Michael Ondaatje on "Warlight: A Novel" at the 2018 Miami Book Fair



welcome back to the Miami Book Fair PBS books I'm jeffrey Brown of the PBS Newshour pleased to welcome now author Michael Ondaatje to talk about his new novel war light welcome nice to see you again hello the setting is important here and that's what I'd like to this time and place with this one right after World War two London right I mean I find that a big plot or an idea to lead me into the story where I need always as a location and and when it takes place and it just seemed to me just jump into the book and say 1945 in July and and then go from there you know and I really had had braided more than that you're honest really yeah so no no characters no no no I mean the only thing after the beginning there was a parents who'd left behind you know a son and the door and they've got it supposedly to Singapore yeah and that was the beginning and it was like okay how do I fill this room how do I tell this story but why but why this place and why this time because you did I mean it sets up a kind of in between worlds right right right well I think one of the interesting is about peace is that it's not a peaceful you know I mean any kind of war that it ends with a peace treaty and that always gonna cause more problems in the future but it just seemed this its opportunity you can to write something where everyone had to readjust no families had to come back together or they break up and know that dealing with enemies were no longer enemies and so forth yeah so it just seemed a very interesting possible possible time and I guess when you're writing you were to find all the many possibilities that can take place now so because this is peace but this is peace where you can see the war all around you examine where the rubble of buildings the characters are walking through and out areas right and you know that I mean trial war I'd suggest more the life of a past war or a recent war and I really want to write about that but I also want to make it a kind of domestic book it was we know that yeah it's not just you know the heroes and villains and spies and so forth but the influence of that on you know the found families so read the first read the first sentence or two for us just because because it's pretty good in 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals and that was enough beginning that was it that was it and I really didn't know where you were going no I didn't and you know I know that characters in there like the daughter and the Martha turn up later on but had no idea of those people and they become major characters you know and I've always liked the fact that when I'm writing a book that I I don't want to know too much or how books about yet yeah you're gonna discover the story and you're gonna discover the characters as they emerge and come back when I say I mean that's a great first line when I think of great first lines I don't know if you know this from laughter in the dark by Nabokov mm-hmm so the first line I always remember this I wrote it down because I don't quite get it perfectly right once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man called Al – he was rich respectable happy one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress he loved was not loved and his life ended in a disaster this is the whole of the story and we might have left it there had it not in profit and had it not been for the profit and pleasure in the telling oh that's wonderful yeah that's wonderful but the pleasure of the celli yeah well that's it I think you know I think no as I said you know it I would be quite bored if I knew what the whole book was gonna be about I don't have a big plan a big idea but then the possibility of discovery or who is the daughter who is the moth who is Agnes you know it's already about four or five people who have full of possibilities and you know what was interesting about this for me was that each time those characters appeared they were changing and they were evolving and so having more of an effect on Nathaniel the narrator and so you're learning as you go about these characters very much so yeah so Nathaniel and Rachel are the two children have been left behind right so they're told mm-hmm and there and were they the first I mean were they the starting point they were the starting point and that was it and I know as father I knew there was didn't know who was was gonna turn up in the in the story you know and many of my books are like that I mean I I didn't know Kip was gonna talk about turned up in English patient or missus kiti turn up in the cat's table I mean and they're kind of become they become very central they're like angels they kind of carry the book in the second half so you don't know where the story is going to go but do you know what this what a story or book must do no I don't think I do to be honest you know me I having written other books I I don't think I could go back and write those books and take those rules into the new book you always want to do something slightly different you know I can write coming through Stoller or English Patient again and I do I wouldn't want to write a book that depends on the blueprint of those books no I'm a much more interested in seeing surprising myself or taking it veering off somewhere else and that to me is the pressure of the telling but does that mean that you also have false starts where you realize it's this isn't gonna work well there are lots of things I will take out I mean you know one of the great things about the type of for being a writer is that you can edit and rewrite and rewrite and which I love doing you know and and so I can always go back and you know put a little cue on page 7 that's gonna link up a page 65 or something like that you like that part yeah it's like cheating you've got this story but it's complicated and is too confusing but he would take this thing out and you move the furniture earlier on it works and do you like the research part because a book like this has a period of history my place it has spycraft we won't give away all of this but some of the the spying the the different relationships different countries yeah I buy a lot of the research I will do while I'm actually writing you know I don't have the whole all the research done before the book begins I I will discover this business about all the canals going off of the Thames in London so I can go and do some research on that and then I will discover there's an abbey call wertham Abbey I mean north of the Thames which turned out to be providing all the munitions for England for two or three hundred years Wars you know I didn't know that and so I mean that I discover about halfway through the book so that becomes also part of you know know the spider's web that catches something else yeah in this book Nathaniel is telling the story from much later on mm-hmm right why they're tense why that that that voice of sort of looking back it it interests me I I in an early book of the cat stable I have a narrator who is telling a story and then it jumps to later on and I just like I like that double narration thing so you're getting a youthful response to the world that where you are lost and happy and cheerful and and then an adult voice that is also looking at back the narrator has come to two arms and tell the story there it also brings memory into play right right yeah because all of this is funneled through memory right no I I find I find that that I'm a previous book and this one the double narration thing and trust me a great deal well that's new for you yeah I saw a play by the Wooster group where they did a historical Greek tragedy and and the act the act that the actress so there were two actresses made the same part one just responded physically and the other one said the lines so it was it was like and it was that kind of got me into this thing and I think the influence of other fear and other art forms is a huge thing for someone like me as a writer it is yeah mirror or film or music for instance in what ways I mean you give in one concrete way but right no I mean in Digga Rivera's murals yeah became a huge thing for me when I was writing Merliah book all in the skin of a lion because you had a vast mural and you had workman with a hammer you know at one of the mural and the other and there was a foreman with a pen yeah you go is like a a rhyme or an echo and I saw that influence and which was a book about workers and unions and so forth yeah so I find that in the book even have rhymes like that you know it's interesting as you're saying this because you're describing on the one hand as the writing is in kind of real-time even sort of discovery although you do get to go back and edit as you said and fill in but you're also interested in this double-time that's in the story itself right and but also you're you yourself don't know what's going to happen occur next doing whatever happens on page 75 as a surprise to you is gonna affect the other voice looking back no I mean one of the things that I find in this book and in catch table also I think also in earlier books and and at the end of this one Nathaniel says we order our lives with barely held stories a story about stories right right and certainly in that sense of the narrator telling his story yeah I mean I think as I've said before I mean I think every book is sort of archaeological so you're dependent on what you are finding during the process of the unearthing yeah and and that if you're not even sure if that's the truth but that you think is gonna be the truth and so those fragments you can finally understand what happened to Agnes in this book by a small small clue mm-hmm and in that back to me sort of exciting it's like a glance ya know in this one when the two children are left behind they were left in the care of some interesting characters right the moth the darter right Dickensian is that fair to say I mean just yeah they evoke I can see now I wasn't thinking about him I think Dickens I mean there's a couple of river scenes and Dickens we got pretty great you know and and I like to convert it was I wasn't really conscious you're thinking it seemed like a very contemporary London that hadn't been written about yeah you know I mean no one talks about those strange canals that go off the Thames and go into mystery and going to suspense yeah yeah and and and maps and spies you you love that I love maps you know spies I'm sorry what spies they're not somebody else's book you know but as I said it's more domestic and you know what is the water when the spy comes home what is the relationship with a with the Son and the daughter yeah that that seemed to be more interesting in the adventure of the spy what is it about maps I don't know I mean I just I just love maps I mean they suggest you know what what is what we don't know about yet you know so I think which is also part of what we can writer you know looking beyond the map you know where the map stops what is beyond that yeah some of it I mean you're you're evoking their last book a cat stable but some of it does in the sense go to the English patients and you and I talked about this not long ago after you won the what took the golden man surprise right best of the last 50 years in a row well some you you feel some reticence about that or I think it's very difficult to kind of say this is one of the best books I've got the book of course you know I don't know it's just got a bit crazy but you know it was very nice also it's nice yeah but you know I mean I can think of ten books that I think are great books that didn't even get nominated for the book of progress there let alone choosing from the Booker Prize but did it make you go back to that book or do you do you regularly go back to look at you know I normally I don't go back at all I mean I I've never read any of my books since they came out but I thought after all this you know stuff with the golden book I thought I'd better read the book so I did and yeah I was interesting I mean I was surprised you know a job because I was so much stuff in it that I'd totally forgotten so much research yeah into bomb disposal or a desert exploration or this love affair or something else like that that it became very interesting to oh I mean and and the other book I did read analyst ghost which all about you know medicine and you know studying bodies and how they were killed yeah I was kind of amazed that I knew this stuff banks I I've sort of forgotten it no it's like remembering a talent you had 20 years ago but did it feel well yeah I'm just worried about it no but you always think about all summer so didn't like that book well that yeah not so great but you know it felt it felt good so okay well I mean you you've now been doing this a long time right yeah do you feel like can I ask you do you feel like you're gotten better at it or do you has it changed the way you well I mean I said I don't think I could write coming through store again which yeah I sort of wish I could write it again now or that kind of book but I know but I do feel that some odd way war light is quite different and it's a stricter book you know it I mean a stricter book it's goes like a bullet you know I mean it really is it moves pretty fast you don't have the size I love the sides and then a ramble you know to the side of story but then I was very careful to go because it was complicated and as an adventure so know that became one of the rules of editing the book I think and and has anything about the way you write or the discipline and writing changed I'm sure it has yeah I mean I I don't know why I still go I was for going to blow up not doing a damn thing about it you know and but I'd know that I worked on a book for three or four years and then I spent about two years editing the book and getting it you know talking to people and going back and rewriting I mean I love the fact that that we have the craft of editing know and having worked the book the water merge the film editor and you know that was great quickens you can learn all these very intricate methods of making a scene faster or slower and what you can add to a scene by the sound of a rain or something like that so that's all those craft things that I love in a way it's part of editing and and just one more thing because I'm curious just where is poetry are you still write poetry and where does that fit into well I mean I think one of the things about poetry is that you know I can't write poetry and prose at the same time you can i I was able to one time and then got your company but even during war I was I would take off a month or two and then work on poetry for a bit and then come back to it and it sort of helped but I couldn't do both at the same time you know so I hope to write poetry but again all right the new novel is war light war light Michael and dodging thank you very much thank you and do stay with us here in Miami I'm jeffrey Brown from the PBS Newshour we'll be right back

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