Martel serves up another slice of 'Pi'

A painting by Tomislav Torjanac from the illustrated edition of Yann Martel's "Life of Pi"

A painting by Tomislav Torjanac from the illustrated edition of Yann Martel's "Life of Pi"

-- For JAM! Books

, Last Updated: 11:31 AM ET

A little over two years ago the author Yann Martel was sitting in his home in Saskatoon sketching out ideas for the book that would follow his globally successful "Life of Pi" when his U.K. publisher dreamt up something new.

"It was Jamie Byng's decision to have an illustrated edition," he says over breakfast on a drizzly Tuesday in downtown Toronto. "He remembered as a kid having these wonderful illustrated editions of Robert Louis Stevenson and I recalled as a child reading novels by Jules Verne with drawings by Gustave Dorť, so I said, 'Why not?'"

So in 2005, they launched an international competition to commission artwork for an illustrated edition of "Life of Pi" with Martel and Byng on a jury that also consisted of Martin Levin, books editor at the Globe and Mail, executive publisher Louise Dennys and Random House of Canada director C.S. Richardson.

Following close to 2000 submissions, the field was whittled down to 60 artists before the committee awarded the job to Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac.

"It was very easy for me," he says, dunking a bite from his muffin into a steaming latte. "I only had to look through 60. I got 60 lovely illustrations from my novel based on one scene or another. We reduced it to a shortlist of six, and then we chose the winner."

Torjanac's willingness to craft scenes from Pi's perspective as well as his mixture of old and new mediums (his paintings meld traditional oil painting with digitization) caught Martel's eye.

"First off, there was an artistic quality to the work," he says. "It wasn't just a drawing, it was real art. So I love the texture of it; how you see the ridges of the paint, the brush strokes."

Grabbing a display copy, he starts skimming pages. "Here," he says, pointing to one of Torjanac's earlier paintings. "If you open up the book and choose any of the images, you can actually see the texture of the paint and I love that physicality of it.

"Another thing that really sold me on him was this clever device where everything is seen through Pi's perspective, so you never see Pi," he says.

"The novel is a first-person narrative, so it's Pi commenting on the world. An illustration that would be looking at Pi would reverse that direction. No matter how well Pi would be done, it would be describing something that is irrelevant. I never describe Pi in the novel 'cause it's irrelevant what he looks like."

Published in Canada in 2001, "Life of Pi" sold 6 million copies, was translated into 40 languages and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2002. Telling the story of a teenager, named Pi, who survives a disaster at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, the book quickly caught the eye of Hollywood, with wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan tapped to direct.

Now being helmed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie," "A Very Long Engagement"), and tentatively scheduled to shoot next year, Martel promises "Pi's" cinematic incarnation will stay true to the book's fantastical elements. "The screenplay he and Guillaume (Laurant, Jeunet's frequent collaborator) have written is terrific."

Considering how closely Martel and Torjanac worked to decide which scenes to portray in "Pi's" 40 illustrations, it's surprising to hear he has very little involvement in the movie adaptation.

"It's so complicated making a movie, it's such a long, tortuous process," he trails off.

Instead he's putting the finishing touches on his next book. "It's two things," Martel says, gulping down the last of his latte. "It's a novel and an essay. It will be published as a flip book with one side the novel and the other the essay."

The reason he's doing this is not to be gimmicky, he insists, it's because both books have the same title - 'The 20th Century Shirt' - and the same subject matter. "Both the essay and book share the same fundamental metaphor to do with a shirt and laundry and they're both on the same topic, the holocaust," Martel says softly. "But I'm taking two different routes to discuss the same thing. You never see in a bookstore or a library, novels on the music industry and documentaries of; they're in separate sections even though in life, that's not how we operate.

"We don't just operate in fiction water or non-fiction water, it's always a mix. We take facts and we play with them. We are a blend of fiction and non-fiction."


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