Canadian author Yann Martel remembers thinking that his breakout book, "Life of Pi," published in the U.S. in 2003, was "a good book, but that it was a book that no one would read."
"It defends religion, and mainstream novel readers are not typically religious, and it defends zoos, which is a very unpopular stance, because people see them as prisons for animals," he says. "But it helped me understand my world, so I was happy with it."
Turned out he wasn't the only one. "Life of Pi" won the Man Booker Prize and has sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. Martel, 46, is now on tour with "Pi's" follow-up, "Beatrice and Virgil." He spoke by phone recently from his home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"Life of Pi" told the story of a 16-year-old Indian boy's 227-day odyssey adrift in the Pacific, on a small boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard. The new book, another allegorical fantasy, also puts animals front and center, this time a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil), in a sweetly humorous tale about the Holocaust. Yes, sweet. Yes, humorous. Yes, the Holocaust.
The subject matter has received polarized reviews, "either one star or five," as Martel puts it. Influential critic Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called it "every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching," and accused "Beatrice" of trivializing genocide by having animals stand in for the Jews of Europe - a criticism to which Martel takes exception.
"I use animals in my books because they're effective literary devices," he says. "We're cynical about our own species, but with animals, there's less disbelief, less cynicism. Readers are willing to give animals the benefit of the doubt. The donkey is like the Jews in that she's likeable, hardworking and stubborn. The Jews have endured despite centuries of adversity, but like Beatrice, they're clever and nimble, and have contributed to civilization far more than their numbers would suggest.
"With Virgil, I chose a howler monkey because the Holocaust should make us howl. ...Virgil is wild, as are the Jews in a way. They're urbanized and civilized, but their religion makes them a little wild. People want them to forget their Middle Eastern roots, but they refuse."
Martel is not Jewish. As a writer, he says, he believes the Holocaust has been vastly underrepresented in literature. "I think that by shying away from fiction as a medium to examine the Holocaust, we're scaring away the imagination, and the end result is that we're limiting how we're speaking about it.
"We need to be able to handle it with our imagination, including with comedy and satire. There have been some instances of that, Art Spiegelman's (graphic novel) "Maus," Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated," but they're so rare. ... And humor is a part of war, after all. It's a survival mechanism."
Martel appreciates humor and persistence in real life, as well. Last year, he published "What Is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann Martel's Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes." It's a collection of his letters over the past several years to Canada's prime minister.
"I send him a book and a note every two weeks," Martel says.
"I'm up to 81 books. I've never gotten a single response, other than form letters from his office. ... I try to keep the books under 200 pages, which is the usual excuse for people who don't read, that books are too long.
"Your President Obama, though, read ‘Life of Pi' with his daughter and loved it," he says with a chuckle.
"He sent me a handwritten note on White House stationery."