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An Interview with Michael Ondaatje

[POET/NOVELIST]

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ANNOYED WHEN THERE’S A HUGE EMPTY SPACE WHERE I NEED SOME INFORMATION ABOUT SOMETHING I’M WRITING ABOUT, BUT IN FACT IT’S ALWAYS VALUABLE TO ME TO HAVE THAT EMPTINESS SO I CAN THEN INVENT. THERE’S A DANGER OF HAVING TOO MUCH RESEARCH.”

Revelatory moments for the author during the composition of his novels:

A man having his photograph taken and then having him realize he had to steal it back
(The English Patient)
A scene where a mother says, “Shoot the dog” and the son doesn’t shoot the dog
(Divisadero)

by Tom Barbash
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Michael Ondaatje

[POET/NOVELIST]

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ANNOYED WHEN THERE’S A HUGE EMPTY SPACE WHERE I NEED SOME INFORMATION ABOUT SOMETHING I’M WRITING ABOUT, BUT IN FACT IT’S ALWAYS VALUABLE TO ME TO HAVE THAT EMPTINESS SO I CAN THEN INVENT. THERE’S A DANGER OF HAVING TOO MUCH RESEARCH.”

Revelatory moments for the author during the composition of his novels:

A man having his photograph taken and then having him realize he had to steal it back
(The English Patient)
A scene where a mother says, “Shoot the dog” and the son doesn’t shoot the dog
(Divisadero)

by Tom Barbash
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Michael Ondaatje

Tom Barbash
10 Snaps

Michael Ondaatje likes writing in other people’s houses. On the unseasonably hot weekend of our interview we meet at the home of one of Ondaatje’s friends, where the novelist has been staying on and off for the last several months, and where he wrote part of his new novel, Divisadero. It is a quiet house on an equally tranquil street in the Berkeley flats. Divisadero takes place in the Bay Area and by staying in this house Ondaatje was continuing a time-tested habit of moving to where his novels are set. When writing The English Patient he moved in to a small house in the Italian countryside, for Anil’s Ghost he found a house in his native Sri Lanka, and recently he took up residence in the French countryside while writing the portion of Divisadero that takes place in France. He says he can get work done anywhere, but that a particular house can ignite his imagination.

Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, moved to England in 1954 with his mother, and relocated eight years later in Toronto. He began as a poet, and a very good one, twice winning the Governor General’s prize. He still writes poetry but has found his home in the novel, for which he’s earned an international reputation and has been awarded a long list of major awards including the Booker Prize for The English Patient. Divisadero is his fifth novel; he is also the author of ten books of poetry, two plays, three works of nonfiction, and a memoir.

Ondaatje’s books are morally complex and structurally adventurous, in part because he doesn’t know the structure going in. His method, he says, is to cast out in the dark. He begins with dreamlike images, slowly building his intricate story, but then subjects his work to a lengthy and vigorous editing process that can span years. Ondaatje is a genius with time and place, in part as a result of what he’s learned from his other loves: music, film, and photography.

He spent two afternoons with me talking about his influences, methods, and ambitions. He acknowledges that he never knows as he’s writing whether he’ll be able to pull a book off. Now in his early sixties, Ondaatje has a gentle, welcoming manner, and longish white hair, which rises somewhat wildly from his head. He has a soft but resonant speaking voice and laughs easily, often while poking fun at himself.

—Tom Barbash

I. “WHATEVER I LEARN FROM POETRY I WANT TO TAKE INTO MY FICTION AND VICE VERSA.”

TOM BARBASH: What started you writing in the first place?

MICHAEL ONDAATJE: I think I was just trying to bring some order into my life. I was nineteen, I was in Canada for the first time. I was in a new country. I was at a university where I had a great English teacher. So it was a combination of all those things, but there was also a need within me for some kind of self-awareness, something like that. And then there was simply the pleasure of writing. I was a big reader all through my teens.

TB: Was there a single book or author you read that made you want to write?

MO: Not really. My reading was very various and random as a teenager. It ranged from popular thrillers to Forster. But in Canada I began to read poetry: Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn… and other contemporaries. Later I discovered Gary Snyder’s book Earth House Hold, a book of journals and poems, and I loved the form of it, a book that seemed to allow anything to enter into it. It helped me to imagine how I could create a book that was a portrait of somebody who wasn’t me talking, using all the genres. And that led to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

TB: And what were your first attempts like? Were you showing talent immediately?

MO: I’d be deeply embarrassed if I saw that early work now. I’ve buried it somewhere. But what really helped me then was being involved with a university magazine. It brought me into a community of people who were also writing and arguing about books and poetry.

TB: You were writing poems at the time. Were you writing fiction at all?

MO: No. I never imagined being a prose writer or doing anything with prose. I wrote poetry. Later on I was approached by Coach House Press in Toronto— and they wanted to do a collection. So I was lucky. With them—another community—I was exposed to the whole art of making a book, not just the writing, but how you put the book together and how you could design it and bend the rules to suit yourself and make it suit your voice. That whole process was tremendously important to me and still is, even when a book is designed at a place like Knopf. The art of making and designing books is part of the act of writing.

TB: Between prose and poetry, which do you find more difficult?

MO: I find both very difficult. I know that when I finished The English Patient, I really wanted to write poetry and I found that I had to reassess how I wanted to write it. For me, a novel allows anything into it, it’s like a carpetbag that can take in everything. But with poems there is usually one governing voice and it’s important to stay in that voice. The single voice of the lyric, which is still probably the most difficult thing for me to write. But then when I write fiction I find it just as difficult. Whatever I learn from poetry I want to take into my fiction and vice versa.

 

II. BRINGING IN THE CHESTNUT TREE

TB: How did you come up with the title Divisadero?

MO: It began as a working title. Whenever I’d drive in San Francisco I’d cross Divisadero Street and I always liked the sound of the word. And then the book was partly set around here. There’s a point where Anna talks about what divisadero means: to divide or to look at something from a great distance, which I think fits what happens to her, and her perspective in the story.

TB: In what way does that idea of distance figure into the novel?

MO: Quite a bit.There’s a line I use in Running in the Family; it’s from Denise Levertov—“the mercy of distance.” It has a lot to do with this book too. It means forgiving oneself, or recognizing oneself, to see one’s story in a different way.

TB: So Anna in essence is finding her own story in the archival work she does in the second half of the book.

MO:Yes. I think that’s partly true.There seem to be two different versions of the same tale in a way. It became evident to me as I was writing the book that I was moving between a real life and an imagined life.

TB:Where did the character in the novel of Lucien Segura, the poet, come from? Was he based on a real person?

MO: Not really. I invented the French poet and found a house that he might have lived in. The house became a way of inventing a story about Lucien Segura.

TB: Did you do what you did with The English Patient and actually go to that house?

MO: Yes. Finding the place allows me to write about much more than that. There’s a house in Anil’s Ghost that I also found and used in such a way. I seem to need the house before I can write a story.

TB:When you’re in these houses does the discovery of plot become a physical thing? Do you walk the rooms of these houses to stimulate your imagination?

MO: If I have the house in my head I can mentally walk from room to room. And the house in the book isn’t necessarily a replica of a real house. The site is important.What’s outside is very important: how big the garden is, whether there’s a river there or a pond, or a hill. Once I have a sense of all that I can write, and bring in a chestnut tree or something like that.

TB: There are several moments in the novel in which a character will think or say something which has to do with the process of writing. I’m thinking of Lucien Segura’s lines: “The skill of writing offers little to the viewer. There is only the five-centimetre relationship between your eyes and the pen. Any skill in the living or dreaming is invisible…”

MO: With writing you’re always a little underwater. No one’s going to know why you’re pacing something in a particular way, without commas as opposed to with commas. It’s just a hand moving. Film is interesting because all the elements that go into writing are there physically—the sound man, the lighting man, the cutting, the acting, the inventing of the story by the writer. All these things are there in the writer—you’re thinking about how loud someone’s saying something; are they whispering or yelling? All those elements are there unspoken in the text, but in the writer’s mind. No one can see them actively or physically on a stage, but these choices affect a reader. In writing it might be something small while in film that decision might be physically enacted through the soundtrack, or the swell of music. Think about the choice of where a paragraph breaks. It is such an intricate little thing that happens during the editing process. I was reading The Curtain by Kundera. He was talking about how when Flaubert rewrote one of his books he made the paragraphs longer. Three paragraphs became one. It changed everything—pacing, meaning. It’s fascinating. And yet who but a writer talks about things like that?

TB: Speaking of stylistic and punctuation choices, I wanted to ask you about dialogue and specifically the absence of quotation marks in the new novel and in sections of the others.

MO: Well, I’ve gone back and forth on that. I think Coming Through Slaughter didn’t have them, had dashes. And then in Anil’s Ghost I used single quotation marks, the European style which I rather like; I suppose because it’s not so busy. The double quotation mark is like saying something twice as far as I’m concerned. But I’m never quite sure what’s the best way to do it.

TB: Do you struggle with dialogue?

MO: I definitely spend a lot of time on it. I’ve been accused of writing terrible dialogue by some people. [Laughs] But I spend a lot of time on it. It often gets written without too much intent when I’m actually writing scenes, and later on I’ll go back to it.The dialogue that was most difficult to write in Divisadero was where Claire meets Coop after many years, in the restaurant. I went through five or six completely different versions, trying to figure out what to say. You can’t say too much, you can’t say too little, you can’t be too casual. Yet everything there is loaded, even though it might not seem loaded. A lot of the time that’s the effect I want. In retrospect, what someone says in a totally innocent-seeming scene can mean a lot. But you don’t want to have that feeling of something meaningful and portentous while you’re reading it.

TB: You have an ability to create a great deal of emotional and psychological momentum very fast in the summarized sections, when we’re not actually in scene.

MO: I’m very interested in how you can build a narrative by going from A to C to E, and between sentences something has happened and the reader has to catch up with you. It’s not an intentional thing, but when you’re rewriting or re-reading something, you see that you’ve done that, and you’re not in real time. I think it can enliven the action, make it more tense. From the first sentence to the third sentence, so you’re now on a wall looking down as opposed to being in the same position.

TB: Which aspects of this book were surprising to you as you were writing?

MO: The character of Roman, for one. He became very interesting to me, but I didn’t know he’d be so important and central.There was a while when I didn’t know where I was going with him, but in the scene where the mother says,“Shoot the dog,” and he doesn’t shoot the dog—the minute he doesn’t shoot the dog a door opened and he became more interesting and more compassionate. And the whole French section of the book was a surprise. I started writing and I wasn’t sure if I could make it part of the story. I thought, Is this something else or is it part of the same book, and I just trusted it. It just seemed very right by the end, but it wasn’t something I planned in the beginning. But as I was writing it I knew it was the essential way to continue the first part of the book.

TB: The central story of the two twins, Anna and Claire, who aren’t really twins: Was that something you’d heard about? And what interested you about the differences between them?

MO: No, it was all just kind of invented. When it began I think the first thing I wrote was the scene in the barn with the horse, but there was only one woman there. That was literally the first thing I wrote. Then when I came back to it at that point there were two sisters, so when the other sister became part of the scene it had different significance of what was going on there. It was also now about this strange kind of competitiveness that exists between those two. While they were also at times the same person for Coop—so that was interesting.

TB: Is it pleasurable to add another country to those you’ve written about? Had you written about France before?

MO: It is pleasurable. There’s a kind of nomadic motive behind it. [Laughs] As a writer you’re fairly solitary, in one room, really, and there’s a pleasure to looking over the wall, if you will. After Anil’s Ghost, I thought I’d write another novel about Sri Lanka. I began something, and I realized I was still in the same wave as the last book. I found I couldn’t get out of that. I realized I had to not only find a new vocabulary but a new place, a new note or tone from the last book.

 

III. “I NEED THE PHYSICAL LOCATION BECAUSE OTHERWISE I FEEL THE BOOK WILL JUST FLOAT AWAY.”

TB: Tell me about the genesis of Billy the Kid.

MO: My interest in the myth of Billy the Kid goes back to my childhood, in Sri Lanka, which is somewhat absurd. I think in my early twenties I wanted to write a Western and make a movie, a half thriller, half adventure film. I wanted to make something bizarre and crazy. And dangerous. It began as a group of poems and then I leapt into prose. It was the first prose I had written— so I found this whole huge field of writing that was possible. I just wrote it—and I think I hardly edited the prose at all.

TB: How long did it take?

MO: About three years. I wrote the poems individually and then, after about a year, I found I wanted a bigger form, and then I was writing prose. It expanded into this huge mongrel thing and I wondered if I might be going crazy when I was writing it. Later I went back and looked at it. I knew I had to find some kind of shape and form for it. That was probably the most difficult thing I had to learn—how to shape the material—place three hundred or two hundred pieces into an organic structure that seemed natural, and still juxtapose a gentle scene with something violent. I think that was when I became interested in how a collage works.That’s been a very important thing for me.

TB: It seems like you were learning the principles and skills you would take into your novel-writing. How did you fight the uneasiness of wondering before you reached the end, How am I going to shape this? or even, Can it be done?

MO:This is the dark side of my story. [Laughs] That sort of tension is there for about four years each time I work on something. I think if I knew everything going in— the structure, the story, how things will get resolved— I probably would not be as interested in it. For me it’s much more a process of discovery.

TB: What were the origins of Coming Through Slaughter?

MO: Probably a love of jazz more than anything else. The success of Billy was, on one level, quite small, but on another level, quite large for me. Suddenly I was almost a public figure. So I was interested in what it would be like to be “the public figure.” I went in with that idea of writing about the excitement of jazz—the world of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five and the Hot Seven—that period of jazz fascinated me. But [Buddy] Bolden came before all that. He was the source.

TB: Was that something you listened to as a kid?

MO: More when I was a teenager in England. I went to a lot of jazz clubs.

TB: On a different subject, there’s a wonderful photograph of your parents in Running in the Family. And you said that’s the only picture of them you have. I wanted to know about their influence on your development as a writer, your mother’s tendency to tell hyperbolic, larger-than-life stories, and then your father’s humor and reticence. How do you feel each of them in your work?

MO: I guess I didn’t really know what their influence was on me. My mother was an excessively dramatic, very gregarious and generous person. The house was always full of people, half of whom she didn’t know. When she was in England in the last part of her life, anyone from Sri Lanka would drop in for lunch, so the house was full of people from all ages, which was exciting. My father was much more solitary and quiet. I definitely think those two things are in me. But we were never just a nuclear family; there were always uncles and aunts and a whole complicated community around us.

TB: In Divisadero, and in your other books, there’s almost always an archivist of sorts who has gone back and dug up the past. We always feel the weight of the past on the present in your novels. I wondered if much of that began with the research for Running in the Family. I wondered how the process of learning so much about your family changed you as a writer.

MO: With the earlier books, such as Coming Through Slaughter—which was about New Orleans—I had to write that book without going there. I couldn’t afford to go there. Even with Billy the Kid, I never went to Mexico. It was an imagined world, a mental landscape more than anything else.What I gleaned about it came from random archival things I got hold of. With Running in the Family, there were no archives, and that was exciting to me. No one wrote books, they just talked. So when I went there I moved around and had many conversations with uncles and aunts, hearing each story again and again. Half of them were lying [laughter]… they were trying to tell a good story more than anything else. So I was having to deal with that. There was so much material, I had to write everything down very fast. I wrote very, very fast. Usually I’m a fairly slow writer. When I got back to Canada I had to try and figure out how I was going to shape all this. There were two trips back to Sri Lanka, each about two or three months long, and my time there was quite intense. The book focuses on my father more than my mother because I knew my mother better in England. I knew I had to stay, the book had to stay on the island. That became the rule, one of the shapes of the book for me. What happened also was the book began joyously rather like a restoration comedy of eighty-five people coming in drunk and going off in a car into the country or something. Then I stopped for a while and began to write the darker half of the book.About my father, which wasn’t where I thought the book was going to go. I wanted to capture the way one “talked” a story as opposed to writing a story. That was the tone of the book. It was listening to stories, and believing them. Putting it all down.

TB: After that you wrote In the Skin of a Lion, which was another shift in form and subject matter.

MO:There were lots of false starts with that one. I began with the story about Ambrose Small first of all, but after writing a hundred pages he bored the hell out of me. So I went back and started again with a character called Patrick. But I didn’t know where I was going with it. I knew nothing about Toronto in 1910, which is when the book took place.

TB: Was there any great text of Toronto in that period?

MO: Nothing. And that was a gift in a way. If there was a major book about the sewers or the tunnels I would have swallowed it up but then thought, well, we already know that. I’ve always been annoyed when there’s a huge empty space where I need some information about something I’m writing about, but in fact it’s always valuable to me to have that emptiness so I can then invent. There’s a danger of having too much research.

TB: But clearly you have done some research for quite a few of your novels, especially about processes, like bomb disposal, or gambling in the new book, or the beauty of the desert.

MO: For me the research is much better when it’s accidental. I tend to write and research simultaneously, or almost simultaneously. It’s like building a bridge and writing about the bridge being built. I don’t do that much research, to be honest. Often I’m inventing a very technical detail, or an archival situation that may not be there. But oftentimes these turn out to be true. The stuff about the tunnels underwater in fact is true, but I sort of imagined it before I discovered they had existed.

TB: How essential is the setting to you when you begin each book?

MO: Very. It’s not only place, but the time period is very important to me, whether it’s the desert in 1938, or Italy at the end of the war, or New Orleans at a certain time, or Toronto a hundred years ago. I need the physical location because otherwise I feel the book will just float away. I need a landscape—it could be partially invented but I want real names of streets and so forth.

TB: Do you tend to use maps and photographs to activate your imagination?

MO: I will look at those, sure, but I will try and go to that place. I often need to find a place, a physical landscape, while I’m writing as opposed to before I’m writing.When I began The English Patient, for instance, I had created the house in my mind where all the action takes place. But it wasn’t yet a real place. Then about a third of the way through the book I went to Italy and actually found a place that would’ve worked for the characters and the situations.

TB: You actually went there.

MO: Yes. I tend to need just a little glimpse through the window of a place. I can see a photograph of somebody who is half in the picture, and that person for me can become the central character of a book. Again, if you have too much—if somebody had handed me a book about that place, it would have spoiled it. It would have been too painted already.

TB: How long a time period did you have between In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient?

MO: It always takes about a year for me to get over a book. I mean, I can’t just leap into the next one. I was writing poems, but I was sort of looking around for what to do next. Six months later I had no idea what I was going to do. And three days before I began The English Patient I still had no idea. I had no idea who the patient was, or that there was going to be a Caravaggio again, or these other characters. I have to creep into the book with not too much lighting at first and try to find out what’s in there. There were two things that started to emerge: one was the man in the bed, and the other was someone being photographed. I remember that I was at an airport and I was waiting for a plane, and I started writing this very vivid thing about a man having his photograph taken and then having him realize he had to steal it back. Just that little detail—that was it. I think the voice of the patient came in later, after he’d been in the book awhile, and then suddenly it was almost like I hit a spring and somebody would start talking in this grand post-nationalistic way about cultures and nations. Nothing I had ever even thought about, but that’s what happens after you’ve been writing awhile. It was really a matter of waiting around with three or four people in a house, waiting for something to happen.

 

IV. “THE WAY PEOPLE TALK IS THE WAY I DON’T TALK.”

TB: Time in your novels is always interesting—part of it is the collage effect that you speak of, and how things are ordered, but also there are all the sudden jumps, the flash-forwards and flashbacks you use so seamlessly. I’m remembering the line about Caravaggio and Kip in The English Patient: “Years from now on a Toronto street Caravaggio will get out of a taxi…” and he’ll hold the door for an East Indian man and think of Kip. You know the line I’m talking about.

MO: Yes. It just seems very natural to me. If Caravaggio is talking about an affection for Kip and imagining that in twenty years’ time there is an Indian on the street in Toronto… there’s a gesture of graciousness on his part as a result of this moment. It just seems very normal and almost chronological to go there and then leap back. But if it felt “planned,”“set up,” that would be a problem for me.

TB: Do you consciously create—I was thinking of Kip, the bomb disposal, and other experts—characters who do things that you would have loved to have been able to do?

MO: I think that’s one of the pleasures of writing. There is a lot of that.The way people talk is the way I don’t talk. It’s like putting on Agamemnon’s mask, or a costume. So you can behave like them.

TB: How do you get what feels like a comfortable vernacular for the different time periods you write in? Do you read texts or letters from the period?

MO: I think what I said earlier on about waiting a year or so is really to get out of the vocabulary I was using in the last four or five years, because I think there is a vocabulary for each book. I love finding language that is not my own language, some line or phrase that I would never have normally used. I’ll think, God, I haven’t used that word ever before. The notion of a new vocabulary is very exciting to me.

TB: There’s a real music to your writing and I’m wondering if you read your work out loud as you’re writing. Or do you just hear the voice in your head?

MO: I sort of hear it in my head,though I never read out loud, but I can imagine it. I can hear the pitch changing or the speed shifting in my head. Music is certainly important to me, I mean, I listen to a lot of music all the time. I don’t listen to music while I’m writing. Some of the music probably comes from writing poetry.

TB: What sort of setup do you like to have when you write? Do you need a view, or do you like to close off the outside world?

MO: I can write anywhere, as long as there’s no one around that I know. If I’m in a room with friends I know it will be difficult for me to write. In terms of views, I can be working in front of the most beautiful place in the world and not realize it’s there. I remember writing the whole scene in the tunnel for In the Skin of a Lion. I spent about four days writing the scene with Patrick, the underground, tunnel, water, swimming through the darkness. I was sitting in front of a bright window on a bright summer day in the country, totally unaware of where I was, of the real landscape. The tunnel was what I was focused on.

TB: You talked about how the first time you received attention as a writer was with Billy the Kid. I was wondering how that attention changed you as a writer, what sort of confidence it gave you. And then I wanted to ask you about the tremendous reaction to The English Patient and what effect that had. It must have been a tough act to follow.

MO:The trouble is I’ve never been that confident even after something has been a success. Not that I don’t feel happy about it, but it doesn’t necessarily give me confidence. I think if your first book is accepted and published, that’s great, but you know three hundred people read it usually and that’s it. With Billy there was a larger response in Canada, and then it got published in the States, but it didn’t give me any artistic confidence. I’ve never had that kind of security, even now. The paranoia always steps in. On the other hand, what happened to The English Patient was so surreal, it was just crazy.

TB: How so?

MO: The book suddenly took off, and then it won the Booker. And then there was the film.Luckily,while that was all going on I’d begun writing Anil’s Ghost, so that was what preoccupied me, even during the filming.

TB: Did your success give you a heightened sense of outside expectations, the thought of, This better be good?

MO: Very early on in my writing life I realized that if you’re going to write, the last thing you should think about is an audience. Otherwise you’re going to give the audience what they want as opposed to what you want to do or discover. The act of writing is so difficult anyway that you don’t want to add to it the imagined sense of five hundred people in a theater listening to you, or watching you, waiting to see what you do, like that Monty Python sketch about watching Thomas Hardy write his eleventh novel. “Oh no, he’s doodling again.”

TB: Are you someone who revises as you go along, or does most of the revision take place after you’re done with a draft?

MO: It’s both. I discover the story while I’m doing the first draft. I go back and re-read it and then rewrite it. There will be about four or five drafts that are all handwritten. Some things that don’t seem important to me anymore, or don’t interest me anymore will drop away, or I’ll be reading and realize there’s a big hole somewhere. And I’ll try and write something for that hole. So I’m adding things, removing things, unearthing things, and then moving stuff around.

TB: Is there anyone you allow to read your work while you’re in the midst of a novel?

MO: No one reads it until I’ve taken it as far as I can go without help. I’ve pushed it through many, many drafts by that point, and I have no idea if it works or if it’s crazy. Then I give it to about three or four people to read, and I get their responses.

TB: What are you looking for?

MO: Anything. I want, you know, cautious praise [Laughs], or cautious complaints. One of the problems is that by now the characters have become so real to you, you know them so well, you can’t see what more has to be said about them.You need to clarify things that seemed obvious to you, because you created the situation.

 

V. GOING TO EXTREMES

TB: In terms of meaning, are there specific things you want to say in your work? Do you begin knowing what your story is going to mean?

MO: I don’t have a clue what the meaning is going to be; I discover it much later on. I’m more concerned with the characters and the evolving story. Have I made this character too obviously this, or that? I want the characters to be as convincing and complicated as possible. I’m not interested in what it means or what it signifies. When I first came to Canada I was expected to write a Canadian book, and I wrote Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter. When that stopped, then I was expected to write about Sri Lanka, and I didn’t write about Sri Lanka, and then I finally felt like I could write about Sri Lanka and do so properly. It’s difficult to say what one should write or what one shouldn’t write. I think I’m always interested in trying to write something that I don’t think I can do.

TB: What was most challenging about Anil’s Ghost?

MO: The political situation is so complex and there are so many voices that disagree with each other, so the question was, where do you begin? So I decided I wanted to write about what it was like to live there, not to write about the three opposing parties but just write about what it was like to be a doctor or a nurse or a citizen in general. But it wasn’t until I had the two voices that I felt I had what I needed, two differing opinions that represent a much larger group of voices.

TB: Did you worry you’d be criticized for not fully representing one side or the other?

MO: Definitely. I was stricter with myself in that book than I had been before I felt responsible to a political situation. It was a fatal, strict road I was on with Anil’s Ghost and I had to stay on that fatal road and represent it. I mean, it is a fiction, and an odd kind of fiction, but at the same time it is more faithful to place and time than a book like Billy the Kid. So in a way the fact that Divisadero jumps all over the place was a relief.

TB: I thought we’d talk a little bit about your interest in film and the art of filmmaking.

MO: I loved film very, very early on in my life; I’ve always been dazzled. To me it’s still pure magic up there, even the most inane movie. Film for me is pure magic, as when I read a wonderful book by Russell Banks or Cormac McCarthy or someone like that, I don’t want to know how it ties together or anything like that. That’s what I love about film and books. At the same time, as a writer and someone who edits his own work—the act of editing is so important.The reason I did the book with Walter Murch [The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film] was that everything we were talking about there was really about how one edits a book or edits a dance, or an opera, or how you produce a record album. That little tone at the beginning of a song, and then the two tones that appear one minute into a song— all of these careful little devices and so forth. I love the craft. That’s what’s fascinating for me.

TB: What are some of your favorite films?

MO: This new film The Lives of Others is fantastic. And the Italian film The Best of Youth. In the back of the Murch book in my biography I just list about ten films that I like. Having said that, I think film is a kind of limited art form, or has been in the West. The limit of two hours, or one and a half, or whatever it is is a big part of that. It’s difficult to go to the extremes in a film without losing your audience, whereas I think in a book you can. Hopefully in a book you can.

TB: What is it you love about the novel, specifically? What does a novel offer you as an art form that’s made you return to it again and again?

MO: You know, when people think of well-made novels they think of Jane Austen or Robertson Davies or someone like that. Well, they are well-made novels. But what interests me about a novel is that if it’s well made it can be two hundred pages long and still encompass practically everything. Or it could be a huge, sprawling object. There’s a tremendous freedom in the novel, for me, and mostly because it doesn’t have to be written in a certain way. You can use a variety of different voices, you can change the pace and tone and the direction of events in a novel. I think I realized I wanted to write novels when I read Faulkner. Before I read him I thought that in a novel you wouldn’t have the same freedom you had in a poem, but then I read Absalom, Absalom!, and I saw that you did.

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