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Michael Ondaatje, Among Thieves

The literary master discusses his fear of vampires, love of mongrels, and penchant for writing about pickpockets.

MJ: During your PEN award speech, you said, "I suspect I'm more influenced by other genres than by writing itself." Recently, what other genres have been inspiring you?

MO: I've just seen a film called The Arbor. It's an English film. It's an odd film because it's partially a documentary, but then what they did is they took all the documented interviews and then they gave the actors the parts to lip-sync. So you're getting a fictional person saying factual words. I'm interested in art forms where things merge.

MJ: People refer to you as an international mongrel. Is that a label you came up with?

MO: There's a line by William Carlos Williams I mentioned in a speech: "The pure products of America go crazy." If you go for that kind of purity, you're going to box yourself in a very small room. We are in a universe where everything around us is mongrel. I come from Sri Lanka; I've lived in England; I live in Canada; I go to the States. I'm a complete mixture, as my family background is. We're in an era, with all the immigration and emigration, surrounded by this great mixture, which is one of the healthiest things we could have. I mean, to have a pure republican belief in something is kind of crazy, and so evasive.

To have a pure republican belief in something is kind of crazy, and so evasive.

MJ: Reaching way back, I was wondering with The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, how you got so interested in American folklore.

MO: (Laughs.) It's one of those mongrel things, how we're influenced by things from far away. When I was a kid growing up in Sri Lanka, suddenly there was this image of Billy the Kid. I remember having a little cowboy outfit as a seven- or eight-year-old. And in the back of Billy the Kid, there's this little picture of me in this ridiculously decorative cowboy outfit. This bizarre thing, when I was in my early 20s, I kind of came back to that world, looked at all the awful little comic books that were coming out and thought how ridiculously sentimental these books were. So I tried to write a book that was a bit more gritty and realistic about Billy the Kid. But it began with those absurd fantasies of a child.

MJ: As a mongrel, do you think there's a danger in reaching across to another culture and writing about its folklore?

MO: There was one review, which I loved, which said, why was a Canadian given the rights to edit the journal to Billy the Kid? And I thought, that's great—they believe it's all real, so it was a positive critique for me. I was relying on maps and this sort of invention of Billy the Kid.

MJ: You said that you're not inspired by the writing genre, but you are an editor of Brick. Since the world is a cruel place for novelists who are not yet known, are there any hot new writers we've never heard of who you think are exceptional?

MO: In Canada, especially on the East Coast, in Newfoundland, there are some very good writers. Like Michael Winter, who's a novelist. And poets too. Poetry is such an essential art form, and so few people know what's happening even in one's own country. You know, W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, C.D. Wright.

MJ: Were you happy with the way The English Patient was adapted by Hollywood?

MO: I was expecting massive decadence, but it wasn't. Saul Zaentz, the producer, and [director] Anthony Minghella are actually much more literary than most film people, so it felt like a very private project for them.

MJ: Do you know the American writer Chuck Palahniuk?

MO: Yeah, I know of him.

MJ: His newest book, Damned, is set in a version of hell where in one of the levels, The English Patient plays on a loop. Do you have anything to say to that?

MO: (Laughs.) Oh well, it depends…oh, that's very funny. I don't know what to say to that. I'll have to read the book now, I guess.

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