Monday, September 1, 1997

Q&A Michael Ondaatje: Swimming

Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review. Date Approximate.

HB: I have heard you describe swimming as something that could change a writing style. How?

MO: No pencil and pen, no pencil and pen out there. You think, you’re more active. During one period of my life I got into the rhythm of writing in the morning, swimming at lunch time, imagining scenarios.

But I think anything can affect your prose style. It can be something as simple as how you move within your landscape. I’m sure that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about swimming, reacting back and forth in the water.

HB: Swimming is an apt image for your style. You throw yourself into something that interests you and let plot, structure, and the rest flow from that initial interest. First you leave shore behind. Then you figure it out. No maps or navigational devices.

MO: Brave or foolish there is the need to take the first leap. I’m in that stage now, as I have been every time I’ve finished a book — it takes a long time to know in which direction to leap.

You know you’ve got to leave shore and it’s going to be a long time out there so you don’t want to leap in the wrong direction. It allows me a kind of tension and allows me to feel I’m not rehashing what I’ve done. I’m attempting to discover something about myself or what’s around me.

HB: What do you need to know before you jump?

MO: I do worry about not having compass, map and all that. I suppose the only security is having done it before. If you’re a wood sculptor you know you can sculpt wood. If you’re a writer without that close combination of action and idea, there’s more doubt. You start with an image or some character you don’t know. For instance, I read a couple of sentences about Buddy Bolden and thought this is someone I’d like to understand.

That’s all there is to start with. It’s not light out there.

HB: What attracted you to Buddy Bolden?

MO: Buddy Bolden went mad in a parade, a tremendously private act in the middle of a public place. It’s like going mad on cnn today. I was familiar with jazz all through my teens. I wanted to know who this person was. There was nothing available except rumors, anecdotes, and the driest history. I wanted to understand his character, I wanted to discover him.

HB: What I found surprising in Going Through Slaughter (1976) is how irrelevant race was. I kept waiting to come upon the issue of Buddy Bolden’s blackness — after all, he’s a black man developing jazz in New Orleans in 1900 — but race doesn’t enter into it.

MO: Was that a problem for you?

HB: It was hard for me to think of him completely outside the racial situation of the United States at that time. I don’t think someone born in the U.S. could have written about Buddy Bolden in a completely color-blind way.

MO: When you write about historical characters, there is more than one story to be told. If someone wrote a book about Bolden and put it in terms of a racial energy or a racial antagonism or a racial pride, that could be totally valid. But this was the portrait of an artist to me. Race was not the focus in that book. Buddy goes mad because of the person he is, not because of race.

It’s like someone asking me how do I feel about being an Asian in Canada — it’s nothing I think about twenty fours a day. I think about music, or my relationships, or a day in the life of my family. And at the time I wrote Going Through Slaughter, race seemed less relevant to me than the divide between haves and have-nots.

HB: In The English Patient (1992race plays a significant role, though it doesn’t dominate the book.

MO: The way I write about race has changed. At the time, I didn’t want Bolden to be a symbol — not of race, not of jazz and not of art. I was interested in writing about an individual, a private individual. Race was not overriding.

I think about this question a lot. It’s a major issue in writing today: how do you write about race?

HB: Figures from American mythology — Buddy Bolden, Billy the Kid — play a large role in your work.

MO: It’s the way someone like Wim Wenders makes movies about American gangsters. It’s in the clouds; it’s not quite the real world. I just read Peter Handke’s book about America, Short Letter, Long Farewell. It’s about a large mythic country and it’s really quite wonderful. But no American could have written it.

HB: The breakdown of literary conventions seems to occur frequently in your work. Near the end of The English Patient you take the reader by surprise by entering directly into the book, writing about a main character that “She is a woman I don’t know well enough to hold in my wing, if writers have wings, to harbour for the rest of my life.“

MO: In Coming  Through Slaughter, too, I entered into the book. I talk about how the only way I could write about Bolden was through an invocation as opposed to a portrait.

I didn’t want to have to appear in The English Patient. There were enough characters without me. But when I was coming to the last few pages of the book and the characters were departing . . . I had felt so protective toward those characters, you know, carrying them very carefully like little miniatures through the world war, not wanting them damaged. In the last pages, as I was about to release Hannah, I surprised myself, writing those two lines in which the narrator speaks directly. I wondered, do I keep it or dump it? I decided, keep it because it’s unexpected and feels right emotionally. What I had to do then was go back into the book and insert two very brief hints that the narrator was present.

In the middle of the book I interject that there is something about these characters we don’t know yet. At another point, I added a description of the English patient that could not possibly be Hannah’s description. There were two or three little prods or preparations.

Technically, the book is kind of odd as well. At times the dialogue is in quotation marks and at times it’s not. Then it’s a different kind of dialogue, mind dialogue or narrative. If you have quotation marks running all the time it becomes very busy on the page. You’re constantly watching script as opposed to story.

HB: I think of your work as very evocative. You use fractured sentences often and it feels as if you are trying to summon something, make it palpable, bring it in from a distance.

MO: It is that. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1974) was a different kind of book, which had only one central character and was a kind of dramatic monologue for two hundred pages. I could leap twenty years within a single sentence, it was all right, it was a one man show. Billy controls it all. He’s almost a stage manager, pointing over here, pointing over there. In the English Patient or In The Skin of a Lion there are four or five central characters and you can’t do that. It would be ridiculous, scattered all over.

In The English Patient I wanted to go back to the freer voice of the early works. I could do it because the structure of the story was so tight — one house, four people — and that allowed me to drift.

HB: The English Patient reads far more like a novel than Billy the Kid. You call The Collected Works Of Billy The Kid a novel because there’s nothing else you can call it.

MO: I don’t call it a novel. I call it a book of poems half the time. I don’t call it anything.

HB: Do you feel links to other novelists who look to history for material — E.L. Doctorow and Jeanette Winterson come to mind — and who blur genres all the time?

MO: It’s not a big issue for me. I do it all the time but not because I have a plan or scheme to break this or that barriers. The issue of what is truth and what is history and what is reality and what is legend and all that — it’s not a big question for me. I suppose in the English Patient there’s a lot about history — you’ve got historians, explorers, archeologists all over the place. But it’s sort of private. I want to do private history.

The problem for me with Doctorow is his staying with all those famous people. I’m not interested in famous people any more. I’m sick of politicians, I’m not interested in millionaires. That’s my only problem with him. I thought Billy Bathgate beautifully written.

HB: You smash conventions without malice aforethought.

MO: I do it by divine right! I mean, it’s just not the way we see the world. It’s very old fashioned. It’s like special stables for certain kinds of horses.

HB: But it makes people feel secure. Amos Oz gets at this when he asks if a second rate Ph.D. thesis is supposed to be truer than Tolstoy because the Ph.D. thesis is nonfiction.

MO: That’s wonderful. I enjoy the security too. This thriller I might be reading out on the beach is just a thriller on the beach. But you can’t read those books for too long. You want to be kind of sparring with a book.

HB: In Running In The Family (1982) you take a running leap from Canada to Sri Lanka. You go from snowy Toronto to a land of cinnamon groves, coconuts, and cobras. There’s a figure in the distance, your father, who you try to summon by every means possible. This suggested the word ‘evocative’ about your work, as if you are always trying to summon a distant climate, person or a locale because your life has those division within it.

MO: Running In The Family began with unconscious knowledge that I was going to try write about my father, because he played such a central role in my early life. I had no idea whether I could write about him or whether there was enough information. When I went back to Sri Lanka I came across a huge series of funny stories about him, humor in the Elizabethan or Jacobean mode. Somewhere in the middle of that book I knew I had to pause, to get deeper. No more jokes.

HB: Some of your earlier work had left the impression you were more interested in violence than in charm.

MO: There was more violence in my work then than now. Billy was about violence. One of the reasons I wrote The Collected Works of Billy the Kid was that I was so sick and tired of all the clichés about him. There was Michael McClure’s play, The Beard. Quite wonderful, but it was a language play, Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow. And the comic books showed him on his white horse — not that bad a guy, maybe a bit of a rat before but cleaned up now. And in Arthur Penn’s movie he’s a bad guy but he’s played by Paul Newman.

I wanted to write a real western.

HB: Why?

MO: Because I grew up with Billy.

HB: You grew up with Billy the Kid in Sri Lanka?

MO: Yeah, yeah, on the back of the book there’s a picture of a boy and a comic book about Billy. That’s me in Sri Lanka about age nine. I wanted to do my version of this figure who had been implanted in me. Whatever charm he had, he also had to be cold-blooded. And that’s where the violence came in.

I was labeled as a violent writer from then on. But I’m not very interested in violence.

HB: Whose work are you reading these days?

MO: I love Don DeLillo. I think he’s a great metaphysical writer. Who do you like?

HB: I’ve just finished Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony.

MO: Wonderful book.

HB: And you. And David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.

MO: Great writer, lovely writer. Do you know his An Imaginary Life?

HB: No.

MO: It’s about Ovid in exile. It’s his great book.

HB: And for some reason I’ve been thinking about Heart of Darkness.

MO: Let me tell you two stories that may forever change the way you think about Heart of Darkness. W. H. Hudson, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Conrad, they were all living within hours of each other. Hudson was a naturalist and when he reviewed Heart of Darkness he wrote, “Great trees, Joseph, great trees.”

The other story comes from my son. They were doing Heart of Darkness in university. Just before the exam the teacher said, “For those of you who haven’t read the book and are relying on your classroom notes I want to clarify one thing because last year somebody who took the exam misunderstood. When Kurtz dies, he says, ‘The horror! The horror!’ — he doesn’t say, ‘Hooray! Hooray!’”

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