Private Lives Public Places

Yann Martel, Writer

Martel, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for his novel Life of Pi (out this month in paperback from Harcourt), was born to travel. Three days after his birth, in Salamanca to Canadian parents, his family moved to Portugal, then Alaska, Canada, Costa Rica, France, and Mexico. More recently, the Montreal-based writer has spent time in India, where he drew inspiration for his tale of a 16-year-old boy who spends 227 days on a lifeboat with a tiger. Between book-tour stops, Martel reveals a few lessons from a life on the move.

THE CHARACTER PI WAS INSPIRED BY
the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris. It's been closed for many years now, but it was stunning, and I loved it when I lived there as a child. I also like the pool in the Château Laurier, a hotel in Ottawa—one of those small but luxurious indoor pools with lots of shiny brass.

SINCE I WON THE BOOKER PRIZE
I take taxis and eat out a lot more often.

THE BEST HOTELS I'VE STAYED IN ARE
Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. It's truly luxurious.
Hazlitt's, in London. It's my favorite. The rooms don't have a number, they have a name.
• In Cologne, the Holiday Inn Express. I really liked it. Sometimes cheaper hotels are more authentic. To me, luxury can be poor value. Not only materially, but spiritually.

IF I WERE ON A LIFEBOAT FOR 227 DAYS
• I would want horchata, a traditional Spanish drink that's extremely refreshing.
• There would have to be dark chocolate.
• I'd need a year's supply of New York Times crossword puzzles.
• I'd like an electronic chess game, a cell phone, and a manual on navigation. I would not want e-mail. I am so fed up with e-mail.

MY MOST INCREDIBLE JOURNEY WAS
Two years ago, when I went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, where St. James the Elder is supposedly buried. I walked 1,000 miles across half of France and all of northern Spain. It took me two months. I had only the pants I was wearing, two shirts, two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, and one pair of shoes. There is nothing worse than having too much baggage, physically and mentally.

I WILL NEVER FORGET THE TRIP
From Paris to Warsaw to Moscow to Tashkent to Kabul to Delhi on Ariana Afghan Airlines. There were no stewardesses, just stewards—all burly men with mustaches. The people in front of me and behind me were smoking, so I asked a steward where the non-smoking section was. He looked puzzled and said, "Right here." It was just where I was sitting.

I FIND SANCTUARY IN
The Meenakshi Hindu temple in Madurai. It has different shrines that are lit by candlelight and shafts of light coming through tiny windows.

I ALMOST NEVER
Watch TV news. Too packaged and disturbing—it starts with serious news and ends on something like the donkey that just won a Rhodes Scholarship. But when I am at a hotel, I like to watch TV from the comfortable bed, with sheets as taut as a trampoline.

MY COMFORT FOOD IS
Maple syrup, which is one of the wonders of Canada.
• Or poutine. I'm a vegetarian, I don't drink alcohol, and I rarely drink tea or coffee. But I love those soggy French fries and brown sauce with melted cottage cheese.

WHEN I'M IN MONTREAL, I EAT
At Le Commensal. It's a great chain. You choose whatever vegetarian food you want, then pay by weight.

WHAT ALWAYS AMAZES ME ARE
Indian railway stations—like Victoria or Churchgate in Bombay. Twelve million people a day go through there, and you see an oczan of humanity.