5 October 2007 – Yann Martel

On the opening night of this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, while Alistair Campbell was wooing the crowds with political revelations and Jools Holland talked of tinkling the ivories through his expansive career, fans of fiction were simultaneously treated to an intimate audience with Life of Pi writer Yann Martel.

Arriving on stage with a shy wave of the hand, the curly Canadian author who has sold more than six million copies of his magical realist novel, talked with gusto about the worldwide search to find an illustrator for the new illustrated version of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, with Martel regaling the crowd with tales of competition entries from all corners of the globe – spanning styles including everything from traditional wood cuts to Manga-style drawings fit for a 21st century graphic novel.

A short slide show revealed the vibrant work of the chosen winner Tomislav Torjanac, with Martel enthusing with an art critic’s eye about the stunning painterly-style of the Croatian artist’s digitally enhanced oil paintings and his attention to detail, adding that ‘Tomislav knew the book better than I did.’ 

Seated on the edge of the Everyman Theatre’s seats, we were also treated to (what we hoped were) a few insider secrets about the forthcoming big budget movie-version of Life of Pi. Set to be directed by the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Martel revealed that among other changes to the original novel, the Amelie director will move Pi’s new home from Toronto to Montreal, to suit his love for all thing Francais – and how he predicted turning the novel into a feature film would be a ‘nightmare’.

Another scoop for the fans in the audience was a discussion of Martel’s newest book A 20th century Shirt, an equally odd-sounding follow-up to Life of Pi, which will see a monkey and a donkey travelling across a country, ‘a real country, with trees and people’ that is also a shirt ‘with buttonholes and seams’, as a metaphor for the holocaust. 

Not content with simply attempting to change the publishing world by invigorating the public’s demand for illustrated adult fiction, Martel said his forthcoming novel would take the form of a flip book – containing both his fictitious novel and a fact-based essay, ‘which the reader will have to decide which to read first’.

The unique and thought-provoking end of day one of the Cheltenham Literary Festival, courtesy of Yann Martel, has set a high standard for guests over the next nine days to compete with, and we cannot wait to see how the rest of the festival will unfold.

Buy the new Life of Pi: The Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel and Tomislav Torjanac from £12.50 at amazon.co.uk.

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