Diary - Yann Martel

A second before they announce the Booker Prize winner, I feel like the woman in <em>Jaws </em>who go

At Heathrow, the passport officer asks me why I am visiting the United Kingdom. I pause for a moment. "I'm here to win the Booker prize," I tell him, figuring that if I win he'll remember me, turn to his mates and say, "I let that bloke in." And if I lose, he will have forgotten me.

"The what?" he says.

I walk into a fancy rental shop to pick up my dinner jacket. Fine clothes, far more than people, intimidate me. I wonder if the clerk will make me feel like a country bumpkin. In fact, he is friendly and helpful. I leave 15 minutes later, carrying what I need for the Booker gala. I walk into tiny, excellent Primrose Hill Books for a book signing. The owners, Marek and Jessica, liked my book. They've sold 300 copies for proof. They're visibly happy to see me, as are the people who work with them and the four or five readers who have come to meet me. Their affection for the book is obvious and sincere. It's very gratifying. It turns that strange, private compulsion that fiction writing has become in the west into what it truly is, a social, fraternal act.

Photoshoot at Hatchards with the other shortlisted writers (except Carol Shields). William Trevor, Rohinton Mistry, Tim Winton, Sarah Waters and I stand before a phalanx of photographers. Then we face them one by one. Never done this before in my life. Three tiers of flashbulbs pop continuously as ten voices call out at me to look their way. If I were a rhino and they were a photo safari, I'd charge. But I just do my best. I try to smile and look natural as I hold up a copy of my book close to my face.

It occurs to me that I should jot down a few words in the unlikely case I win. I find a sheet of paper. I pause. Whom do I want to thank? I have never liked the current fashion of acknowledgments in novels. They can go on for paragraphs. Not that I doubt the author's gratitude to Mom, Dad, Gramps, their editor, their agent, this and that expert, right down to the man who served them coffee at the local diner. But it seems silly. Time is pressing. I write a few sentences. I thank my editors, first and foremost my Canadian editor, Diane Martin, who did such an admirable job of smoothing the rougher edges of my novel. Then I thank my agents. I thank the jury. Lastly, I thank my readers, "for meeting my imagination halfway". Time to go.

Tuesday, the night of the awards, starts at 7pm, in the Egyptian Gallery. It's a stunning place. I see someone who deserves the Booker prize: the Rosetta Stone. Eight o'clock, 700 people sit down at 70 tables. It is noisy. I'm not too nervous because I'm hungry and it's all so exciting. The food is good.

Nine forty-five. I've lost my appetite. I can't eat dessert. It's still noisy. The tension is getting to me. I'm starting to feel like an inmate on death row watching the warden fix a minor problem with the wiring in the chair. I just want to get it over with.

Ten twenty. Lisa Jardine, head of the jury, is standing at the podium. She speaks for two or three minutes. Everyone at my table is holding hands like they're Baptists at a prayer meeting. Professor Jardine says: "I'd like to introduce . . . " and the man who will hand over the cheque joins her on stage. We think he'll make a speech. Someone at my table mutters: "For fuck's sake!" But the man stands silently to the side. Professor Jardine then says, with unexpected speed: "And the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize is . . . "

Ten twentysomething minutes and 32 seconds. I feel like that woman at the beginning of Jaws, the one who goes for a midnight dip, feels a little tug, reaches down and can't seem to find her left leg. Alternately, I feel like the mayor of Pompeii in the last moments of his administration. I so expected to hear another book, another name.

Ten twentysomething minutes and 33f seconds: I roar "Yes!" and jump up, raising my left fist in the air. I raise both my arms. I feel like Jesus Christ after he's done his three days in Hell, I feel like a boy who has just discovered the joys of self-abuse, I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary after he's stumbled to the top of Everest, all three joys all at once. Suddenly, the table and the chairs are in the way and I can't get to all the people at my table to hug them and kiss them. Pru, my publicist, ever dutiful, pushes me in the back. "Yann, go get your prize," she says.

I walk to the podium. Professor Jardine is smiling. I hug her. I shake hands with the gentleman from the Man Group and accept the golden envelope. I make my little speech. I am so happy, I don't feel at all nervous. People are clapping. It's wonderful and glorious. I walk back to my table.

Moments later, I am kidnapped by the BBC. As I'm marched away from my group, I feel a little like the Lindbergh baby. But still very, very happy. I do interviews. Then I celebrate until 4.30 in the morning.

After three days of solid interviews from morning till night, I feel like Omaha Beach on D-day. I feel both over the moon and six feet under.

Now, this very moment, after it's all over, I feel like I did the first time I saw fireflies, a mix of gentle disbelief and wonder, a deep thankfulness at the beauty of it all.

Thank you, everyone, thank you. It was a moment I'll treasure the rest of my life.