Jamie Byng on Life beyond Pi

The story behind the Illustrated Life of Pi

From the moment I first read Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi I was astounded by its intensely visual nature. It seemed a book writ in colours, a book of painterly qualities, and so when we started to discuss at Canongate how we might best clothe this book, we all felt instinctively that it should be an illustrated jacket. And the illustrations that Andy Bridge created for the original UK edition managed to achieve all that we hoped for and more. So much so that over thirty of Yann’s forty international publishers also used Andy’s iconic cover art.

However, it struck me from an early stage that Life of Pi was a novel that would also lend itself to internal illustration, something that one very rarely sees in contemporary adult fiction. In my mind’s eye I had the classic editions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels Kidnapped and Treasure Island that N.C. Wyeth illustrated for Scribner in the early part of the twentieth century, especially those plates in Treasure Island which I pored over as a child. How could one forget the image of the pirates attacking the stockade, or that of Jim Hawkins fighting Israel Hands in the rigging? These paintings impressed themselves on my mind in such a strong way and always seemed to be an integral part of the novel. They expanded my sense of the book, fed my imagination rather than closed it down, and I’ve often wondered what Stevenson would have made of them.

But where would we find our N.C. Wyeth for the twenty-first century? How could we find someone who would rise to the considerable challenges of illustrating this modern classic? In the first instance I thought about approaching established illustrators. I wrote to several esteemed illustrators but they all said no. Other distractions prevented me from pursuing the idea further, but this desire to publish such an edition would not go away. And thank god it didn’t.

One day the blindingly obvious thought struck me: why not run a competition to find an illustrator? That way we could open it up to artists whose work we had never seen before. The next thing to do was to work out how best to promote the competition, and this is when things started to fall into place. Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times, had also been one of the judges of the Man Booker Prize in 2002, the year that Life of Pi won. I pitched the idea to Erica over the phone, and got a spontaneously positive reaction. And in a relatively short time we were launching the competition.

But the competition did not just launch in the UK. We hooked up with Knopf Canada, the originators of Yann’s novel in his homeland, who launched the competition simultaneously and in partnership with the Globe and Mail, one of the leading papers in Canada. And we extended the competition to Australia where our publishing partners in Melbourne, Text Publishing, ran a parallel competition and with the prestigious Age newspaper. We each requested that every entrant pick a scene of his or her choice, which they should illustrate as they saw fit. We were inundated by submissions, over 1800 in all, the majority of them of Richard Parker. And of course many were uninspiring. But there were also some genuine gems, some illustrations that gave us hope that all this effort would not be in vain.

We whittled the entrants down to three shortlists of five, one for each region. We then asked each of the shortlisted artists to submit three finished illustrations along with sketches for the whole book so we could get a better sense of their vision. In fact Yann contacted them directly, telephoning all fifteen of the artists to let them know that they had been selected for the next stage. One teenager in Australia had forgotten that she had entered the competition!

It became clear as a result of this second stage that there were only a handful of artists who could go the pace, who would be able to sustain the quality through thirty full-page illustrations and really had a coherent vision for the whole book. I especially remember one artist from the Philippines, whose initial entry had been such a strong frontrunner, who failed to impress at round two. And as with all these things, everyone had an opinion.

Votes were canvassed from the separate judging panels and in one final, fairly heated, transatlantic conference call, the pros and cons of the various artists’ submissions were debated. It came down to a decision between two artists, both of who had completely different styles, both of whom I am certain would have illustrated Life of Pi in a memorable and distinctive way. But in the end we decided to go with a young artist from Croatia called Tomislav Torjanac.

And I think we made an excellent choice. From the outset Tomislav piqued our curiosity by his unusual selection of scene to illustrate, from a section that many would regard as periphery to the main drama of the novel. But in choosing the moment when Pi is interrogated by the two Japanese men, Tomislav ensured he caught our attention, as well as picking a pivotal moment in the book. He further won us over with his decision to illustrate the entire novel from Pi’s perspective, thereby remaining true to the novel’s telling but also not destroying the reader’s own image of Pi. But above all, we were taken by the wildness of Tomislav’s use of colour, his extraordinary visual imagination, his fidelity to the novel and his deep understanding of its many meanings.

As well as being an artist of unquestionable skill, Tomislav also creates his work in a highly unusual way. First he sketches out the scene before painting it in oils and with a fairly free hand. Once he has completed this stage he photographs the painting, then runs it onto his computer, at which point he finishes the illustration using various digital techniques. The end result combines the painterly qualities of a great oil painting with the modern sophistication of a digital print.

Life of Pi has become a hugely celebrated novel the world over, a book that has appealed to readers of all ages and will almost certainly continue to do so for decades to come. Publishing this illustrated edition will, I hope, reinforce its status as a modern classic and draw further readers into Pi’s remarkable story, “a story that will make you believe in God.”

Jamie Byng, Publisher and Managing Director, Canongate Books

To see a range of Tomislav Torjanac’s illustrations please click here

To see the various stages by which Tomislav created the illustrations please click here

Click here to buy the illustrated edition

Click here to buy the slip-cased, signed and numbered limited edition (3000 copies)

Click here to buy one of the limited edition prints

The Man Booker Prize Fiction at its finest