Creating Truth From the Realms of Imagination


“It may be questionable the way I blur fact and fiction,” says Canadian novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje, “but I don’t think so, because this thing we refer to as ‘reality’ is always in flux.

“Moreover, when you put two truths together it can become fiction, and the opposite can also happen--I often discover that things in the books I thought were invention are actually true.”

Thus does a writer who’d never seen the American West, whose first impressions of America came from 1960s songs by the Coasters, write such works as a surreal novel about Billy the Kid.


The winner last year of England’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize for his fifth novel, “The English Patient,” the 49-year-old author is the subject of three volumes of critical essays and has had a small, devoted following since the publication of his debut novel, “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,” in 1970.

“The English Patient,” however, is the first of his books to attract a mainstream audience. Why has this novel, which was recently optioned by film producer Saul Zaentz, succeeded in a way the others didn’t? “I guess it was just my turn,” says Ondaatje, in Boston to give a series of lectures at MIT. (He will appear in Los Angeles Tuesday at the Pacific Design Center at a reading sponsored by the Lannan Foundation’s reading series.)

Set at the conclusion of World War II, “The English Patient” chronicles the fortunes of four very different survivors of the war who seek refuge in an abandoned villa outside of Florence, Italy.

A dramatic work of historical fiction, it’s the closest Ondaatje has come to conventional prose. Whereas his previous books were fractured mosaics that incorporated newspaper items, journal excerpts, passages of original poetry and photographs (Ondaatje is also an accomplished photographer), “The English Patient” is a traditionally structured novel.

Beyond that, however, it has much in common with Ondaatje’s earlier work. Interweaving hard information ( “The English Patient” has lots of data about bombs and deserts) with evocations of the most delicate of emotions, his books reside in a magical realm somewhere between the past, the present, the physical world we share, and the private landscape of the heart and the mind.

Like Marcel Proust, Ondaatje is a master of the carefully observed detail, and his writing is further evocative of the great French philospher of memory and loss in its enduring belief in the transformative power of romantic love.


“Obviously, I’m obsessed with romantic love in all the books,” Ondaatje admits with a laugh. “I had a conversation about this with John Irving once and he said ‘Why is it that in all your books, your characters fall deeply in love, then everything changes?’

“I hadn’t thought about it in those terms before, but I think that’s actually how it works in life. I’m reluctant to draw conclusions on the subject, however, because I don’t know that there’s one truth about these things. I’m a rather uncertain person in my opinions about the crucial things in life.”

A genial, self-effacing man, Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka where he lived until the age of 11, when his mother left his alcoholic father and moved to England. Enrolled at the posh British boarding school, Dulwich, Ondaatje began his literary education there.

“Reading became a passion for me at the age of 12--unfortunately it’s a cliche , but it was Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’ that opened up the world of the written word for me,” he says.

“I began reading a lot then, but it was actually movies that played the biggest role in shaping my creative sensibility. I saw films constantly, and like everyone else I knew at the time I wanted to be a writer/director when I was in my early 20s.

“That dream stuck with me for a long time and in a way ‘Billy the Kid’ was written because I didn’t have the bucks to make a movie, so I wrote one. In my head, I saw that book as if it were a film.”


In 1962, Ondaatje moved to Montreal at the invitation of his brother who lived there, and enrolled at Bishop’s University. It was there, at 19, that he began writing and publishing his work through underground presses.

“I was lucky in that I came of age as a writer with small presses, which is a realm where you know what you’re doing doesn’t mean anything to the rest of the world,” says Ondaatje, who co-edits the literary journal Brick with his wife, writer Linda Spalding.

“It’s a totally free and protected environment where you’re allowed to go in the wrong direction and fall on your face, and that’s essential for anyone trying to learn to do something creative.”

Ondaatje published his first book, a volume of poetry titled “The Dainty Monsters,” in 1967, and followed it in 1969 with a second volume of verse, “The Man With 7 Toes.”

Three years later came “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid,” a study of the scorching violence and lawlessness that permeated the American West at the turn of the century. Recently adapted for the stage by German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the book is regarded by many Ondaatje aficionados as his greatest work.

“I grew up with a passion for Westerns and Billy was a mythical figure for me, and I wanted to write something about the violence of his world without resorting to some cliche psychological thing,” he says.


“I couldn’t afford to go to New Mexico where the book is set to research it, so I read things like Frontier News and True West Magazine along with some rather pretentious books on the West to get technical stuff like how to put on a spur. Beyond that the book is pure invention.”

“Billy the Kid” was followed by another volume of poetry, “Rat Jelly” in 1973. Three years later Ondaatje returned to the mythology of America for his second book, “Coming Through Slaughter,” a fictionalized portrait of legendary New Orleans musician Buddy Bolden, who went insane while performing in a parade in 1907 and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

“I’ve always loved jazz and Bolden was my jazz fantasy,” says Ondaatje. “The book began with my chancing across a reference to his having gone mad while playing in a parade and I became obsessed with him. I wanted to find out as much as I could about him, but again, I couldn’t afford to go to the South, so I wrote to the archives at Tulane and asked for everything they had on him.

“There was virtually no material--there was maybe a page of facts. The lack of information freed me up tremendously because I was able to invent him in whatever fashion I chose.”

On the basis of his first two books, one would assume Ondaatje grew up with exotic fantasies about America, but he says “No, I never had a burning desire to come here and didn’t think about America when I was growing up. When I was a teen-ager I did begin to have a vision of the place though, and it was a vision largely shaped by music.

“My image of America grew out of music by groups like the Coasters who had ‘idea’ songs like ‘Poison Ivy,’ ‘Charlie Brown’ and ‘Shopping For Clothes.’ That music gave me a very bizarre image of America.”


In 1978 and 1980 Ondaatje returned to Sri Lanka to research his next book, “Running in the Family,” an autobiographical memoir that appeared in 1982, and two years later he published another volume of poetry, “Secular Love.” For his third novel, “In the Skin of a Lion,” out in 1987, Ondaatje moved to a much broader canvas; set against the backdrop of Depression-era Toronto, this multilayered work chronicles the fate of several different characters, two of whom turn up again in “The English Patient.”

“Pain and loss are the main emotions in this book--there’s a lot of pain in this book,” says Ondaatje of “The English Patient,” which he completed in 1991, the same year his most current anthology of his poetry, “The Cinnamon Peeler,” was published.

“It takes me about six years to write a book and two of them are spent rewriting and restructuring,” he says. “I enjoy that part of the process because it’s like editing a film, but for the most part the life of a writer isn’t much fun. I remember being in the country when I was writing ‘In the Skin of a Lion’ and working on a passage where the central character is going through a long tunnel. It was a sunny summer day and I was sitting by a window and I said to myself this is ridiculous. I want to go outside.

“In order to write on any kind of long-term basis you have to be able to get out of that room, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t begin a new novel as soon as I finish one. You have to go out and have a life and learn something between books, otherwise you write the same book repeatedly. I’d rather not write another book than do the same thing again.”

If Ondaatje decides to write another book (he says “there’s something I’m vaguely moving toward right now”), he’ll have more time to do it, as the Booker Prize has enabled him to take a sabbatical from York University in Toronto where he’s taught since 1971.

“I find that each book I finish makes the next one harder to write and I’m always sure I’ve written my last book,” he says. “Then I’ll come across a small moment or an uncertain fragment that I know I have to follow and the book will begin to come into my mind, very faintly at first. I’m never sure what’s going to happen and that’s why writing is a killer for me. It’s not the actual writing that’s difficult, it’s the uncertainty and fear that are hard.


“One thing I have learned about myself in regards to writing,” he concludes, “is that I’m a ham who grew up reading thrillers and I’m not interested in writing a book about one person in a room having a breakdown. He’s gonna have to do it on top of a mountain or something to get my attention.

“Beyond that, I don’t know what I’ll be able to produce in the future--I’ll probably write a book about sandwiches or something.” He laughs. “I’m not a very absolute person and don’t have plans. I’m a floater.”