In Conversation Books

I feel tenderness towards most of my books, says Michael Ondaatje

Learning process: ‘In fiction you want to half paint a room.’

Learning process: ‘In fiction you want to half paint a room.’   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Michael Ondaatje talks of the adventure of meeting strangers you will never meet again

Michael Ondaatje is one of the finest builders of the English sentence. His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, was published in 1976, and since then, readers have come to expect a certain blend of prose and poetry from him. Rather than have a clear neat path where the reader is shepherded through the novel, Ondaatje requires participation. His approach is the art of collage. In terms of literary influences, he has sited, “Less Wordsworth, more Ray Charles.” As artistic and political statement he takes John Berger’s, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.” In an Ondaatje novel time exists in fluid continuum — past, present and future rush into each other.

Ondaatje spent the first 11 years of his life in Sri Lanka, later studying in England and moving to Canada, where he has lived most of his life. We meet at the Dalkey Book Festival in Ireland to talk about his most recent novel, Warlight, which is set in post-war England and explores the life of Nathaniel Williams and his sister Rachel, who have been unexpectedly abandoned by their parents. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve written 20 books, does it get easier?

It never gets easier. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t know what’s going to occur in the book yet. It sounds foolish, but in some ways it would be boring to know what you’re going to do for the next five years before you do it. So I tend to begin with very little — just an outline of two or three characters, or a situation. What’s useful is to know location and time, and some enigmatic moment. In The English Patient, it was a patient in a bed, talking to a nurse. That’s all I had to begin with.

What was the trigger for Warlight?

I think it was about writing about that barrier between war and peace. It would be England in 1945. The first sentence of the book set everything up: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” So that was it. A combination, not just of a political ending of war, but also a family disturbance of some kind, some mystery that the children don’t know about.

It felt to me like a continuation from your previous novel, The Cat’s Table, a coming-of-age novel. What is it about childhood that’s interesting for you?

In this case what’s interesting is the idea of the abandonment in the beginning. This first blunt sentence actually has a sense of adventure to it. A German filmmaker told me he gave video cameras to high-school kids and asked them to make a 10-minute film, and he said, what would you do? And they all said, “First the parents go.” They don’t die but they leave.

What occurs after that opening is a sense of adventure for Nathaniel, and I think that’s also true of The Cat’s Table, which is a book about a boy who is put on a ship from Sri Lanka to England that lasts 21 days. He’s essentially alone on the ship but he quickly makes friends with others of his own age. It’s a bit of a raucous time even though it’s a bit sad and tense.

Strangers are always important in your books, it’s always the peripheral characters who are instrumental in educating the protagonists…

That has become a recurring thing. In The Cat’s Table, that whole sense of adventure of meeting strangers you’d never meet again, even in The English Patient, it’s the meeting of a new family in that house, and the idea of having been born into one family and then discovering your real family later on. In some ways the criminal elements in this story (Warlight) become members of the family for Nathaniel.

Why such affinity for the stranger?

It could be an Asian thing because the family construct in Sri Lanka was not just your parents, it was 17 uncles and aunts and people who are called uncle even if they’re not. So this larger construct is there to defend you even if the family broke down, as my family did.

Could you talk about the decision to be a poet?

The decision to be a poet was that I thought it would save my life. I was 18. I was in a new country. I was in Canada. I had a great teacher and I didn’t know who I was really. I was meeting poets my age. When I was in England the idea of becoming a writer seemed ludicrous and presumptuous. I wrote poetry for six or seven years, and gradually became interested in prose. I wrote The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and began this odd monster of poems and weird photographs and prose, and the next book was Coming Through Slaughter, and I wanted to take whatever there was I loved in poetry into prose, which was essentially not saying everything. You put 70% down and then leave a lot of space for the reader to participate, and I wanted to have that sense in a novel as well.

I’m curious about how your characters arrive. There’s The Darter, who goes to someone’s flat for dinner with a bottle, and when there’s nothing to open the bottle with he smashes the neck of it against a railing — you rarely describe physical characteristics but we understand what kind of man he is.

The Darter at one point surprised me when he turned his blue eyes towards me, and I thought: Wait a minute, I don’t describe blue eyes! Most of my characters, I’m looking through them. I remember someone asking me what does Hana (from The English Patient) look like. I have no idea. Everything is seen from their point of view when they participate in the scene.

That may be why they’re always surprising to me. So the breaking of the bottle — I saw The Darter as someone who is awkwardly in the wrong company, so what would he do? That’s what happened.

Is it important that you like your characters?

I tend to like them. That may be a flaw. (laughs).

Do you have tenderness towards any particular book of yours?

I feel tenderness towards most of my books. I haven’t read them again so they might not be as tender as I thought they were. The only book I re-read was Anil’s Ghost. I was asked by a university to come and talk to some students, and I thought I better re-read it. Certain things surprised me. I was surprised by how much research I’d done, sawing bones and finding out the age of things and so forth, and there were some scenes where I thought, I could have probably dropped that. I’m scared to read these books, what if I want to change something?

What’s the learning process you go through as you write a book? There’s all this precise information about how one dismantles a bomb, or the business of greyhound racing, or river whistles…

What’s exciting for me is learning and writing simultaneously. In research the best information is fragmentary. If you get too much information it rings of somewhere else. There was a story about one top bomb disposal man in London and he was going to go down some manhole to defuse a bomb and he came out screaming, and they said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘There’s a rat down there.’ So they sent some other man down with a pistol to shoot the rat and then he went down and defused the bomb.

It was a great story, and I was dying to put it in the book, but it already existed. Whereas if someone had said, ‘There was a guy who was afraid of rats,’ that would have been enough. Research is interesting but if you get too much it can become like a time capsule story. If you’re writing non-fiction you need all that stuff, but in fiction you want to half paint a room.

How do you deal with criticism?

I think I’m okay (laughs). (Long pause.) I might disagree. I think I was very lucky because when I began to write I was a poet with a small press in Canada. You had a book out and eight months later there would be a two-line review in the newspaper, so you could pace yourself. It wasn’t like someone who has a first book out and it’s a huge success and then it becomes wonderful and then traumatic when the second one doesn’t do well.

But do you read reviews? Do you want to know what people think?

Yeah, I mean I look over a wall of review, and then have private thoughts about it.

The interviewer’s latest book is a collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:33:12 AM |

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