M. Coetzee DIRECTLY influence me? Not that I can tell, at least not with Life of Pi. I thought with Life of Pi I was doing my own little crazy thing, like a toddler walking away from its parents for the first time.

Q. I know that you're a big traveler. How has that influenced your writing? — Haley

A. Dear Haley,Traveling, both as a child and then on my own, as an adult, opened my mind, showed me the innumerable we human being have of being, whether in dress, in language, in food, in customs, in every way. Travelling showed me that we emphatically do NOT live in a global village. It's a big, beautiful world out there, unknowable except it you see it with your own eyes, smell it with your own nose, hear it with your own ears. I love traveling. I don't claim to understand much of what I see. If I can barely understand myself, if Canada still baffles me, what chance do I have of understanding India, China, France, Portugal, Rwanda? None. But I'm happy to be dazzled by it all, breathless and thankful for the kaleidoscope we live in.

Q. What a thought-provoking story! My question is which story was in your mind the actual one? Was it his faith in God which allowed him to experience the "animal" version and to protect him from the gruesome reality? Was that the wonder of the story that you intended? I have difficulty even asking because I firmly believe that a story is determined somewhere in the intersection of reader and text. I am curious though, what your intended interpretation was.— Sarah

A. Dear Sarah,I leave it to the reader to choose which is the better story. It can go both ways. Pi survived with Richard Parker and then, confronted with the skepticism of the Japanese, and wanting his suffering to be validated, to be accepted, he creates another story, the story without animals. That's one reading. Or Pi and his mother and the French cook and a Taiwanese sailor survive, it turns into a butchery and Pi invents the story with animals presumably to pass the time and to make acceptable the unacceptable, that is, the murder of his mother by the Frenchman and Pi's killing of the Frenchman. Both stories are offered, one is on the outer edges of the barely believable, the other is nearly unbearable in its violence, neither explains the sinking of the ship, in both Pi suffers and loses his family, in both he is the only human survivor to reach the coast of Mexico. The investigators must choose and the reader must choose. When the investigators choose the story with animals, Pi answers "And so it goes with God." In other words, Pi makes a parallel between the two stories and religion. His argument (and mine) is that a vision of life that has a transcendental element is better than one that is purely secular and materialist. A story with God ("God" defined in the broadest sense) is the better story, I argue, just as I think the story with animals is the better story. But you choose.

Q. What is the significance of the name "Richard Parker"? — Deborah


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.

Q. I am going to be teaching your novel to my 10th-grade students. I have two questions. Is this based on a true story? What message would you like sent out to kids who read this book? I truly enjoyed it. — Janine

A. Dear Janine,Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual truth, that build upon it. Religion does that, as does art. They don't contradict facts; they simply go beyond them, further than them.I hope kids enjoy my book and learn from it. I hope they close the book and know a little more about animals, about zoos, about the religions of the world, about the importance of knowledge, hard work and faith.

Q. How much of the experiences in Life of Pi, besides the various religious and philosophical musings, which I am assuming derive from your education, are based on reality and research?— Wilson

A. Dear Wilson,Much research, much reality. I started this novel in 1997 in India while on a six-month trip. I did practical reasearch there, visiting zoos, going to churches, temples and mosques, spending time in Pondicherry and Munnar, absorbing Indianness through every pore. I spent another two years or so doing more bookish research in Montreal. Then I wrote the book, which took me another two years or so. Part research, part reality, part influence, part inspiration, much hard work — the usual ingredients for a novel, I think.

Q. I am curious to know your inspiration for the use of Pi seeking spiritual guidance from various religions. Is this something you are struggling with as well? — Michele

A. Dear Michele,I would guess that every book is to some extent the intellectual autobiography of its author. Pi is interested in religions: so am I. Pi is open to all faiths: so am I. Pi is comfortable in different Godhouses: so am I. There is a sociocultural component to religions. Just as there are different ways of feeding the body, there are different ways of feeding the soul. Each religion is one group of people's attempt to understand ultimate reality. I think in each one there is a portion of truth and a portion of error. So I see in all great religions the same frame of being, only seen from a different perspective.

Read an Excerpt: Life of Pi

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