I have twice interviewed Yann Martel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The first time, in the smallest tent in Charlotte Square, was six weeks before Life of Pi won the Booker Prize. The second, in a packed main tent, was five years later, on publication of the beautiful illustrated edition of the same book. On that occasion, we talked mainly about his then work-in-progress, finally published this month as Beatrice and Virgil. But what I had forgotten until the other day was something else he mentioned at that time – his literary assault on Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister.
Since April 2007 he has been sending Harper a new book every fortnight ‘to encourage stillness’ as he eloquently puts it; although it’s really because he can’t bear the idea that his country is led by a man who doesn’t read or value culture. The first book he sent was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This week the list stands at Book 83, Caligula by Albert Camus. He has vowed to continue his campaign so long as Harper remains in office. The whole thing, including the replies – or lack of them, is documented at www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca
In a less public arena, I also do my bit to encourage people to read, mainly by going into secondary schools to talk to teenagers about my books. Most of the time it’s a more rewarding experience than Yann Martel’s. An eager face, an intelligent question, a dreamy look – it doesn’t take much for me to know that my audience have momentarily let go their cool, forgotten who they are and entered my realm of stories and the imagination.
Very occasionally, though, it doesn’t work. Earlier this week I had a group of eighty fourteen year-olds for the after-lunch period. Maybe it was the fizzy drinks and sweets, maybe they were demob happy at the thought of the impending summer holidays, maybe it was the thunder in the air, or maybe there were just too many of them, but they were bouncing off the walls. Neither I, nor the four teachers present, could get them to settle. They were attentive for a little while as I read, but as soon as I began to talk or ask them questions, there were outbreaks of fidgeting, giggling and whispering.
Was I boring them? I wondered, soldiering on and trying to keep my temper. Possibly, though it was a routine I’ve performed dozens of times before to good effect in other schools. By the end, feeling thoroughly grumpy, I told them they were the most unruly group it had ever been my misfortune to address, which was true, although also slightly unfair because there were those who had listened despite their less well-behaved neighbours.
As I left I had to remind myself that even one listener, wide-eyed in that moment of self-forgetting – or stillness as Yann Martel would call it, makes it all worthwhile. I hope his persistence with Stephen Harper pays off.