Ondaatje Magic One More Time: The Cat's Table

10/20/2011 12:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2011

Back in the day, Michael Ondaatje had the dubious distinction of being "a writer's writer," shorthand for fabulous, literary, and out of reach for ordinary folk.

Since The English Patient -- the Booker Prize-winning novel and the Academy Award-winning film -- he's an international star, and each new novel is greeted with appropriate fanfare. Each is uniquely deserving -- and different from anything he's done before.

So too the haunting The Cat's Table, about an eleven-year-old boy's solitary journey on an ocean liner from his home in Sri Lanka, when it was called Ceylon, to be reunited with his mother in England. Little is said about the family's circumstances except that there was a divorce, but much is said about the boy's encounters with the ship's eccentric cast of characters, including two other young boys, who form a band of mostly lovable mischief-makers.

And much will be said about Ondaatje's straightforward storytelling in this novel. It's a dramatic shift from the lavish collage and poetry of The English Patient, and the elliptical quality of some of his other prose -- especially the stunning novel, In the Skin of a Lion, which has in it the best advice ever offered on how to read a novel: "The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.'"

The narrator -- named, say what you will, Michael -- is looking back on this twenty-one-day journey. Just when you think you're reading a gently meandering account of an exotic voyage, much like the one the author himself took when he was 11, soon after his parents divorced and his mother moved her children to England, Ondaatje yanks us into the narrator's adulthood -- and his relationships with the two boys all these years later. It's a bracing leap, one that puts the lie to any lingering notion that this is a soft-hearted tale.

It's about darkness and light, innocence and experience, the powerful and the rest of us. A hint of what's to come is in the title. For those unfamiliar with the term (I had no idea myself), the cat's table on a ship is the least appealing place to eat, off by the kitchen, the table for outcasts and misfits. Young Michael eats his meals there with the ship's other undesirables, and Michael Senior sprinkles just the right amount of gold dust on these creations -- and works his Ondaatje magic one more time.

The author was kind enough to answer a few questions recently, pausing between the tours for the U.K. and U.S. publications of the book.

Elizabeth Benedict: In reading The Cat's Table, I have to admit that I was startled by the straightforward narrative and the straightforward, memoiristic voice of the narrator, compared to much of your other fiction. The Cat's Table seemed much less like a collage than most of your other fiction. Were there particular challenges in writing something more straightforward -- or particular pleasures?

Michael Ondaatje: Strangely, I did not think I was conscious of planning anything different in style when I began it. It was just that I began with that boy's voice, an eleven-year old voice that saw clearly and simply but did not fully understand what was going on. And I guess by the time the adult perspective came in, I was attached to that straightforward voice, even though it was getting more complex in what was being said. And there was an air of a simple dramatic adventure I did not want to lose. The form that was emerging seemed closer to French Farce in a way rather than abrupt collage -- though perhaps those two forms are not that different. But I did want to write a very tight book, without roaming charges.

EB: You said in an interview that in writing The Cat's Table, you wanted to write something more "light-hearted." In what way did it feel light-hearted to you?

MO: Well, of course it doesn't end up fully lighthearted, but the ease of the story at first, a simple location, a childish perspective, gave me an opportunity to keep it on that level. And I wanted the humor I saw in the story to be always there.

EB: I know you do a lot of research for your books. You took this voyage from Ceylon to England as a child. Did you take it again as research for thebook? If not, was there anything special you read, or films you watched, that helped you write about the boy being on the ship and the visual details of thejourney?

MO: Not too much research went into it; not too much memory -- I do not remember much of the original trip; so it was very much invented, an imaginary world, apart from finding a few key words (davits, bollard etc) and studying cross-sections of ships. I did take a trip about a year and a half ago from New York to England to re-experience a ship journey, but I kept to myself and spoke to no one on the whole journey and avoided the dining room, which no longer had the people I had invented to sit at the cat's table. So I ate in the cafeteria for the whole 7-day voyage.

EB: You've said that painting has been an important influence on you, more than film. Were there any paintings or works of art that inspired The Cat's Table or that gave you ideas along the way?

MO: Not really.

EB: When I teach writing, especially to undergraduates, one of the main lessons is to make students aware of space and time -- and that more things can happen the more restrictions there are on both those elements. An extreme recent example of that is The Room by Emma Donohue, about a mother and child trapped in a room. You said that in writing The Cat's Table you liked working in the confined space of the ship but that it was moving through space. That brought to mind The 39 Steps, and all the mysteries that unfold on a train ride when a group of strangers with secrets is forced together for a fixed period. In The English Patient, there was the villa to hold characters together. Were there any frustrations you felt in writing The Cat's Table, in terms of the limitations of the ship -- or did it give you everything you needed?

MO: Oh, it was wonderful! I had my limited territory, which stopped me racing across the universe, but also the landscape changed daily. It was very freeing. I loved the limitations.

EB: The novel is very much about power and position, and how this young boy becomes aware of those forces. He's both a child alone, with no protector on the boat, and he's sitting at the table of outcasts, the cat's table. I wonder if you started writing with the idea of power in mind, or whether that arose as the ship moved across the sea.

MO: That grew out of the situation of the book, and the basic anarchy there is in children, I suppose, to cause trouble -- they are without any power and they are against the world. My books tend not to begin with ideas; they grow out of the invented story.

EB: You spent a lot of your life as a writer with a small but devoted audience.You were "a writer's writer," but all of that changed with the great success of The English Patient. I'm sure you've been asked this a thousand times, but I'll go for 1001: Do you approach your work differently now? Do you feel more confident, more daring, more exposed? Or none of the above?

MO: Sadly each book still begins without that small grain of confidence we want and need to protect us when we begin a work. So it is a nerve-racking and secretive journey of four or five years, and I suspect it is not healthy. So you sort of write them half believing it will not get published, and that gives you some nerve, and freedom. And then when you finish a book you are sure that it was the last one.

EB: You are one of the editors of a wonderful and esteemed literary magazine in Toronto called Brick. In 2003, the magazine asked a number of writers,including you, about your "lost careers," what you wanted to do as a child, what you'd have done if you hadn't become a writer. A career advisor in your high school decided you should be a customs officer, but you wanted to be either an illustrator, a pianist in the style of Fats Waller, or Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. Any regrets about the writing life -- or has it allowed you, in a sense, to be all of these things in fiction?

MO: Oh it is wonderful now to think of those lost careers that way. So I am Mr. Badger and Fats Waller! Thank you. I feel much better.

EB: I feel duty bound to ask: What are you working on now?

MO: Nothing at all. I am at that stage when I think it is all over, and now have to learn how to play the piano.

Cross-posted from Head Butler.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She recently edited the anthology Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.