A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
The Booker Prize winning author of “The English Patient” discusses his latest book titled “The Cat’s Table.”
- Michael Ondaatje author of four previous novels, including the Booker Prize winning "The English Patient."
Michael Ondaatje is the author of “The English Patient,” later made into an Academy Award winning film. Born in Sri Lanka, he traveled alone by ship to England at age 11 to live with his mother who he hadn’t seen in several years since his parents were divorced. This boyhood journey became the inspiration for his latest novel, “The Cat’s Table.”
The Origins of A Story
Ondaatje begins with a place and time period, with a very exact location, and beginning with a sense of non-fiction even in a novel. “One of the things about writing a book about a ship journey in the 1950s, especially if it’s an adventure story or a war-zone adventure story, is you have to try and make it authentic in some way,” he said. For him, this book does have a sense of memoir to it, right down to his decision to name the main character Michael. He put such details in, he said, to persuade readers that the events are are believable as possible.
“The Cat’s Table”
The titular phrase is one that Ondaatje heard from a German publisher. The publisher said he had had a dream that he was sitting at the worst table in a banquet hall, which would typically be near the kitchen. In the book, the protagonist and his friends get exiled to the “cat’s table” on the ship along with some oddball characters.
Subtext Of The Novel Is The Journey
Ondaatje had a very real sense of unawareness of where he was going on his own real journey that is mimicked in the book. “I think an 11 year-old boy is plucked out of this island where he’s lived and knows very well in a conferral kind of way. And he’s on a ship with complete strangers and complete – these strange customs. And he’s going to land in a country where the customs are even stranger.”
John Berger, an English writer, is one of Ondaatje’s favorites. Berger has written several novels, “Novel G,” and “Here is Where We Meet.” His latest is called “Bento’s Sketchbook.” D.H. Lawrence is another writer Ondaatje admires, for both is style and versatility.
You can read the full transcript here.
MR. STEVE ROBERTS(unintelligible) ...the prize-winning novel "The English Patient," later made into an Academy Award winning film. Born in Sri Lanka, he traveled alone by ship to England at age 11 to live with his mother who he hadn't seen in several years since his parents were divorced. This boyhood journey became the inspiration for his latest novel. It's called "The Cat's Table." Michael Ondaatje joins me in the studio. Welcome.
MR. MICHAEL ONDAATJEThank you.
ROBERTSDelighted to have you. You can join us, those of you who have read "The English Patient" and other works by Michael Ondaatje, please give us a call, 1-800-433-8850, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm sure you get this all the time, but the first question I have to ask you is your name. It's such an unusual name, Ondaatje, what's it's ethnic origins?
ONDAATJEWell, it looks like a Dutch name, but I think my family originally came from India to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called then. And when the Dutch invaded, the very good smart businessmen made their names look like they were Dutch names so that the double A and the TJ and so forth. So it probably, you know, phonetically a very easy to spell name, but now it is more complicated and classy as they would say.
ROBERTSAnd you've described yourself, you've used the word mongrel to describe yourself. What did you mean by that word?
ONDAATJEWell, I think, you know, my family, you know, originally a time where they would marry the Dutch or the English or the Sinhalese, and so there was a kind of great mixture, you know. I can't really kind of decode the source of it all. And I'm a mongrel not just of, you know, race, but place and languages and, you know, I left Ceylon when I was 11 and went to England. Then I came to Canada, so I have a kind of -- I'm a cultural mongrel I think.
ROBERTSAnd you write that you actually saw a version of your family name on a village in Sri Lanka, and I must say, I've had exactly the same experience going back to Poland and seeing an earlier version of my family name which was Raguski (sp?) on a village. So tell that story. What was that...
ONDAATJENo. I was there actually after the tsunami, and I was in this village on the east coast, and there was a town called Ondachchimadam and Ondachi was spelled O-N-D-A-C-H-C-H-I and I just fell in love with the spelling of it. I really wanted to change my name, but a bit late in my career. But it -- there's something almost mystical about seeing your name on the name of a town.
ROBERTSI know, I've had the same experience.
ONDAATJEYeah. And I think Ondachchimadam meant, in fact, a village of people who did metal work in temples. So, you know, so that was probably one of the first professions of my family in Sri Lanka.
ROBERTSNow, you mention that you left Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, at age 11. The protagonist in your novel leaves Ceylon at age 11 and gets on a boat. Talk about the origins of the idea. I gather you've used the word, there was a fragment of memory lodged in your brain that blossomed into this work.
ONDAATJEWell, I was talking to my children a few years ago, and they're all adults now, and I mentioned that, you know I had put on this ship without any family control or discipline for 21 days, and they were outraged. This was appalling, we wouldn't put our kids on a bus for half a day, let alone 21 days on a ship. And I realized it actually was a very strange thing that had happened to me, and I also realize it was a gift. It was a gift of an idea for a story, and I don't really remember very much of that journey sadly, and I remember playing ping pong and, you know, swimming and so forth, but I don't remember much of it.
ONDAATJESo I thought, here I've been given this gift of an idea for a novel and so I began a novel very authentically with an 11-year-old boy quite scared getting onto a ship and night, and then almost within three or four pages, I was writing fiction. I had two other boys, one named Ramadan, one named Cassius, and, you know, they joined me in a kind of gang. And so, those boys and all the characters on the ship were fictional characters that I invented and then I created a kind of adventure story for them, full of bad behavior and pranks and so forth, and then a prisoner comes into the story and then it gets more and more complicated and there's a kind of murder possibility that happens in the book.
ROBERTSBut you've written often and spoken in interviews that you operate on sort of the edge of reality, and sort of this shadowy boundary land between fiction and reality. So the book was infused with memory and with some facts of your life. The protagonist is name Michael, although you say you didn't even start out that way. But, how do you thread your way through that borderland?
ONDAATJEWell, you know, I -- when I'm writing, whether it's this book or "The English Patient" or whatever it is, I usually begin with a kind of place and a time period, and I need a kind of very exact location, and I usually begin with a sense of nonfiction in the book, you know, the fact that when the Germans left Italy, they left (word?) on the roads and in the houses and so forth, and that was an interesting factoid, as Mailer would say. And so, I kind of use that and then start investigating then it quickly became fictional.
ONDAATJEOne of the things about writing a book about a ship journey in the 1950s, especially if it's an adventure story or a war-zone adventure story, is you have to try and make it authentic in some way. You can't just leap into fiction, and you have to give a sense of reality to it. And for me, the way I could do it was to have a kind of aura of memoir, so that boy is called Michael, and he becomes a writer later in his life, and the school he went to was the school that I went to in Sri Lanka, and also the school in England he goes to, and then he ends up in Canada.
ONDAATJESo all of these things are there, but they're really kind of in a way red herrings. You know, they're there to kind of persuade that this is as believable as possible. And so that kind of mix of fact and fiction is kind of a weapon, you know. There's a great remark by Kinky Friedman, which I love to quote, which is, there's a very fine line between fiction and nonfiction, then I think I snorted it in 1976.
ROBERTSNow, of course the title of the book, "The Cat's Table," is a phrase from one of your characters. As you mentioned, Michael, the 11-year-old has these two pals and they get exiled to this table with a bunch of oddball characters in the corner of the dining room and is that a real phrase? Is that -- did you make it up, or did you hear it somewhere?
ONDAATJEI didn't make it up, in fact, I heard it from a German publisher. They said they'd had a dream where they were sitting at some big banquet, but they were sitting at a cat's table, and that meant the lowliest table in the banquet hall, which usually, you know, by the restaurant, by the kitchens or something like that.
ROBERTSNow, you mentioned there are many adventures and I'd love for you read a passage from the book for our listeners, to give us some sense of this world that you've plunged these three young boys into.
ONDAATJEOkay. "In the hour before dawn, when we got up to roam what felt like a deserted ship, the cavernous saloons smelled of the previous night's cigarettes and Ramadan and Cassius and I would already have turned the silent library into a mayhem of rolling trolleys. One morning we suddenly found ourselves hemmed in by a girl on roller skates racing around the wooden perimeter of the upper deck. It seemed she had been getting up even earlier than we had.
ONDAATJEThere was no acknowledgement on her part of our existence as she raced faster and faster, the fluent strides testing her balance. On one turn, this time in a (word?) leap over cables, she crashed into the stern railing, got up, looked at the slash of blood on her knee, and continued glancing at her watch. She was Australian, and we were enthralled. We had never witnessed such determination. None of the female members of our families had behaved this way.
ONDAATJELater, we recognized her in the pool, her speed a barrage of water. It would not have surprised us if she had leapt off the (word?) into the sea and kept pace for 20 minutes alongside the ship. We therefore began waking even earlier to watch her roller skate the 50 or 60 laps. When she was finished, she'd unlace her skates and walk exhausted, sweating and fully clothed, towards the outdoor shower. She would stand in the gush and spray of it, tossing her hair this way, that way, like some clothed animal. This was a new kind of beauty.
ONDAATJEWhen she left, we followed her footprints which were already evaporating in the new sunlight as we approached them. We were by now fully knowledgeable about most locations on the ship from the path air ducts took in their journey away from the turbine propellers to how I could slip into the fish preparation room by crawling through a trolley exit. We had discovered the door to the armory had a buggered latch, and when the room was empty, we strolled through it, handling the revolvers and handcuffs. And we knew each lifeboat contained a compass, a sail, a rubber raft, plus emergency chocolate bars that we had already eaten."
ROBERTSOne of the wonderful lines you attribute to these three lads is each day we vowed to do something prohibited.
ROBERTSAnd I love that idea that they were liberated. It's almost this Disneyland of adventure unrestrained by parental limits or supervision.
ONDAATJEYes. And also, that fact, I mean, it really was a case that no parents were there, there was one woman in first class who was supposed to watch over Michael, and, um, in fact, there was a woman who was supposed to look after me on the real ship, but I never ever saw her. But I saw her as a possible lady parental type, so in this book she keeps appearing every now and then as outraged by his behavior and lying.
ROBERTSBut there's also this sense of exploration and at the same time, invisibility, and the excerpt you read, these lads can squeeze into places metaphorical as well as real without anybody really noticing them.
ONDAATJEYes. And because they are boys, they are invisible to the officials on the ship, you know. I think that's the kind of great freedom of youth, I think, you know, because we don't really -- we are not aware of kids watching us as adults anyway, and kids look at adults as if they were dogs, you know, I mean, as if the kids were dogs. They sense who likes them and who doesn't like them, who's powerful, who's not powerful, but they don't understand the motives behind anything.
ROBERTSAnd you also give Michael your own name, but then you give him a nickname, Myna, which you hint foreshadows his life as a writer.
ONDAATJEWell, I mean, the -- what happens in the book, without giving too much away, is that Michael becomes a writer and Cassius becomes a painter. So Cassius is the watcher, and Michael is a guy who repeats all the stories he hears like a Myna Bird, so I think that was a hint in the...
ROBERTSMy guest this hour is Michael Ondaatje. His new novel is "The Cat's Table." Of course, you know him well as the Booker Prize winning author of "The English Patient," made into the Oscar winning movie. So if you want to give us a call, 1-800-433-885. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. My guest this hour is Michael Ondaatje, the famous novelist, Booker Prize-winning author of "The English Patient." His new novel "The Cat's Table" is just out. You can join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. We've got some lines open. Or email us email@example.com.
ROBERTSAnd, Michael, the subtext of this novel is this journey. It's not just life on the ship. It's where the journey started and where it ended. It started in your original native land of Sri Lanka than Solon (sp?) and you come to England. And you yourself have talked often about feeling exiled in England and that you knew the world of Sri Lanka. But everything had changed when you get to England. And the novel is infused with that sense of your character, Michael. And some of that strangeness and that exile and an immigrant journey is symbolized by his mother who he hasn't seen in years and is greeting him on the dock in this new country.
ONDAATJERight, right. No, I think one of the real things that the nonfiction now, the book, is that kind of unawareness of where he's going, you know. I think an 11-year-old boy is plucked out of this island where he's lived and knows very well in a conferral kind of way. And he's on a ship with complete strangers and complete -- these strange customs. And he's going to land in a country where the customs are even stranger.
ONDAATJEAnd what I -- or I remember what landing in England was, that was I was suddenly sent to a school where, you know, you had to wear a tie for the first time in your life and socks you'd never worn before in your life. And you had certain customs at the school that were kind of peculiarly, you know, traditional and bizarre. So it was really a case of adapting to a new country. I think one of the reasons I don't remember the ship journey very well is that it was almost like a cat landing on four feet in a new place and I had to quickly adapt.
ROBERTSAnd isn't that the classic story of every immigrant in the history of the world, moves to a new country, never quite feels fully at home in the new country, but really can't go back to homeland again. Now you are suspended between two worlds.
ONDAATJEI think so. And in fact I was suspended between three worlds because, you know, at the age of 18 I went to Canada and I became a Canadian. I didn't want -- one of the things that happened in -- I saw in Canada was people who came over from England and they kept talking about England for the rest of their lives. And in many ways, I didn't wanna keep looking back. And I think when I came to England as an 11-year-old I didn't wanna keep looking back to Sri Lanka. You know, I never went back until I was about 35 years old.
ONDAATJESo I was for a while cocooned in that kind of colonial culture of Sri Lanka and London. You know, I had lots of uncles and aunts who were there -- had lived there. So every Sunday you went off to somebody's house for a curry. And my mother would cook a curry and various Sri Lankans would come for lunch or for dinner. So there was a kind of other community there that existed and which was not quite English. But then during the day you went to a school and you have to be very, very English.
ROBERTSAnd as you say, you really immigrated twice.
ROBERTSAnd is Canada home now? When you think of home, is that burrowed into your soul and made itself at home, this country?
ONDAATJEWell, very much so. I think I was in Canada since about 1963 so about -- almost 50 years now. And that's where my family and that's where my close friends are and that's where I learned to write. So I think that three of those elements are pretty much, you know, part of me. You know, what's interesting as a writer was that when I grew up in Sri Lanka I didn't really read many books. I must've learned how to read but I didn't read any books about Sri Lanka.
ONDAATJEYou know, the stories that I heard at the dinner table was the literature. You know, I wasn't lying or making excuses or creating alibis and so forth. And it wasn't until I went away to England that I began to read. But in England, you have such tradition of writers, of Keats and, you know, various people that would've been appalling to even think about writing. It wasn't until I'd gone to Canada that I became a writer. I thought, here's a new country and...
ROBERTSA new world.
ONDAATJE...a new world and you can name things, you know.
ROBERTSAnd you can -- in the same way that so many immigrants have journeyed to America, you can redefine yourself. The day you land in the new world you can become a new person.
ONDAATJEThat's right, that's right. Exactly. You know, I went to Canada when I was 18 and I was coming to a new country. And at 18, you wanna become a new person anyway. And so you change and that's when you need literally to try to protect yourself in a way.
ROBERTSBut, you know, we talked earlier about, you know, your ethnic background and your self description as a mongrel and having moved and felt -- in England you have curry on Sunday, which is a Tamil tradition, not an English tradition and you go to an English school. So you're caught between worlds, never quite at home in either one. It seems to me though that seeing life at an angle that way as an outsider is a great advantage to a writer, and particularly a novelist. It gives you a perspective that is very useful.
ONDAATJEOh, it's terrific because I think that's how you can see the kind of intricacies of people that, you know, the hidden intricacies. I mean, the people described in the ship are all kind of peculiar people in some way. And that's the result of this boy looking at them through Sri Lankan eyes but in a new location. And, you know, it's a great gift to a writer to have that sense of this is how people live in Canada but I know that in Sri Lanka they live this way, you know. And you have a double vision of the world.
ROBERTSAnd one of the most interesting passages of the novel, I thought, was when you described Michael as an adult goes back and sees paintings done by his young shipmate. And he comes to realize that these are paintings of a scene that they shared together during the boat journey when the boat docked in -- at Suez Canal, but painted from a certain angle. And it struck me that that was a visual metaphor for what you were really talking about, this larger idea of seeing the world from a different perspective.
ONDAATJEExactly. And then also seeing the world from the point of an adult. Because, you know, the book began as a book from the point of view of an 11-year-old and I thought it was going to stay that way. And then when he goes -- when the ship goes through the Suez Canal, have this very vivid scene of the boys sitting there waiting, watching what's going on by the -- as they go past the various docks.
ONDAATJEAnd then you have this scene where he suddenly jumps to when he's in his 20s going into a gallery and seeing Cassius' paintings. And that was a point in the book where I suddenly realized I had to have Michael as an adult as well. But, you know, what he recognizes in this art gallery is that the angle of the painting, the point of view of the paintings is exactly the point of view from a railing of a ship looking down. And he recognizes the perspective. And that's what makes it moving to him.
ROBERTSAnd Cassius drew on his angle of observation in the same way the writer Michael does in a similar way, 'cause...
ONDAATJEYeah, it becomes a very central scene of the book because, you know, not until then do we suddenly kind of start having flash forwards. And we see Ramadhin and Natali (sp?) who is Cassius in later life and Michael in their life.
ROBERTSOne other thing and then we'll get to our callers. Many of them want to talk to you. For all of this journeying you've made in your life, two immigrations, feeling not quite a part of English life and then coming to Canada, yet as you've also drawn, to some extent, on Tamil tradition as a storyteller you've talked in interviews that I've read about the great tradition of storytelling that you grew up with, your parents. And there's a wonderful line that the Tamil tradition and the Sri Lankan tradition, a well told lie is worth a thousand facts. I just love that line. And it seems that that -- through all your journeys you haven't lost touch with at least some part of those roots.
ONDAATJEVery much so. And I think there's an odd kind of humor that I think comes out of that childhood, you know, recognition of how your uncles told lies or told stories, you know. They just exaggerated a bit too much to be fully believable, but they're possibly true. You know, I think that's a nice area of between fiction and nonfiction I think.
ROBERTSAnd that's a vein or a borderline you've walked your whole life. And, you know, the other thing that you were quoted as saying that I thought was so interesting was saying that in the east, the artist follows the brush. And that seemed to me to describe very well how you wrote this novel. You started with a germ and then it just -- you followed your brush.
ONDAATJERight. I mean, I think the tradition of, I think, Donald Richey, the wonderful American who lives in Japan now, talks about the distinction between east and west. How the west kind of has a very, very organized structure for a book. And it's almost -- it's so well organized, so linear, so chronological that it's not quite real. Whereas in the east, in Japan specifically -- he's talking about this -- you have that sense of (word?) . You start having lists of things and scattered scenes. And these scenes, when you step back, are -- give you a different kind of perspective of the same episode. And the artist following the brush, so that you're following the plot, following the sentences into a new story.
ROBERTSSo even though you've -- as you said you haven't been back to Sri Lanka a long time, don't speak Tamil anymore except for a few rude phrases. But it stayed with you.
ONDAATJEYeah, it stayed with me, you know. And I think that's how I write my books. I know -- you know, I did not know the prisoner was going to come into the book at all when I began the book. But then suddenly this prisoner appears. And, you know, there's a new plot element to it. And (unintelligible) .
ROBERTSYes. It's one of your favorite passages in the book. So if you could read briefly about the prisoner it'd be great.
ONDAATJESure. Late at night, after the specially invited first class passengers had left the Captain's Table and after the dancing had ended with couples, their masks removed to barely stir in each other's arms, and after the stewards had taken away the abandoned glasses and ashtrays and were leaning on the 4' wide brooms to sweep away the colored swirls of paper, they brought out the prisoner. It was usually before midnight. The deck shined because of a cloudless moon.
ONDAATJEHe appeared with the guards, one chained to him, one walking behind him with a baton. We did not know what his crime was. We assumed it could only have been a murder. The concept of anything more intricate such as a crime of passion or a political betrayal did not exist in us then. He looked powerful, self contained and he was barefoot. Cassius had discovered this late night schedule for the prisoner's walk so the three of us were often there at that hour. He could, we thought among ourselves, leap over the railing along with the guard who was chained to him into the dark sea. We thought of him running and leaping this way to his death.
ONDAATJEWe thought this, I suppose, because we were young. The very idea of a chain of being contained was like suffocation. At our age we could not endure the idea of it. We could hardly stand to wear sandals when we went for meals. And every night as we ate at our table in the dining room we imagined the prisoner eating scraps from a metal tray barefoot in his cell.
ROBERTSWe have a lot of folks who want to talk with you. But, Jim, from Brick, N.J. asks us a question that many of our listeners have asked. Going back to "The English Patient" were you happy with the movie adaptation?" And others add, "How has this changed your life? You became an international figure in a way that you hadn't before."
ONDAATJEYeah, it was like being struck by lightning. And I was -- I think the main way I remember that whole episode of my life was that I became very close friends with Anthony Minghella who was the writer and director...
ONDAATJE...and Saul Zaentz who was the producer. And there was a great closeness between us. So, you know, it's difficult for me to kind of judge the film because we were so close. And the whole process of the film being made by essentially the three of us, though I didn't have any official role, meant that I couldn't step outside and look back and see what was really good or not good or what. But I think it worked amazingly, you know. And I loved working with Minghella and with Walter Murch who was the editor on the film, and Saul Zaentz.
ONDAATJESo I learned a lot -- I was interested in being a part of it because I love any kind of craft. You know, I love how the script was written, how Anthony would say only one person in the film could have a flashback. You know, if there are more people having flashbacks it's going to get utterly confusing to the audience. And your book has -- everyone has a flashback.
ONDAATJESo, you know, various things that some rules of the film world were -- I got from the horse's mouth, you know. And I have no desire to work in film myself but it taught me a lot 'cause I can learn from film just like I can learn from music or painting.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Fascinating. Now let's talk to some of our callers and let's start with Joyce in Tacoma, Wash. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Joyce.
JOYCEGood morning. I just wanted to say that your book struck a real chord with me. As a child I always felt I was in a bubble looking around and observing other people and events and that no one could really see me. I also found your book to be very lyrical, almost musical. I couldn't put it down. It's wonderful.
ONDAATJEThank you, thank you. Yeah, I think there was something about, you know, entering that world of an 11-year-old that allowed me to kind of have that -- have them all be in a kind of bubble. And it is a kind of surreal situation anyway being on a ship, which is totally separate from the rest of the world.
JOYCEIt's surreal being a child, too.
ROBERTSThank you, Joyce. Do you have grandchildren?
ONDAATJEYes, I do.
ROBERTSAnd are they -- what ages are they?
ONDAATJEThe youngest is about six months and the other's about 15 -- the oldest is about 15.
ROBERTSSo you have revisited that stage of life. He must've been just about 11 when you were writing the book.
ONDAATJEThat's right, that's right.
ROBERTSWas that useful?
ONDAATJEIt was useful. You know, I guess when I wrote the book I was sort of in my own head though, you know. I mean, I didn't kind of ask -- I didn't interrogate him about being (unintelligible)
ROBERTSJames in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," James.
JAMESGood morning. Thank you so much, gentlemen. It's a pleasure to get to talk to you, Mr. Ondaatje.
JAMESI actually got to hear you read a number of years ago in Coral Cables with Russell Banks. I don't know if you recall that perhaps but I was calling -- you know, I was always curious in your poetry. And I love your collection called "Handwriting" particularly the Nine Sentiments. It's always been one of my favorites. I always felt they were such complete statements.
JAMESBut it was always curious to me your use of geographic names in the poems. And I always wanted to ask you, was it just -- is it the rhythms in the sounds of those names or did you actually want to use things like Galatigala (sp?) Road, because that's the place maybe where you were writing that or -- was always curious to me. And I just want you to know your poetry has always been an inspiration so...
ONDAATJEThank you. Yeah, I love using geographical names, you know, even in an early book like "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid." The Mescalero Territory was used because I love the sound of the word Mescalero. And my last novel before this one was called "Divisadero," which is a street in San Francisco. And Galatigala Road is a beautiful sound for a name. But I like to have those place -- those names almost like tacking down a reality to the poems.
ONDAATJEIt was rather like earlier on when we were talking about when you write fiction you want to be basing it in a way on nonfiction to a certain extent. And place names and the names of, I know, soda waters and so forth, all of the things are for me very kind of tactile real objects and can (word?) .
ROBERTSDo you make lists as you travel or as you read of words that have those -- that power for you, that you say, I'm going to write a poem that's going to include this word or this place?
ONDAATJESometimes I do. Sometimes a name just comes to me at the time 'cause it fits into the rhythm of the poem or the sentence, I think. But if that's something very unusual I will sometimes write that down, a piece of information. I was told something the other day that the Sri Lanka alphabet has 126 letters but no w and no f. And that was new to me.
ROBERTSBut as we were talking earlier, names have a very special power either to locate yourself in a geographic place or as in your case and in my case conveying an identity, but not necessarily the full identity. And it is a very powerful way that we present ourselves to the world.
ONDAATJEDefinitely. Even a name like mine suggests a great deal. Even a nickname suggests a great deal. And, you know, it wasn't until I finished the book that I realized most of the names in "The Cat's Table" are foreign names. You know, even (word?) who's English has a foreign name. And so I think a lot of my books have that kind of quality of the other, the other being within the western sphere.
ROBERTSExactly. Michael Ondaatje. His book is "The Cat's Table." We're going to be back with more of your calls, more of your emails. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane and my guest this hour is the novelist, Michael Ondaatje, well known to many of you as the author of the Booker Prize winning novel, "The English Patient" made into the Oscar winning movie. But his new novel, "The Cat's Table" is just out and we've been talking about it, 1-800-433-8850 is our phone number, firstname.lastname@example.org our email address. Let's turn, Michael, to Lisa in Woodstock, Conn., welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Lisa.
LISAOh, yes, thank you very much. I just tuned in and I wasn't sure who was being interviewed, but the descriptions of being on an ocean liner as a child were just immediately so familiar to me. I was born in New Zealand and between the ages of five and about 15 my family and I traveled back and forth from New Zealand to the West Coast on the Oronsay, the Oriana, the Ruahine, a lot of the P&O Orient lines.
LISAAnd I did the exact same thing. I found some pals and we would race around the ship completely unsupervised. We would find the ways to get from -- into first class and see how the other half lived.
ONDAATJEMy God, you must be my sister.
ROBERTSDid you steal food like Michael's character?
LISAI beg your pardon?
ROBERTSDid you steal food like Michael's character in "The Cat's Table?"
LISAWe didn't steal food, but we found, also, ways to get to the crew's quarters and -- who were quite rough and one of them pulled a knife on us. I think, really, just as a bluff, but it was terrifying and it was -- sort of, seemed like something out of "Robinson Crusoe" at the time. And I've never forgotten it. You know, deck quoits, the captain's table, the dances. As I got a bit older I could accompany my parents to the dances.
LISAAnd, also, I mean, going through the Panama Canal, my first French words with the children in the nursery with me when we stopped at Tahiti, learning how to say (foreign language) to the children there and watching them draw pictures in the nursery of the silhouette of Moorea, the island that they might have come from, a tidal wave warning when we docked in Honolulu, all of these things are just such rich memories for me.
LISAAnd you were just absolutely describing my experience and also my experience of going to school in New Zealand after having gone to high school in the United States to a private school that was very English -- seemed very Dickensian to me at the time.
ROBERTSWell, thank you so much for your call. We really appreciate it, Lisa.
ONDAATJEI think one of the interesting things is that the book has sort of woken up a whole number of people who went by ship during a certain era. You know, I mean, it's unusual now, but all the early part of the 20th Century people in Asia or in the Caribbean went to school, you know, in England, perhaps, by ship. And that was, you know, many, many generations where it was almost a habit.
ROBERTSWell, you know, and that gets to something that's been remarked upon by a number of British critics. That say we talked earlier about this being a classic immigrant story of a child on this boat comes to a new country where he never feels at home and -- but one of the writers and observer in London said this was very much a part of the tradition of colonial literature. That so many expats had that special experience of growing up in an outpost of the Empire and coming back to England to school, their putative homeland, but never really feeling at home there either.
ONDAATJEYeah, I mean the tradition was -- in Sri Lanka it certainly was that you sent your kids, if you could afford it, to school in England and would likely went to Oxford or Cambridge and the important thing was to get a blue in rowing or cricket and then you came back to the family firm of lawyers or doctors. And I think our generation was the first generation that never really went back.
ONDAATJEBut I mean if I go back now I know many people there who are the sons of doctors who are now doctors who went to England for their schooling.
ROBERTSAnd never went back.
ONDAATJEAnd never went -- well, no these ones went back.
ROBERTSThese ones did go back.
ROBERTSYou know, you've also awakened some of your fans as well as ocean liner aficionados. Here's an email from John who writes to us, "I was a student in Michael Ondaatje's fiction writing course at Brown University."
ROBERTS"His work "Coming Through Slaughter" made such a big impression on me that I wrote home about it."
ROBERTSWhat is -- is that a poem?
ONDAATJENo, "Coming Through Slaughter" was a novel about jazz, actually. It's about Buddy Bolden, the jazz musician in New Orleans so it was my first novel and I wrote it, God, in the early '80s, I guess. And it's still a favorite novel of mine. It's a pretty tight and punchy and angry and jazzy.
ROBERTSSusan from Columbia, Md. writes, "'The Cinnamon Peeler' is one of the most erotic poems I've ever read. I've never looked at cinnamon in quite the same way. You're an amazing stylist and storyteller."
ONDAATJEWell, thank you, thank you.
ROBERTSYou want to quote a line from "The Cinnamon Peeler?"
ONDAATJEI can't. I'll not do that, but I'll tell you one story. Somebody wanted it read at their wedding and so I -- somebody came and read the poem at the wedding and this person's aunt fainted.
ROBERTSI guess it really was erotic then.
ONDAATJEI (word?) it was too erotic, but it was erotic, yeah.
ROBERTSAnd then we have an email from Marcelle in Tampa, Fla. says, "Thank you for all your books. My wife and I have enjoyed them for years. Thanks, especially, for "In the Skin of a Lion" and "Divisadero" both of which I've read time and time again. Please settle an argument my wife and I have. At the end of "In the Skin of a Lion" is Patrick's journey to destroy the waterworks a dream? It is a reflection of his father's dream of blasting the heart of a man.
ONDAATJEThat's very interesting because I wanted both ways because he falls asleep and then the next chapter is the scene where he goes to the waterworks, but I've never kind of admitted is it's a dream or reality.
ROBERTSAnd you're not going to do it now either.
ONDAATJEI'm not going to do it now, but thank you for picking that up, though.
ROBERTSWell, as you have said many times, we talked earlier about, you know, the great tradition in Sri Lanka was a well-told lie is better than a thousand facts so you keep -- there's always an air of mystery in your books. You know, sometimes you never quite say what the real truth is.
ROBERTSExcellent, but a perceptive reader nonetheless.
ROBERTSLet's talk to, let's see, Gary in Datron (sp?) , North Carolina. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
GARYThank you, thank you very much. Michael, your book, "Divisadero," is one of the most beautiful stories that I've ever read. As a truck driver I've been in many areas of the United States and I've listened to many audio books. Hope Davis read an audio -- recorded the audio. What role does the writer have in who actually gets to read and record their audio books and do you think "Divisadero" would make a good movie because I believe it could make a very good movie and I thank you for a wonderful, wonderful story. And I'll hear your response off the air, thank you.
ONDAATJEThank you, yeah. It's one of my favorite books, too. So I have to say that, you know, emotionally I feel very, very close to "Divisadero," and I thought Hope Davis really was fantastic. They usually kind of suggest names and sometimes I say no, yes, and then -- and, in fact, for "The Cat's Table" I read it myself. It seemed to be the right voice, the kind of semi-fictional voice, but, yeah, I mean, I, in fact, do listen to some -- many, many books on tape if I can if I'm driving, you know. And it does make a huge difference and not -- they don't always work, but I love the one of "Divisadero."
ROBERTSWhat was your experience of reading it yourself? I've had that experience of doing the audio book of -- the audio version of an own book and it's an interesting experience.
ONDAATJEIt was very interesting, I mean, because I read it just about the time the book was printed. So long before I did any readings and so I just sat down and read it over about three or four days and I was actually shocked at how intimate it was. You know, it's a very -- it's a very intimate book. I'm talking about "The Cat's Table," which surprised me. I thought it was an outgoing book and it is an outgoing, but there's so much, kind of, intimate description, you know, of the boy's mind and the boy's feeling that I was very surprised by that.
ROBERTSFascinating. Let's talk to Sri Ram (sp?) in Chevy Chase. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
SRI RAMYeah, hello.
RAMThank you very much, Steve and Michael. I'm also (word?) . I come to the United States by way of Britain, but after college. We've read a lot of your books, my wife and I, and I especially like "The English Patient" and I thought the movie rendering did a lot of -- was pretty faithful to the book. But I'm curious; you have a unique style. What are the books that you read and who are the authors that inspire you? Could you name two or three of them?
ONDAATJEYeah, I mean, one of the writers who I admire a great deal -- I'm not quite sure if he influenced me or not, but I'm very fond of him is John Berger. He's an English writer who lives in France and he was well known as an art critic for a while, but, in fact, his novels -- "Novel G," that's a letter "G" or a recent one called "Here is Where We Meet." A wonderful writer and the most recent book is called "Bento's Sketchbook," which is, obviously, about Pantheon, which is a book of his drawings and his musings and letters.
ONDAATJEAnd I love writers who range across the genres like Berger. Berger draws, he does nonfiction, he writes fiction, he writes political statements. D. H. Lawrence wrote poems, he wrote fiction and nonfiction. And a young writer like Jeff (word?) does the same kind of thing. And I'm very interested in writers who, kind of, are not limited to just the fiction or to poetry.
ROBERTSWell, we were talking earlier about how one of the characters becomes a painter.
ROBERTSAnd tries to express the sensibilities of the journey through his art whereas Michael does it through his words so that filters into your -- filters into your sensibility in the book.
ONDAATJEYou know, I think what makes it interesting to me is that I feel I'm not influenced by other writers at all. You know, I mean, I read other writers. I'm sure I am subliminally, but I feel I'm influenced by painting.
ONDAATJEI feel I'm influenced by music. Louis Armstrong's "Hot Five" and "Hot Seven" recordings changed me utterly. Diego Rivera's frescoes changed me utterly. And I'm sure lots of bad songs like "Poison Ivy" by the Coasters changed me. But, you know, and I merely wanted to kind of have that element of music and art in my books, you know. And whereas if I'm reading a writer I really admire like Don DeLillo I'm not sure I'm influenced by him, but I -- there's a great pleasure in being inside his book.
ROBERTSIn fact, I've seen you quoted that every time you finish a book you're convinced that it's going to be your last one. You've said everything you want to say and that your next step is to learn how to play the piano.
ONDAATJEThat's right and I keep putting it off.
ROBERTSYou haven't done that yet.
ONDAATJENo, but I was thinking about that the other day, actually.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael Ondaatje we have time for a couple more of our callers. And let's turn to Christine in Arlington, Texas. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISTINEHello there. I would like to thank you, first of all, for the many, many hours of pure, unadulterated pleasure your books have given me.
CHRISTINEThey --you're welcome. They are like money in the bank that never disappears because one can reread them.
ONDAATJEThanks so much.
CHRISTINEYou're welcome so much. I wanted to also share a couple of things. One is to thank you for "Coming Through Slaughter," which is one of the strangest, most beautiful books I've ever read about any musician.
ROBERTSYou're breaking up, Christine, I'm afraid, but thank you very...
CHRISTINEOh, I'm sorry.
ROBERTSThank you very much for the call. Let's talk to Sally in Dallas, Texas. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Sally.
SALLYThank you so much, Mr. Ondaatje, I had the pleasure of acting in your play, "The Collective Works of Billy The Kid," at the Dallas Theater Center a number of years ago. And to this day, it remains one of my most favorite experiences, you know, in a play. And your words -- to bring them to life is just thrilling and there's so much there to mine. I wondered two things. If you have any new plays coming up in the next year, do you think, and how is your process of writing plays different from or informed by your work as a novelist?
ONDAATJEThere is a stage version of "Divisadero" that was done last January in Toronto and they're redoing it this January and February in Toronto. And it just takes one section of the novel -- the California section -- and it's not quite a play. I don't think my plays are really full plays in the Noël Coward sense, as you probably know that.
ONDAATJEBut there is a kind of pleasure in hearing the words out loud for me and the interaction between characters on stage. So I don't think I'm really a playwright, but there are adaptations of books. I make them as dramatic as possible.
SALLYYeah, well, thank you for that work.
ROBERTSThanks, Sally. Let's talk to Ann in St. Louis, Mo. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Ann.
ANNHi, I just finished "The Cat's Table," and I loved it. And I just had to get the book when the reviews said that it took place on the Oronsay. I traveled on the Oronsay and we got on the ship in California and got off in Naples. I well remember the stop in Colombo, was traveling with three friends. We were college students at the time. And we also had some adventures that were kind of against the rules, traveling to parts of the ship that were off limits. But it was almost a magical time being on the ship. It was a time out of reality in a way. And your book brought back many memories. I had to go back and read my diary. So I thank you for your lovely novel as well as for the memories.
ONDAATJEThank you. It's strange that two people today have actually called who had been on the Oronsay, you know. And I was in a reading somewhere recently and someone came with a menu from the Oronsay their parents had given them.
ANNYes, I think I still have some of those in my scrapbook.
ROBERTSWhat was it about that ship? Ann, stay on the line. What was it about that ship that had such power over both of you?
ANNWell, I think partly for us it was such a different experience because it was a British ship. So for Americans, you know, having tea in the afternoon and the British -- just that whole British atmosphere was something new and exciting. But, also, I don't know, just being on the ocean, being separate from the rest of the world, it's a whole different feeling.
ROBERTSThank you, Ann.
ONDAATJEIt's a bit like space travel today. You know, you're in this kind of booth for -- you are many, many years away in the future and then you come back to a reality, you know. It must be very strange.
ROBERTSWe only have about a minute left. We were joking that you might learn how to play the piano, but I'm sure a lot of your fans, and so many of them called in, are wondering what's next for you.
ONDAATJEActually, nothing is there in the future for me at the moment. You know, I really do finish a book and I think well, that's it. You know, I can't think of a thing more to write. And I don't know how long it takes for me to kind of get back to the desk again, but no ideas except the piano, possibly.
ROBERTSAnd what about the possibility of turning "The Cat's Table" into a movie? Has that been raised?
ONDAATJEIt hasn't, I mean, I haven't, kind of, asked them to send it out or anything like that, but, you know, the problem, I think, is how do you have the youth section and the adult section, you know. And you would not want to lose either one, obviously. So maybe there's a way of doing it. You know, I seem to create these books that are very difficult to film and everyone said to Anthony Minghella you can make a film out of "The English Patient."
ROBERTSWell, they did so, hopefully, we'll see another one from "The Cat's Table." Michael Ondaatje, what a pleasure to spend an hour with you this morning. Michael's new book is "The Cat's Table," a novel and, as many of you know, author, also, of "The English Patient," many other plays, novels and poems, which many of our listeners have mentioned this morning. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane.
ROBERTSShe wants our listeners to know that her husband, John, is doing very well after surgery. He's making a good recovery and she's planning to be back in this chair on Monday. Thanks for spending an hour with us.
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