Michael Ondaatje Wins Macewan Book of the Year, Remains Sexy While Doing So

Michael Ondaatje Play Doctor

Via http://canlitissexy.tumblr.com which you should all visit immediately

Four words I never thought I’d Google, at least not together: “Michael Ondaatje Sexy Pics.” Book blogging makes you do strange things. Allow me to explain.

From the Macewan Book of the Year website:

Since its inception in 1997, the MacEwan Book of the Year program has been guided by a committee of faculty, staff and students.

Each year, a work of contemporary Canadian fiction is chosen by the committee from nominations by the university community. The committee bases its selection on the book’s appeal and its potential to generate interest and discussion at MacEwan University.

In addition to the book being taught in English classes across the university, an exciting tradition of this program is the on-campus visit of the book’s author to discuss the book with students, staff and faculty. Activities held during the author’s visit include readings, workshops, Wall of Fame reception, and a student contest.

The last time I was in Macewan University, it was a college. It was also the nineties. Fast forward (gulp) 15 years. A room full of young, hip, intellectual types is a tough place to be when you’re old, frumpy, and exhausted, but I muddled through. And I’m very glad that I did! Michael Ondaatje was hilarious and wise, and I can`t wait to read his winning book, The Cat’s Table.

Macewan Book of the Year

Our view of The Michaels. Photo by Brie Fraser

I convinced Brie from Eat Books and her mom, Sherri, to brave the blizzard and join me. Sherri is a former book publicist who met Ondaatje twenty years ago and knows a ton about all sorts of authors. Someone get her a blog! We settled into our front row seats, and Ondaatje began with a quip about reading in front of people who probably know the book better than he does. We laughed, as not one of us have read the book! Here’s a primer, in case you haven’t, either:

In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly “Cat’s Table” with an eccentric and unforgettable group of grownups and two other boys. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys find themselves immersed in the worlds and stories of the adults around them. At night they spy on a shackled prisoner — his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.

The three excerpts he chose to read were poignant and funny. I remember The English Patient being dense and confusing, but The Cat’s Table sounds more straightforward, and still beautifully written. My favourite excerpt followed the ship through the Suez Canal.  The main character remembers the confusing transactions taking place between people on the ship and people on land, all as the boat is moving. There was something almost sexual about how he described the ship squeezing through the narrow space, though I suppose sometimes a canal is just a canal.

Speaking of sex, we need to talk about Michael Ondaatje’s voice. Not the voice he gives to his characters, though that was much discussed in the interview portion. I mean his actual voice. Let’s just say I could listen to him read the whole damn book. I’m  a sucker for an accent, and his Sri Lankan by way of England accent is swoon-worthy! I also love the moody and mysterious type that many writers seem to fit – Ondaatje described how he spent an entire transatlantic cruise by himself because the passengers were too boring compared to his characters – so I was enthralled. And now you know why I was Googling illict pictures in the middle of the night.

ANYway. After the reading, Michael Hingston of The Edmonton Journal interviewed Ondaatje with a mix of his own questions and a few from the audience. The topics were the sort you would expect, about the writing process, inspiration, major themes and such, but the two Michaels had a great rapport, and we got to hear some really interesting stuff. A few examples from my foggy memory:

  • The Cat's TableOndaatje compares writing to looking for anarchy. Most books start with some sort of disruption to the natural order of things. A ship is a great example of that, with a completely different power structure than you find on land (“Booze Cruise” episode of The Office, anyone?)
  • He typically writes the first three or four drafts by hand. Holy.
  • When asked if he’s ever scared of where a story might be going, or that it might not end up working, he started to say “no,” but quickly changed his answer to “yes, always!” It’s unthinkable that a writer with a solid reputation like Ondaatje would still be scared!
  • The character of Cassius started out with a regular name like Ralph or something, and only came into his own when he was given the right name. That might have been a joke, but I love that Ondaatje said that names matter. I always obsess about the origin or character names and assume they have deep meanings.

It was a great evening. The shortlist for next year’s award should be out soon, and I hope to make this an annual event on the blog. Maybe I’ll even read the book next time.

PS: Shout out to Samantha for finding me a replacement copy of the book. I left one of my copies under a chair and someone snagged it.  How rude!

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14 comments

  1. Sheri Lee

    Wow, I am impressed that you caught his ‘sex appeal’; imagine what he was like after his success with English Patient and it being optioned for a epic movie. And may I add that I read the book, left it dazed and confused, then met Michael in the real, re-read the book (charged up after 12 invigorating hours in his charming company, left it dazed and confused, both him and the reread), then finally saw the movie with my little blogger-to-be daughter Brie, and OMG-the book finally made sense. The movie is so freaking good. We cried such a good cry together Brie and I. I then (bear with me here) read the book one more time, and what can I say-the movie was freaking good.
    You are fun to read. I would follow you around on Twitter, but I don’t know how. I could just stalk you in book stores..

    • lauratfrey

      That makes me feel better! I’ll have to give The English Patient another go. Maybe watch the movie first? I feel like that’s sacrilege but it might be necessary!

  2. Brie @ Eat Books

    His voice *was* sexy. And I really can’t stop looking at that picture! 😉 I wonder who narrates his audiobooks? Not that I would ever listen to them (I don’t think I would be able to follow his story), but he has a very soothing voice.

    I don’t remember the part about him saying he writes his first few drafts by hand! That’s crazy! Although…I do find my thoughts flow better when i write out blog posts as opposed to typing them, but that’s only 2-3 pages compared to his hundreds.

    I just went and read Rick’s review – can’t say I’m all that surprised. I don’t think The Cat’s table is a book I would pick up to read had I not been to this event. But we’ll see…we’ll start with The English Patient and go from there…! 🙂

  3. Kristilyn

    Great recap, Laura! I’m still so sad I couldn’t make it to this. I want to hear a sexy voice!

    I think that would be NUTS to write an entire book by hand, but I’m sure lots of people do it. My hand would NOT be happy!

    I did like the Cat’s Table, but I didn’t think it was THAT great of a book. I do want to try Coming Through Slaughter, since it’s been on my shelf FOREVER.

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