Q&A: Michael Ondaatje

Originally appeared in Vancouver Sun and National Post, Sept 21, 2011:

In Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, an 11-year-old boy named Michael boards a passenger ship for a three-week journey from Colombo to England. It is a trip familiar to the author, who, as an 11-year-old, boarded a similar boat, and crossed the same sea. However, the similarities between the two Michaels are divided there – between the real life of the man and the fictional life of his creation.

Ondaatje has worked this tricky space before – poetically transmitting his interpretation of the life of an outlaw in The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, of a missing Canadian theatre magnate in his novel In The Skin of The Lion, and of a desert-roaming count in The English Patient. With The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje serves forth another work based on real events; however, as the author assures, this book too is a “work of fiction.”

Ahead of his appearance tonight at St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, as part of The Vancouver Writers Festival’s reading series, the Booker award-winning Canadian author discusses his latest work.

Q: How did the idea for this novel come about?

A: I began six months after I finished Divisadero, the last book. I was telling my family about how I was put on this ship as a kid from Sri Lanka, and it got me thinking – my God, that is a bizarre thing for a child who is 11 years old. I don’t remember the trip very much, so I thought it would be fiction. I took the idea and I had to create the characters and the situation and make it as dramatic as possible – sort of like an adventure story – and I had to populate the boat with all these characters.

Q: The boat provides an interesting dynamic: a kind of floating stage for your characters. Do you see this book as maybe more theatrical than previous works?

A: That’s not a bad example – the stage, like some kind of comedy, where people come in one way and go out the other way; the idea of having a limited space and lots of characters. Most of my books have three or four characters, but this one has 12, or something like that. It’s crowded, but at the same time, everyone is very solitary – you go to your room, and you are alone, but then you go the deck, or the passageways. You have the possible farce in there as well.

Q: Is a degree of playfulness, a good sense of youth, important for a writer?

A: Oh yes. I think in some ways, that playfulness – which I hope I still have – is something I tap into. It’s funny, I’ve just been re-reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, which I first read when I was 18 years old. I loved it then, and reading it again – it’s just such a wonderful book about youth and being against the world. A fantastic book, very, very funny. There is this youthfulness and playfulness and [the characters] are also unaware of danger, which is interesting.

Q: There is a certain inference by giving your character the same name as yourself, which you address in an afterword in The Cat’s Table. Was there a time when your 11-year-old was not named Michael?

A: I hadn’t thought about calling him Michael at all for the first part of the book and then when I did I thought this is a bit risky. I didn’t want it to be seen as memoir. There was a bit of a danger there. But I think I separated him from myself more because if I had the gall to call him Michael then he could really not be like me, should not be like me.

Q: The novel shifts time and place, coming to Canada, to Vancouver and beyond.

A: Everyone’s going west in the book, gradually, so I kept going that way. I wanted some of it to take place in Canada and also I wanted the last scene to take place on one of the Gulf Islands. The idea of having a ferry to continue the idea of the ship was important, the metaphor of a boat journey seemed to me a good way of continuing the story in the present.

Q: The Cat’s Table is a great image, and one I’ve never heard it before. Is this a thing associated with passenger ships?

A: Not at all. It’s a German term. I was talking to somebody in Germany, and they talked about the cat’s table being a term for a location at a dinner party or large banquet where it was the least significant or the least privileged location, by the bathrooms or the kitchen.

So if you are part of a big event, and you don’t have a good seat, and you are at the cat’s table.

It’s a phrase that has nothing to do with ships really but it was so close to the captain’s table, that I put it in the book.

Q: If you were seated at the cat’s table for a ship ride, what other writers would you want along with you?

A: I need about a week to answer that question. Some would have to be badly behaved writers, for sure. It would have to range from someone like Michael Winter – who is actually a very well behaved person – to someone like James Salter, who is also very interesting. The others, I’d have to think about.

Q: You have created many characters in your novels. Do certain ones sit with you more closely than others?

A: I think Hanna stands out to me. She was in In The Skin of the Lion and The English Patient. Kip certainly does and Temelcoff does in In Skin of the Lion. It was odd when Caravaggio and Hanna went into the next book – The English Patient. Temelcoff was the one I was really fascinated by. There is no real distinction: they are not loved more than other characters.

Q: You were involved in the process of making your novel The English Patient into a film, which had great success. Is it a process you’d be interested in participating in again?

A: I hadn’t thought about this as a film at all, not that I’d thought about The English Patient as a film. I think I was very lucky with The English Patient working with somebody like Anthony Minghella but I don’t know if this would make a film. Perhaps it can, but I haven’t really thought about it in that format. To translate it to film would have to be something else completely.


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