during the composition of his novels:
A man having his photograph taken and then having him
realize he had to steal it back (The English Patient)
A scene where a mother says, “Shoot the dog”
and the son doesn’t shoot the dog (Divisadero)
Michael Ondaatje likes writing in other people’s houses. On the unseasonably hot weekend of our interview we meet at the home of one of Ondaatje’s friends, where the novelist has been staying on and off for the last several months, and where he wrote part of his new novel, Divisadero. It is a quiet house on an equally tranquil street in the Berkeley flats. Divisadero takes place in the Bay Area and by staying in this house Ondaatje was continuing a time-tested habit of moving to where his novels are set. When writing The English Patient he moved in to a small house in the Italian countryside, for Anil’s Ghost he found a house in his native Sri Lanka, and recently he took up residence in the French countryside while writing the portion of Divisadero that takes place in France. He says he can get work done anywhere, but that a particular house can ignite his imagination.
Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, moved to England in 1954 with his mother, and relocated eight years later in Toronto. He began as a poet, and a very good one, twice winning the Governor General’s prize. He still writes poetry but has found his home in the novel, for which he’s earned an international reputation and has been awarded a long list of major awards including the Booker Prize for The English Patient. Divisadero is his fifth novel; he is also the author of ten books of poetry, two plays, three works of nonfiction, and a memoir.
Ondaatje’s books are morally complex and structurally adventurous, in part because he doesn’t know the structure going in. His method, he says, is to cast out in the dark. He begins with dreamlike images, slowly building his intricate story, but then subjects his work to a lengthy and vigorous editing process that can span years. Ondaatje is a genius with time and place, in part as a result of what he’s learned from his other loves: music, film, and photography.
He spent two afternoons with me talking about his influences, methods, and ambitions. He acknowledges that he never knows as he’s writing whether he’ll be able to pull a book off. Now in his early sixties, Ondaatje has a gentle, welcoming manner, and longish white hair, which rises somewhat wildly from his head. He has a soft but resonant speaking voice and laughs easily, often while poking fun at himself.
TOM BARBASH: There are several moments in [Divisadero] in which a character will think or say something which has to do with the process of writing. I’m thinking of Lucien Segura’s lines: “The skill of writing offers little to the viewer. There is only the five-centimetre relationship between your eyes and the pen. Any skill in the living or dreaming is invisible…”
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: With writing you’re always a little underwater. No one’s going to know why you’re pacing something in a particular way, without commas as opposed to with commas. It’s just a hand moving. Film is interesting because all the elements that go into writing are there physically—the sound man, the lighting man, the cutting, the acting, the inventing of the story by the writer. All these things are there in the writer—you’re thinking about how loud someone’s saying something; are they whispering or yelling? All those elements are there unspoken in the text, but in the writer’s mind. No one can see them actively or physically on a stage, but these choices affect a reader. In writing it might be something small while in film that decision might be physically enacted through the soundtrack, or the swell of music.
Think about the choice of where a paragraph breaks. It is such an intricate little thing that happens during the editing process. I was reading The Curtain by Kundera. He was talking about how when Flaubert rewrote one of his books he made the paragraphs longer. Three paragraphs became one. It changed everything—pacing, meaning. It’s fascinating. And yet who but a writer talks about things like that?
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