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Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

Michael Ondaatje

Our man in Boston talks to Michael Ondaatje about why he writes novels, how he measures satisfaction, and when fiction can succeed by operating like poetry.

Poet, novelist, literary activist, editor, Michael Ondaatje came to popular attention with his Booker-winning novel, The English Patient. He has written four other novels: Coming Through Slaughter, In the Skin of a Lion, Anil’s Ghost, and most recently Divisadero.

Though known for his fiction, Ondaatje has published 13 books of poetry and the well-regarded, award-winning The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. And with his wife, writer Linda Spalding, as well as Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, Rebecca Silver Slayter and Esta Spalding, he edits the Toronto literary journal Brick.

This conversation took place in May 2007 as Ondaatje was traveling in support of Divisadero—the pretext for this conversation. In this extended chat, we talk of writing novels, the effect of films on writing, the Canadian literary scene, Ondaatje’s love for American singer Sam Cooke, and his contentment with doing nothing. Ondaatje is an engaging conversationalist, somewhat less elliptical than his long-form fiction—both of which are a special treat to encounter.

 

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Robert Birnbaum: Tell me something, why do you want to write novels?

Michael Ondaatje: I never thought I was going to write novels when I began writing. I thought I could just get away with writing a poem now and then. I began writing because it helped me discover what I was feeling or thinking, and the poem in the lyric form seemed to me to be the kind of perfect expression. Then gradually, as I was writing lyrics, I realized that what I needed to do was write longer lyrics. Or not longer lyrics, but longer sequences of poems, such as 10 notes around a subject or something like that. And then later on I began a book of poems called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, where I was trying to write a book-length poem of lyrics, full of different points of view and different situations and so forth, and somewhere in the middle of that book I realized that I needed to try and write prose—I needed to kind of expand the universe of the book. The lyric poem can catch an instant, a moment, a small situation, a gesture. And I needed the guy to jump on a horse and ride, ride into town and have a gun battle and whatever it was. And I realized that prose was sort of the only way I could do this. I’d done fake interviews, I had pictures in the book, I had jokes and poems of course, but I needed to have something of more of a landscape. So that really was my first attempt at writing prose, not poetry, if not a novel. And the book became an act of shaping later on, and collaging all of these scenes I’d written. And then after that book I was still writing poetry but then I wrote a book called Coming Through Slaughter, which was sort of my first novel. It didn’t have poetry, it didn’t have pictures—it was a book that kind of tried to write about a man, a jazz musician—his name was Buddy Bolden—who’d gone mad in a parade. So for me what the novel does is it allows me to explore a story or an individual or a situation, based on curiosity, and to find some kind of thing that I will eventually understand at the end of it. So that’s really what the novel does for me.

RB: What did you start with in writing Divisadero? What was the thing that tipped you off [that you were writing a novel]? Do you know you’re writing a novel when you’re writing one, do you just start writing and then at some point it’s a novel, it’s a poem, it’s something?

MO: No, I think I usually know if it’s going to be a novel or it’s going to be a poem. There’s not much else. I can’t write short stories, so—

RB: Screenplay?

MO: Yeah, no, I didn’t want write a screenplay.

RB: You could direct.

MO: [laughs] It’s either a novel or a poem, and I thought I was ready for a novel at that point. But I didn’t have all of the mechanics of the plot lines of the novel; that’s something that sort of occurs through the course of writing it. But it began with a kind of landscape, the landscape of Petaluma, the landscape of Northern California, and a farm situation. I’d grown up on farms and I’ve lived on farms at various times in my life, but not this landscape. So I was sort of drawn to the farm element of it, but it was such a different landscape, such a different set of principles about landscape.

RB: And you had to fastidiously research this stuff. In one section where Anna is running off and she’s taking a ride with some trucker—I forget whose description it is, but someone mentions that this great plain, John Muir had once described it as a place you could just walk and step on hundreds of flowers in one step.

MO: Yeah.

RB: Do you like doing that?

MO: I like doing that. It’s part of the discovery of the landscape. It’s also a discovery of a place that is often overlooked. Nobody really writes about central California. It’s always L.A. or San Francisco or Mendocino or something like that. It’s a stunning landscape, but it must have been great landscape. And I think what happens in the book is that Anna goes through this landscape at a traumatic moment in her life, and being a literary historian it seemed apt for me to talk about the history. If you were going through that landscape in that moment in your life, she would have researched the hell out of it, and she says, “I know the background, I know the history of the nations that have come here and worked here, and John Muir said this, and so-and-so said that.”

RB: She quotes some Indian myth, too, right?

MO: Yeah. There’s a kind of liberty in a novel form that allows you to include nonfiction.

RB: I’m interested in the some of the decisions you make. Is there any particular reason why she won’t speak English to this trucker? She might talk to him with a schoolgirl French, and maybe a little Spanish, but why did you decide she couldn’t talk to this guy?

MO: I think I was sort of in her traumatic state. She’s someone who doesn’t want to talk about what has happened to her, so that whole section I find kind of very, very enduring and sad in a way, because she’s blocking everything that came into her, and yet she’s receiving everything. It’s very interesting, because I was trying to find a song that actually refers to it: “Under Your Spell Again.” And I’d heard about this song but I’d never heard the song.

RB: It was Buck Owens, right? But there’s a famous R&B song, too, “I Put a Spell on You.”

MO: Right, well this is “Under Your Spell Again.” It’s another song. But I very intentionally did not pick a song I knew, because I knew that if I put in a song we would read into it all of the references of her life, and Anna at that point is bedazzled by strangeness and all the pretty world around her, so I sort of wanted to have a song that she didn’t know and that we couldn’t interpret.

RB: How do you know that you’ve succeeded when you’ve written a novel? How do you know that you’ve achieved your intention? And I ask this because so much of your writing is elliptical and faintly referential. It’s not point A to point B.

MO: Right. Well, I think one of the things that I do: When I write my books I’m in a very solitary state, no one knows what I’m writing about or what landscape I’m in, so I’m working like that for say four years, and when I’ve gone back and rewritten and rewritten, say, eight or nine times—

RB: Really?

MO: Yeah, a lot of drafts; I’m a hell of a rewriter. And then I give it to two or three readers and get their responses, and those are in fact the most exciting and the most important.

RB: Your first readers.

MO: My first readings. And they’re very honest. They’ll say “oh god, too many dogs in this, what happened to so-and-so?” So I’ll get responses, which I’ll listen to very openly, not being defensive. And then I go back and rewrite things, add things, simplify things or clarify things, and all that kind of stuff. At a later stage I give it to a publisher and I get their responses and the same kind of things happen. By the end, I may not have done it right but I think this is the way I want to do it. I think this is the way, if you’re reading the book carefully, you can understand the connections and the ellipses and so forth. I mean, sure I could have written it another way but I think this is the way I want to write the book.

RB: I always wonder, especially with books that are original and really creative, what my responsibility is when I’m reading it. I mean, I want to read carefully, I want to know what’s going on, but I find every once in a while that I miss this key thing and somebody tells me and I hit myself in the head. How much do you think of—I don’t want to say the ability of the reader—but how much do you want to help the reader?

I don’t find my characters to be ciphers; I find them intensely interesting as individuals.MO: Well, I’m not trying to be perversely difficult. Certainly I don’t believe in that. And I am trying to be, in some ways, as clear as I can be, even though the shape may be unusual. It’s not a stroll down a well signaled path, but I think everything is there that needs to be told by the writer. I think I always see the reader as being an active participant in the book in a way. But having said that, obviously, if one re-reads the book then hopefully it’ll mean more. And it’s difficult for me to know because I’ve read the book an X number of times when I’m rewriting the book, so I suppose I know it better, but—I don’t know—I don’t feel that I’m against the reader in any way, I feel very close to the reader. But I think sometimes when people read books, they kind of try to either read too much into it or not read enough into it. You got to find that middle ground, I guess.

RB: I was also impressed with the peer reviews that I’ve read of your book, which I thought were just splendid examples of expository writing that I think maybe might not have happened if the writers hadn’t had your book as a catalyst or a starting point. I’m thinking of Gail Caldwell’s piece in the Boston Globe that I thought was worth reading even if you never read your book.

MO: Exactly.

RB: It was just a nice “this is how a review should be written.”

MO: Yeah. That was great.

RB: Almost the same about Louis Menand in The New Yorker, except that he criticized you on one point, saying that for all that you do, it doesn’t feel like you do enough with your characters.

MO: Well of course I didn’t agree with his review at all.

RB: [Laughs] Even the Cornell box?

MO: No, the Cornell box was fine. I’ll take that. But, you know, it was kind of odd because he never ever mentioned that I was a poet, and that is a kind of principle of my writing, that in the way that a poem works, I feel a novel can work in that way as well. And I don’t find my characters to be ciphers; I find them intensely interesting as individuals. So yeah, what I didn’t mind was that he had his take on what a novel is and I had my take on what a novel is, and he seemed to recognize that I came from somewhere else.

RB: I think he did emphasize that you—I don’t think he used the word “experimental,” but he suggested that you have a certain kind of rejection of novelistic conventions, that you were pushing against those conventions. I don’t know whether he quoted you, or it was someone else that quoted you about the fact that the arts have moved—

MO: Oh, I said something about that. Listen, I think 20th-century art, whether you think of painting or music or any of the arts, they’ve moved to have a center-point of non-representational stuff. When we think about the novel, they still want a novel to be Jane Austen, almost 70 years after you get Julian Barnes worrying about whether or not the novel is holding together in the usual familiar choreographic way. So it’s just a different take on what novels do.

RB: I don’t normally even read reviews unless there’s something about the writer of the review that interests me, but I have to say that I just thought this was a wonderful reading experience. I didn’t have problem with any of it, although I wondered—I guess you’ve exposed this before, but you do have a propensity to certain kinds of flashes of violence.

MO: Yeah.

RB: Which certainly is in real life, but I think if that scene, the first big violent scene had gone any longer—[laughing] I don’t know what I would have done.

MO: Oh, no, I didn’t want it to go on any longer, either. I tried to keep as quick as possible. I agree, I’m not someone who likes violence in any way. But it seemed very kind of essential to Coop’s life. It’s almost as if he was handed a pack of cards which said, “This is what’s going to happen to you all your life.” And he also sort of knows that. In the scene where he’s approached by the gamblers, the line that gets me is when he says, “I’ve been here before.” It’s almost like he’s given a fate and he’s expecting it.

RB: It’s also interesting the way you juxtapose the scholarly reclusive woman, based on what happened her, and this guy who’s sort of this hard-boiled type, although he’s learned to stay away from the real floodlights—he’s a gambler but he stays away from Vegas, and in fact he stays away from Reno. He just gambles in some small towns, and then, after his big—what would you call it?

Film is a conservative medium, in the sense that you cannot lose the audience. You have to let the audience know where you are.MO: His big scene? [laughs]

RB: Is it a big scene? It wasn’t a mistake because he meant to do it.

MO: Well, yeah. It was his one wrong move.

RB: Was it a wrong move?

MO: Well, no, it wasn’t. But he kind of overplays the hand, and it doesn’t play out well. What was interesting though, because when I talked to various gamblers—I went to Tahoe a lot and talked to people—what was interesting was that the big image of gamblers is someone coming out and betting everything on one game and they’re utterly destroyed or they’re utterly successful and that’s the climax. And talking to these gamblers who’ve spent 20 to 40 years gambling, it’s a very different, much calmer life. It’s like being a suburban businessman, you know? They go out, they’re doing what they want to do, they go to bed late but they get up late—there’s a calm that I sort of wanted to go back to.

RB: Did you gamble at all?

MO: I didn’t gamble, no; I intentionally didn’t gamble.

RB: Did you watch the games?

MO: I didn’t even watch the games. I’ve played games before, but I just wanted to get the lifestyle. I thought if I could get the lifestyle then I could get the rest of it.

RB: How much of your books now are influenced by movies?

MO: I don’t think they’re influenced any more than any other writer.

RB: We talk a lot about how arts influence each other, I think today we can’t help but think that the way movies are presented don’t influence writers of fiction and storytellers.

MO: Well I think we’ve all grown up, sure enough, on television and movies. We know how to read a movie really well. Oddly again, like I said before, we can accept in a movie something utterly bizarre or surreal or unrealistic as something stylized, whereas we still demand the novel to be well plotted. But I’m sure movies influence us in the sense that things move faster. I was talking to someone the other day who was trying to read Hardy, and he said, “God, I love Hardy but it’s kind of slow now.”

RB: I can’t imagine publishers looking at books when they come in and they’re 500 or 600 pages.

MO: But I think books and films are very, very different, in fact. I mean you can have the speed, but I think books do things that films cannot do and films do things that books cannot do.

RB: Sure, but I don’t think that mitigates the people who try to take filmic techniques and throw them into a book or people who—well, I don’t know an example of a novelistic technique put into a movie. Except maybe snappy dialogue.

MO: Well if you look at Spielberg’s film—that Second World War film that came out, Saving Private Ryan. That scene on the beach, for instance—that scene has been done in novels for 50 years, that kind of quick-cutting, leaping around, kind of choreographic movement of a battle on the beach—there was nothing new about that scene if you read. For a filmmaker, they were oohing and ahhing, and I thought, “Wait a minute, what’s so great about this? Stendhal was doing this, right?” In some ways I think film is actually kind of a conservative medium, in the sense that you cannot lose the audience. You have to let the audience know where you are. Even with something like The English Patient, where you go from the desert to Italy, you’ve got to make the landscape look different so that in the first second you know that we’re in Italy now, if we’re going to cut back and forth. Whereas in a book, Hana could be thinking about her uncles and we don’t know where she is for about a half-page perhaps.

RB: And you also have those relatively narrow constraints of coming in somewhere between 90 and 140 minutes; you can’t go much more than that.

I think you can either be smug or very sure about your work, or not, and I’m one of the latter group.MO: In the book of The English Patient, you had a whole last section set in India and the whole reference to Hiroshima in Japan—but they shot that stuff for the film and it just looked like someone had put the wrong reel in. [laughs] You can’t go there. In the last five minutes of the film, you can’t go somewhere else and include another element of a story.

RB: So now that you’re done with this novel and you’ve had a successful run with a book that I think people said ostensibly couldn’t be made into a movie—it was made into a wonderful movie. What are your thoughts about this one being made into a movie?

MO: You know I can’t see this one being made into a movie. I don’t think I can. Unless someone comes up with a brilliant idea of how to do it. You do have these two elements side by side, that reflect each other, but at the same time I don’t know if film can do that.

RB: Well you can never give up on the possibility that someone might try.

MO: Who knows.

RB: It’s like what I say to my son about baseball—that’s why they play the game. You never know what’s gonna happen. So this took four years?

MO: Let’s see. I finished that book on Walter Murch’s film editing about 2002. Where are we now, what year are we in?

RB: 2007.

MO: So about five years.

RB: And is it hard? Is that all you do when you’re writing a novel?

MO: Pretty much. It is hard. It’s something that saves me too, I love working on a book. But it’s not easy. You’re never certain of it, you’re not certain until the very end. But a week or two after the book comes out, you begin to feel a bit more assured.

RB: So are you saying that essentially you’re living in some extended period of uncertainty about what you’re working on?

MO: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

RB: Day after day, you work on something. Then at some point you have something tangible, a manuscript, and you hand it off to people and they’re starting to say “Oh, except for this and this, this is great,” you’re still uncertain?

MO: Yeah, it’s true. I think you can either be smug or very sure about your work, or not, and I’m one of the latter group. And I kind of like that about people who worry about it and they keep tinkering with it until the very end. So some friends like it, but what does it do beyond that group of people? It’s not a matter of whether a thing is liked or whether it’s good; it’s whether you can make it better. It’s much more an issue of “OK, the book is good, but is there more to it that’s missing that should be deepened, made stronger in some way?”

RB: How well do you know your body of work? Do you know all the poems you’ve written? Do you know most of the text from your novels?

MO: I can probably recognize them. I can remember scenes—I was talking to someone recently and I was saying, “I can’t remember if this scene remained in the book but there was a scene where I did this.”

RB: Well that would be tough because you’ve written it but you don’t know—

MO: Yeah, it might’ve been dropped. But also I don’t reread my novels, so I haven’t gone back and reread Anil’s Ghost or Billy the Kid or The English Patient.

RB: Would there be a point to that?

MO: I would find it difficult, because what if I wanted to rewrite the damn thing?

RB: Are you tempted when you do readings—are there times where you go, “Oh, I wish I did this.”

For a long time no one took writing seriously in Canada. Like American writing in the 19th century, where people saw right past Moby Dick and were looking at what was going in England.MO: Well actually, out of perversity I sometimes change the text as I’m reading. Do I leave out this clause that’s coming up? Then later on realize it was sort of essential.

RB: [laughs]

MO: No. What you read out loud and what you read on the page, sometimes there’s a different effect. So there are times when you tighten it for a reading.

RB: Are you still publishing Brick?

MO: Yeah.

RB: Is Brick a Canadian journal or is it international?

MO: It’s done in Canada, but we get around.

RB: Do you solicit international pieces?

MO: Yeah, we try to ask writers we know admire for pieces. We just asked C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander for stuff. We’ve published John Berger and others. We don’t pay the greatest sums in the world, but we mostly publish nonfiction, or enthusiasms about books, or anything.

RB: Is it a fair question to ask you on how the state of Canadian literature is?

MO: It’s pretty healthy. I think it’s a time when it’s taken seriously in Canada. For a long time it wasn’t; no one took any writing seriously in Canada. Like American writing in the 19th century, where people saw right past Moby Dick and were looking at what was going in England. Some wonderful writers are the Maritimes [New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island] in Canada right now. And all the guys from Labrador—Michael Crummey and Michael Winter and Lisa Moore. They’re a great batch of writers: They’re young and they have a tremendous energy.

RB: Lisa Moore wrote Alligator?

MO: Yup.

RB: And Winter wrote a book on Rockwell Kent? Who spent some time up in—?

MO: That’s right. They thought he was a spy because he could sing German lieder.

RB: And what about the West? What’s going on in the—Doug Coupland lives there?

MO: Coupland lives there; lots of writers in ports there. It’s pretty hard—there’s not a lot of good literary magazines anymore. And everyone always goes for the brass ring right away—publish a novel. I guess when we began we published short stories and poetry and things, and that’s how you gradually got known, but—so sometimes books come out with a writer and it’s luck whether it takes off because there’s no kind of warning or foreplay before the book comes out.

RB: Is there something compatible—is the Globe and Mail the New York Times of Canada?

MO: It is. Pretty well, yeah.

RB: So a good review in that—

MO: It’s good because it’s national, and in that sense it’s the one national magazine. And then we also have the CBC, which is the radio station, which is very, very important. Sort of an NPR-plus.

RB: Do Canadians refer to the area between Vancouver and Toronto as a flyover zone? In the United States we have the Midwest as disrespected—

MO: No, I don’t think we’ve caught that phrase quite yet.

RB: Does that mean that Canadians actually have a respect and fondness for the rest of the country?

MO: Yeah. I mean, I think they have a kind of weird little groups of people. Someone—I don’t know if you know him—Guy Maddin, he’s a filmmaker—

RB: Yeah!

MO: He’s just had a film out called Brand Upon the Brain!—wonderful, wonderful filmmaker, and he lives in Manitoba. So he’s sort of hiding out there, and then makes these incredible films that are admired and known, and that’s kind of great. It’s like Ford living in Oxford, Mississippi.

RB: Richard Ford says his next novel is going to be placed is Saskatchewan—

MO: Oh my god.

RB:—based on an idea he’s had for 20-something years. Yeah, he kind of sketched it out the last time I talked to him. Because I think where he lived in Montana was close to some place in Saskatchewan—

MO: Well, who’s that writer? Wallace Stegner, you read him?

RB: Oh sure.

MO:—a great book by Stegner called Wolf Willow.

RB: That one I don’t know.

MO: That’s his great, great book actually. It’s a sort of memoir, but it’s about being on the Canadian border, and how there was no border really, just sort of a nebulous zone. And then they try to build this border—

RB: I was listening to the Democratic candidates last night, and somebody was saying—I think it was Obama—like,”Well, we should pay attention to both borders. We should watch the Canadian border!”

MO: [laughs] Yes, stop the flow of all those cheaper drugs.

RB: [laughs] So, in Canada, there is the Harborfront Festival, and that’s the big Canadian literary festival?

MO: They have one in Vancouver, too. They have one in Calgary. One just started in Newfoundland, so there’s quite a few.

RB: Is that like a Canadian hotbed of new literature?

MO: I think so. And there’s some great singers there. It’s fantastic.

RB: I didn’t know anything about Newfoundland until I read—do you know a book by John Gimlette called Theater of Fish? This is a man who wrote a book about Paraguay, years ago. So, what’s next for you?

MO: Uh, nothing’s biting at the moment. I haven’t a clue.

RB: Is that the way you do it? You could actually go for three months, six months, and not write anything?

MO: Sure, no problem.

RB: Really?

MO: I find it very difficult to leap from the end of one book to the next pier, you know? When I try to write too quickly, I still use the same language and the same landscape as the same remnants from the last book. I have ideas but many of them seem too lighthearted or silly or not interesting for a whole book. So I just wait—you know, reading.

RB: There are writers who say that the reason they like to write short stories is because as they’re waiting for their big idea to come, in which they invest a large portion of their lives; they can sort of tinker with something and sort of stay in a groove or something or keep your muscles loose. But short stories seem to me to require a lot of mental energy and a lot of work and they can take, for what they are, a lot of time.

I don’t feel I should write a book just because I’ll write it. I mean, I can do other stuff.MO: That’s like saying you should write poetry while you wait for the big one. Poetry is the big one.

RB: Right.

MO: So in some sense, I can see keeping a diary or making notes. I find short stories difficult because my characters take about three years to evolve, and if it’s only going to be 20 pages then why bother? It’s just like a quick drive-by.

RB: So you’re not afflicted by hypergraphia or anything like that?

MO: No.

RB: And do you ever feel blocked?

MO: I don’t. I do feel at the end of the book, as I’ve said, “I very well may never write again and that’s OK.”

RB: [laughs]

MO: It wouldn’t be too bad if everyone was only able to write seven novels or something like that. I don’t feel—unless I really need to write a book—I don’t feel I should write a book just because I’ll write it. I mean, I can do other stuff. When I finished Anil’s Ghost, I did that book about Walter Murch, which was very different; I went to talk to him for a couple years about filmmaking and film editing, and that was great, because I learned a lot and kind of ended up evolving out of the last book into this one.

RB: Is there someone who you would like to spend a few years talking to?

MO: Not sure about a few years, but there are some writers who I’d love to read all of their work and sit down and talk to them. Jim Harrison. Denis Johnson. Those guys are really important writers, you know.

RB: I know that Harrison and McGuane, who have been friends for years and years, have been corresponding all that time; I think that, conceivably, could be the last great writerly correspondence. Do you write to other writers?

MO: Not very much, no.

RB: Does anybody, anymore?

MO: I think they do. Of course it’s all in email now.

RB: Email? Is that the same thing?

MO: I’m afraid so. But I’m on a postcard mode. I write, “See you at dawn.”

RB: Those guys appear to have a great friendship and bond and they still fish together and now Harrison is out in Montana. I think that could be the last one. It’s a shame.

MO: Actually, I think there are lots of those things going on.

RB: I would hope so. And your wife is a writer?

MO: Yes.

RB: So you’re not writing. You’ve just finished a book and are sort of—

MO: Aimlessly wandering around.

RB: And she’s writing all the time?

MO: Well, she just finished a book, which is coming out with Pantheon in September. And she’s also got this novel she’s had in the background, which I think she’s gonna get back to that soon.

RB: And what’s this book she just finished?

MO: It’s called Who Named the Knife, and it’s about—she was on a jury in Hawaii years ago, and then was taken off the jury for some strange reason, who knows why?

RB: Disqualified?

MO: Sort of. Anyway the woman was found guilty of murder. And Linda, 15 years later on, wanted to find out what happened to her. So she wrote to her first and then she went and saw her. So the book is about that relationship and friendship and that woman’s life and Linda’s life and how they’ve gone different ways.

RB: Are you sure whether she’s guilty or not?

MO: That’s there.

RB: So she can do other things while she’s thinking about the big novel.

MO: Well she wasn’t working on the big novel while she was finishing off this one.

RB: But it’s there. So this book, in some people’s minds, could have been procrastination.

MO: [laughs] I’m not going to answer that question.

RB: So what’s it like to live with another writer?

MO: It’s kind of very interesting, actually. We sort of work in different locations, which is necessary.

RB: Is she one of your first readers?

MO: Not the first reader. It’s kind of difficult to give the first read to your mate; it’s a big responsibility.

RB: Could be dicey, yeah. Tell me some writers you’ve read recently, other than the Newfoundlanders, that have impressed you.

MO: Oh. I haven’t read anything for ages, it feels like, because at the very last stages of the book you’re kind of checking every damn comma and pause, so I’m not sure.

RB: Are you anxious to get back to—would I guess correctly that you have huge stacks of galleys laying around?

MO: I have to say I don’t really like reading galleys. I like to read a book that’s finished. Otherwise it’s like correcting them.

RB: [laughs]

MO: I just got this book by Bolaño, the Chilean writer.

RB: Oh yeah, The Savage Detectives.

MO: I’m really looking forward to him. And I’ve just been reading this Sam Cooke biography by Peter Guralnick.

RB: That’s a great book!

MO: Yeah, he’s a great music writer. He’s fantastic.

RB: He’s got a sensitivity to the whole milieu.

MO: Did you ever talk to him?

RB: I have talked to him. In fact, I haven’t published it yet.

MO: Oh, well, send it to me. I’d love to read it.

RB: OK. Yeah, he’s a really sweet man. And loves the music, he’s there for all of it. I think at one time he was interested in writing fiction and I guess just gave it up. I grew up in Chicago, so I was particularly interested in that biography.

MO: I love Sam Cooke. Sam Cooke has appeared in my last two novels, and he always gets thrown out at the last minute.

RB: [laughs] Why is that? Is that some sort of Hitchcockian McGuffin or something?

MO: No, he just doesn’t ever make it. In Anil’s Ghost, there’s a whole section where Anil was theorizing about Sam Cooke and then starts singing that song “Don’t know nothing about anthropology.” And then the estate, whoever owns the rights, didn’t like that. It was ridiculous.

RB: Who does own the rights? It’s not his family—oh, Alan Klein owns it! ABKCO.

MO: Who’s Alan Klein?

RB: This guy who owned the Beatles for a while.

MO: That’s sad.

RB: I think his wife got edged out of the deal for some reason.

MO: I bet. Well anyway, he came into Divisadero for a while because Claire is theorizing on how did Sam Cooke die, and all that stuff. And that got dropped out. So I’m a tad obsessed.

RB: Well, even Guralnick—

MO: Doesn’t know?

RB: Well, he speculates. There isn’t a definitive judgment on what killed him. How it happened is relatively clear but not definitive.

MO: My history of music is Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and that’s it.

RB: Did you like that Jamie Foxx movie?

MO: Yeah. I did. Because his great version of “Makin’ Whoopee;” they show what went into it in the film.

RB: I wished they’d done “You Are My Sunshine,” which oddly appeared in a movie called Unstrung Heroes with John Turturro and Andie MacDowell, which is a sweet little movie about a crazy little family. I think the guy who wrote it writes for National Public Radio in the states. Did you ever see that Bobby Darin film, Beyond the Sea?

MO: Yeah.

RB: I never liked Bobby Darin, but I thought that was a really interesting movie.

MO: No, I think that’s probably the worst movie ever made—

RB: Really? [laughs] Why?

MO:—after The Fury, of course.

RB: I don’t know The Fury.

MO: Oh, there’s a guy in my book who says without a doubt the worst film ever made was The Fury.

RB: The only Fury I know is the Salman Rushdie novel.

MO: No, no. Brian De Palma’s The Fury, where John Cassavetes has his head blown up at the very end. No, I actually hated that Bobby Darin movie.

RB: I never liked Bobby Darin.

MO: Well see, I liked Bobby Darin.

RB: Maybe that’s why you didn’t like the movie.

MO: He wasn’t that important, but I thought this was shocking. I’m gonna disagree very strongly on this, obviously. [laughs]

RB: [laughs] Let’s leave it at that. Thank you very much.

MO: Thank you.