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“For writers and visual artists, it begins with observation,” said Yann Martel in an online session broadcast as part of the ongoing Sharjah International Book Fair 2020.
In an interview with Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, the bestselling author of Life of Pi said his work originated from observing the unusual. “You tend to notice things as they strike you – not just physical things, but also emotions,” Martel observed. “All art starts with a certain discomfort with things. Artists try to recognise their discomfort with the world, and create art as a result.”
He endorsed celebrated novelist J.M. Coetzee’s observation that all art results from ‘a steady gaze’. “That steady observation begins a thought process that leads to a work of art – of course, after a lot of work,” said Martel.
He illustrated it with the example of his latest novel titled Son of Nobody, which is in the final stages of completion. “It resulted from my reading of a translation of The Iliad by Homer a few years ago. The Trojan War fascinated me, but what really caught my attention was this commoner, Thersites, who is the only person to protest the war. That planted the seed for Son of Nobody.”
Martel lives with his novels for a long time, three years in the case of Son of Nobody. “I am a one-trick pony,” he said. “I cannot work on multiple books at the same time. I live with my book, research it, keep going back and forth as research throws up new ideas. However, the gaze remains steady.”
While the actual process of writing remains a mystery for Martel, “I do have a plan of how to go about it. When I write the first sentence, I already know what the last sentence would be. But I am still surprised. Writing is like travelling. You may have your plans, your backpack and guidebooks, but it is still an adventure that can turn out differently.”
Son of Nobody is about a scholar who unexpectedly gets a scholarship to Oxford and while browsing old texts there discovers new aspects of the Trojan War. He starts to research it, trying to reconstruct the period. “It is a novel told in fragments, in verses and footnotes as his research uncovers new facts. There is a parallel story in the footnotes about a scholar of those times, Solas, offering an alternative perspective of the Trojan War, called Soliad,” said Martel.
Talking about the future, Martel said: “I am thinking about a few subjects for my next work but working on a novel is both exhilarating and exhausting. I would like to relax and catch up on my reading and play with my four children for the next few months.”
However, there are two ideas vying for his attention as well. “One is about a teenage centaur that plays the electric guitar and loves Elvis Presley songs. I still do not know what to do with it, but it could be the premise for an East meets West meditation. I also bought the sea log maintained by Christopher Columbus during his travels at a sale some years back. The idea of a ruthless and ambitious man with no inkling about the consequences of his travels also fascinates me. Let us see where it goes,” Martel adds.