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Conversation: Michael Ondaatje

In the early 1950s, a young boy sets out on a ship from his home in what was then called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, bound for England. On board he meets up with a lively cast of characters and has many adventures. It’s just a three-week trip but one that will change his life forever.

That’s the fictional voyage of the new novel, “The Cat’s Table.” It’s author, Michael Ondaatje, took a trip like that long ago before becoming the much honored writer of such works as “The English Patient,” “Anil’s Ghost” and “Divisadero.”

I recently sat down with him to talk about the book:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the early 1950s, a young boy sets out on a ship from his home in what was then called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, bound for England. On board he meets up with a lively cast of characters and has many adventures. It’s just a three week trip but one that will change his life forever. That’s the fictional voyage of a new novel, “The Cat’s Table.” It’s author, Michael Ondaatje, took a trip like that long ago before becoming the much honored writer of such works as “The English Patient” and “Anil’s Ghost” and “Divisadero.” He joins us now. Welcome to you.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So an 11-year-old boy named Michael makes this trip, as did 11-year-old …

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I mean, I had no idea the boy was going to be called Michael until about age 40 and suddenly that name appeared and I thought should I go with that or not?

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, so it didn’t start out that way?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: No, I mean, I don’t usually know how the book is going to evolve before I write it so I just began with a boy coming on the ship one night and then he gets off the ship at, you know, 21 days later on, and the actual journey I took in fact was, I don’t remember it all, it was like I played a lot of ping pong and used the swimming pool a lot, but that was about it and …

JEFFREY BROWN: Something compelled you to look back at that whether it’s autobiographical, I don’t want to make it too autobiographic, but something the material made you want to look back.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, what happened was a few years ago I talked to my children who now grown up and I said I was put on this ship and there was no parental guidance nothing and they were appalled and I said actually it is appalling

JEFFREY BROWN: It is, that’s a different time, right, a young boy put on a boat by himself.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Right, so I thought my God there’s a wonderful story here and I’ll just invent this adventure that takes place on this ship during that time so even though I’m using a kind of an element of memoir or seeming autobiography all the characters in the story and all the adventures in fact are fictional.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now “The Cat’s Table” refers to the table in the dining room that’s the furthest from the captain’s table right? One of the characters says this is the least privileged place, these are the least important people on board.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: It’s, you know, if you have some big banquet and you are by the kitchens or something like that, you are sitting at the cat’s table and you know it’s the insignificance. I think there’s lot of freedom in being unofficial, there is a lot of freedom in being not on stage all the time so you can be a heckler, you can kind of and for a boy of 11 years old is at this table he’s almost completely invisible so he can go to places that others can’t go to and these three boys that get together are kind of having great adventures and you know slipping into the butcher’s room and into the jails, and into all kinds of strange places.

JEFFREY BROWN: But was there something freeing for you about having the character be a boy?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: To write from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy was fantastic for me. He was, that was an adventure as well, you know, because you weren’t judging people, you weren’t trying to work out what someone really felt. You just received information and you were lead into kin of badness and goodness right away.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are working here on one the great realms of literature that trip and the characters along the way from “The Canterbury Tales” onward right?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: That’s right, and I guess that’s why you kind of, it’s very important to populate the adventure with many, many people from different classes of society.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how did that happen? Did you have this fully formed when you sat down or did you literally make it up as you went along?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I made it up and all I had was the boy at the beginning and then he has three friends and then the fact that they are at the cat’s table allowed me to kind of think of a larger cast of characters, you know, and so I have a jazz musician who is on the skids, and you’ve got a strange woman with pigeons who might be work for Whitehall and you’ve got a millionaire who’s dying of rabies. All kinds of very strange things are happening, but it allowed me to invent these people, and what someone says to the boy you know keep your ears and eyes open because this is going to be a great education, and so the minute I said that or had someone say that then it became in a way a book about how especially 11-year-olds are easily educated in a bad way or a good way. So there is a thief who uses the boy to break into cabins for instance and he’s happy to do this. It’s an adventure for him.

JEFFREY BROWN: The boy, as well as some of these characters that he meets, they are traveling from east to west, and there is another part of the great literature I think that you are working in here.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Well, I am someone who as I said, born in Sri Lanka and then moved to England and then moved to Canada, so I’ve been pretty nomadic in my life you know, and I’ve always been interested in how the east in the lives west. I mean in “The English Patient,” it was Kip the bomb disposal character and in this book it’s these boys from Asia who really haven’t, don’t even know what England is, who are suddenly kind of about to arrive in and all their lives are going to change completely. And I love that kind of transferring of people from one location to another one.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you finished I guess and I’m going back to where we started you are looking back at a life that is sort of yours but not yours. Were you surprised by what you had written?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: You know, it’s very obvious, I think, when you write fiction you are obviously kind of you know discovering elements of yourself even if you are writing fiction, because the kind of characters you invent aspects of yourself or glimmers of aspects of yourself, and then you had to kind of you’ve got to paint them in great detail. So the boy Michael who I see as a fictional character I am sure contains elements of my fears or wishes I think all those things, and I wrote a book called “Running in the Family,” which was about my family in Sri Lanka. I listened to all these stories from uncles and aunts and I wrote this portrait of that time, and even though half of them were lying to me I kind of believe all that stuff now. You know, fiction is very powerful in that way. It does replace facts sometimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “The Cat’s Table.” Michael Ondaatje, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: Good to talk to you.

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