Run-Ins With an Outlaw

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Growing up in Sri Lanka--or in those days, Ceylon--Michael Ondaatje dreamed of being a cowboy.

"In spite of the distance, there was still this kind of cowboy-and-Indian thing. There is a picture of me when I was about 7 years old, wearing an outrageous cowboy outfit," Ondaatje confesses with a laugh. "It was kind of a childhood thing."

Ondaatje, 57, did not grow up to be a cowboy. He became an award-winning writer--poet, novelist and playwright. Nor did he run away to the American West, home of the big frontier. After growing up in Sri Lanka and attending school in England, Ondaatje--of Indian, Dutch, Sinhalese and Tamil ancestry--moved to Canada, eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. He settled in Toronto, where he and his wife, author Linda Spalding, edit a literary journal called the Brick.

Ondaatje is the author of numerous books of poetry and several novels, including the Booker Prize-winning "The English Patient," the epic story of a horribly burned pilot and his lost love, set during World War II. The book became the basis for the 1996 movie that won the Academy Award for best picture. His most recent work of prose fiction is "Anil's Ghost," the tale of a forensic pathologist whose research around the globe finally leads her back to her native Sri Lanka and into the dark heart of a murder mystery laced with political intrigue. His most recent collection of poems is 1999's "Handwriting."

Ondaatje doesn't want to be a cowboy anymore. That dream went down in flames during his teens, when he traded his chaps and toy pistols for American western movies. What remains of the cowboy fantasy is "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," his 1970 book about the legendary American outlaw that he turned into a stage piece shortly thereafter. The latest incarnation of his "Billy the Kid" opens June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse.

"When I saw westerns, I realized that this wasn't the real story," he observes during a telephone interview from La Jolla. He speaks in a pleasant, indistinguishable accent that sounds vaguely Scottish. "This was Hollywood--there was something underneath all that. All the corners that could have been jumped, all the paths that could have been taken, were not taken.

"It was a time when the mythology of the western was kind of a big cliche, a romantic thing. I wanted to fight against that," he adds. "I wanted to write about a character like Billy the Kid, who was excessively dangerous but at the same time very sympathetic. So I started to write a series of poems." That series of poems developed into Ondaatje's book "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid." As he was writing it, the project seemed to take on a life of its own. Ondaatje sat down to write poetry but instead found himself straying into prose fiction, including imaginary interviews with legendary outlaw William Bonney.

"The lyric poem was good for the internal mullings of this guy, but I needed a landscape for movement and action, a sort of biography of the West," Ondaatje says. "So I suddenly started to write prose; that was the first time I'd sort of written prose in the fiction form, and I was loving it.

"Then there was the whole idea of, what if there was an interview with him? And I went looking for an interview, and there was none--so I invented an interview."

Ondaatje notes with satisfaction that when the book was published, a critic for a Texas newspaper complained that a Canadian author should not have been hired to edit the journals of Billy the Kid--he didn't realize the work was fiction. "That felt good; it's a great compliment," Ondaatje says. "I remember when I wrote it I couldn't afford to go to New Mexico and do any research. It's very much an invention. It's an improvisation on history."

"Billy the Kid" won the General's Literary Award in Ottawa, but Ondaatje's description of the project is quite modest. "The book is a real kind of mongrel of forms, really," he says. "I knew too little to know that I couldn't do it, so I did it."

Ondaatje also didn't have much of a frame of reference when the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, asked him to adapt the book for the stage. "I wasn't fully happy with it; it was a bit soft," he says now. Ondaatje got a chance to revise the piece in 1974, for the Toronto Free Theater. That year, Des McAnuff--now artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse and co-director of "Billy the Kid" with the theater's new associate director, Kate Whoriskey--was 22 and working as assistant artistic director of the Toronto Free Theater. The theater's then-artistic director, Martin Kinch, asked McAnuff, who is also a composer, to write music for the show.

The production was successful enough to launch a flurry of "Billy" productions during the next few years. And, although Ondaatje did not remain involved and pursued other projects, McAnuff stayed with "Billy." McAnuff later worked with the music director on a production at the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C., and in 1975, headed to the Manitoba Theater Center in Winnipeg to serve as music director on "Billy the Kid." At the last minute, however, the actor slated to play Billy dropped out, and McAnuff was drafted to take over the role.

McAnuff served as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse from 1983 to 1993 but left the theater to try his hand at filmmaking. His credits include "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Cousin Bette." He returned to the playhouse earlier this year, following the abrupt departure of Anne Hamburger, who held the post for less than a year.

Both Ondaatje and McAnuff relish the chance to revisit "Billy." Along with serving as co-director, McAnuff has also written new music for the play--which the two insist is not a musical but a play with songs. McAnuff looks at this reincarnation of the play as an act of fate. "I began reading 'Anil's Ghost' in July, before I knew I was coming back to the playhouse," he says. "I was visiting Borrego Springs; we were in the middle of the desert. And there's a chapter of 'Anil's Ghost' that takes place in Borrego Springs! I thought, this must be some kind of sign. And it's impossible to read his latest novel without thinking about 'Billy.'

"When I got back from Borrego Springs, I got the call from the playhouse, and they had no productions planned. One of the first things I did was call Michael to ask him if he'd be interested in doing a new version of Billy. To my amazement, he was really interested."

McAnuff adds that having played the role of Billy, however reluctantly, aided him in directing the show. "It was quite a hair-raising experience. I think I had 10 days to rehearse the part, and it's hideously complex," he says. "But I was motivated so strongly by fear, I was able to pull it off, I guess."

Ondaatje says that he has remained more true to the 1970 book this time around. "I think in some ways, when I first made it into a play, I tried to adapt it too much to the stage," he says. "What I feel now is, a lot of the things that I was doing in the book are in fact now more acceptable on stage. I don't have to do two or three lines of dialogue to warm up for a song, like 'Oklahoma.' It's like removing all the ellipses that aren't really necessary anymore."

Along with a nontraditional structure, this production of "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" also carries with it a content warning that is more typical of a Hollywood movie than a stage play. The warning will be posted at the playhouse and is included in the season brochure: "'The Collected Works of Billy the Kid' contains adult language, violence and nudity, and is strictly for mature audiences."

From a 1998 review in Canada's Edmonton Sun: "Ondaatje uses the known facts of Billy's short, brutal life as a platform for his work, but then arches off into a dark, violent world where time and perspective shift, where reality blurs into the surreal and death is sudden and bloody. There is music, sex and violence."

Co-director Whoriskey says the warning is appropriate in this case. "In part it's language; if you bring a 5-year-old, it's a little difficult," she says. "And in part it's subject matter, there is a brutality to it. Michael has said to us he doesn't want to romanticize the violence. Michael is always interested in the nature of violence, it seems like a running theme in some of his things."

Much of Ondaatje's work seems to contain, if not graphic violence, at least its aftermath. There's death. Ghosts. A romantic hero, hideously burned and swathed from head to toe in bandages; a heroine who devotes her life to reading the hidden codes of corpses and bones. Ondaatje describes his method of creating all characters as "forensic archeology."

But his fascination with such matters seems less morbid than just curious, exploratory--forensic. And the medical community, at least, has taken an interest. Earlier this year, Ondaatje was invited to the Columbia University College of Surgeons in New York as the first writer-in-residence for a new literature program designed to help doctors communicate better with their patients. "This was the strangest invitation I'd ever had in my life," he says. "I had a wonderful class of faculty, brain surgeons and specialists, and also student doctors. We just talked about 10 contemporary novels.

"They were different from literature students in a very odd way. I think they recognized failures and weaknesses in characters, and yet there wasn't a judgmental vein at all. Sometimes literary students become very judgmental about the characters they deal with, they tend to put them in a box. This other version is, in some ways, much more generous."

Although he doesn't want to be a cowboy anymore, Ondaatje still holds onto two dream careers. He'd like to be a jazz musician--specifically, Fats Waller. Ondaatje would also like to be a physician. "A jazz musician who's also a doctor, I'd be him," he jokes. "I've always been fascinated by medicine. I don't know why that is. When I went to Sri Lanka to research 'Anil's Ghost,' the people that I admired most were the doctors. They were the people who were left with the carnage and had to, in some way, work their way out of this hell. They were almost like samurai in the sense that they were going up into garrison country, trying to heal people who were on one side or the other, it didn't matter to them. I thought they were amazing people. They are the ones I celebrate in 'Anil's Ghost,' and 'English Patient."'

He's similarly positive about his personal life. In conversation, Ondaatje describes most of his life's events as "great" or "terrific." He even regards what some might describe as an unhappy childhood--his father, who ran a tea plantation, was an alcoholic who squandered most of the family's wealth, and his parents divorced while he was young--as not that bad, really.

"The way I remember my childhood, it was really quite magical," he says. "My parents broke up, and that was obviously disturbing. But my memory of Sri Lanka is really kind of great, actually.

"It's very strange, especially if you are in a country that's in the middle of a civil war, to recognize that people continue to have a sense of humor. I've never been to Northern Ireland, but you hear it's a horrible place, with bombs going off, but the shock would be that there's a normal civilization--people go out and buy food, people go to the cinema and play bridge. "I think one of the things that we do in the West, when we talk about Bosnia or Sri Lanka or Northern Ireland is to categorize these places as 100% tragic, the way America used to look at Vietnam during the war, as a place without culture. One of the things I wanted to do in 'Anil's Ghost' was to write about a place that also had an ancient civilization, so the portal to the place becomes much more complicated, and much more ambivalent."

"Great" is also the word Ondaatje applies to the larger-than-life experience of attending the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles for "The English Patient" while in the midst of researching human rights issues in Guatemala for 'Anil's Ghost." In this case, he also attaches the descriptor "surreal."

"Linda and I flew into Los Angeles for two days, then back to Guatemala. It wasn't Toronto to L.A., it was Guatemala to L.A., which made it even more of a contrast," Ondaatje says. "But it was great, and what was wonderful was that I went with my whole family--my kids and their boyfriends and girlfriends--not just my wife. It wasn't the two of us in the midst of stars . We were kind of a unit" Ondaatje also remains very positive about the film version of his novel, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, and produced by Saul Zaentz--even though he admits he would like to have seen as much of the character of Kip, the minesweeper, on the screen as he put in his book.

"When I read the first draft, it was clear that the structure had changed; it was the same story, but it had a different emphasis. I realized right away that this was a different story--in a way, it had to be. So I could say, 'OK, I can relax and enjoy and participate in this new thing,' much the way Des and Kate and I are looking at 'Billy' as a new thing, rather than something that I owned 30 years ago."

The fame that the film brought him is nothing to get too excited about, Ondaatje says. "I couldn't write 'English Patient II.' Each book is a sort of long, intense, personal relationship; you don't want to go into the same thing again. The difficulty is not in keeping up with your reputation, it's more to do with, how can I make a good book?

"The act of writing--I enjoy it, but I find it very difficult, and I'm never sure whether a book is going to work out. So there's that kind of tension, as opposed to worrying about how to deal with my fame. That sort of tension you deal with quite easily, I think."

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"The Collected Works of Billy the Kid," La Jolla Playhouse, UC San Diego, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Opens June 17. Runs Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Disabled access performance, June 23, 2 p.m. Ends July 15. $19-$42. (858) 550-1010.

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