An Interview with Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje was a guest in a friend’s residence while he worked on his new novel, Divisadero. _Located in the Berkeley flats, the tranquil atmosphere of the house provided inspiration for his writing. 

This is an ongoing practice of the novelist, as he had previously moved to locations reflecting the settings of his books, like a small house in the Italian countryside for 

  •  The English Patient,
  •  a home in his native Sri Lanka for 
  • Anil’s Ghost, and a French countryside for the France-based portion of Divisadero.

Ondaatje claims to be able to work anywhere, but he believes a certain house can spark his creativity.

Ondaatje, who was born in Sri Lanka and moved to England with his mother in 1954 before settling in Toronto 8 years later, is a highly acclaimed novelist. 

He has been awarded numerous accolades, including the Booker Prize for _The English Patient, along with two Governor General’s prizes for his poetry.

His fifth novel, Divisadero, is amongst ten books of poetry, two plays, three non-fiction works, and a memoir that he has authored._

Moral complexity and structural innovation characterize Michael Ondaatje’s writing, as he starts out without knowing the final shape of the story.

He works with dreamy imagery and gradually develops an intricate narrative, then puts the work through an extensive editing process that can take many years. Ondaatje’s skillful manipulation of time and place has been honed through his other passions: music, film and photography.

On two occasions, I spent some time with Ondaatje, who is now in his early sixties, talking about his inspirations, techniques, and aspirations. He admits that he never knows if he is able to complete a book as he is crafting it. 

He has a gentle and inviting air about him, along with long white hair that stands out from his head. His speaking voice is soft but carries a strong presence and he often laughs at himself while jesting.

Tom Barbash’s perspective is that…

  1. “The knowledge I gain from reading poetry I desire to apply to my writing of fiction and the other way around.”

What inspired you to write initially?

At nineteen, Michael Ondaatje found himself in Canada for the first time, at a university with a great English teacher. He felt a need to bring order and self-awareness into his life and was driven by the joy of writing, having already been an avid reader throughout his teenage years.

Did any particular book or author spark an interest in writing for you?

MO: Not exactly. My reading as a teenager was quite diverse and haphazard. It went from mainstream thrillers to Forster’s works. But while in Canada, I began to read poetry; by authors such as Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and others of the same era.

Later on, I stumbled upon Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold, a combination of journals and poems. I really liked the structure of it, a book that appeared to accept any kind of input.

This encouraged me to create a book that was a representation of someone else’s voice, using all kinds of genres. This drove me to write The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

TB: How did your initial efforts go? Was your ability evident from the start?

MO: I’d be horrified if I looked back on my early writing today, so I’ve hidden it away. What really aided me in those days was my connection with a university publication. It let me become part of a community that discussed literature and poetry and wrote about them too.

At the time, were you crafting poems or creating any fiction?

I never thought of myself as a prose writer, I only wrote poetry. Later on, Coach House Press in Toronto got in touch with me and wanted to assemble a collection–I was lucky.

Through them and their community, I learned the whole art of crafting a book–not just the writing, but the design and how to make it fit my voice, even when a publisher like Knopf was involved.

This process of making and designing books has been really important to me and still is.

Which of prose and poetry do you find more challenging to work with?

MO: Writing both poetry and novels is incredibly challenging for me. After finishing The English Patient, I had a strong desire to write poetry, so I had to reconsider how to do that. A novel allows for a wide and varied range of elements, like a carpetbag that can take in everything.

On the other hand, poems usually have one voice that has to be kept throughout. Crafting the single voice of the lyric is the most difficult part for me. Even when I’m writing fiction, I find it just as tough. I always try to bring what I know from poetry into my fiction, and vice versa.


What was the inspiration behind the title of Divisadero?

MO: I had coined the word ‘Divisadero’ as a working title when I used to drive around San Francisco. I was so fond of the word that I decided to set the book around this place.

Anna talks about the meaning of the name – that it implies to observe from a long distance and I find that it perfectly fits the story and her perception.

TB: How does the notion of physical distance play a role in the novel?

MO: Quite a bit. In Running in the Family, I use a line from Denise Levertov–“the mercy of distance.” This phrase has relevance in regards to this book, as it alludes to self-forgiveness, or understanding one’s story from a different perspective.

Anna is creating her own narrative as she sifts through the archives in the latter section of the book.

In my opinion, to a certain extent, this is accurate. I realized as I composed the book that I had been alternating between the actual and the imagined.

Question: Was the character of Lucien Segura, the poet, in the novel based on an actual person?

I had no real knowledge of the French poet, but I made up his life story by creating a house he may have resided in. This house then aided me in establishing a narrative about Lucien Segura.

Did you, similar to The English Patient, actually go to the house you were referring to?

When asked whether he needed to find a certain place in order to write a story, MO replied affirmatively. He went on to explain that he had found a house in Anil ‘s Ghost which he used in his writing and that it seemed to be a necessary step in the process of writing a story.

TB: Is the uncovering of the plot something that you experience tangibly when you’re in these dwellings? Do you traverse the spaces of the dwellings to stimulate your creative thinking?

MO suggests that the house in their head isn’t necessarily a replica of a real home, but the location is important. They emphasize the importance of what lies outside the house, specifying that the size of the garden, presence of a river or pond, or even a hill are all integral details.

Once these exterior elements are in place, then they can write and add additional features like a chestnut tree.

TB: In the book, there are moments where a character reflects or speaks on the craft of writing. An example of this is when Lucien Segura says, “The ability to write does not make much impact on the reader. All that matters is the five-centimeter gap between the pen and the eyes.

Any skill in reality or imagination is unseen…”

When writing, one is constantly having to make decisions that are not always obvious to the reader–such as where to put commas or how to pace a sentence. In film, these same choices are present, but are displayed in a more tangible way, with sound or music, for example.

Even the simplest of decisions, such as where to break a paragraph, can make a huge difference in tone, pacing and meaning.

This is something that only a writer can appreciate. As an example, Kundera talked about how Flaubert changed the length of the paragraphs in one of his books and thus completely altered the meaning of it.

In terms of style and punctuation, I was curious regarding the lack of quotation marks in the recent book as well as in some elements of the preceding works.

MO expressed uncertainty about which punctuation to use for dialogue. She had used dashes in Coming Through Slaughter and single quotation marks in Anil ‘s Ghost.

The latter style was more appealing to her as double quotation marks felt redundant. She was unsure which was the correct way to go.

Do you have difficulty with talking to people?

MO: I put a lot of effort into dialogue writing, though some people have said it’s not great. [Laughs] I often end up writing scenes without much thought and go back to it later. The most difficult dialogue to write in Divisadero was when Claire meets Coop in the restaurant.

I went through multiple versions, trying to figure out what they should say. It had to be loaded without seeming like it, which was the effect I wanted. In hindsight, seemingly innocent scenes can have a lot of meaning, but that should not be apparent in the reading.

When we are not actually in a scene, you have a knack for quickly developing a great deal of psychological and emotional momentum in the briefer parts.

MO suggested that when writing or re-reading, one should not remain in the same position throughout the text. By transitioning from A to C to E, the reader is forced to catch up with the action, potentially making it more tense and exciting.

As an example, one might start by being on a wall looking down and by the third sentence, be in a completely different place.

What parts of this book were unexpected to you as you composed it?

MO: Roman’s character had a great impact on me. At first, I wasn’t sure of how important he would be, but when his mother asked him to shoot the dog, and he didn’t, he became more compassionate and I found him more appealing.

The French part of the book was a surprise and I wondered if it would fit with the first part. However, eventually I realized it was the essential way to continue the story, even though I hadn’t planned it in the beginning.

Was there a particular reason why you were interested in the narrative of two siblings, Anna and Claire, who are not actually related? What about this story intrigued you?

When the MO project started out, the first piece of writing was the scene with the horse and the one woman in the barn. Later on, when the author returned to the piece, the protagonist, Coop, had two sisters, which added a different layer of meaning.

It highlighted the strange rivalry that existed between the two, who at times seemed to be the same person for Coop.

TB: Do you find it satisfying to include yet another nation in your repertoire of written works? Have you tackled writing about France previously?

MO: There is certainly enjoyment in this. It is almost like a form of wandering. [Laughs] Being an author requires a lot of solitude and there is delight in being able to step away from that and look at something else.

After writing Anil ‘s Ghost, I wanted to create another work about Sri Lanka. I started this new project and soon recognized that I was stuck in the same style of the prior novel.

I understood that I would need to not only use different words but find a new setting, a new sound or atmosphere from the prior book.


Could you explain how Billy the Kid was created?

MO: I have had a fascination with the folklore of Billy the Kid since I was a kid in Sri Lanka, which is quite peculiar. When I was in my twenties, I wanted to create a Western movie that was a blend of thriller and adventure.

It was to be something weird and wild, and, of course, risky. This project began with some poems, which then led me to writing in prose. This was the first time I had ever done this, and I soon discovered an entirely new way of expression.

I wrote without much editing, and it turned out great.

TB: What was the duration?

MO: I’ve been writing for around three years now. I initially wrote poems, but then I wanted something bigger. So I started writing prose, and it grew into something really big. I was worried that I was going mad while writing it.

When I had finished, I had to figure out how to make it make sense – how to arrange two or three hundred pieces into a structure that felt natural, and to include both calm and chaotic scenes.

That’s when I started to get interested in the process of making a collage, which has been really important to me.

TB: You seemed to be studying the concepts and talents needed for your novel-writing. How did you manage the anxiousness of not knowing what the outcome would be ahead of time, such as pondering, “How will I make this work?” or “Is it even possible?”

MO: My narrative has its gloomy side. [Laughs] Every time I get to work on something, the feeling of strain persists for around four years.

If I knew exactly what was going to occur, such as the plot, the story, and the resolutions, I would be less captivated by it. Rather, it is a voyage of discovery that I enjoy the most.

Where did the idea for Coming Through Slaughter come from?

MO: Jazz was definitely the driving force for me. The success of Billy may not have been very large on the surface, but for me it had a huge impact.

I was suddenly a celebrity, so I wanted to write about the thrill of jazz and explore the world of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and Hot Seven. But, before all of them, there was Bolden – he was the originator.

Did you grow up listening to that type of music?

When I was a teenager in England, I used to frequent a large number of jazz clubs.

Running in the Family contains a remarkable photograph of your parents. You mentioned that it was the only one you have.

Could you tell me more about their impact on your writing? Your mother’s inclination to tell exaggerated tales, and your father’s wit and quietness – do you feel either of these in your work?

MO: I wasn’t really aware of their impact on me. My mom was quite the extrovert, who was really lavish and hospitable. Our home was always bustling with individuals, many of whom she was not acquainted with.

Towards the closing stages of her life, when she was in England, people from Sri Lanka would often come for lunch, so the house was always full of people from all generations, which was exhilarating. My father was much more reclusive and silent.

I strongly feel these two characteristics are still in me. We weren’t just a traditional family; there were always aunts, uncles, and a whole tangled web of people surrounding us.

In Divisadero, and in all of your other novels, a character that serves as an archivist is often present, and the reader can sense the pressure of the past on the present.

I was curious if this started with the research you did for Running in the Family and how it influenced you as an author.

MO: With my earlier works, such as Coming Through Slaughter, which focused on New Orleans, I was forced to create it without ever visiting. Even with Billy the Kid, I never went to Mexico. I had to rely on whatever archival materials I could get my hands on.

With Running in the Family, I was presented with a unique opportunity. There were no archives, only conversations with family members, but many of them were not entirely truthful. I had to record everything quickly and then come back to Canada to sort out how to shape it all.

I made two trips to Sri Lanka, each lasting two to three months, which were intense and devoted to understanding my father more than my mother. I wanted to capture the tone of listening to stories and believing them, and so it became the focus of my book.

After crafting In the Skin of a Lion, there was another transformation in terms of the content and form.

MO: Getting started on that one was a bit of a struggle. I had a go at a story about Ambrose Small but after writing a hundred pages, I had had enough.

I decided to try again but using a character called Patrick. The problem was I had no clue about the Toronto of 1910, the period the book was set in.

Was there any memorable literary piece written during the time in Toronto?

MO found it to be a gift that there was not a major book about sewers or tunnels. They have always been bothered when there is a large gap in the knowledge they need for a project. But, they also value emptiness as it allows them to come up with their own ideas.

Although research is important, there is danger in having too much of it.

It is evident that you have done some in-depth exploration for the majority of your stories, particularly in regards to activities like bomb disposal, gambling in the most recent work, and the captivating characteristics of the desert.

In my opinion, the best research occurs incidentally. I often write while I’m researching, or they are done almost hand-in-hand. It’s like constructing a bridge and writing about what I’m putting together. To be honest, I don’t do a lot of research.

Many times, I’m creating a very complex detail or a documental situation that may not be there. Surprisingly, these concepts have been proven accurate. In particular, the information about the tunnels underwater was correct, although I had first imagined it before I found out they existed.

When crafting a novel, how crucial is the setting for you initially?

MO: Immensely. Location is not the only factor; the time period is also very crucial for me. It could be the desert in 1938, Italy at the close of the war, New Orleans at a certain point in history, or Toronto a hundred years ago.

Without a physical setting, the book will seem to just drift away. I require the landscape, which can be somewhat contrived but must contain genuine names of roads and the like.

Do maps and photographs usually spark your creativity?

MO: I’ll certainly take a look at those, yet I’m going to strive to find a place. I have a habit of searching for a concrete landscape while I’m writing instead of before.

As an example, when I initially wrote The English Patient, I had already visualized the house where the story takes place. It was, however, not a real one. Later on in the book, I flew to Italy and luckily discovered a spot that would fit the characters and situations.

TB: You made it to that location.

When asked if this was true, MO responded in the affirmative, noting that they only need a small peek at a place to begin to create a story. According to them, seeing a single photograph of one person partially in the frame can cause that person to become the main character of the novel.

Furthermore, if they had been given too much material, such as a book about the location, it would have spoiled the creative process for them.

What was the duration between the publishing of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient?

It always takes me about a year to emotionally recover after finishing a book, so I was writing poems while trying to figure out what to do next. Three days before I began writing The English Patient, I still had no idea what the story would entail.

I was at the airport when I started to develop a vivid description of a man having his photograph taken and then stealing it back.

Eventually, the character of the patient began to emerge and he started speaking in a grand post-nationalistic way about cultures and nations, which was something I had never even thought about.

It was like I had to just wait around with a few people in a house for something to happen before the story could progress.

  1. “My speech differs from how others use language.”

TB: Your writing style is fascinating when it comes to the aspect of time–the collage-like effect and the order of events, as well as the sudden changes in time, like the flashbacks and flash-forwards.

An example of this is the line about Caravaggio and Kip from The English Patient : “In the future, when Caravaggio is exiting a cab on a Toronto street, he will hold the door open for an East Indian man and think of Kip.” Does that sound familiar?

MO expressed that the idea of Caravaggio having a fondness for Kip and then envisioning an Indian walking the streets of Toronto twenty years in the future was something that seemed natural.

To MO, this was a gesture of generosity that followed accordingly and didn’t come off as premeditated. However, if it seemed “set up” in any way, it would be a problem.

Is it your intention to construct characters in your writing, such as Kip the bomb disposal technician, that carry out actions which you yourself would have liked to experience?

I find writing quite pleasurable. It has a lot to do with adopting different ways of speaking that are distinct from my own. It’s almost like wearing a mask or costume, allowing me to act in a way that is not my own.

What techniques do you employ to ensure that you are able to write in a fashion that accurately reflects the different eras you write about? Do you ever read books or letters from that particular time period?

MO stated that waiting a year or so is a way of getting out of the language they have used in the past few years. They delight in discovering expressions that they wouldn’t generally use. It is exhilarating to find a new vocabulary.

Do you vocalize your writing as you are composing it? Or do you just imagine the sounds within your mind?

MO: I can perceive the music in my head, even though I never vocalize it, but I can imagine it. The cadence and pace can change in my head. Music is a huge part of my life, I always have music playing.

I don’t play music while I’m writing. Perhaps the music I create comes from writing poetry.

TB: What environment do you prefer when you are writing? Are you someone who needs an outlook or do you like to be distant from the outside world?

MO stated that they can write anywhere, so long as they are not surrounded by people they know. They commented that even when sitting in front of the most beautiful place in the world, they will not be aware of its existence.

As an example, they recalled writing the scene in the tunnel for In the Skin of a Lion; spending four days with Patrick in the underground, tunnel, water, and swimming through the darkness.

All the while, they were sitting in front of a bright window, in the countryside, during a summer day, completely oblivious to the landscape they were in, since they were so focused on the tunnel.

TB: Could you tell me how the recognition you gained when Billy the Kid was released changed you as a writer? Also, regarding the massive success of The English Patient, how did it affect you? It must have been an intimidating prospect to live up to that kind of reaction.

MO: Despite the successes I’ve had, I’ve never felt overly confident. I’m happy for the successes, of course, but it doesn’t really give me any extra assurance. Even with Billy, which had a larger reception in Canada, and then got published in the States, I still had doubts.

I’ve never been secure in my art, even now. The anxiety always takes over. What happened with The English Patient was downright unbelievable, it was surreal.

What do you mean by that?

At one point, MO’s book had a surge of success, resulting in it winning the Booker Prize, and then the novel was adapted into a film. Fortunately, MO had already started working on Anil ‘s Ghost, which was a great distraction from the filming.

Was there an increased sense of what was expected of you due to your accomplishments, the idea that you had to meet certain standards?

At the beginning of my writing journey, I learned that I should not consider an audience while writing. This is because I could end up giving them what they want instead of what I want to create and explore.

Writing is already a challenging task and I should not add the pressure of imagining 500 people in a theater watching me, like the Monty Python sketch where Thomas Hardy is writing his eleventh novel and people say “Oh no, he’s doodling again.”

Do you typically revise your work while you are writing it, or do the majority of your changes come after you’ve finished a draft?

MO: I found the story during my early drafts. I go back and read it before revising, and there would usually be four or five of these written drafts.

Any elements that I no longer feel are essential or intriguing will be eliminated. I’m also adding, excavating, and rearranging my material as I go.

Do you let anyone read your writing while you’re in the middle of a book?

MO: I take my work as far as I can on my own, going through many iterations of it. When I am unsure if it will be successful, I give it to a few people to read and wait for their response.

TB: What is the purpose of your search?

MO: I’m looking for something that isn’t too enthusiastic or too critical. One of the issues is that, since I’ve grown so attached to the characters, it’s hard to articulate what more needs to be said about them. I have to explain aspects that were clear to me as the creator. [Laughs]


Going to extremes can, in some cases, be dangerous. Nevertheless, there are times when it may be necessary to go beyond the conventional limits in order to achieve a greater goal.

Exceeding boundaries can be a risky endeavor, but it can also be the only way to reach a desired outcome.

Do you have any specific messages you intend to convey in your work? Are you aware of the meaning your story will have before you start composing?

MO stated that he does not initially have an idea about what a book will mean and he is more focused on developing characters and the narrative. He does not care about what the content signifies, although initially he was expected to write a Canadian book and then about Sri Lanka. He is always interested in trying to write something that he does not think he is able to do.

What posed the biggest difficulty in regards to Anil ‘s Ghost?

MO: With such a tangled political environment and numerous voices that don’t agree, I asked myself where I should start.

I chose to document the experience of living there, not focusing on the three conflicting sides, but rather on what it’s like to be a medical professional or a regular citizen. However, it wasn’t until I had two perspectives that I felt I could truly represent the larger collective voices.

Were you concerned that you might get negative feedback for not completely covering one side or the other?

MO: Absolutely. I had to be more exacting with myself in Anil’s Ghost owing to the political atmosphere. It was a rigorous and demanding journey I had to take with the novel, and I had to remain on that arduous path and depict it faithfully.

It was a work of fiction, yet it was more genuine to its era and locale than Billy the Kid. Thus, the fact that Divisadero ranged so widely was a welcome respite.

We can discuss your passion for film and the craft of movie-making for a bit.

MO has always had a fondness for film, deeming it pure magic, even in the most commonplace movies. Similarly, when reading a great work of literature, MO likes to be surprised by the plot and its twists and turns.

This is why he worked on the book with Walter Murch, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, which explored the editing process in various disciplines, including books, dance, opera and record albums.

MO is captivated by the craft and details of editing, such as the little tones at the start and middle of songs.

TB: What movies do you like the best?

MO: I think The Lives of Others and The Best of Youth are both amazing films. I have a few other favorites listed in my biography, but I think film is a bit of a restricted art form.

It’s hard to go to the furthest extremes in a movie without losing your audience, while with a book it’s much more plausible.

TB: What do you find so appealing about novels? What makes them so special to you that you keep coming back to them?

MO: When people think of well-crafted books, they often cite authors such as Jane Austen or Robertson Davies. Nonetheless, what I find so attractive about novel writing is the flexibility to write whatever length desired and explore the limits of the form.

A novel can be short, or even very expansive. The freedom that comes with writing a novel is something I truly appreciate and I realized this when I read Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!.

I was surprised to find that you can use various voices, change the speed, the atmosphere, and the direction of the story without the same restraints as in poetry.

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