“Inhale,” Michael Ondaatje said as he opened the door to Coach House Press in Toronto, inviting visitors to take in the aroma of ink, paper, wood and well-oiled machinery.
On this day in April, two mastodon-like Heidelberg presses clacked out the covers to a children’s book, and two young men stood watch, adjusting the cyan, magenta and yellow. Ondaatje, busy as an editor’s pencil sharpener, darted upstairs to consult with graphic designer Rick/Simon on an upcoming issue of Brick, a literary magazine he helps edit.
The two fussed over a cover image of American novelist Jim Harrison. The camera has caught Harrison taking a drag off his clenched cigarette while ominous clouds form overhead. How on Earth to adjust the contrast, the color, the dimensions of the photo to strike a balance between the manly man and the powerful sky? And should the masthead be more burnt sienna or burgundy?
Such matters are of no small concern to Ondaatje, renowned novelist and poet, author of “The English Patient” and, most recently, “Divisadero.” He does judge a book (even a magazine) by its cover - not to mention its typeface, paper weight, binding, glyphs, and punctuation and spelling preferences (he’ll take the single quotes over the double, thank you).
“I would hate to have an ugly book,” he said. “It’s like an insult.”
His sentiments reflect a deep aesthetic formed partly at Coach House, a 40-year-old small press that published Ondaatje’s first books of poems in the 1960s. It’s a dilapidated but spiritual place: The light from a small window over a battle-worn editing table puts one in mind of a church or tiny cathedral. By the sink, a jumble of cracked dinner plates, calcified mugs and chipped enameled coffeeware testifies to many an acolyte’s late-night labors.
“A small press is a great thing,” Ondaatje said. “It protects you when you need to be protected - when you’re beginning to write.” It’s not like a large publishing house, “where you are among strangers, and where you have to take the advice of people who have much more power. With a small press you are ... inventing the universe. You’re learning about type, you’re learning about design - all of these things are very important.”
This aesthetic extends to the author’s seductive, lush, nonlinear prose, said Harrison, of Montana, who has read the entire Ondaatje canon and embraces it with all his might. “He simply writes more beautifully than anybody around. His prose is remarkably dense, in the best sense of the word - there’s not that sense of somebody writing to get their quota that day. Everything is sculpted, and you remember certain images permanently - whether it’s a rain barrel in France or the terrible scene (in “Divisadero”) where the father beats up the lover of his daughter. It’s done so well you can hardly bear it.”
Ondaatje acquired at least some of his gifts internationally and cross-culturally. A map of his imagination would have to include the jungles of Sri Lanka, the ruins of post-war Europe, the lawless Wild West and the rolling hills of Northern California. His pen is dipped in all these places and their histories. But you can “blame Canada” for giving his talents their full expression: “I’m sure I wouldn’t have been a writer if I hadn’t come here,” he said.
In Sri Lanka, where he was born, the spoken word was more valued than the written word, he said. A teller of tall tales was prized above all. And in England, where Ondaatje attended boarding school, an already-written and formidable canon seemed to discourage newcomers. But when he arrived in Canada at 19, at the urging of his brother, Ondaatje found “a culture that was beginning to blossom - still unspoken and unwritten in some ways.”
There he bonded with other rising stars - including the poet bpNichol, Coach House founding editor Victor Coleman and playwright David Young.
And there his boundless and borderless imagination took flight.
Ondaatje’s novels and poems have imagined the life of Billy the Kid, depicted the scarred and burned victims of World War II, explored ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, plunged into the world of immigrant workers at the Toronto Waterworks and channeled jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden.
But the facts never get in the way of the fiction. “I’ve always been drawn to what’s unofficial, what’s not part of the history books,” he said. “For me the books grow out of document. They need to have their feet on the Earth in some way. They begin with a reality of a place or a time or a situation, and then gradually become fiction. You have to sort of shape it in a way.”
His most recent work, “Divisadero,” has its feet on the hills of Petaluma, Calif., where Ondaatje set up shop at a friend’s farm in 2001 after a stint at Stanford University. The fresh landscape and a story he heard of a local woman’s horse going berserk in the barn were the match-strikes for a new novel.
“Divisadero,” set in 1970s California, features a makeshift family born of pain and loss: There’s Anna, whose mother died during childbirth; her adopted sister, Claire, whose mother died in childbirth on the same day, and their foster brother, Coop, who was taken in by the girls’ father after his family was murdered on a neighboring farm.
The sisters fight for their father’s, each other’s and Coop’s attentions - a tension-packed dynamic that builds toward an unforgettable and shocking act of violence. From there, the story moves to Vegas, where Coop becomes a cardsharp, and France, where Anna, robbed permanently of her own family history, immerses herself in writing the biography of a forgotten writer. Like her creator, she “loves such strangers to history; for her they are essential as underground rivers.”
Ondaatje cannot abide the game of drawing parallels between his writing and his personal life, and he stiffens when the inevitable questions come. That said, it’s hard not to read something personal into his affection for Anna as a character. “Those who have an orphan’s sense of history love history,” she muses at one point during her research.
She could be speaking for Ondaatje, who for his 1982 memoir, “Running in the Family,” returned twice to Sri Lanka to fill in some missing chapters of his own family history. In bright, vivid fragments, he paints a steamy, once prosperous world in post-colonial decline. There are kabaragoyas and thalagoyas, leopards and wild boars. There are dancing, drinking and gambling forebears, each one more interesting than the next: a pilfering grandmother whose prosthetic breast is legend, a handicapped aunt who, unable to make it to the racetracks, invents a game of betting on which crow will leave the wall first.
Some passages are intensely beautiful. “Moon coconut. The bones of a lover’s spine,” Ondaatje writes, describing the rounded curves of the Sinhalese alphabet.
Others are heart-rending. Family friends help him fill in some blanks about his father, an alcoholic whose increasingly delusional and violent behavior broke up the family when Ondaatje was 5 years old. Of his father, he writes: “And yet, he is still one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut.”
Ondaatje will build on whatever story remains. It’s in his blood.
“No story is ever told just once,” he writes of his clan. “Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in.”