Born in Sri Lanka and settled in Toronto, author and poet Michael Ondaatje has been messing with genre for the past 40 years. In his 1970 hybrid novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, he layered lyrical poetry, news clippings, photos, and narrative fragments to create a palimpsest of a Wild West hero. Coming Through Slaughter's form echoed the improvisational jazz that its protagonist played. And while it is less apparently experimental, it's hard not to mention The English Patient, the book and later film that launched him into international stardom.
For The Cat's Table (in bookstores Tuesday), he reimagines his personal history, which would make great fodder for a memoir, but, as he puts it, "What is nonfiction? If a politician writes of his life, and he decides to talk about A rather than X, he's fictionalizing it. A book is full of omissions." Instead, Ondaatje offers a lush, imaginative account of three roguish boys wreaking havoc on a ship bound for England, amid a sea of circus performers, thieves, and outcasts.
Mother Jones: I've just finished The Cat's Table. It was more lighthearted than what I'm used to reading from you—very enjoyable.
Michael Ondaatje: It was a pleasure for me to write too. I wrote faster than my usual books. It felt different and looser.
MJ: You've called it a novel, but the main character is Michael, and you also moved from Sri Lanka to London as a kid. Can you tell me more about your own voyage?
MO: I kind of was shoveled onto this boat at 11 and went to England. I didn't have any parent watching over me. It was very free and may have been a bit of a scary time for me, but I really don't remember much about the voyage apart from playing ping-pong a lot with a couple friends. It really is a novel, because I had to reinvent the world as it might have been.
MJ: Did you get in trouble on the boat?
MO: I'm sure I was in trouble on the boat, but I wasn't as badly behaved as the three boys on the boat [in The Cat's Table], I don't think.
MJ: Did you board a boat to recreate the memory of being on a ship?
MO: I had been on a ship as a kid so I had to re-remember it. It was great to be in a limited space for a book. Whether it's the villa in The English Patient or a certain location in Sri Lanka for Anil's Ghost, I often need that limited space. It's like having a house to roam around in and reinvent and have things to happen in, kind of like a French farce. Doors opening, doors closing, new people arriving, and disappearing, and so forth.
MJ: Speaking of farce, you said in an interview that you'd really like to write a comedy. Scenes in your book are humorous; was that part of your goal?
MO: When I said that to Colum McCann, he looked very appalled. Because I was saying I wish I could write like Noël Coward. I just remember the look on his face as if I had lost my mind. I think I wanted to go back to that kind of joyfulness. People don't write about kids; you have to give them a lot of freedom, and that causes anarchy and that causes farce.
MJ: Many of your characters are thieves, like Caravaggio in the English patient and several thieves in The Cat's Table. Did a particular thief make an impression on you in your life?
There's a lot of thievery involved in writing. You're breaking into other people's spaces and other people's stories.
MO: I'm drawn to them. I think Leonard Cohen has a line about the company of artists is a company of great thieves. There's a lot of thievery involved in writing. You're breaking into other people's spaces and other people's stories. For that reason thieves are kind of useful and they're not likable…well, they are likable, but they are not as dangerous as other crimes.
MJ: I have to ask you about Divisadero because I live on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. The title has obvious connections to mirroring and fracturing in your story. Was there anything else on the street that made you name your novel after it?
MO: I was living north of San Francisco in the Petaluma area, which is where part of the book takes place. Whenever I came into town, I would drive under the sign that said Divisadero Street, and I always loved that name. Halfway through the book, I just had to call it something, so I filed it under Divisadero. And it became so metaphorically useful because it was a book in two parts. That was an important street that separated one part of the city from the other. In Spanish, it means looking into a great distance from a height. So all the meanings of "Divisadero" became perfectly apt for the book.
MJ: When I moved to San Francisco, I felt the same attraction to the name of that street.
MO: I haven't read any of those vampire novels—they take place on Divisadero Street, don't they? The one with Tom Cruise as a vampire.
MJ: Interview With the Vampire?
MO: Anne Rice. Yeah, I think one of the groups of vampires live on Divisadero Street, so you'd better watch out.