Michael Ondaatje does not scorn upbeat love stories. The anguished lovers in his magnificent, layered novels—in particular the Booker Prize-winning The English Patient and his luminous, new Divisadero, shortlisted for the same award—may indicate that he prefers to explore doomed romances to happily ever afters.
“I don’t disapprove of happy love stories,” he says, “... but I guess it’s more difficult to write a happy love story.”
There is something in us, of course, that—at least literarily speaking—craves heartbreak. Divisadero (Knopf, $25) provides that and more as it winds eloquently back through time and the lives of sisters Anna and Claire and the orphan Coop, a hired hand who works at their father’s Petaluma farm and speaks “sparingly, in a low-pitched monologue to himself, as if language is uncertain.” After an explosive confrontation, the three spin off in separate directions, only to find that they can never quite shake their shared history.
The artfully fragmented story wafts from the hills of California to the gaming tables of Nevada to a rundown farmhouse in France, where Anna works on a book of the French poet Lucien Segura, whose story parallels hers in surprising ways.
The past and its effect on us fascinates Ondaatje. The forensic pathologist of Anil’s Ghost returns to her homeland of Sri Lanka to face the horrors of a bloody civil war; the burned and dying pilot in The English Patient can’t let go of the memory of his great love. Ondaatje even examined his own past—born in Sri Lanka, he emigrated to Canada—in the memoir Running in the Family.
“Some people live lives looking back, and some don’t,” the author says from Jamaica, where he is participating in The Calabash International Literary Festival. “If there’s a traumatic moment of some sort, these things do recur. We often make the same mistakes. We go into the same scenarios often. That’s true of everyone. In this case I wanted to study a group of people who are living in the present and future but also the past.”
Ondaatje is also the author of nine volumes of poetry, a fact evident in his stunning imagery. He structures Divisadero and its haunted, backward-gazing characters in an impressionistic, poetic style even as he sends a Nietzschean sentiment echoing through the book: “We have art so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.”
There are so many storylines in Divisadero; where did you start?
The trio at the beginning came first. I don’t have an arc of a plan when I write a book. It’s always open, what can happen to these people. I started with these three, sort of a family but not quite a real family. ... That interests me, what happens to people who are a family but are separated by distance and nature. And the double-family thing. We grow up with one family, but by the time we’re 40 we’ve invented another family of friends who are not biological.
You say you never start a novel knowing where the story is going. Have you ever started one and had to give up because it went nowhere?
That’s happened a couple times. One I had to drop completely because it wasn’t going anywhere interesting. You have to keep interested as a writer and remain curious about characters. If they don’t develop, you fall back and go in another direction. With In the Skin of a Lion I had originally focused on Ambrose Small. I wrote a lot about him, but then I began again with the minor characters—the thief Caravaggio and young Hana, who later becomes a war nurse, made their way into The English Patient. You have to write until you find the right voice. And the discovery of new things has to surprise you.
What was unexpected about Divisadero?
The gambling surprised me. I had to go to Lake Tahoe and research. But Coop is someone who could fall into that world. And as a writer you’re learning something, and that’s also what keeps you going.
In Divisadero there are scenes we can only imagine; much is left unsaid. How do you know what to leave out?
I worry about that. In Divisadero Anna runs away, and there’s a missing 15 years or more of her life. I thought maybe I should go back to that. I’d done a lot of research on someone who would disappear in Bakersfield. The last work I did was to go to the archives at Berkeley and do research about runaways. But it just didn’t seem crucial, because with all that it became a different kind of story.
Writing is like doing a theatrical production. If you have a lot of props and sets, moving from point A to B to C is quite slow. If you only have a chair or light bulb on the stage, though, you can get where you’re going more quickly.
War also plays a part in much of your fiction; Sri Lanka’s civil war in Anil’s Ghost, World War II in The English Patient, and others in Divisadero. Why do you gravitate to that setting?
It’s difficult to write a novel today without some sense of history of the wars around us. In Divisadero, there is the First World War and the Gulf War, but they don’t affect the lives of the characters. Iraq breaks out, yet the gambling continues. That’s true of most of our lives. We carry on.
How does your poetry shape your fiction?
I’d rather be more suggestive and succinct than fill out the details. In a good poem the reader is involved. There’s white space in the poem that makes the reader an equal participant, and he finishes some things for the writer. You can do that in the novel, too.
I love both forms still. I love fiction because there is this big arena you can inhabit and populate with lots of people. Somerset Maugham talked about the “wide liberty of the novel.” I don’t think we have to be restricted. In poetry I think the lyric form is the most perfect. I would love to write great lyrics, ... but I also long to have a prose world that can have action and event and more complex movements.
How did the success of The English Patient affect you as a writer?
It is a gift to be given that kind of success, but it didn’t affect what I wrote. I was in the middle of Anil’s Ghost when the film happened, halfway through a book that was miles away from the romance of the film, and that protected me. It’s important to write exactly what you should write as opposed to what people expect you to write.