In May, 2009, I discovered Michael Ondaatje working “undercover” during an Atlantic crossing of a famous ocean liner. I was having drinks with two American writers, Oscar Hijuelos and Lori Carlson, who mentioned they had seen Ondaatje embarking in New York. I left a note for him at the purser’s desk, and a few hours later received a call in my stateroom.
“John, it’s Michael. Yes I am on-board, but you can’t tell anyone.”
We agreed to meet in the ship’s Commodore Club, where Ondaatje explained he was writing a novel set on a ship, and asked that I not reveal my encounter with him.
A few days ago, I met up with the author to discuss the result, The Cat’s Table, out this week, in which he tells the story of another Michael, who at age 11 makes a three-week sea voyage from Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) to England, a voyage that in a sense becomes the journey of a lifetime.
Will you release me from our confidence?
Yes. That was two years ago. I was two-thirds of the way through the book and I needed to get back on a ship like the one I had been on. I hadn’t been on one since I was 11 years old.
So I get on, and I was assigned a certain table for dinner, and I went to the table and these were not the people who were my characters in the novel. I had already filled out the characters and the people in The Cat’s Table, and I thought “I can’t sit with those people.” So I went back to my room and asked for a card table. I worked three or fours hours a day in my small cabin and then stalked around. I ate all my meals in the cafeteria, and actually didn’t talk to anyone the whole journey. It was like I was suddenly back being an 11-year-old boy kind of peering around. And lo and behold, I run into you. The only conversation I had during the seven days was with you!
But it was very useful getting back on the ship. I picked up the idea of having a scene in the kennels from that large ocean liner we met on – up till then I didn’t have a kennel keeper. So that was useful. And I picked up a bit of atmosphere
How did you get the idea of setting the novel on the ship?
I finished Divisadero; I didn’t know what I was going to be doing.
At some point, I mentioned to my kids that I’d gone as an 11-year-old unchaperoned from Sri Lanka to England. They said, “What?” They couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it either. There was supposed to be a guardian I was meant to be with, whom I never met. I had completely forgotten this journey. All I remember is playing Ping-Pong. So I thought, let me see if I can turn this into a fiction.
I began at the beginning, getting on the boat. And from there, it became an adventure. There’s a great line by Ornette Coleman about music: He says you begin with the territory and what follows is the adventure. I think I had the territory. That was the gift I was given. And it was a forgotten gift. I had 50 years to dream it up and improvise off it.
Are the characters in the novel based on your memories?
No, they are simply too vague. I must have had some friends on the boat but I can’t remember what they were like. So Ramadhin and Cassius and Emily and all the other passengers are really inventions. In some ways, Ramadhin and Cassius are ur-types of friends I made over the years at school or wherever it was, the good friend/bad friend thing. That was how they got built up.
There is a surreal nature when you’re at sea. You are disconnected from the normal and you’re sort of nowhere. You are free in a way we aren’t in our everyday lives. Does that make a rich territory for a novel?Report Typo/Error
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