"With 'Billy,' I was reacting against the genre of film, where everything was so secure and obvious that nothing really was going to surprise us. I was so fed up with Westerns by the time I was in my 20s, they were so sillily romantic. A lot of the writing in the '60s was either very sociological about violence or a cliche. So I thought, 'I'm just going to make him dangerous, not just for the sake of being dangerous, but because this is what the reality is.' "
Ondaatje may not have set out to flip a finger at the romance of Western violence, but he ends up doing exactly that. "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" upstages the abstract, orderly brutality of Western movies and comics with its own runaway vaudeville. As the book leaps between B-movie comic horror and quiet scene-setting, between the suggestive brush strokes of poetry and the expansiveness of prose, it grows into a cantata for several voices telling their versions of Billy.
Ondaatje's writing is always the unofficial story, a celebration of the Kips and Hanas and Buddy Boldens who walk voiceless and invisible through the history books. In lesser hands that kind of populism could fall flat on the page, but Ondaatje's characters keep gathering layers as they go along. No other fiction I know shows workers the tough-minded tenderness of "In the Skin of a Lion," Ondaatje's soaringly romantic third novel. It's impossible to know where research leaves off and imagination begins in Ondaatje's sensuously physical descriptions of bridge-building in Depression-era Toronto.
The book began as a "descant" from the life of Ambrose Small, a wealthy Toronto financier who vanished mysteriously in 1919. One year and 200 pages later, Ondaatje decided that he couldn't stand the man ("I felt like an official biographer of some financial scum") and started over, relegating Small to a bit part and bringing his minor characters to the forefront. In "Skin," the outsider role is reversed when Patrick, an all-Canadian youth, becomes an alien among the Macedonian immigrants with whom he works as a laborer on the tunnel to be used for the Toronto waterworks. As they draw him into their community, Patrick is caught up in a passionate three-way love story and a drama--part caper, part action-adventure--of class war.
"\o7 His own life was no longer a single story but a part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices. Patrick saw a wondrous night web--all of these fragments of a human order, something ungoverned by the family he was born into or the headlines of the day.\f7 " --"In the Skin of a Lion"
"Skin" is no less than a people's history of Toronto, a euphoric hymn to the city and the dignity of labor. In Ondaatje's novels, history matters; his characters humanize a savage 20th Century that eats itself alive with random catastrophe. At a time in our cynical literary culture, when readers are stranded between the willful obscurantism of the artistic avant-garde, which has all but declared the story passe, and the slick packages of Michael Crichton or John Grisham, Ondaatje joins a narrowing fraternity of writers who remain true to the rich, particular humanism and grand opera of the popular 19th-Century novel, while expanding its forms and its power to make things matter.
As we finish the interview, I mention a friend who once told me that she writes because writing makes her better than she is. "That's a lovely answer," Ondaatje says. "If there's a callowness in you, it doesn't survive because you live with a book for five years and go over it 200 times. I really feel that, because the best parts that are not in me before I begin are there eventually in the book. Once you get the voice, you're saying what you know, and after that you start saying what you don't know. When I got the voice with 'The English Patient,' there was stuff said about nations that I had never imagined before. It's absolutely thrilling. Like putting two and two together and getting six."