Travel Blog

4 Apr

Best-selling author Yann Martel on finding home and Montréal

Yann MartelCelebrated Canadian author Yann Martel spent over a decade living in Montréal, part of that crafting a novel that would become not only an international bestseller but a Man Booker Prize-winner and contemporary classic: Life of Pi. Since then, both the city and the author have continued to evolve and captivate our imaginations – Martel with his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, and Montréal with its fusion of centuries-old history, high-tech innovation and diverse arts and cultural milieu.

With Montréal’s annual international literary festival, Blue Metropolis, just around the corner (April 11 to 17, 2016), Tourisme Montréal blogger Robyn Fadden recently sat down with Yann Martel to talk about The High Mountains of Portugal and the importance of different places in our lives, and as well as his favourite things about Montréal.

You were born in Spain, have lived stretches of your childhood and adult life in Montréal, you’ve traveled far and wide, and your novels span the globe – why focus on concepts of home in The High Mountains of Portugal?

I was looking at home in relation to the broad theme of the novel – like Life of Pi, I was interested in looking at faith. Not that I come from an evangelical religious background… But in this age of pragmatism and reason and triumph of science and technology, I’ve become interested in that maligned phenomenon called faith. Religious faith but also other kinds of faith – romantic faith, political faith. We all make these leaps of faith that are central to our happiness.

The novel is divided into three parts that interconnect, with each main characters on a kind of journey, emotional or physical odyssey. Why choose three stories to take us on one odyssey of sorts?

I wanted to look at the concepts of homelessness, homewardness and home. We stigmatize homelessness in the sense that it’s not a pleasant state to be in; we seek a sense of who we are and where we belong, we seek the comfort that that kind of self-identification brings. That’s part one of the book. In part two, named Homeward, the main character is heading towards home, knows where it is but faces challenges on the way to getting there. And in part three, called Home, clearly that character, a Canadian senator, through and through Canadian, seems to have already achieved that, yet oddly enough that part takes place in northern Portugal, where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language, and yet there he achieves that sense of home.

Mile EndWhen did you call Montréal home?

When I lived here for 10 key years of my life, from my early 20s to my early 30s. I wrote Life of Pi here. The character of Pi lives in Toronto but I wrote the book here, did all my research at the Redpath Library at McGill and wrote it mostly while living on Esplanade in Mile End and also in St-Henri for a while. I loved living here. At the time, rents were cheap, Montréal was a dizzyingly varied city, stimulating. Life of Pi took me about four and a half years to write; those were happy years. My little office had a lifeboat in it and an imaginary tiger I had to keep alive, and that lifeboat was floating in the beautiful ocean called Montréal.

Agora de la danseDid you find that the realities of Montréal inspired your writing?

Absolutely. I used to work hard all day, and I didn’t have much money in those days, but one of the things I loved about Montréal was that it was a major centre of contemporary dance, and still is – so every single week I’d go to Agora de la danse and see a new dance piece. I also like that Montréal is an eminently walkable city. So I’d very often work all day and then walk downtown to see a movie. That nourished me, being able to walk to movies or dance shows and also being able to walk up Mount Royal. It sustained me.

MACAre there certain places you need to go or things you need to do when you come here?

I’m in a bit of a media whirlwind with the book tour right now but I love museums and visual arts – if I had more time I’d go to the Montreal Fine Arts Museum and Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. I’d go for a walk, explore my old haunts, the Plateau, see what’s changed, what hasn’t changed. I’d go look around the National Library and see the amazing Robert LePage and Alberto Manguel The Library at Night virtual reality exhibition. I’d get my dose of visual culture. I find Montreal to be a very creative city. Partly because of the nationalist tensions – friction can be wearying but it can also spark new ideas; it can be exhilarating and intoxicating.

Find out more about Yann Martel’s newest novel The High Mountains of Portugal at Knopf Canada. And join us in April for the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.

Up next: 6 Montréal book nooks you need to know


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