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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2734

Booker-winning Sri Lankan writer Ondaatje's latest novel to be released in India

"Having moved from Sri Lanka to England to Canada, the nomadic path certainly appeals to me. And I think we are living in an age where a money specialist in Hong Kong can live in Connecticut on weekends" said the Booker-winning Sri Lankan writer Michael Ondaatje in an exclusive interview with Tehelka. com's Devyani Saltzman.

Michael Ondaatje is the author of the novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, and Anil's Ghost. His other books include Running in the Family, Coming through Slaughter, The Cinnamon Peeler, and Handwriting.

Ondaatje lives in Toronto.

Ondaatje's first novel in seven years "Divisadero" is about to be released in India. The celebrated author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion comes a remarkable new novel of intersecting lives that ranges across continents and time.

Divisadero is a multi-layered novel about passion, loss, and the unshakable past, about the often discordant demands of family, love, and memory. Divisadero is set in San Francisco, Nevada's casinos, and south central France. It tells the story of Anna who is immersed in the life and the world of a writer— Lucien Segura.

With Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje's first novel in seven years, about to release in India, Devyani Saltzman spoke to the Booker-winning Sri Lankan writer about his new work, the power of landscape and why there is no such thing as nonfiction.

Here's the Interview in Full:

I was first introduced to Michael Ondaatje's new book in a backyard on a warm summer evening in Toronto. Fifty people seated themselves on white fold-out chairs under a plastic tent and listened as the writer; unbound pages in hand, made himself comfortable at the podium and quietly began to read. The event was a fundraiser for thalassemia research in Sri Lanka, and the words were from a "new work", a rich passage describing the mountainous landscape of the Pyrenees in the south of France from the perspective of an older male narrator: a poet.

Ondaatje's voice lulled the crowd, bringing them into another time and place with the same skill with which he transported us into the lives of a disparate group of people in World War II Italy in The English Patient, and into turn-of-the-century Canada with In the Skin of a Lion. The work he was reading from was Divisadero, his first novel in seven years, and the latest in a career spanning three decades. His passage gave a taste of a story that moves from 1970s Northern California to the south of France, following the makeshift family of Anna, Claire and Coop. After a singular act of violence divides them, they are driven from their quiet farm to the heated tables of the Nevada casinos, to San Francisco and finally to a French village, where Anna begins to research the life of Lucien Segura, the poet described in the passage Ondaatje read to us. Hot off his nomination for the Man Booker International Prize, and with Bloomsbury set to distribute Divisadero in India, Ondaatje shares his thoughts about the writing experience.

Question: In previous interviews you've said that you never begin a book with a sure sense of the plot, but that the story is "uncovered" or "unearthed" through the process. Yet there is a quiet rhythm to your work. How do you find that place?

Answer: One has to try to find it. I'm quite a gregarious person in the evenings. During the day I'm in solitude. I'm working now in the country, at a place where I can be, and not think about the reader. I need to have that kind of privacy when I'm writing. I'm rather easily influenced. If someone doesn't like a character, but I haven't quite found them yet, it can change the process of the character's development.

It takes a full three or four years, working away like a mad scientist. Once I've taken it as far as I can go, I give it two or three friends.

Question: Divisadero is full of a sense of place — its richness illustrated with names like Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Demu. Did you spend time in northern California and the south of France to paint that landscape?

Answer: What happened was I was asked to teach at Stanford for a semester.

I rented a place north of San Francisco and I commuted one day a week. I was working at a farm and that landscape of northern California — which is very beautiful and not much written about, apart from the song 'Mendocino' — attracted me. The farm landscape was one of solitude. That landscape was the start of the book for me. I knew I wanted to write another novel, and the book moved from there.

Question : You start with Anna's voice, a female narrator, and then move to the poet Lucien's. Is it challenging to move between the sexes?

Answer: I think it is challenging, moving not only between sexes but also between ages. Anna's in her 30s and 40s, and there are two voices in there: an adult voice and the voice of a woman rereading her life as a teenager. There are many voices in the book, including the character of Coop, who is written in the third person. I like the female voice. It's not that I understand it fully. It's interesting as a man to write a female voice. It doubles your knowledge. It's quite tense. It's almost like having a third arm, where you become more aware.

Question: There's a line about Coop in the casinos of Tahoe which says: "He found himself at ease within all this chaos and risk." Is this a trait common to many of your characters: Anil in Anil's Ghost, Patrick in In the Skin of a Lion, Hana in The English Patient?

Answer: Certainly, throwing my characters into a middle of a stream tends to happen. With Coop, it's the 'ease' that's different. Anil I certainly not at ease. I think she is drawn to the chaos. It's in her profession as a forensic pathologist. Coop is a gambler. There is a kind of an obsession with the dangerous. I think that's a bit different from the others. In terms of my own attractions to that, writers do live through their characters.

Question: Similarly, there seems to be a vein that runs through the book on how lives diverge and reassemble, from California to France and back again. Are you particularly attracted to this theme in your writing?

Answer: Having moved from Sri Lanka to England to Canada, the nomadic path certainly appeals to me. And I think we are living in an age where a money specialist in Hong Kong can live in Connecticut on weekends. In a world which is both displaced and multi-placed, I felt it was natural for Anna to find herself somewhere else.

Question: There's a line about Anna which talks about "the moment of violence that deformed her, all of them". Do you think exorcising that point of pain is the root of all story?

Answer: I don't think so. There is violence in this book, but I wasn't moving toward that point, it just happened. There's damage. One has to do that. I think going hand in hand with that is a sense of healing. Having to deal with that demon and healing it. In this book, Anna does it through her research of Lucien Segura. Lots of books deal with what is unsaid.

Question: War is in the background of Divisadero: the Gulf War, memories of World War II, the invasion of Iraq. This is your first novel, post-9/11. How has the politics of the last seven years shaped your writing?

Answer: It probably hasn't. Everyone's written books about 9/11. It's difficult. After Anil's Ghost, I really wanted to write a private book about these individuals and their private places and private demons. The wars in this book are on the edge, on the periphery. They don't affect the people. They should affect them but they remain in the background, which I think is an even darker version. Often we can't cope with ourselves and the world around us.

In terms of writing war, Anil's Ghost was painful. I was kind of preoccupied. I wanted to write a story about what was happening in Sri Lanka. It was a difficult topic, but using different points of view, through the dual narration of Sarath and Anil, allowed me to write the book in a balanced way. It was a dark time for me, immersing myself in the information I was getting from Amnesty International and a centre for research on missing people in the Sri Lankan conflict. When I finished that book, I didn't want to write a novel. I did a book on film editor Walter Murch. It was necessary for me to step away.

Question: There is so much love between the characters in Divisadero. The feelings of familial love are palpable between Anna, Claire and their father, even if he doesn't express them overtly. Do you find that your love for your characters grows as you write about them?

Answer: I think that my love for the characters does grow. I don't know the characters at the beginning, but gradually there's such affection. If you know anyone really well you're going to forgive them for their weaknesses. In all my books, I don't want anything to happen to these people.

Question: What was your moment of inspiration for Divisadero?

Answer: The landscape. Then it was France. The idea of Anna working on a French writer existed early on. I knew that this was a story that had to be told in a different way. It was important to see that where the location changes are actually a huge reflection of what happens before. You can't go to part two without going through California. Halfway through, I thought both parts of the book were circling around the same issues: parents, children, love, sisters, and division. In a way, the idea of a reflection is probably the best way of describing the form of the book.

Question: You set up the Gratien Awards to support new Sri Lankan writing talent. Can you talk about the importance of supporting a local industry in both English and indigenous South Asian languages?

Answer: When I got the Booker in 1992, I put the money toward this thing. It's an award for writing in Sri Lanka, judged by Sri Lankans. The award goes to short stories or poems. It was important to me that the work be judged by people there. What's happening now has become even more important to me, and that's a translation programme, which has brought out a couple of books and stories in English and Sinhala and Tamil translated to Sinhala and vice versa. I don't know how much good that does, but stories are a powerful way of communicating between communities.

Question: You taught at York University for many years. Did teaching give you a valuable foundation for your writing?

Answer: I taught at Glendon College from 1967 to 1992. At that time, I hadn't even thought about writing fiction. Teaching gave me a day job to focus on writing poetry, something I wanted to do, not just make money on. Also, it gave me the chance to read good literature — I taught literature, not creative writing. My courses included modern writing: Italo Calvino, John Berger, and Canadian and American fiction. The leap to prose happened during work on my poetry in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I was writing lyrics, and all of a sudden I needed to describe a horse, a landscape, and that's what caused me to jump into prose.

Question: Almost all of your prose interweaves multiple individuals and their perspectives, from Hana and Almasy in The English Patient to Patrick and Nicholas Temelcoff in In the Skin of a Lion. Was this the first form that came naturally to you? What satisfies you about it?

Answer: My first books, including Running in the Family were about specific people. Then, by the time of In the Skin of a Lion, I was interested in more than one narrator. There's a quotation by John Berger in the front pages of Skin: "Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one". That's almost a political statement as well. You can't rely on person "A" to give you the full truth of a story.

Question: I was rereading Running in the Family, and I wanted to ask about memoirs, specifically writing nonfiction vs. writing fiction. Of the Two genres, are you more comfortable with one over the other?

Answer: That's a tough one. I'm more comfortable now writing fiction. There's a bigger freedom, and you're not just responsible for an accurate portrayal. Anil's Ghost was difficult because I was responsible for portraying a real situation. But a lot of Running is fictional anyway. The 80-year-old life of my grandmother is compressed, and through the compression of time, a life becomes more fulfilling and exciting. When you are writing a memoir, you are in fact always writing fiction. I don't believe that there is a strict non-fictional example of writing out there.

Question: What are you reading? Are there any writers you always return to?

Answer: I'm catching up on lots of books. Right now I'm reading Restless by William Boyd. It's set in the Second World War, and follows two generations of women. It's excellent.

Question: Your writing has often been called cinematic, composed of "scenes." What is the influence of film on your work?

Answer:Everyone in our time is influenced by film, and TV, and iPods. I think that it influences the speed of books a great deal. I'm not sure that I'm influenced by film, even though I'm supposed to be writing scenes. It's in the editing of my books where a scene is created. I take editing very seriously. It's a very detailed, careful element. I think some writers don't appreciate the microscopic craft of the editing process.

- Asian Tribune -

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