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Yann Martel author of Life of Pi

Readersvoice.com aims to collect a few good reading tips. This edition features an interview with Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, and a feature on the best second-hand book sale in the world which is held in Brisbane, Australia, twice a year. Also a story on writing for computer games...

The Brisbane Writers Festival announced the dates for the 2009 festival recently. I’ve kind-of lost interest in writers’ festivals over the years. I wasn’t even going to go to the last Brisbane Writers Festival in September. I’d been standing in a queue on the footpath on Roma Street in the City, outside The Holiday Inn, waiting to get into Animania, an animation festival. The queue wasn’t moving and I was standing there for about 20 minutes, so I gave it up and decided to take a chance on the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, on the other side of the Brisbane River, at South Bank. Once there, on the ground floor of the State Library, I saw the mainly middle-aged crowds sipping coffee; smiling academics walking around, fresh from giving talks; author Herb Wharton wearing his bush hat striding through the crowd.

Near a bookstall, by the bookstore, there was a long table where authors were signing books after their sessions. I walked over to a nearby information table and was handed a program. I started reading the bios of the people signing books. Suddenly a man in his early 60s pushed me out of the way as he headed off to one of the sessions. He cut between me and the information table, rather than take that whole two or three steps around me, where there was plenty of room. I watched him walk away, then I moved closer to the authors sitting at their table and chatting with people queued up for autographs.

Some of the authors were starting to stand up from the table as they finished signing books, and were ushered away by young women working for the writers’ festival. Yann Martel was still sitting there talking to some fans, with about eight people queued up behind them waiting for autographs on their copies of Life of Pi.

Canadian author Yann Martel’s novel Life Of Pi (2001) won the Booker Prize in 2002. It’s a fantasy adventure novel about Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel, a Pondicherry boy. He is the son of a zookeeper, knows all about animal behavior, loves stories, and practises numerous religions. When he’s 16, his family migrates to North America on a Japanese cargo ship, with some zoo animals. The ship sinks and Pi ends up in a lifeboat with some animals, including a Bengal tiger. Soon it’s just Pi and the tiger, and Pi has to use his wits to prevent the tiger eating him. They spend 227 days at sea. When Pi and the tiger land in Mexico, the tiger disappears and Pi tells the story: a true version and a fantastical but more believable version.

I decided to ask Mr Martel for some book recommendations, and waited till his queue disappeared. Yann Martel was a helpful, considerate fellow. He mentioned Dante’s Divine Comedy as an all-time favorite. He also liked Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, and Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

I’d read Hunger (1890), and enjoyed it. It’s the story of a destitute writer losing his grip on reality, in Kristiania, Norway. He refuses to pursue a professional career and has a series of encounters, including a semi-sexual encounter with Ylajali, a young woman.

He scrounges for meals, and blames his fate on God. He manages to sell a story to a newspaper, but finds writing a difficult path, and eventually signs on to the crew of a ship leaving Kristiania. It’s loosely based on the author’s life, and has been seen as a big influence on the Modernist style of the 20th Century. I’m not a great fan of Modernism, apart from Ulysses and T.S. Eliot, but I liked Hunger. I’d read it after Charles Bukowski mentioned it in one of his novels.

I could see the influence on Bukowski’s works, with the first-person point of view of a misfit writer character. Yann Martel agreed they were similar.

But it was the Divine Comedy he really liked. He said it was “like a cathedral” and “totally accessible”. He liked the characters, and “the great plot, really vivid like a horror story”, he said. He liked the way the reader got a sense of time and place, Italy in the 14th Century. He said you needed a good translator though, like John Ciardi. I’d liked Hell but found Purgatory and Heaven boring. He admitted that Hell was more interesting than the Purgatory and Heaven sections.

But a sense of time and place: that was easy for a writer to forget when concentrating on plot or other things; then again some writers put too much emphasis on time and place, and don’t seem to value plot. Anyway, it was worth a trip to the writers’ festival for that reminder.