TORONTO - The vast popularity of Saskatoon-based author Yann Martel's novel "Life of Pi," which Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has turned into an ambitious film that opens Wednesday, is particularly gratifying for Erica Wagner.
That's because Wagner, literary editor for The Times in London, was on the Man Booker Prize jury that gave the bestselling boy-tiger spiritual shipwreck tale its big break by picking it as the winner of the prestigious award in 2002.
Seeing its subsequent success proves that she and her fellow jury members weren't alone in thinking the fantasy adventure was an extraordinary story, she says.
"It's just such an unusual book but so vivid and imaginative, and I still think it's just a wonderful book," Wagner said in a recent telephone interview.
"It's rare in life you look back and think, 'That was the right decision,' but I do."
According to Vintage Canada, which recently published a movie tie-in edition of "Life of Pi," the novel has sold 812,000 copies in Canada alone and over nine million copies worldwide.
It also spawned a 2007 illustrated edition as well as a play, and has earned high praise from luminaries including author Margaret Atwood and U.S. President Barack Obama (who wrote a personal note to Martel to express his love for the book).
When published in 2001, "Life of Pi" was a finalist for that year's Governor General's Award for Fiction as well as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
And it had no trouble floating to the top of the 2002 pack of Booker contenders, recalls British novelist Russell Celyn Jones, who was also on the jury that was chaired by Lisa Jardine and included David Baddiel and Salley Vickers.
"'Life of Pi' went straight on the long list, nobody discussed it, there was no disagreement," Celyn Jones said recently by phone from London.
"Then we had a short-list meeting for six books and it went straight into the short list, nobody discussed it because there was no contention about it."
Celyn Jones said it was a different story, however, on the day they had to pick the victor out of a field that also included two other Canadian authors: Rohinton Mistry for "Family Matters," and Carol Shields for "Unless."
The other finalists were Australia's Tim Winton for "Dirt Music," Sarah Waters of Wales for "Fingersmith," and Ireland's William Trevor for "The Story of Lucy Gault."
Holed up in a room at the British Museum for final deliberations on the winner of the prize, which offers 50,000 British pounds, was a "heated experience" for the judges, said Celyn Jones.
In fact, their preliminary vote was in favour of Shields' "Unless."
"That was the moment I said, 'Look, we've never discussed "Life of Pi" and we need to now,'" said Celyn Jones. "So I basically wanted that book to win. My other choice was 'Family Matters.' ... So it was a good year for Canadians."
Celyn Jones read "Life of Pi" three times for the Booker jury process and felt it was the best of the bunch because it was intimate and original.
"'Pi,' with its meandering, strange, plot-defying kind of structure was a breath of fresh air and I just felt, for my money, this was taking risks," he said.
While Celyn Jones was a fan of Shields, he thought "Unless" was not her best work.
"One of the judges was not keen on books about writers, you know, metafictions, and my argument was that Carol Shields' book really is about a writer — Rita Winters is the character in that — whereas 'Life of Pi' was, in a sense, about religion," he said.
The judges also argued about the "Life of Pi" ending, in which the Indian protagonist offers an alternate version to his epic story of being stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.
"People were not happy with the way ('Life of Pi') ended and I thought, 'Well, I think the ending is quite appropriate, because it gives you two alternatives: either this was a fact, what happened to Pi, or that he's constructed a narrative to deal with the grief of losing his parents in a shipping accident," said Celyn Jones.
Wagner said she was also in favour of "Life of Pi" from the beginning, feeling it was an unusual, vivid "tour de force of the imagination."
"That's in a way what you hope for when you do a prize like this, is that — it happens very rarely — that you come across someone you've never heard of and they'll blow you away, and that's what happened."
As Celyn Jones tells it, deliberations went on for several hours until about 6:30 — just half an hour before the start of the prize dinner.
When the judges cast their final vote, it was in favour of "Pi," "and all the women in the (room) started crying."
"It had been a really sort of a powerful event because we knew two things, essentially," continued Celyn Jones. "We knew that we just handed Yann Martel a million bucks, really, in terms of sales as well as the prize money. Every Booker winner has a huge payday over about a two-year period, and that indeed has happened to Yann.
"But the second thing, of course, is we were basically giving a nod of approval to then a small publishing house, Canongate. Canongate was in competition with rather large conglomerates and even though that wasn't really a factor, it was pleasing to give a small publisher a victory of that kind because it would make a huge difference.
"And to be fair to Canongate, rather than sort of become promiscuous with that income they made from 'Pi,' they reinvested it — kept the company but reinvested it in other books that may have been equally as tricky to readers used to more commercial product."
The literary community also heralded the "Life of Pi" Booker win as a breakthrough for the prize, because it marked a shift in its tradition of awarding established writers and genre novels that were wide-ranging in terms of a cultural perspective, said Celyn Jones.
"When I say genre I mean Booker genre, and that usually meant: big, global in its scope, populated by many characters with a post-colonial motif, written very often by men, often deeply researched in terms of characters' work and historical background. And it seemed that these stories were, not exactly manufactured, or if they were manufactured, they would be manufactured by very, very good writers.
"But nonetheless, there was a sense that people might be thinking about winning the Booker whilst constructing a novel, making it big and fat and rather lacking an intimacy, and indeed there were quite a few books submitted to us that were of that kind and they weren't intimate, they were not domestic, they weren't very moving."