An Interview with Michael Ondaatje

MichaelOndaatjeCatsTable_AFJohn McIntyre in the Barnes and Noble Review:

The Barnes & Noble Review: In an essay on Leonard Cohen, you once wrote, “Nothing is more irritating than to have your work translated by your life.”

Michael Ondaatje: I was probably about eighteen years old at the time (laughs). Not to be trusted. No, I think he was someone who, very early on, was playing with the whole “persona” thing. I mean, he was “Leonard,” in quotation marks, and at that time in Canada, he was really kind of the only poetry superstar. I guess the problem is that, if that's the only way of interpreting the work, it's an irritation. But obviously, in this book, by using that name, I'm stepping into the lion's mouth.

BNR: But there were a couple of points where you seemed to make a very distinct choice to separate yourself from the narrator. One that stands out is when the narrator says, “I am someone who has a cold heart.” I hate to interpret that through the lens of your life, but to me it wasn't at all the impression your other work gives of you as a man.

MO: Actually, that would be the moment that clarified for me the distinction between me and him. I think that what's interesting is what you invent, in that even if it's fictional, it has many, many grains of yourself, and many grains of alternative selves. And what you pick as an alternative life is in many ways as autobiographical. It's like painters' self-portraits. On one level they're always more sophisticated than they are, or more humble than they are.