If Michael Ondaatje had a multimillion marketing scheme, he’d be as famous as Batman.
But poets have a hard time competing with superheroes.
Friday’s reading by Ondaatje didn’t even fill the first floor of the Yukon Arts Centre for the Whitehorse Poetry Festival kickoff.
And the weekend events only saw a couple of dozen spectators.
“The budget for publicizing a book at a small press is about $500 and that’s the max—while the budget for publicizing a film, like Batman, could be as much as $25 million,” said Ondaatje.
“That’s the only reason films are better known than books.”
Ondaatje, who’s always had an interest in film, knows all about silver-screen success.
It was after his novel, The English Patient, was adapted as a movie that Ondaatje was lionized as a Canadian writer.
“I haven’t read (The English Patient) since it came out,” he said, sitting in MacBride Museum’s courtyard Sunday afternoon.
The film’s director and producer “were a bit more aware of what was in the book,” he added with a laugh.
Film has “sped up our generation,” said Ondaatje.
“If you read an early 20th-century novel now, you are going to be chomping at the bit, because it’s going slower than we’re used to.
“This is a weird problem.”
When Ondaatje started out in the late 1960s, he faced the same hurdles as Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy, writers who would go on to become household names.
“You couldn’t get published by major presses, like McClelland and Stewart, so you kind of invented your own audience,” said Ondaatje, referencing smaller publishers like Coach House Press and House of Anansi Press.
“That was your whole world,” he said.
“You invented your forum.”
Ondaatje was interrupted.
A couple visiting the museum approached him—not to get an autograph—but to get Ondaatje to take a picture of them.
They wandered over and stuck their heads through a plywood facade, one subject an RCMP officer on a horse, the other Soapy Smith hanging from the horse’s mouth. After fiddling with the camera, Ondaatje snapped the picture.
These days, success is measured differently.
“I think today one of the problems is everyone wants immediate attention or immediate success, which you weren’t expecting in the early days,” said Ondaatje.
“I felt lucky with Coach House because it was a place you could go and learn things and be influence by your peers and fall on your face and no one would notice—it didn’t matter.
“Now, if someone is published by a big press for the first time and it doesn’t take off as they had hoped, they get dumped—they don’t get much support.”
Even after starting to work with larger presses, Ondaatje has managed to keep it personal.
“I get into the machinery of the publishing house to have some say in what (the book) looks like, or the cover design or the typeface,” he said.
Ondaatje judges a book by its cover.
“The cover reflects the author,” he said.
“I’m not going to buy a good book of poems with a crappy cover ….”
Then he changed his mind.
“I’d still buy it,” he said.
But the cover and design are important.
At the mention of e-books, like Amazon’s kindle, Ondaatje laughed.
“Nothing is as indestructible as a paperback,” he said.
“You could leave it out in the rain; you could forget it—you could tear it in half and someone could read one half while you read the other—it’s one of the greatest of the inventions.”
Although he’s mostly known for his novels, all out in paperback, Ondaatje started off as a poet.
But once he turned to prose, he was captivated.
“I enjoyed the kind of rambling you could do in fiction,” he said.
“I enjoyed the large landscape of it.”
That’s the fun part.
Finishing a book is another story.
“When a book comes out, I don’t enjoy it at all,” said Ondaatje.
“You have to publicize it and do all kinds of stuff—the real pleasure for me is the years when you’re actually writing and get to spend four to five years on a book and no one’s going to bother me—that became one of the lures of the longer forms.”
Ondaatje also enjoys the friendships he strikes up with his characters.
“You’re inventing characters who are not just you,” he said.
“And you grow by becoming the English patient for three or four years, while in a lyric poem you are in a way just representing yourself, or one aspect of yourself.”
Ondaatje also likes lacklustre endings.
The characters are alive, he said. “That’s why my books end without a sensational finish, like an act of life.
“They’re not signed, sealed or delivered at the end of the book, which doesn’t interest me very much, (the characters) are still alive in my head.”
And they teach him things.
“It enriches me to write those stories, because I am discovering something about myself, or about human nature in the invention of characters.”
Ondaatje also wrote a memoir about his childhood in Sri Lanka, but the fiction turned out to be a greater voyage of discovery.
“The novels are more personal, because the characters are like your children, or aspects of yourself, whereas in (the memoir), it’s given to you, is not so much a discovery.”
When Ondaatje writes, he doesn’t plan ahead.
“I don’t really have a scheme,” he said.
And all the academic essays and criticism surrounding his work—Ondaatje doesn’t read them.
“It’s soporific,” he said.
“When we read a sonnet by Shakespeare, we can talk about the incredible bird references—someone with a beak, or a feather or molting—but I’m sure Shakespeare wasn’t even conscious of that stuff.
“I think if doesn’t follow a book to over-interpret the thing—it is a story.
“I’m not thinking, ‘What this is a symbol of or a metaphor of or what the background is,’ I’m not thinking of any of that stuff. I’m just in that world with the characters and that’s what I want with my stories.”
Everyone has their own story, added Ondaatje.
“And it’s not just our biography—it’s how we think, or how we imagine; being writers and readers allows us to grow and become more complex, complicated and fuller with life.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at