PEN World Voices Festival 2008 by Beowulf Sheehan

PEN Conversation with Michael Ondaatje

Colum McCann > Interview > PEN Conversation with Michael Ondaatje


“Adventures in the Skin Trade”

A conversation with Michael Ondaatje and Colum McCann at the New York Public Library in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival 2008.

COLUM McCANN: Can I ask you a weird, strange, sort of off-the-wall question? Do you have fun?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Do I have fun writing or just fun in life?

McCANN: Those are two very distinct things, aren’t they? First, do you have fun in life?


McCANN: It’s obvious. You can feel it. Do you have fun writing?

ONDAATJE: Yeah, but it’s serious fun. I worry while I write, but, at the same time, the way I write, I allow anything to happen. I don’t have a path lined up beforehand, which would make it seem too dutiful—I would have to get to all these stations of the cross before I got to the end. I like leaving open the possibility that, say, somebody comes in and throws a glass of milk onto you—the fictional character, that is, not me.

McCANN: You enjoy that moment of surprise when you wake up and you are in a body that is not your own. The phone rings—or, for me, a child slips a note under the door that says, “Daddy, let’s go play soccer.” And I think, “I’m a sixty-eight year old gypsy woman—I can’t go play soccer right now.”

So how did you come to write your first book, Coming Through Slaughter, about Buddy Bolden—an African-American jazz musician in turn of the century New Orleans—when you were born in Sri Lanka, went to school in England, and were living in Toronto?

ONDAATJE: Well, I’m just one of those people who imagines others’ lives. Even now, at my age, I keep thinking, “What is my career going to be if I’m not a writer? Am I going to be a bomb disposal expert, or a jazz musician, or a bridge builder?” There are all these possibilities. And jazz music, of a certain period, has always been central for me.

McCANN: But what happens when you’re with Buddy and he puts his hands up into the ceiling fan? In other words, when it’s not beautiful, when it’s tough, when there’s pain—when he goes mad, for instance?

ONDAATJE: Well, I think one of the things about being a writer—and I think this is true of your book Dancer, too—is that you are always stepping into dangerous territory. You are approaching all your fears. I have a terrible fear of vertigo, so what do I write about? I write about a bridge builder in Toronto.

McCANN: But you are not conscious of this beforehand?

ONDAATJE: No. I guess what drives me when I am writing a book is not, for instance, an overall plot that I’ve prepared. It’s finding someone you can live with for four or five years on the page. Then that person meets somebody else and you have a community of people who interact. The real pleasure of writing is making a portrait of that person in the most complex way—and the most compassionate way, hopefully. And there is also the pleasure of learning things about bridge building and jazz and so forth.

McCANN: When I wrote Dancer, I had to go into the world of ballet to discover what it was like. I was interested in the sound of dance on the page, and I had tried to intuit it before I knew anything about it. Then I started going to ballet studios. I even danced onstage in the Kirov Ballet. Anyone can tell what a joke that is. But it was the middle of the afternoon and there were six beautiful ballerinas in the front row and this dancer from the Kirov was trying to teach me how to do a pirouette. There was an old babushka cleaning the aisles at the back of the building. She looked at me and shook her head and made a face. That was the end of my dance career. Not that it had ever really begun.

ONDAATJE: One of my favorite scenes in Dancer—and I don’t even want to know if it is true or not—is the story of Nureyev choreographing a dance by the sound of the floorboards. Your portrait of him gets created from the ground up—literally, starting with the kind of shoes he wanted and were made for him and the sound of the floor. It’s a very tactile portrait.

McCANN: Thanks. You know, I spend about three or four years on a book, so I always feel like I’ve gone to university. But you spend about six or seven years—you not only go to university, you get your PhD as well.

ONDAATJE: Except that my research is on a very amateur level. When I wrote Coming Through Slaughter—I hate to say it, but I was only in New Orleans for about three or four days. And The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was a book that I wrote in Canada. I could not afford to go to New Mexico, and people there are pissed off about that still. But I also got my greatest review for that book, when someone from Texas asked why a Canadian was given the journals of Billy the Kid to edit.

McCANN: Didn’t you deeply research the tunnel material for In the Skin of a Lion?

ONDAATJE: Not as much as you did for Dancer. Somebody mentioned the tunnels under the lake in Toronto, and that sentence by itself opened a huge door for me to enter and invent a situation. I did find old photographs and so forth, but there was very little archival information on that period. And the archives in Toronto mostly deal with who opened the stadium and the amount of concrete that was used and so forth—not with who actually built these things. I had to go to a multicultural history society, and I found various bits of data there. So what about the research that you do?

McCANN: I tend to work like you in that I don’t have a map. I have no idea where I’m going. Often I have an idea about where to start and a vague idea of how I am going to finish. But I like to cast myself out at sea for a long time, so I can drift into distant lands without knowing how everything will come together. For Dancer, for instance, I wrote all the dance material, then I went to Russia and hung out in dance studios watching these beautiful dancers who looked like wild horses up close with that musculature—absolutely gorgeous. Then I would go back and write. So then I would lay down a literal map on top of the imaginative map.

ONDAATJE: I’m interested in how you write about a famous person, and I came across a great line of yours, which I wrote down: “ I always felt that Rudi was more than able to look after himself.” It’s hugely difficult to write about someone well known. Did you have any hesitation about that?

McCANN: I had no hesitation. The way I got to Nureyev was this: A friend of mine who grew up in Dublin, his father used to come home drunk every single night and beat him and his brothers and sisters. One night the father came home sober carrying a television set. They plugged the television set in and got no reception whatsoever. That night my friend got the worst beating of his life. But three days later he plugged the TV into an extension cord and carried it out onto the balcony of the flat, and—in Dublin of all places, in the early 1970s—on came Rudolf Nureyev.

My responsibility, I think—which I’ve learned from you and John Berger and other writers I love and admire—is to talk about the dark, anonymous corners of human experience and about the value of those dark, anonymous corners. And intersecting with those dark, anonymous corners you have these famous lives, these big desires, and big issues. I wanted to get at Nureyev by writing about “small people.” I didn’t give a damn about him. I didn’t care that his friends could read the book and say, “That’s not true! He doesn’t have size-eight feet, he has size-ten feet!” None of that bothered me, because my responsibility was towards the shoemakers, for instance, and not to Nureyev’s feet. So I was liberated.

Whereas with my last book, Zoli, I felt an enormous cultural responsibility toward the Romany people. And the weight of that history dragged me down in many ways. How do you feel about having a conscience with a book?

ONDAATJE: When I wrote Anil’s Ghost I felt that responsibility very heavily. And though I am very proud of that book, when I finished it and began Divisadero, I knew I wasn’t going to follow such a faithful path with the new book.Divisadero was an opening up.

McCANN: I could feel that. But I would love to talk some more about Anil’s Ghost and how it felt. Did you go back to Sri Lanka?

ONDAATJE: I went back when I was working on the book and talked to a lot of people. The research was similar to yours. I spent time with doctors and traveled with them and lived with some of them for a week or so. I was witnessing how one lived in such a situation

I knew it was not a book that was going to change things, but I still wanted to represent some of those voices.

McCANN: It changed my perception of Sri Lanka, certainly. Even now I can call up images from that book: the girl walking across the bridge, the paintings and the statues and the beauty of putting together the bodies again, the doctor finding his brother under the sheet. When I think of your work, it’s like fireworks going off—I can recall the moment I read it and how it felt to be disturbed by it. There was a lot of violence in that book as well.

ONDAATJE: Yes, and the question of how to write about violence was a problem for me. Some writers get into a kind of pornography of violence. Because the character Anil is a forensic anthropologist, we come to the deaths later. We don’t actually witness the slaughter. And that wasn’t even a conscious decision on my part, but I think it was, for me, the right way to go about it.

McCANN: So, once again, you move your way through and discover a path for the book as you go. You don’t decide beforehand that this is how it’s going to be.

ONDAATJE: Yes. It’s very tense until the last stage of the book—you wonder if the structure will hold. And there’s such a variety of forms one can use in a novel—you can change gear, you can change tone, et cetera. The opening of your book Dancer is that wonderful list, about three pages long, of all the things that are thrown onstage while Nureyev is performing. Then there’s another list at the end with all the things for sale after his death. I adore that kind of structure that seems almost accidental—but you have to find the right place to put those things in.

McCANN: A German publisher I know recently met with Cormac McCarthy. The publisher’s son is a mathematician and all McCarthy wanted to talk about was vectors. I meet a lot of writers who are interested in physics and mathematics and so forth. Divisadero is a book about similar matters. Did you get an A-plus in mathematics?

ONDAATJE: No, I failed all levels of math. This was in England, at a school that decided in its perverse way that I should drop English and keep on taking and failing math…. But the architecture of a book is a kind of mathematical issue, and it fascinates me. I can spend weeks—months, in fact—thinking about it. The opening sequence in Anil’s Ghost first appeared much later on in the book. Then I dropped it. Then, when I handed the book to friends to read, they said, “This book begins too fast,” and “I don’t like her at the beginning.” So I found the earlier piece and rewrote it a bit and put it in as a prologue. And this new opening “justified her,” so to speak.

McCANN: I did a similar thing with Zoli. The last page was originally going to be the first page. You try to feel these things out as you’re going, and invent this architecture, this house. But isn’t it always scary? Because you think it will collapse like a house of cards. Do you still get scared?

ONDAATJE: Oh yeah. I’m scared until three or four months after each book comes out. But seriously, you worry because you are trying to do something you cannot do. I don’t want to write Coming Through Slaughter again. I don’t want to write Anil’s Ghost again. You attempt to do something that you haven’t, and that you are not quite sure you can handle.

McCANN: Nathan Englander, the young novelist, said, “ If you’re gonna spend ten years of your life on a book, it should be about executing the unexecutable.” And you always seem to push the envelope.

ONDAATJE: I don’t really want to be on the edge. I would love to write Noël Coward comedy. I know there is no way I could do it, but there is something delightful about seeing comedy done to perfection.

McCANN: Speaking of form: You’ve written poetry but not short stories.

ONDAATJE: No. I don’t get the short story. I like reading short stories, but with the characters that I have in my books, it takes me so long to understand them.

McCANN: What about screenplays?

ONDAATJE: I have no interest in screenplays. It’s such a dependent form—on money, first of all, and also about thirty other people. Anthony Minghella was a wonderful screenwriter, and at the end of his life he was having to rewrite stuff for people who weren’t as smart as he was. Film is a great art form, but, as Sontag said, it quickly became a decadent art form.

McCANN: You have a section called “Two Photographs” in Divisadero. What do you think about Sontag’s ideas on photography?

ONDAATJE: Actually, I’ve never read her book about photographs.

McCANN: Well, I love walking into the photographs that you create. I sometimes feel like a ghost on the outside of your pages. You create a kind of photograph through your writing, and I lower myself into the background of that photograph. You never tell us how to think, but you allow us to feel in the most extraordinary way.

ONDAATJE: I don’t want to control the response in the scenes that I create. I get that sense in your work, too—that anything could happen. Ornette Coleman has a great line: “The thing you play at the beginning is the territory. What follows is the adventure.” It’s like what you’ve done in the opening of your new book—it starts around 2003, and then you jump back in history. You create a tableau, then you break into it and go backwards.

McCANN: On that note, let’s open this up for questions.

AUDIENCE: In the process of writing a novel, do characters ever refuse to come alive, or just escape you? And do you then drop the character?

ONDAATJE: I would probably keep the character around somewhere—then if he or she is someone I cannot forget, they might appear again in a different form in the next novel, if the character continued to intrigue me. The father ofRafael in Divisadero, for instance, is very secretive. He keeps changing his name the whole time and tries to evolve into somebody else. So I would probably welcome that kind of person. What about you, Colum?

McCANN: I was about two and a half years into the novel Zoli when the main character left me—she just left. And I was in grief. This is fairly embarrassing, but I gave up on the book and was in tears. I spent about two or three weeks that way, having lost, or so it felt, two and a half years of my life.

ONDAATJE: And then?

McCANN: And then she came back. It was as though she said, “I want you to feel that experience of being exiled from someone or something, even just for a very, very brief time.” And then she came back and allowed me to finish the book. Even though I feel that book is a failure in many ways, I love her deeply—and of all the characters I’ve ever created, she’s the one I would go back to and spend the most time with, precisely because she is an enigma, still.

AUDIENCE: Mr. Ondaatje, I wanted to ask you about The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which was truly an experience to read because it breaks so many forms. I wonder if you ever want to try another work like that? And do you want literature to change? If so, in what way?

ONDAATJE: Well, I never aimed to be an experimental writer or to blow up the literary forms of fiction. I just find that when we talk about fiction we become very conservative in our discussion of what a novel is. If you read someone like Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese writer from a much earlier era, he is much more experimental and expansive—working with fact and fiction and so forth—than many who claim the form today. Twentieth century painting and music have both gone through all kinds of radical movements, but the novel has remained a rather staid form. And I think the novel is a big bag of nails and asparagus and everything else. It allows anything into it as long as you have some kind of shape that holds it together. But we are so physically structured by the simpler forms of, for instance, television, that we, readers and critics, seem to demand some simpler and safer form.

McCANN: I am reminded of a line from Coming Through Slaughter that’s in the middle of a page: “Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky. Passing wet chicory that lies in the field like the sky.” The novel has all that jazz written into it. Do you think form gets dictated by content?

ONDAATJE: Definitely. Every book has to find a new form. As for Billy the Kid, that was the only way I could write it—but I wouldn’t want to write another book in that form. That form belonged only to that story. I had no idea Divisaderowas going to be divisive. But that’s why structure is always fascinating.

McCANN: I love the structure of Divisadero. But it has caused critics and readers alike to, to. . .

ONDAATJE: Readers have been more polite, perhaps.

AUDIENCE: Mr. Ondaatje, have you ever considered writing something that reflects the current political struggle in Sri Lanka between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government?

ONDAATJE: Well, Anil’s Ghost does sort of deal with some of that, certainly not all aspects of that. The problem is, when you approach such a large, complicated subject, you cannot write everything about it. If you are writing a novel, you can only give yourself one slice of the issue. And the fiction writer has to find his own form or pattern for the story. So that book is my pattern for an earlier time.

AUDIENCE: I am fascinated by the relationship between fact and fiction in your books—the way they will depict an actual person or event from history in these vivid, poetic documentaries that always, at some level, stay tentative and provisional. I think it was Frank Davey who described the temptation toward documentary and the distrust of history in Canadian poetry and the madness that results. Could you talk about that tension or dynamic in your work?

ONDAATJE: Well, the documentary approach has always been a very important part of our Canadian heart. Perhaps Colum could answer this better, though.

McCANN: I think there is something deeply political going on here. A lot of contemporary writers are imagining historical figures. Why is this happening and what are they questioning? Well, a writer’s responsibility is not to the facts but to the texture of the facts. And I remember Colin Powell getting up five years ago and saying, “This is a photograph of a chemical tanker. Therefore, they have chemical weapons,” which sent our children and our brothers and our sisters to war. The government took those facts and created a fiction out of them. I think a lot of writers are outraged about what has been done to the notion of fact, so they have taken facts themselves and created fictions out of them—but fictions that contain the texture of truth. If we recognized the texture of truth, perhaps we would not have allowed Colin Powell to stand up there and help our government ship soldiers out from this country to engage in a wrongful war.

AUDIENCE: That reminds me of what John Dufresne called “the lie that tells a truth” in his guide to writing fiction. But my question has to do with process. There is such vivid imagery in your writings, as well as powerful emotional resonance. Does one come before the other, or are they intertwined? Do you start with a feeling or do you start with imagery?

ONDAATJE: I don’t think I begin with either one. I begin with a scene. Three girls are sitting down at a breakfast table in Peru—and I just know that if I keep writing, something will happen. I don’t think about the imagery. In the first draft, I don’t think about any of those things. What I want is to get the most complicated scene in the clearest way on the page—or the most intimate scene, perhaps. A girl walks into a barn and sees her sister lying on the ground, and then a horse comes in and suddenly you have three things going on simultaneously. And she is remembering all this from much later on, so there is that kind of layering as well. I’m not trying to make things complicated for complication’s sake, but I think things are layered. If I describe a scene where someone walks into a pizza parlor, has a pizza, and goes out, that’s fine—I have no problems with that. But if it’s going to take up much of a book then something else has to be happening subliminally or subconsciously—or maybe this is his seventh pizza in the book. That would say something.

McCANN: I do start from images, and then I move towards sound and rhythm. So it is a different process. And this is the funny thing about teaching creative writing programs: Everybody will have a different answer. And that is the magic and the mystery of writing.