Michael Ondaatje, In Peak Form
Coming at a Story From Different Angles, the Author Constructs a Novel

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007


The more one talks to Michael Ondaatje about the way he writes his novels, the more one is drawn toward a simple, cautionary conclusion:

Kids, don't try this at home.

Ask the author of "The English Patient," "Anil's Ghost" and the just-published "Divisadero" if he has ever worked from an outline and he bursts out laughing.

"I did try once," he says. "I wrote a kind of treatment." But this brief stab at planning destroyed his enthusiasm for the material: "So then I said, 'Now, why would I want to write that?' "

Many writers start novels without knowing precisely where they're going. But when it comes to improvisation, Ondaatje is an extreme case.

He begins with fragmentary images or situations -- a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse -- and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years before "a kind of approximate draft" materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje's creative process, which can take two more years.

"I move things around," he has explained, "till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work's true voice and structure."

So he does have an outline.

It just doesn't show up till he's nearly done.

Writing like this is a high-wire act whose results can be both spellbinding and disorienting. Take "Divisadero," from which Ondaatje will read tomorrow at Politics and Prose.

The new novel began when, as a visiting writer at Stanford, he fell in love with the rugged, rolling hills north of San Francisco. Imagining an "odd kind of family" in that landscape, he says, "became the book." But "Divisadero" doesn't stay in that California landscape, or with that family's explosive history. A little more than halfway through, the action shifts entirely to France, carried forward by a new set of characters. Ondaatje had no clue, when he started writing, that these French people would show up.

Are the two stories linked?

Yes, they're filled with subtle parallels and thematic echoes.

Will readers see all the links the first time through?

Maybe not.

"It's a quite radical form," Ondaatje says. He can imagine reviewers scratching their heads with disapproval. "Oh yeah, I'm going to get that. It'll happen."

Then again:

When Ondaatje wrote "The English Patient," he used the same intuitive, build-from-fragments technique. For something approaching a year, he didn't know who his title character was. Two major characters wandered in, unplanned, from his previous novel. Another showed up, "out of the blue," quite late in the game.

That particular improvisation, published in 1992, won the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, and became an Academy Award-winning film. It made Ondaatje, as he puts it, "more than just reasonably famous" and endowed him with the financial independence to write books any way he chooses.

Which, as a look at his track record shows, is precisely what he has been doing all along.

'Blah, Blah, Blah, T.S. Eliot'

There's a kind of controlled wildness to Ondaatje's appearance. Blue-eyed, white-bearded, his uncombed hair seeming to rise straight from his head, he evokes -- at 63 -- a combination of Prospero and Lear.

He has arranged to meet a reporter at the Coach House Press, the funky little publisher that put out his first poetry collection four decades ago. The walls are lined with the kind of literary efforts that generate press runs of 300 copies.

"All these books have survived here, Stan. That's not bad," he tells Coach House founder Stan Bevington.

"Survival of the tough and uninteresting," Bevington replies.

"Well, thanks -- I see my own book there," Ondaatje shoots back.

Ondaatje's life can be seen as a successful improvisation from a set of unlikely circumstances.

He was born in 1943 in the island nation of Sri Lanka, then the British colony known as Ceylon. Ondaatje's Dutch name (on-DA-chey) comes from an earlier generation of colonizers, but his complex ancestry includes multiple nationalities, among them Sinhalese and Tamil. His 1982 memoir, "Running in the Family," portrays his parents as members of an innocently decadent upper class. Their marriage ended, destroyed by his father's alcoholism, when Ondaatje was quite young.

Both parents were readers, but "in Sri Lanka you never heard of a writer," he says. The literary impulse found its home in the oral tradition, in raucous family stories told over and over, with inevitable reshapings and embellishments.

He left for England at 11 and became an English schoolboy. He wouldn't return to Sri Lanka for two decades, and in his new surroundings, literature felt so intimidating -- "it was Keats and Shelley and, you know, blah, blah, blah, T.S. Eliot" -- that he was "terrified to even think of being a writer."

Canada changed that.

He crossed the Atlantic in 1962, at the urging of an older brother who'd preceded him. "I was sort of lost at that point," Ondaatje recalls. "He said, 'You should come here, it's great.' And he was right."

For one thing, Ondaatje had the luck to encounter an inspirational teacher, Arthur Motyer, at Bishop's University: "Everyone in the class started writing as a result of his enthusiasm." For another, something in the Canadian air made writing less frightening.

"People were writing and they weren't famous," Ondaatje says, groping for words to describe the creative atmosphere in which he began publishing poems. Hanging around such welcoming venues as Coach House meant "finding writers your age, and you were not that great, but you were all about the same place."

Poetry was all he wrote at first. But eventually his literary horizons widened.

In the late 1960s, he set to work on what he thought would be a book of lyric poems based on the life of Billy the Kid. (Even a child in Sri Lanka wasn't immune to the lure of Westerns.) But after writing for a year or so, the poet started feeling trapped by verse.

"I just wanted to get out and leap on a horse," he says, "and, you know, have a scene."

The Right Accidental Notes

Leap he did.

The book that resulted, "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," is sometimes called a novel and sometimes not, but it is perhaps best described as experimental collage. It mixes poems with prose of varying lengths and points of view, photographs, songs, a fictional interview, snippets of eyewitness testimony and more.

Whatever you call "Billy," it won the Canadian Governor General's Award in the poetry or drama category. It brought Ondaatje some unwanted attention as well.

A crotchety former Canadian prime minister, John Diefenbaker, hated the award-winning book and called a news conference to denounce it. This was good for sales: Poetry, as Ondaatje points out, never makes the front pages of newspapers. Yet his "little glimpse of the dangers and the weirdness" of fame unsettled him enough that it showed up in his first true novel, "Coming Through Slaughter."

"Writers exaggerate the situations of their own lives," he explains.

"Slaughter" is a fictional portrait of jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, who left no known recordings. Little is known about Bolden except that he "began to get famous right after 1900," in the words of a friend, by merging hymns and blues into something never heard before, and that he went mad playing the cornet in a New Orleans parade when he was 31 -- the same age Ondaatje was when he was writing the book.

Reading one character's description of Bolden's improvisations, it's easy to see parallels with Ondaatje's own:

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn't understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot -- see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.

How did a Sri Lanka-born Canadian get so far inside the head of a black American jazzman?

"I'm not quite sure how I did it still," Ondaatje says -- though the fact that he always wanted to be Fats Waller may have helped.

By this point, the conversation has moved from Coach House to a nearby restaurant, a few blocks east on Bloor Street. Were you to continue east for a mile and a half, you'd find yourself just north of the Toronto neighborhood where Ondaatje lives with his wife, writer and editor Linda Spalding. Not long after that, you'd be on the Bloor Street Viaduct, a bridge whose early-20th-century construction Ondaatje describes in his second novel, "In the Skin of a Lion." That book includes an astonishing scene in which a disoriented nun goes off the end of the half-finished span, disappearing "into the long depth of air which held nothing, only sometimes a rivet or a dropped hammer during the day."

"It wasn't planned, as usual," Ondaatje says. Nor was the part in which an immigrant workman miraculously snatches the nun out of that depth of air. But if he hadn't imagined these things, "The English Patient" -- in which the rescued nun's not-yet-born daughter, Hana, was to play a leading role -- might have been a different book.

"Billy the Kid" may have offered its author a hint of fame, but "The English Patient" brought him the full monty. "Bang, bang, bang, all this was happening," he says, referring to his Booker win and his pursuit by filmmakers. "What saved me was that I was already into 'Anil's Ghost.' "

"Anil" is set in the midst of Sri Lanka's murderous civil war, with its legions of death squad victims. Ondaatje researched the book by interviewing forensic anthropologists and following doctors into war zones ("they were talking about cricket the whole time"). It felt surreal to fly into Hollywood for the ceremony at which "The English Patient" won nine Oscars.

What had felt utterly natural, however, was observing veteran film editor Walter Murch's work on the adaptation of the novel. Invited into the editing room, Ondaatje had seen Murch make decision after decision that established the movie's pace, influenced its moral tone and shaped its disparate elements into a creative whole.

The writer watched, fascinated, as the shadowy outline of intention came into focus -- just as it did when he edited his own work.

Unanticipated Collisions

Ondaatje took the title "Divisadero" from a street in San Francisco. "I just love that name," he says, but there was more to his choice than that. The word suggests a dividing line, which seems appropriate for a novel split by both narrative and geography.

It may also, he notes, suggest gazing at something from a distance: at another person's story, for example, or into one's own past.

"Divisadero" starts with the odd assembled family Ondaatje imagined into that stunning California landscape. There's a man whose wife has died in childbirth; two sisters, Anna and Claire, unrelated by blood; and Coop, a somewhat older orphan. A love affair sparks a burst of violence that blows all three young people into separate, haunted lives.

Coop surfaces as a cardsharp in Tahoe, Claire as an investigator for a San Francisco lawyer. Anna turns to writing and moves to France, where she researches the life of a poet named Lucien Segura, a man "disconcerted by the secrets he had kept from himself." It is Segura's unknown history, and in particular the story of an old, unrecognized love, that takes over the last third of the novel.

What to make of this abrupt turn? Might Murch, Ondaatje's cinematic alter ego, be able to explain?

Well . . .

Murch hasn't read "Divisadero" yet and thus can't really judge it. But "there's a rule of thumb in filmmaking," he says, "which is that all the central characters in the film have to be on the boat by at least the halfway point. Preferably by the end of the first third."

Murch and Ondaatje have collaborated on a book of interviews: "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film." In it, Murch talks about "the incredible richness that comes from the unanticipated collisions of things."

The phrase may come as close as anything to capturing what Ondaatje is up to.

"I think what he's done in this novel is very daring," says his longtime Canadian editor, Ellen Seligman, "and I think it works supremely." Readers will absorb the book's meaning, she thinks, less through its narrative than "at a more or less visceral level."

"There's a kind of a great indirection to 'Divisadero,' " agrees his American editor, Sonny Mehta. "The echoes build up as the second half unfolds."

Ondaatje himself finds it hard to articulate the indirect connections he has worked so hard to achieve.

There are "no definite parallels" between his French and American stories, he says, just "lots of echoes." Parents discover secrets about their children. Siblings' identities get confused. A story involving a father ends -- "I could not think of anything to take it further" -- only to be echoed and advanced in a second story, involving a different father.

Binding all this together is the remorseless pull of the past, and the question of whether we can escape it.

"We have art," Nietzsche said, "so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth." The philosopher's view is quoted twice in "Divisadero," followed each time by Anna's view that "the raw truth of an incident never ends."

"It's a phrase that's in debate in the novel," Ondaatje says.

But at least it's in debate in a finished novel now.

"The book is done; the book is out there and you feel certain about it," he says happily as a waiter collects the check. "Six months ago, I was still in turmoil."

And yet:

Can the creative process ever really come to an end for Michael Ondaatje, insatiable improviser, perpetual hunter for the right accidental notes? The answer is suggested by his attitude toward rereading his own books.

He never has.

"I should read them someday, and learn something," he says. "But I'd probably want to rewrite them."

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