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Author Michael Ondaatje

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?

Yeah. The luck I had with the book is I had this incredible location. It is so unfamiliar to us now, and yet there were three or four generations of people coming to England by ship from the East or from the Caribbean. It was such a central thing in those days. There must have been this great memory of the adventure of it, the timelessness of it.

So such an adventurous location helped me. Just as in The English Patient, the house that the people are in is timeless and separate from the real world. I guess I was drawn to this. One of the things I found myself doing in my novels was switching landscapes halfway through, which upsets some people and doesn't others. For instance, the last novel was set in California then jumped to France; The English Patient jumped from Italy to the desert.

So this time I said I would limit myself to one landscape. The funny thing was I was in one landscape but the world around it kept changing, whether it was Aden or Port Said.

Do you think the rapid manner in which we travel – air travel – has stunted our capacity for growth? Where is the opportunity for learning, for observation in that environment? Travel isn't a journey any more. It's just become a destination.

Yes, I think so. The great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor died a month ago. He wrote A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He walked the length of Europe between the wars. There's such a difference in that kind of travel writing and what happens today – everyone has their e-mail and their camera and their jet, and they are very safe. There is no element of getting lost.

On a ship, do people feel trapped, as well as being free? As you discovered, you can't hide.

The trapped-ness goes along with a quality of French farce. Doors open, doors close, people disappear, suddenly somebody who shouldn't be there enters a room. I thought I should read some French farces before I wrote this book. I didn't actually read them but I had them with me. I thought there could be some sort of osmosis. I wanted that element of humour and lightness. The recent books have been serious, and I now wanted a sense of adventure, and also the joyousness, the freedom of a boy of 11. I didn't want to lose that. Whatever sadness there is in the book, that was the prominent atmosphere I wanted.

And there is sadness in the book, and a death in the book. The dog incident.

A slightly comic death.

I roared with laughter. It is a light book but I also found it a very deep book, because it suggested to me that three weeks can set a course for a lifetime.

Exactly. I didn't know I was going to do that or land there at some point in the book when I began it. But by the time you get to the Suez Canal, nearly everything has been from the point of view of kids, and about kids. After the canal, it is adult awareness. I didn't know I would jump into the future and discover what would happen to the characters. But when I got that other voice, that adult voice, looking back at the Mynah character (the nickname for the character Michael), I had to allow myself a voice that allowed both an adult and a child's perceptions. That is difficult to do, get a voice that is elastic enough to allow that. Definitely with an adult voice, you get a sadness and an awareness of damage.

It reminded me of a line by Richard Jefferies, the Victorian writer, who wrote, I'm paraphrasing, that we all dream we will go on a great voyage but the years go by and still we have not sailed. A sense of longing, a sense of something unfulfilled. I felt that sentiment reflected in the novel. They're children; their world is a blank canvas. And yet in the end, it closes in on them.

I think it's true. I have never written a novel from the point of view of a child before. That was very interesting to attempt that and to limit yourself. Watching everything, but not understanding everything. And yet later on, there is a sense that people like Emily and Ramadhin have been damaged. Cassius has escaped it by being limited.

So there is a kind of loss, the fact that you have been altered by somebody else, by adults. It's very much a book about children and adults, irresponsible adults sending kids off. One of the reasons I made the narrator an only child, for instance, is I wanted that orphan-like quality in him. All the children are separate from their parents. They have all been made solitary. Even when mother greets him, it's cautious and guarded, a scared love.

I found one line such an evocative idea, "We came to understand ... our lives could be large with interesting strangers who could pass us without any personal involvement." Can you elaborate on that?

It was a line that just came to me. I hadn't planned that line. I think it's true. Usually that is seen as a negative thing, we don't get to know the people we pass by, but it is also a wonderful awareness of the largeness of the world.

Obviously there is an autobiographical aspect to this, and the book appears to be overtly a memoir in some way. Is it your most personal work?

I did worry about using the false trick of memoir in this book. When the name Michael appeared it was a shock to me. I thought, "Oh my God, I can't do this. Everyone will be convinced it's a real memoir." But the minute I put the name down, he had to be someone different from me, someone out there, invented. It allowed me some distance. It's very odd because then I could study the possibilities of an 11-year-old more objectively. I'm in my sixties, and that means I can look at childhood in a different way from that boy.

There's a great line by Robert Frost, "What we do when we write represents the last of our childhood and we may for that reason practise it irresponsibly." It's very true. I probably was not as irresponsible as the kid in the book, but it was a chance to be free, and bad and anarchic. A younger writer writing about that ship journey would make it ominous, scary, possibly adventurous but also dangerous. Yet now I can look back and say, what an oasis!

Will you write a memoir?

I doubt it. I really don't want to write down what I already know. If I'm going to write about something that happened in my childhood, I'm going to invent the hell out of it. There are some writers who know exactly what the book is going to be before they write it. Writers I really admire. But that would bore the hell out of me. It has to be an adventure. You have to discover things and learn things in the process of writing. What keeps you going is your curiosity.

How long did it take you to write the novel?

Four years. It was quicker than normal. It was written quite intensely and fast. Maybe it was because I only had one landscape.

With Divisidero, there was a lot of research about what France was like at the turn of the century. There's a lot of time making all that believable. On a ship, you don't have to say very much. You've got to have now and then the odd shot of the waves. So it was a quicker book to write.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

When not hanging out with the literati on ocean liners, John Geiger is editorial board editor of The Globe and Mail and the author of five books, including The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible and Frozen In Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition.