“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”
― Yann Martel
We seem to lack the ideal terminology to effectively encapsulate the practice of turning thoughts and ideas into something more tangible — of actualizing the imagination and of materializing the intangible.
Philosophically speaking, we can reference countless variations of theories which touch on this process — Kant’s transcendent idealism, Plato’s world of forms, Descartes’ dualism. Religiously, technologically, sociologically, psychologically — we have a range of concepts which seek to elucidate this practice. But from a wholly practical and all-encompassing perspective, we just can't seem to muster the linguistic eloquence necessary to accurately describe this rather powerful affair.
Authors do it, musicians, playwrights, artists and performers; they create something real from nothing but the seed of an idea that sprouts from the depths of their minds. It’s magic, really. It’s manifestation and transmutation at its most potent level.
Not only is it magic, it’s wholly underrated and undervalued as a general skill. Sure, we commend good writing and awe-inspiring performances but we also over-complicate and over-dilute the process with Hollywood glam or deleterious popularity metrics. It’s something that need not be so drenched in anything but a quiet reverence for the act itself: creating.
And so I sought to get an insight from someone who’s really adept at the practice of transcribing the contents of their imagination into captivating and consumable fiction — someone who has seen their seed of an idea grow into a globally-acclaimed novel and, eventually, a major motion picture. I wanted to understand this process in more detail — what motivates it, sustains it, and develops it.
Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, a 2003 novel that had been my generation’s version of the Alchemist or Lord of the Flies. It vivified Martel’s own experience with faith, among other themes, and made him a household name as he continued to write top-selling works such as Beatrice and Virgil (2010) and the High Mountains of Portugal (2016). [A tease to be found for his next piece below]
I had the privilege of asking Yann about his own experience, and of poking around his mind to extract some measure of an insight into his motivation and his practice of turning the unreal into something real. Ultimately, I came to learn that this practice in itself is as individualized as it is universal. It’s sacred, experiential, innate and, more than anything, meaningful.
On character construction:
I build my characters last.
On plot construction, and then character construction:
First off, I think of theme, that is, idea, then I think of plot, that is, theme in action, then I think of setting, then, if all that still has resonance, I do research, which inevitably expands the theme, enriches the plot and colours the setting. All along, there are characters, but they’re in the background, waiting for their motives and their lines. It’s like making an hourglass. I work on the glass bulbs, refine the sand, work the flame, but only at the last minute, when I narrow the neck, do sand and glass come together to form the hourglass. It’s the same with my characters: they come together like sand and glass come together in an hourglass, right at the end. But once they’re there, it’s as if they were there from the start.
My gut answer is I don’t think about it at all. It just all comes together in pieces and, slowly, an image appears. My work then is to bring the image into sharp focus, which I do with a lot of hard, joyful work. In this process, the characters appear and develop along with the whole.
I write my books to understand an aspect of life. So Self, my first novel, in which the main character, a young man, turns into a woman at the age of 18, is a woman for seven years, then turns into a man again, was my attempt to understand what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. Life of Pi is my examination of faith, what it means to believe in unverifiable beings and how that relates to the imagination. And so on, with every book, an attempt to understand through the imagination.
A book is inevitably a reflection of its author’s intellectual auto-biography, of what interests them. So yes, I’d think there’s always something of an author in his or her book. No necessity there; there’s no “ought”. It’s just a natural consequence. But beyond that, I don’t put myself in my book. I, personally, am not interested in my own little life. I’d rather look out.
I’d think each book would change if I’d written it at a different age, because at each age I’m different. But I wouldn’t consider re-writing a book because what has also changed with the passing years is what interests me. I’d rather move forward, from new interest to new interest, than go back into the past. As my books push me forward, they move for me into the past.
On what it all means:
As for what it means to me, my books mean that I’ve constructed something out of nothing. Where there was no story, now there is one. It’s a bit, I suppose, like a woman giving birth, something miraculous and deeply satisfying. It’s a good way to spend a life.
And, lastly, on what’s next:
I’m near finishing my next novel, inspired by the Iliad and the Trojan War, but it has no title yet, and god knows when it will come out, Covid-19 and all. I imagine in the fall of ‘21.
We live in an increasingly loud world. With the likes of social media and countless channels whereby creators can share their respective forms of content (Medium itself is a particularly vivid example), we begin to risk seeing this process of creation as irrelevant and immaterial to our way of life — as too-common and too saturated.
But, since we had been able to exercise our creativity, we’ve been sharing stories and creating art; in doing so, we’ve impressed upon such content our will, our advice, our social customs, our ideas, our very lives. We’ve done much more than merely entertain.
If my correspondence with Yann taught me anything, it’s that we’re eagerly prone to over or under appreciate this very simple and essential, yet powerful process.
By making something meaningful from nothing — by sharing our experience and by telling stories, we’ve actualized imaginations and adhered to one of the most fundamental human obligations: the power of creation.
Follow Yann on Twitter or browse his collection.
Image by FelixMittermeier