'I try to vaccinate myself from life'
Sophie Gorman speaks to 'Life of Pi' author Yann Martel about his new book which chronicles three stories about overcoming metaphorical mountains
'All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So begins Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and this insight forms the basis of Canadian author Yann Martel's approach to writing his own novels.
"I'm always interested in what we do in the face of adversity, unhappiness has so many different possibilities," says Martel. "I have started with an instance of suffering in all of my books. In Life of Pi, there is the sinking of the ship and Pi loses his whole family. In this new book, I have three stories and in each someone suffers and then we see where they go with that, is it going to improve them or diminish them.
"I myself have suffered very little, good parents, good health, four lovely children, I have had an incredibly lucky life. What is there to write about that? But through art I try to vaccinate myself from things that might happen to me. We do in art what we hope to avoid in reality."
Martel's latest novel, High Mountains of Portugal, is divided into three linked sections set in different time periods spanning over a century. The titular mountains are an invention, but the three central characters do have mountains to climb.
In the first part, Tomás has suffered the deaths of his lover, his child and his father all in the space of one week. He is bitter, has turned his back on God, metaphorically and literally in that he walks backwards. In the second, Doctor Lozoro is a man of medicine but he has faith and it is sorely tested, how do you live after the death of a loved one. Peter Tovay, a Canadian politician who buys a chimpanzee in the third part, doesn't need faith, the ape is right there in front of him, a God in another guise.
"I was very interested in looking at three different relationships to faith. I grew up in a completely secular household where religion was replaced with art, great books, paintings, music. But, as a writer, you are drawn by your curiosity and I became interested in faith as a kind of odd phenomenon. In an age when we are so encouraged to be reasonable, we live in a triumph of rationality and nonetheless people still believe in things for which they have no proof.
"With Pi and now with this book, I am more interested in looking at the positive side of belief, what does it mean to posit something for which we have no verifiable evidence, where do we go when we have a leap of faith."
Martel was born in Spain of Canadian parents, his father was a diplomat. He had a peripatetic childhood that has produced a not fully identifiable accent, but Martel is completely Canadian. He studied philosophy at university in Ontario and this has fed into his writing.
"As a child, I dreamed of being prime minister, I used to go to the House of Commons - this was when security was low and a kid could just wander in. But I realise now that it was the theatre of politics that attracted me. And, in a sense, I write democratic novels.
"High Mountains of Portugal is an election, you can choose either the story with animals or the one without. This book is in three parts with different tones and I don't expect you will like each part equally. The one that speaks to me the most is the middle one, it was also the most fun to write, investigating autopsies and looking at the miracles of Jesus and creating parallels with Agatha Christie."
It was his second novel Life of Pi that introduced Martel to the world with an extended standing ovation. Winning the Man Booker Prize in 2002, it soonbecame an international bestseller and was made into a hugely successful 2012 film directed by Ang Lee.
Martel is quite understated, but he is also precise in his responses and he does not engage with false modesty. Discussing the explosive positive reaction to Life of Pi, he clarifies "it was a very successful winner of the Booker. It has sold over 14 million copies, it still sells. I travelled for two years with it and I loved it. Going from no one having heard of me to being invited everywhere. Art is social, even the grouchiest and most solitary writer wants somebody to read their book and like it."
Winning the Man Booker Prize must change things for a writer beyond simply getting you on glittering guest lists? "The success of Life of Pi made my life easier materially, of course, but it didn't make it easier as a writer, I still had to sit alone in a room and create new stories."
What happens once the party's over? "I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I lead a quiet ordinary life with my partner and our four children. You write a great book, send it off into the world, it has its life and your own life goes another way."
One considerable change, however, was the record-breaking advance Martel received for his follow up, Beatrice and Virgil, published nine years later in 2010 to a considerably more mixed response.
"Some people tore it to shreds," agrees Martel. "I could spend the next three hours talking about why people didn't think it worked and whether or not they were right. I believed it should be written the way I wrote it, that is my choice."
But was it a risk to feature an apparently autobiographical central element? In Beatrice and Virgil, the main narrator is an author who has had huge literary success with one book but spends years struggling to write its successor…?
"That was deliberate calculation, to make it seem like it is about me when of course it's not. I did a similar thing with my first novel Self, which is the story of the son of diplomats who, at 18 when he is backpacking in Portugal, metamorphoses into a woman. I was looking at gender identity, what it means to be a woman or a man. I use the guise of autobiography to have a fictional core rather than the usual thing of it looking like fiction but is instead autobiographical. I have backpacked around Portugal but I have never been a woman. I am bored with psychological novels, I would rather look out rather than look in."
Published by Canongate, The High Mountains of Portugal is on sale now