Michael Ondaatje at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) 2011
Michael Ondaatje: Mischief-Maker
The least offensive and most inviting sense of humor is that which is directed at self. Most, if not all, of Michael Ondaatje’s graceful, gentle wit was of this self-deprecating variety on Saturday afternoon at the International Festival of Authors. Not that there wasn’t a bit of mischievousness to it as well. Which is the advantage of being interviewed by someone you know, in this case CBC radio veteran Eleanor Wachtel, host of the superlative radio program on literature, Writer’s and Company.
From the get-go Ondaatje, in a dark suit (sans tie), was quick to lighten the mood in the soldout Fleck Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The sound guy at back had called out to ask Ondaatje to please speak to check his microphone levels. In an effort to get more than the three words offered, the sound guy asked one of Canada’s most famous authors if he likes pecan pie. Ondaatje said he did not, and then added, turning to Wachtel, “Glad to be through with the difficult questions.”
WHAT “BORES ME TO DEATH”
When he was eleven-years-old, Ondaatje was sent on a ship from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England. Neither of his parents accompanied him on the twenty-one day trip. His mother, already in England, would be there to meet him when he arrived. In his latest novel, The Cat's Table, short-listed for the Giller prize (his third time on the short list, with Anil's Ghost ), a character, also named Michael, is sent, without parents, on the identical trip Ondaatje took, for the exact same number of days. This fictional Michael would also be greeted by his mother, already in England, when he arrived. Where, then for Wachtel to start, but with the obvious questions about fiction vs. memoir?
“I believe it’s not autobiography, though thousands would disagree,” Ondaatje stated right off. He said he has no interest in writing a memoir. It would “bore me to death … [I’m] not interested in writing what I already know.” On the contrary, Ondaatje explained that his passion for writing fiction was because it was for him an act of discovery. He said he invented the story for The Cat's Table as he went along.
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