Interview with Yann Martel

Posted by Goodreads on April 5, 2010
In 2001, Canadian novelist Yann Martel's fanciful tale of a boy stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker captivated thousands and won the Man Booker Prize. Nine years later, Martel moves on from Life of Pi. In his newest book, Beatrice and Virgil, Martel once again features animals, but this time he tells an allegorical story referencing the Holocaust: Henry, a successful writer, helps a brusque taxidermist overcome writer's block, producing a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. Martel shared with Goodreads his perspective on how metaphor can give meaning to one of history's greatest tragedies.

Goodreads: Early in Beatrice and Virgil, the novelist Henry is stumped when asked, "What's your book about?" No doubt, you encounter this question all the time. Unlike Henry, do you have an answer ready?

Yann Martel: On one level my book is about a writer who meets a surly taxidermist who's been working on a play for years. On another level Beatrice and Virgil is about the trauma of the Holocaust and what to do with it.

GR: Henry observes that writers most often depict the Holocaust in a realistic manner, rarely taking any artistic license with history. What first inspired you to take on such a challenging and controversial project?

YM: Precisely because it hasn't been addressed much in a nonliteral way. I see that as a problem. It is the nature and strength of art to transform experience, including historical experience, into representations that bring out the essence of that experience. War, for example, is constantly being treated by artists, oftentimes with scant regard for the reality of war. Why is this not only permissible but good? Because in doing so we come to a full understanding of what war means to us. I believe the same must apply to the Holocaust: In approaching it nonliterally, allowing ourselves to use the tools of metaphor and irony, we will come to a greater understanding of what that tragedy means to us.

GR: George Orwell's famous allegory, Animal Farm, is often referenced in relation to your new book. However, Beatrice and Virgil is more complex structurally—the play-within-the-novel is a conversation between Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. This allegory is framed by Henry's larger narrative and interaction with the playwright, a taxidermist. How did this hybrid structure evolve?

YM: The heart of the novel is the interaction between Beatrice and Virgil. I wrote that out in its entirety, a stand-alone play. Then I cut it up and embedded the fragments into the narrative of Henry and the taxidermist. The fragmentary elements we get of Beatrice and Virgil are to me like the fragments we get of the lives of Europe's doomed Jews.

GR: Why did you choose to make the taxidermist's artistic attempt a drama as opposed to a novel?

YM: I like the idea of the Holocaust portion of the novel being a play because to me that is the ultimate relic of the Holocaust, its most powerful memento: the words spoken by the victims. They are terrifying in their emotional weight, even when banal.

GR: Your protagonist Henry sounds suspiciously autobiographical. What are the advantages and dangers of writing a fictional version of yourself as a character?

YM: The advantage, I hope, is that it pulls the reader in. We tend to give great weight to factual truth. So if a narrative features a story that sounds like the factual story of its author, the symbolic or emotional truth that goes with it will, hopefully, be accepted more easily by the reader. I should also add that I made Henry a writer who plays music and acts in plays and speaks several languages because I wanted him to symbolize Europe's Jews, who were—and still are—very involved in the arts and were often multilingual. And the way he spends time with the taxidermist, never seeing what's coming, always making excuses for the taxidermist's rudeness, is symbolic of the Jews' uncomprehending slide to their demise.

GR: Like Life of Pi, Beatrice and Virgil incorporates wild animals. Why do you find animal characters so compelling? How is Beatrice and Virgil different from Life of Pi in its use of animals?

YM: I find it compelling because it works, at least for me, and because I feel I'm alone in using animals in adult fiction. Animals in literature are mostly found in children's books. Which puzzles me. What exactly is childish about a wild animal?

As for the difference between B & V and Life of Pi, the main one is that the animals in the first are entirely anthropomorphized, while in the second they are realistically portrayed. Their symbolic significance is also quite different. In B & V it is quite specific—Beatrice and Virgil are stand-ins for Europe's Jews—while in Life of Pi the meaning of the animals is far more ambiguous.

GR: Goodreads member E. Haggett says, "I've just finished reading Self (I read Life of Pi a few years ago and loved it). I'd like to know how you think your writing has evolved through the course of your career. Are there certain things that you've noticed have really changed between the three novels?"

YM: That demands a degree of self-awareness that I'm not capable of, or want. I hope I've become a better writer over time. I also hope that my novels continue to stand up intellectually and emotionally. Otherwise, each is to me an attempt to understand an issue in my life: in Self, the meaning and content of gender identity; in Life of Pi, the meaning of faith and its relationship to reality; in Beatrice and Virgil, the ways of representing the Holocaust.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

YM: The usual suspects from 19th century England and 20th century America. I've also been marked by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun and the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

YM: I write at any time of day in any place, so long as it's quiet and I can set up my computer. I'm a slow writer, given to playing Spider Solitaire when stuck. Otherwise, my writing habits are blindingly boring. I just sit down at the computer and write.

GR: What are you reading now? Do you have any favorite books or authors?

YM: The single greatest book ever written, in my opinion, is Dante's Divine Comedy. It's not at all a stuffy or boring old classic. It's a thrilling and phantasmagorical story. As for my favorite living writer, it's J.M. Coetzee. In a spare style he invokes the most subtle and complex realities. I've just started reading a novel by the Israeli writer David Grossman, To the End of the Land. It's coming out in September 2010. I'm reading a bound galley.

GR: What's next?

YM: Taking care of my 8-month-old son, Theo, and watching him grow. A little later this year I'll start doing research for my next novel, which will feature three chimpanzees and be set in Portugal.

Comments Showing 1-30 of 30 (30 new)

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message 1: by Elliott (new)

Elliott Meisel Definitely inspired to read B&V and will email this interview to several friends including a few visual artists who will be drawn to the comment that art transforms experience into representations that bring out the essence of that experience

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) I cannot WAIT to read this new book! Life of Pi is one of my all time favourite books - my tiger obsession started after reading that book; I wonder if I will develop a crush on donkeys after this one!

message 3: by Paige (new)

Paige Just a few more days and Beatrice & Virgil will be heading my way. I love pre-ordering.
I can't wait to read it!

message 4: by Nicole (new)

Nicole I absolutely loved Life of Pi and cannot wait to read Beatrice & Virgil. Thanks for sharing this great interview!

message 5: by The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) (last edited Apr 13, 2010 07:44AM) (new)

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) Wow! You certainly got that off your chest.

I'm unsure why you think Martel should be writing about American history when he is Candian but surely it is his choice to write about whom he pleases. It's called freedom of choice.

And no, I don't think we have reached the end where rememberance of the Holocaust is concerned. In another generation there will be nobody left from that time. We must not forget, lest we repeat. And I'm horrified about your Jew propaganda comment and suggestion that most of it is pure fiction.

Lianne (The Towering Pile) Lavoie I loved Life of Pi, and can't wait to read this book! I'd never actually heard of Self. I will check that one out too!

message 7: by Hayes (new)

Hayes Boof wrote: "Wow! You certainly got that off your chest.

I'm unsure why you think Martel should be writing about American history when he is Candian but surely it is his choice to write about whom he please..."

The message to which this message replies no longer exists... just to let everyone know so that Boof's comment doesn't seem "out of left field".

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) Oh good, thanks Hayes. I'm glad it was either removed or deleted.

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) I don't wish to get into an argument with you, despite still feeling uncomfortable with some of your comments, but I would like to suggest that you wait for the book to be released and then read it before casting assumptions and aspersions on what Mr Martel may or may not feel towards any race or country.

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) Annisisbell, it is not a "discussion about Jews" that makes me uncomfortable, rather your apparant anti-semitic views in your earlier (now deleted) post that the holocause was mostly "pure fiction" (your words).

message 11: by Charity (new)

Charity Annisisbell, a quick search on Google turned up a rather rampant anti-Semitic agenda on your part. I really don't see what you are trying to accomplish by posting these kinds of comments, but I find it completely offensive, as well as inappropriate for this Q & A with Yann Martel forum.

Lianne (The Towering Pile) Lavoie Annisisbell, there is a difference between hating the Nazi regime and hating Germans...

Also, remembering the Holocaust and acknowledging how horrible it was does not make you anti-German, nor anti-Palestinian.

This is a book that talks about something bad that happened. Period. It has nothing to do with other bad events in history or current times.

message 13: by Charity (new)

Charity Really? Are you going to continue this nonsense, Annisisbell?

message 14: by Charity (new)

Charity Well, I'll just keep flagging these comments then.

Lianne (The Towering Pile) Lavoie I do not support anyone hurting or oppressing anyone else. I do not know enough about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict to form an educated opinion on it, but I do not support anyone who is committing wrongs. However, just as the average German during WWII was not at fault for the Holocaust, you can't blame Jews in general for wrongs that some Jews have committed. It is your logic that is flawed.

message 16: by Charity (new)

Charity Charity - How would you feel about me if I had been spending my time attacking Muslims?

The same as I feel about you now...not favorably. I have seen your anti-Muslim postings on other sites, in fact.

With hatred toward none

You use this over and over again, yet your posts reflect more of a hatred-toward-all attitude.

Your posts are ridiculous from top to bottom. They are agenda-pushing and irrelevant.

Have you read Beatrice and Virgil?

message 17: by Charity (new)

Charity Charity - No I have not read B and V and I probably won't. I have read and seen enough about The Holocaust that I never want to see any more.

Then move on. This isn't the thread for you.

message 18: by Leo (new)

Leo I just got on that thread and it looks strange for me. Are you, people talking to somebody who is not in the room? Is it a one-sided dialogue?
With a lot of living-in-communist-country experience I can tell you that the desire to listen only to those who completely agree with you is very typical for modern American leftist Jewish crowd. Those who disagree are either fascists (if Jews) or anti-Semites (if non-Jews).
Is that right?

message 19: by Charity (last edited Apr 15, 2010 09:43AM) (new)

Charity I just got on that thread and it looks strange for me. Are you, people talking to somebody who is not in the room? Is it a one-sided dialogue?

There were comments by another user that were deleted by Goodreads due to their inappropriateness and irrelevance to the discussion.

message 20: by Charity (new)

Charity Anyway, back to the discussion of Beatrice and Virgil. Who has read it/has plans to read it? Any thoughts?

I'm hoping to pick it up in the next few weeks. I'm very excited even though I had mixed feelings about Life of Pi.

The Book Whisperer (aka Boof) I can't wait to read it, Charity. Life of Pi is one of my favourite books as you know. B&V doesn't come out in the UK until June but the publishers are sending me a copy to review so I'm checking the mail every day! ☺

message 22: by Alex (new)

Alex I don't want to poop on anyone's parade, but I've read some bad reviews of Beatrice & Virgil. Bummer for me because I loved Life of Pi - and also because I just read Inferno - but I'm gonna skip this one.

message 23: by Charity (new)

Charity I'm willing to take one for the team, Alex. :) I'll let you know what I think of the book when I pick it up (in a few weeks??).

message 24: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 16, 2010 08:52AM) (new)

I never got that figure of speech - pooping on people's parades. I have seen someone step in poop during a parade.

message 25: by Charity (new)

Charity I never got that figure of speech - pooping on people's parades. Now I have seen someone step in poop during a parade.

I think the reference is to birds pooping on the parade, but I might just be full of poop myself.

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Come to think of it, I have seen someone pooped on by a bird before a parade (same parade).

message 27: by Alex (new)

Alex And here I thought I was just making that up as a more scatological version of raining on one's parade.

message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Instead you induced a discussion about POOP!

message 29: by Alex (new)

Alex [high-fiving myself:]

message 30: by Rosalie (new)

Rosalie Sambuco After watching th video, I am very interested in reading this book.

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