• Birth—June 25, 1963
• Where—Salamanca, Spain
• Education—B.A., Trent University, Ontario
• Awards—Booker Prize, 2002; Hugh MacLennan Prize,
Quebec Writers’ Federation
• Currently—Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of peripatetic Canadian parents. He grew up in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, France, Ontario and Mexico, and has continued travelling as an adult, spending time in Iran, Turkey and India. Martel refers to his travels as, “seeing the same play on a whole lot of different stages.”
After studying philosophy at Trent University and while doing various odd jobs—tree planting, dishwashing, working as a security guard—he began to write. In addition to Life of Pi, Martel is the prize-winning author of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and of Self, a novel, both published internationally. Yann has been living from his writing since the age of 27. He divides his time between yoga, writing and volunteering in a palliative care unit. Yann Martel lives in Montreal.
Sometime in the early 1990s, Yann Martel stumbled across a critique in the New York Times Review of Books by John Updike that captured his curiosity. Although Updike's response to Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats was fairly icy and indifferent, the premise immediately intrigued Martel. According to Martel, Max and the Cats was, "as far as I can remember...about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther." Whether or not the story was as uninspiring as Updike had indicated in his review, Martel was both fascinated by this premise and frustrated that he had not come up with it himself.
Ironically, Martel's account of the plot of Max and the Cats wasn't completely accurate. In fact, in Scliar's novel, Max Schmidt did not belong to a family of zookeepers—he was the son of furrier. Furthermore, he did not emigrate from Berlin to Brazil with his family as the result of a failing zoo, but was forced to flee Hamburg after his lover's husband sells him out to the Nazi secret police. So, this plot that so enthralled Martel—which he did not pursue for several years because he assumed Moacyr Scliar had already tackled it—was more his own than he had thought.
Meanwhile, Martel managed to write and publish two books: a collection of short stories titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios in 1993 and a novel about gender confusion called Self in 1996. Both books sold only moderately well, further frustrating the writer. In an effort to collect his thoughts and refresh his creativity, he took a trip to India, first spending time in bustling Bombay. However, the overcrowded city only furthered Martel's feelings of alienation and dissolution. He then decided to move on to Matheran, a section near Bombay but without that city's dense population. In this peaceful hill station overlooking the city, Martel began revisiting an idea he had not considered in some time, the premise he had unwittingly created when reading Updike's review in the New York Times Review of Books. He developed the idea even further away from Max and the Cats. While Scliar's novel was an extended holocaust allegory, Martel envisioned his story as a witty, whimsical, and mysterious meditation on zoology and theology. Unlike Max Schmidt, Pi Patel would, indeed, be the son of a zookeeper. Martel would, however, retain the shipwrecked-with-beasts theme from Max and the Cats. During an ocean exodus from India to Canada, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with such unlikely shipmates as a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The resulting novel, Life of Pi, became the smash-hit for which Martel had been longing. Selling well over a million copies and receiving the accolades of Book Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and, yes, the New York Times Review of Books, Life of Pi has been published in over 40 countries and territories, in over 30 languages. It is currently in production by Fox Studios with a script by master-of-whimsy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children; Amélie) and directorial duties to be handled by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).
Martel is now working on his third novel, a bizarrely allegorical adventure about a donkey and a monkey that travel through a fantastical world...on a shirt. Well, at least no one will ever accuse him of borrowing that premise from any other writer.
From a 2002 Barnes & Noble interview:
• Life of Pi is not Yann Martel's first work to be adapted for the screen. His short story "Manners of Dying" was made into a motion picture by fellow Canadian resident Jeremy Peter Allen in 2004.
• When he isn't penning modern masterpieces, Martel spends much of his time volunteering in a palliative care unit.
• When asked what book was most influential to his career as a writer, here's what he said:
I would say Le Petit Chose, by the French writer Alphonse Daudet. It was the first book to make me cry. I was around ten years old. It made me see how powerful words could be, how much we could see and feel through mere black jottings on a page. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
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