[(interview date 5 October 1992) In the following interview, originally conducted on October 5, 1992, Garvie recounts a question and answer session with Ondaatje at a Queen's University reading; she provides an overview of Ondaatje's career and the author responds to questions about characterization and plot in The English Patient.]
On Monday, October 5, Michael Ondaatje was at Queen's University to read from his new novel, The English Patient. The Etherington Hall auditorium was packed: along with many loyal Ondaatje fans came others who were curious to hear a writer on the brink of a dramatic rise in prominence. The announcement of the Booker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, was a week away, and The English Patient was touted as a strong contender. Ondaatje, who received his Master's degree in English at Queen's in 1965, was in line to become the first Canadian to win the Booker.
A few days later Ondaatje flew to London for the ceremony. The betting around the literary prize had laid strong odds in his favour, yet the television cameras picked up genuine astonishment on the writer's face as his name was read out. This year the judging ended in a tie: Ondaatje shared the prize with UK writer Barry Unsworth, nominated for his book, Sacred Hunger. "I've got only 20 seconds of time," Ondaatje said as he accepted the prize, and took the opportunity to express his thanks to Canada's beleaguered publishing industry.
Ondaatje has been a highly respected figure on the Canadian literary scene for more than 15 years. Now in the glare of the spotlight of international attention, he has become increasingly chary of overexposure. Like his own characters, he would prefer to be a page of facts and to leave the rest as fable, the writer behind a door, with a favourite cat, writing, the private man free to come and go without the importuning of strangers.
What is generally known of his personal life is this: he left Sri Lanka when he was 11 to join his mother in England, and in 1962, at the age of 19, came to Canada and started at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. With a post-graduate degree from Queen's, he taught at the University of Western Ontario for a year and then joined the Department of English at York University's Glendon College, where he still teaches modern fiction. At 21, he married painter Kim Jones, and they had two children, Griffin and Quintin. He now lives in Toronto, off Danforth Avenue, and is married to Linda Spalding, a novelist and editor of the literary magazine Brick.
Since his first book, The Dainty Monsters, appeared in 1976. Ondaatje has continued to publish steadily. His subject matter is broadly eclectic, his style reflecting international, rather than Canadian, influences. Coming from another country has exempted him from bearing the self-conscious burden of many Canadian-born writers, a sort of imaginative equivalent to defining the Canadian constitution. Canada in The English Patient is reduced to...