Michael Ondaatje Interview

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on September 9, 2002. Partner content is not updated.

Canadian author Michael Ondaatje is an avid film buff. And as he watched his novel The English Patient being adapted for the screen, he became fascinated with the mind of the movie's Oscar-winning editor.

Canadian author Michael ONDAATJE is an avid film buff. And as he watched his novel The English Patient being adapted for the screen, he became fascinated with the mind of the movie's Oscar-winning editor. Walter Murch has edited sound or images for directors such as George Lucas (American Graffiti), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather I-III, The Conversation, Apocalpyse Now) and Orson Welles (the posthumous director's cut of Touch of Evil). Ondaatje's new book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, is a dialogue between an author and an editor about the creative process. In this conversation about The Conversations, Ondaatje talks to Maclean's Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson.

Why have you followed your novel Anil's Ghost with a work of non-fiction?

I find it very difficult to go from one work of fiction to another one. I feel like I've used up everything in me, excavated everything, and I feel quite wordless. After my first long book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, I needed to do something that was nothing to do with words, so I did this documentary film on the poet b.p. nicol. After that, I did a documentary on Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille and their play The Farm Show. In a way, The Conversations is another documentary.

You're curious about people's jobs: bomb disposal, surgery ... film editing.

Yes, how things work. How a film is made, how concrete poetry works, how a play is gathered together. My novels are about jazz in New Orleans, or war in Sri Lanka, or in Italy. But they're also about me asking how would I behave in that situation? How would people I know behave? Saul Bellow says, "We write to discover the next room of our fate." With all writers, there's an element of self-investigation and self-portrait, even in their fiction that's supposedly not about them at all.

You say that editing is the stage of filmmaking closest to the art of writing. Why?

It's the only place where you're on your own. Where you can be one person and govern it. The only time you control making a movie is in the editing stage.

There's something almost cabalistic about Murch's approach to editing. He's always looking for hidden patterns in the material. Is that how you write fiction?

I'm very loose when I'm writing. I allow bad jokes into the manuscript, but then I go back and chop it down. Then a sort of improvisation happens. One can discover lines and connections which can startle you and the reader, eventually.

Murch talks about juxtaposing control and randomness in the creative process. He says he tries to get just "the right amount of turbulence in the system."

That's essential. When I was writing poetry, I'd test a draft erratically. Backwards, sideways, or without the first half.

Murch is unusual - a lot of artists can't or don't like to explain their own work.

Walter is sort of the other side to Coppola. In fact, when you hear Coppola talk about film, although he's very smart, he's not as articulate as Walter is about what Coppola is doing. And Walter was there. The scene where he talks about mixing The Godfather when he was in his 20s - it's remarkable. He is so articulate and succinct. It's more interesting to talk about it from the viewpoint of the guy in a corner doing the sound than having Coppola giving a philosophical essay about what The Godfather really means.

In writing a novel, you start with a lot of research and end with a lot of editing. Is it a process of refining fiction out of non-fiction?

That's an interesting way of seeing it, except that at some point in the mix, you have to have a leap of invention. For instance, I'm working on something about the Macedonians in Toronto [In the Skin of a Lion]. But you need then to have a fictional vehicle - the invention of Patrick, who joins them. The non-fiction is the content in a way, and the shaping or form is the fiction. I find that if I try to sit down and write fiction off the top, I run out after a page. Every section of a book I write begins in the non-fiction world. And then you bring in a character, something like Kip defusing a bomb in The English Patient. All the technical stuff was there, but it's his state of mind, his irritation, his sadness that decides what gets picked up and what gets left out of a story.

At one point, you ask Murch if success and failure can distort the lessons an artist is able to learn. I'll throw the same question back at you.

To create, you have to black out your career. The great problem is being self-conscious and aware of an audience - you can go crazy that way. You feel less private if you are successful. You should live in Bhutan and be successful in North America. That's probably the answer.

Will we ever see movies of In the Skin of a LionorAnil's Ghost?

People have been interested in both those books, and Coming Through Slaughter. I had such a lucky experience with The English Patient I don't want to ruin my average! One of the problems of working in film is that you are dependent on everybody else's taste, and sometimes their taste is stupid. You have to be a politician. You have to be able to hustle and argue and be devious - like Brecht - otherwise you storm off and leave it to the wolves.

Are your novels influenced by film?

I don't think they are that much except in the way I edit them. I began to be aware when I was working on a documentary that the art of editing is much more sophisticated in film than in literature. I was so aware of how microscopically active the editor is in a film. This frame, the seventh frame - that's 1/8th of a second - that's going to influence how we watch something. I would spend hours and hours editing a poem, and then writing novels I'd do the same thing. That's why novels take two years to edit.

Is writing a book about film editing as close as you'll come to analyzing your own creative process as a novelist?

I think so. I would never want to write a book about being a novelist. So it does become metaphor. It was also an opportunity for me to bring out that aspect of myself. I'm not a very theoretical person, but there are elements of that here.

Did Murch "edit" your portrait of him?

It got to be like a four-ring circus: two editors, and Walter and myself. It wasn't just my book, it was my book with Walter. I interviewed him for hours and hours and had it cut down from 1,200 pages to 300 pages of conversation. At some point, we both threw in ideas and wrote some stuff, but then it sounded too written.

You rewrote it to make it less "written"?

Yes. All of this is a forgery! Honestly, I wouldn't want to read a 300-page book of conversations between two people unless they worked on it. Nothing is more boring than a raw feed of two guys in conversation at a bar. You have to kind of jack it up, and give it humour, or put something that happens at the end in the beginning.

Same thing with this Q&A. I'll cut that bit from the middle and put it at the end.

Maclean's September 9, 2002

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Michael Ondaatje Interview