Michael Ondaatje Interview: On Writing and Emotion
I interviewed Michael Ondaatje in October 1992. He had just published The English Patient and was in Norwich for the annual UEA writers’ festival. We met at the Station Hotel, a gloomy building overlooking the River Wensum, and talked for an hour or so in its deserted foyer lounge – the only distraction, a parade of swans drifting by outside the window. Their sinister elegance made a fitting backdrop for a writer whose work, to that moment, had been full of Dainty Monsters (the title of his first collection of poetry in 1967), paradoxical presences suggesting a dualism never fully reconciled. As you might expect from a poet of intimacy and the mysteries of the human heart, but also one intent on the multitudinousness of life, much of his conversation was about the uses of lyricism or emotion in writing, and the multi-stranded story.
KW: Gunter Grass talked of migration as the defining experience of the twentieth century. I wanted to begin by asking you about your own – from Sri Lanka to England, and from England to Canada. You were eleven when you arrived in England, what did it feel like?
MO: It was pretty much a culture shock for me.
KW: Had you visited before?
MO: No, I’d never left. My main image was of a country that was always under snow. The few photographs I’d seen had snow in them so it was quite a surprise when I arrived, I think in September, to find there was no snow. But there was this culture shock which happened to me twice in one decade. The first move, to England, was stronger, because I didn’t want to come here and go to school.
KW: Was it a boarding school?
MO: Mostly I wasn’t a boarder, luckily, I think that’s what saved me. Some of my family were here so I had my daily life, and the Sri Lankan connections were still there. I was only a boarder for the last year so I didn’t feel cut off from the life I’d lived as a child – which was not so much grand, as just very free and all over the place. But it did feel strange. I remember the first day of school was a nightmare, all these odd customs and rules and pieces of clothing.
KW: And the cold, did it bother you? I remember Wilson Harris, who I interviewed for a film, telling me when he came here from Guyana he found the changing seasons so exotic.
MO: Well it was exotic. And I got totally caught up in it because I had to forget my past: in order to deal with the present I had to forget my past.
KW: You said once you felt England seemed like a place where if you began a job you’d have to stay stuck in it for the rest of your life, a very static place, and this was why you decided to move on to somewhere else.
MO: Yeah. I think when I finished school I felt like that. I’d no idea what I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to do what seemed possible to me here at the time. It was pre-Sixties, pre-Beatles, so it was a couple of years before eveything changed. And it felt like my family was at a certain level that seemed a nightmare to me because we had no money and no contacts or even real skills as far as we knew. So it would have to be a job for me in a chartered acountant firm or something like that, which I knew nothing about and didn’t want.
KW: And what about the other kids at school? What sort of a place was it?
MO: It was a real mixture, a public school, one of the early Eleven Plus ones. It was not just the aristocracy or anything like that. [Ondaatje went to Dulwich College.]
KW: And why did you make your escape to Canada?
MO: My brother [Christopher, who became a business man and philanthropist] had been earlier.
KW: Salman Rushdie talked of his school days at Rugby [another grand private school, which in England are known for historical reasons as public schools] and of the advantages he had there, being hybrid, being mixed and complex enough to grapple with modernity in a way that some of his contemporaries weren’t. Do you feel the same?
MO: Well I think he’s right. But I still don’t feel capable of grappling with modernity – even if I am a hybrid! It certainly makes it easier to be aware of the ironies of place, though. You do have a double vision. I guess that’s what he’s talking about, though I don’t know that it necessarily teaches you, or gives you the gift of being able to deal with it. A person from one location who’s seven generations at that location is just another kind of person, someone who grew out of a place and can write a book like Ulverton. Then there are those who can deal with a place as this strange mixture.
KW: Maybe there’s a difference between someone like Rushdie who’s Anglo-Indian, trying to reconcile two distinct cultures, and someone like yourself who’s family were widely mixed over three hundred years.
MO: Right, mine is more complicated. Even when I go back I’m still not quite sure what the hell we were. I spent a day with one of my family members telling me about our background. It was just a strange thing, involving Holland and the French Revolution and even more complicated than I thought – he didn’t know who the hell he was!
KW: In Running in the Family [an autobiographical work of 1982 about his extended family in Sri Lanka] you talk about this group of people who were distinct from the English community there. Was yours a very closed community?
MO: No. It wasn’t a community to do with race at all. It was a nice mixture. There was a sort of class system, I expect, but it was complicated. I was reading a piece in the Guardian about the burghers in Sri Lanka, saying I was not a burgher because I had Tamil blood, which is perfectly true, and they saw that as a block for me. The burgher class is another complicated thing – Dutch colonial. But it felt very free. I just didn’t feel any limitations when I was growing up.
KW: What about the situation with the Tamils then? Were you aware of it?
MO: No. You had very different kind of Tamils. There were those who lived in Jaffna, and those in Columbo who were part of a [broader] culture that I was a part of: I was part Singhalese, part Tamil, and this other mixture.
KW: Which writers have influenced you?
MO: It is a very eclectic group really. When I began to write I was reading Yeats and then much later and more obviously, [William Carlos] Williams. I think someone like Marquez wasn’t an influence but was a little delight, more of a recognition.
KW: And when you were younger?
MO: I used to read anything – pot-boilers, spy novels. I didn’t read any poetry, I didn’t read any serious literature.
KW: And what about the reading you had to do for school? Did you see it as an imposition?
MO: Shakespeare? No, I loved it. I had an odd career at school because I was very good at English. Then O Levels happened and I did well in English but failed Maths, and the system they had to deal with this was to make me drop English and take Maths. So I didn’t do English at A Level. It was totally frustrating. What happened to me then was I read on my own: the Ian Flemings as well as Sartre.
KW: What about the relationship between writing and research in your work – is there a pattern? I wonder, for instance, with regard to The English Patient , how far did you conceive of the story before you began your research? Or did you just begin reading around and feel your way through it?
MO: Both, I guess. That period [the Second World War] always interested me. I’d read stuff in the past but not in the light of working on a novel, so I began the book with some common knowledge of the desert exploration and the war. But it usually begins with the mystery of knowing who is this person in the plane [this is how The English Patient starts] and then gradually you’re writing. It happens simultaneously. I don’t spend six months researching a chapter and then six months writing it.
KW: There is often in your writing a sense of things gathering in the dark and looming out at you. Is that something you do consciously, to reflect the discovery of character?
MO: No, it just tends to happen [laughs]. I mean I wasn’t even aware of it until the end of In the Skin of A Lion  where there are several scenes like that. And, of couse, there are some in this one [The English Patient] too.
KW: But even as early as The Collected Works of Billy the Kid  there are descriptions of strange bodies surrounded by total blackness. And that seems to be an image of the way the writing happens.
MO: Perhaps it might be to do with the fact that sometimes I’m just not sure what’s beyond the candle flame. It’s almost like we wait for the scene to emerge, or the plot to emerge, or the character to emerge. So it may be a subconscious thing of…
KW: I was thinking of the Russian Formalist notion of “estrangie”, making strange. If you surround everything with this blackness, perhaps that’s a way of making people re-look?
MO: Yeah, see the scene in a different way. No, I don’t really think like that. I’m not really thinking of the reader when I’m writing those things. It’s much more to do with me trying to clarify something. Or a boy at the end of a dark field coming towards the light, something like that. And often in those scenes I don’t really know what’s at the other end. So it’s a surprise to me as to what’s going to happen.
KW: There’s a passage in In the Skin of a Lion about the men who work as dyers. People of different races stand in vats of different colours. You say: “this is a scene I could paint, but it would be wrong to paint the scene because what you would be doing would be aestheticising what’s happening”. You not only given us the scene, you give a lot of information about the harshness of the situation for the workers. I wonder, do you think this is a danger – here, of course, it’s one you address directly – a danger of aestheticising or making pretty in your very lyrical kind of writing?
MO: I think there is a danger of that, for sure. And it always worries me. I’m very conscious of the photograph which doesn’t really capture anything except this image, whether it’s a blur or whether it’s an interesting face. But what does it say in the end? What does this painting say in the end? So it’s almost like each scene is another version of the photograph, or from a different angle, or trying to get at some kind of understanding or context.
KW: But even by giving a series of shots rather than one, that still doesn’t necessarily convey ‘hard’ or material information.
MO: No, no, it doesn’t. Often not at all. And there’s a context of history, or a social context of language sometimes that gets hidden, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m conscious of that and know it’s a problem but I’m not sure how to solve it yet.
KW: But, then, often behind the argument against aestheticism lies authoritarianism, a sense of what the novel should be. And your writing challenges these limits. It’s about stretching any pre-determined notion of fiction. Do you think the novel has endless possibilities or are there limits to how far you can push it?
MO: Well there may be limits but I don’t know what they are yet [laughs]. One is always trying to go a bit further. And I think that you’re right in their [some critics] belief that the novel is a novel of ideas, where there’s a secure narrator who tells us what to think, which I don’t like very much. In that sense, in my work there may not seem to be an intellectual point of view, but to me it is there – by connecting the dots, perhaps.
KW: Maybe it’s laziness, a fear of having to make that connection for themselves?
MO: Yeah, I don’t know what it is. It always surprises me when a reader sees a certain character in a certain way as just being psychologically unrealised when, to me, that person is realised a lot more psychologically than in the average novel when we’re told that this person comes from this kind of family and therefore he is this kind of person. I never believe those things. Because in some odd way, where we come from does not really affect how we think of ourselves. I think we’re influenced a lot more by small things, by small habits that we create ourselves – a horrible moment on a bridge [he’s referring to a scene from In the Skin of a Lion] – all those things govern us.
KW: Is this the the old tension in art between energy and order? There’s an intensity in a lot of your images, and maybe if you’re not going to impose an authoritarian narrator or guide then the tension between the two poles slackens in some way.
MO: I think the narrator is there, in some sleepy way [laughs]. It’s there. The problem is that you don’t want to be too shaped. In fact some people think the books are too shaped.
KW: In an interview on the Late Show [BBC 2] with your fellow Canadian, Michael Ignatieff, he put it to you that your novels don’t cover the full range of human experience, particularly, he felt, they lacked any sense of evil. There was perhaps some implication in what he said, that you aren’t writing a real man’s novel like Amis or Mailer, you aren’t wrestling with the tough stuff. Is writing in a lyrical or magical vein, do you think, somehow antithetical to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”?
MO: I do see evil in us a lot, but I don’t see it in individual humans. I see it more when groups form, or p0litical groups form. I’d say these are the villains. It’s something outside.
KW: You don’t have any idea of inherent evil?
MO: No, I don’t think so. It may also be an element of not wanting to. I’ve tried to write about [laughs] evil characters and I get bored with them. It’s so uninteresting. I don’t want to waste my time on those guys.
KW: So would you say, then, this political belief that human beings are not inherently evil is knitted to the lyricism of your writing? That such writing can’t …
MO: …deal with evil? Well I don’t know because hopefully the books are not just lyrical. There’s also a sternness of information or a baldness of facts I put in sometimes, but it’s more subtle. For instance, someone like Lord Suffolk [a character in The English Patient] seems to be a genial, amiable person, but in a larger context, he’s not. So it’s a more subtle judgement. We see him walking across a field, and the way he behaves with Kip he seems quite pleasant and likeable. I was liking him in those scenes. That’s the problem we have: someone who we like can be traitorous or worse. It’s hard sometimes to separate these things. I mean, Patrick [from In the Skin of a Lion] doesn’t understand that at the very end of the book, he’s not political: the gestures he makes are more personal than political.
KW: And yet Alice [a political agitator in In the Skin of a Lion]…
MO: …yet even she doesn’t really influence Patrick: he’s altered by her, but he’s not altered by her.
KW: Philip Rahv wrote a book about the two sides in American literature, he called them the Palefaces and the Redskins. His division between Jamesian sensibility and Whitmanesque energy perhaps doesn’t fit now so well, but you can still make an argument for a two-sidedness in North America today, with writers like you and Louise Erdrich on one side, and Auster and Pynchon on the other.
MO: I think it’s just a matter of the way you see things. Someone like [John] Berger was very interesting to me and his statement, “Never again will a story be told as if it were the only one”, I think that’s what in a way unconsciously I’ve been writing, that’s why I use the quote [as an epigraph in In the Skin of a Lion], because it is that kind of multi-voiced portrait. There’s no one specific narrator in the book: it shifts. In a way, in In the Skin of a Lion, Hana is the gatherer of the story and in this one [The English Patient] maybe it’s Caravaggio. [Hana and Caravaagio appear in both novels.] There seems to be always a character in the book who is gathering or detecting his way towards a portrait, or making a mosaic or a collage or something like that. It’s not just one photograph or one person.
KW: [Milan] Kundera was quite suspicious of the notion of the lyric in the novel and compared the poet to the revolutionary in the sense of them both being treasonous. He talks about the alignment of aesthetic and political intoxication in relation to Paul Eluard, about there being in both a refusal of the real.
MO: That’s interesting. I actually came to the novel a bit late. So at the moment I can only write the kind of novels I’m writing. I don’t think someone like Amis can write only the novels he writes: I’m just not sure he’s interested in writing different kinds, but I suspect he is. I know I am. When I first began to write I did not think I could write a book like The English Patient. I never even imagined writing a book like that or In the Skin of a Lion. So to go from the lyric form to a larger sequence of poems, and then to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, that is half-prose, and then to a sort of a novel [Coming through Slaughter, 1976, about the jazz trumpeter, Billy Bolden], it’s trying to enlarge this sphere of what is possible. I don’t see myself as writing the lyrical novel, it’s just what I can write. The lyricism may be the way I can get, not towards lyricism, but the way I can get towards an emotional state in the characters. I would prefer to replace the word ‘lyrical’ with the word ’emotional’. Because I think that’s what we are governed by, or affected by: we make decisions in moments of excitement or terror or passion or whatever it is. We also make intellectual, more reasonable judgments, too. But what interests me is that kind of emotional depth.
KW: There are influences of cinema and music in your writing. There’s that often repeated remark about writing that aspires to the condition of music, hoping to achieve an emotional truth.
MO: Yeah, but I think one of the problems when using a sombre or a lyrical music is we get to an emotional state, but it’s only someone who doesn’t get to that state, who is on the sidelines, who will say, “Yes, it is a beautiful piece of music”. The intent of the musician or the composer is not to write something beautiful, but to reach that emotional state. It’s lyrical in the sense that there’s no naturalistic baggage there. But that’s just because I want to write a three hundred page novel and not a six hundred page one. I do have a much larger physical landscape, even if it’s just in my head. Or sometimes it’s on paper and then it’s a case of seeing how much I can remove from the story and how agilely. It’s like a stage set. You know if you have too much on a stage set it takes four minutes to change a scene. So it’s also to do with that speed of thought.
KW: Which is elliptical, as cinema is?
MO: Well in cinema it can take you three days to make a cut, and the cut takes what? – a second. I think it’s more like a theatre with very few props.
KW: You’ve made films yourself…
MO: …documentaries. That’s all I’ve done.
KW: I see that somebody is adapting The English Patient. Are you going to be involved? What are you feelings about that?
MO: I think I have to give it away. I can’t watch over my shoulder the whole time. One part of me is fascinated, the other part is worried about it: you have to remake it and every rule of narrative changes, it’s a completely different art form to a book. I know people have talked about the influence of film on my work but, to be quite honest, I don’t really see it that much, apart from the obvious influences we’ve all got.
KW: But in In the Skin of a Lion you talk about about the cinematic tropes of fate and timing.
MO: But that’s the silent movie. Before words.
KW: And yet those qualities seem strong in your writing.
MO: Maybe that’s true. It’s certainly true in that book about fate. Yeah, I believe in fate, sure.