In writer Michael Ondaatje's mind, the "cat's table" is where the undesirables sit in a boat's dining room. It's for the hecklers, the lowly ones and the ones farthest away from power. And it's also where you'll find the narrator of Ondaatje's new novel, Michael, an 11-year-old who's on a 21-day voyage from Sri Lanka to London all on his own.
He and his companions — two other boys who are travelling alone — live by only one rule: to every day do at least one thing that is forbidden.
Ondaatje — who also wrote The English Patient — tells their story in The Cat's Table, a book set in the 1950s that is part boyhood romp, part crime novel and part nostalgic reflection as an adult Michael looks back on how the trip shaped his life.
Ondaatje tells NPR's Michele Norris that the idea for his new book came from personal experience: he went on a similar journey when he was a young boy. He says that looking back, his own voyage seems very strange to him.
"You wouldn't put your kid on a bus to go across America, let alone on a ship for 21 days," he says.
Despite the book's resemblance to reality, the author says that his goal in writing The Cat's Table wasn't to rediscover the boy he was; it was to write a fictional version of something that had been forgotten.
"About halfway through, I suddenly named the boy, or the narrator, Michael," after himself, Ondaatje says. "It had an odd effect on me in that calling him Michael separated him from me so that he began to change. He was a very different kind of person to what I am."
Capturing The 'Feral Quality' Of Childhood
On the ship, the boys occupy a world that is shaped by their adventures. They begin their day before the sun rises, plunging into the gold-painted first-class pool and raiding the sundeck's breakfast table before other passengers are awake.
Ondaatje, who is in his 60s, says writing about the lives of rambunctious children wasn't too much of a stretch for him.
"Something I realized much later on is that some of the most anarchic and perhaps accurate books about childhood — that catches that feral quality — are often written by older people," he says. "We think about a film like Fanny and Alexander by Ingmar Bergman; it's a wonderful film about childhood and he was quite an old man when he wrote it. There's something about looking back that allows you a freedom to invent bad behavior."
Looking back can also provide a certain amount of perspective. It isn't until he's older that the fictional Michael begins to recognize the longing that haunted him as a child; he's flooded with memories and the sense that he's missing something, even though he's clearly surrounded by people who care about him.
"One of the things I wanted to do was have a sense of that huge gulf between children and parents," Ondaatje says. "Michael is going to meet his mother in England, who's been living there for four or five years, but he doesn't really know her and doesn't even know if he will recognize her when he gets there."
Or, for that matter, if she will recognize him.
Crafting A Novel By Hand
Part of the book's brilliance is the way Ondaatje presents his characters; it's almost like flipping through the pages of a scrapbook of Michael's memories, with characters moving from the background to the foreground of the story, and back again.
"I always have loved that element of having characters in a novel who disappear and then come back 50 pages later," Ondaatje says. "This is what happens in our lives. We lose contact with people, and then they come back, and they are altered and sometimes we don't know how they're altered."
And the constellation of characters Ondaatje invents is impressive. It seems like the only way to keep them all straight would be to plan them all out before you even started writing — but that's not how Ondaatje works.
"They appeared as I was telling the story," he says. "One of the things I do with my books is I write them and improvise when I'm actually writing that first draft and discovering what the plot is. But later on, I spend a lot of time rewriting, reshaping the book and underlining that architecture."
A lot of that rewriting and reshaping — the first four or five drafts, to be exact — takes place in hand-written manuscripts that lend a chaotic air to Ondaatje's office.
"It's an outrageously untidy office. No one can go there because it's so bad," he says. "The table is so full of stuff I haven't done, which I ought to have done."
Still, the office provides a small space for Ondaatje to spin his tales from. You can either view it as clutter, or as a small sign of brilliance.
"I think I might have seen a sticker in a car which said, 'A clean car is a sign of a sick mind.'" he says. "I'm really healthy if that's the case."
MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. For his fifth novel, acclaimed writer Michael Ondaatje reaches back in time, to the 1950s. He tells of a young boy's journey from Sri Lanka to London on a giant ship. The book is called "The Cat's Table." It refers to the least desirable table in the boat's dining room. Ondaatje says that's where the hecklers sit, the lowly ones, those furthest away from power. We find our narrator, 11-year-old Michael, at the cat's table.
He takes up with two other boys his age. They're all traveling alone on this 21-day journey. The book is part boyhood romp, part crime novel and partly the reflections of Michael as an adult looking back on how the trip shaped his life. Ondaatje told me the idea for the story of a boy traveling alone on a ship came from personal experience. He did the same thing when he was young.
MICHAEL ONDAATJE: It's a very strange thing. I mean, I was telling my kids that I've gone from Sri Lanka to England as an 11-year-old, and there were no parents with me. And I thought, my God, this is a very strange thing. And they were horrified. And I mean, you wouldn't put your kid on a bus to go across, you know, America, let alone on a ship for 21 days so that freedom that the kids were given is also what makes the adventure, I think.
NORRIS: And since you yourself made a journey like this, was this, in part, your effort to get in touch with the boy that you were on that journey?
ONDAATJE: I'm not sure. That wasn't the plan. It was to kind of write a fictional version of something that had been forgotten. And I know I think I did bring up certain things in my past perhaps or in my character, but what was interesting was that when about halfway through I suddenly named the boy or the narrator Michael. It had an odd effect on me in that I calling him Michael separated from me - separated him from me so that he began to change. He was a very different kind of person to what I am, I think.
NORRIS: I would love for you to take us into the world that these boys occupy. Would you mind doing a reading for us?
ONDAATJE: (Reading) Sleep is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night. Up before sunrise surrounded the ship. We could not wait to continue exploring this universe. Lying in my bunk, I would hear Ramadhin's gentle knock on the door, and we would meet Cassius by the stairs and soon we'd be strolling barefoot on the first-class deck. First class was an unguarded palace at 6:00 in the morning, and we arrived there even before the hues of light appeared on the horizon, even before the essential nightlights in the deck blinked and went out automatically at daybreak. We removed our shirts and dove like needles into the gold-painted first-class pool with barely a splash.
(Reading) Silence was essential as we swam in the newly formed half-light. If we could last undetected for an hour, we had a chance to plunder the laid out breakfast table on the sundeck, heap food onto the plates and abscond with a silver bowl of condensed milk, its spoon standing up in the center of its thickness. One morning, Cassius brought out a cigarette he had found in the lounge and taught us how to smoke properly. Ramadhin and Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task.
NORRIS: What a wonderful world for a child to live in.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ONDAATJE: I know. I know. I enjoy being there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ONDAATJE: You know, it's kind of funny because I'm - something I realized much later on is that some of the most anarchic and perhaps accurate books about childhood that catches that feral quality are often written by older people, you know? Or we think about a film like "Fanny and Alexander" by Ingmar Bergman, it's a wonderful film about childhood, and he was quite an old man when he wrote it. There's something about looking back that allows you a freedom to invent bad behavior, I think.
NORRIS: Michael has a longing that as a young boy, he seems like he doesn't even know what it is. He's flooded with memories and seems to always be missing something that he doesn't have, even though he's surrounded by people who obviously care a lot about him.
ONDAATJE: Well, I think one of the things I wanted to do was have a sense of that huge gulf between children and parents, you know? And so I think that longing and not knowing where we are and, you know, which is a very central aspect of childhood, I think, is what makes you have that longing where you don't - for what you don't know. I mean, Michael is going to meet his mother in England, who's been living there for four or five years, but he doesn't really know her and doesn't even know if he will recognize her when she gets - when he gets there. So there's that element and...
NORRIS: And worries that she won't recognize him.
ONDAATJE: Right. Exactly. So, you know, that's a kind of haunting thing, but in a way, he doesn't really think about it too much. But, you know, that element of missing something and missing a parent is there subliminally, the story, even though he pretends not to care.
NORRIS: These boys are surrounded by so many interesting characters and part of the brilliance of this book is the way that you present all of these people. It's almost like flipping through the pages of a scrapbook of Michael's memories. And what's so interesting and so much fun as you read this is how they appear in the background and then in the foreground of the story. How did you decide on how the characters would sort of float in and out of his life and in and out of the story?
ONDAATJE: I always have loved that element of having characters in a novel who disappear and then come back, you know, 50 pages later on or something. And so I think, you know, this is what happens in our lives. We lose contact with people, and then they come back, and they are altered, and sometimes we don't know how they're altered. And in this situation, you - it was almost like a kind of French farce where people could suddenly enter or disappear, or disappear on the corridor and not be seen again for four or five days. And so I wanted that kind of element of people stepping forward and having their aria in a way, or not, you know? And I think that's how it worked for me in the writing of the book.
NORRIS: You know, there are some writers whose work you read and you can't help but think about the architecture of the work. And this was one of those cases for me where I wondered if you had this constellation of characters when you set out on a journey of writing the book or if they appeared to you or appeared to Michael the writer or Michael the boy as you were actually telling the story.
ONDAATJE: They appeared as I was telling the story, but at the same time, I totally believe in architecture in a novel. One of the things I do with my books is I write them and improvise when I'm actually writing that first draft and discovering what the plot is. But later on, I spend a lot of time rewriting, reshaping the book and underlining that architecture not too obviously, you know? That is the state of anything which I absolutely love.
NORRIS: And since you write, as I understand, in longhand, at least in the first draft, I wonder what your office must...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: ...look like.
ONDAATJE: Well, I write in longhand for the first four or five drafts, actually. So it's even worse than you can imagine. It's an outrageously untidy office. No one can go there really because it's so bad. The table is so full of stuff I haven't done, which I ought to have done. But I have a kind of almost a small, you know, 2-feet-by-2-feet space to write.
NORRIS: You know, I don't know if you're like me, but I am suspicious of people who have wicked clean desks.
ONDAATJE: I know. I think I might have seen a sticker in a car which said: A clean car is a sign of a sick mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Then I'm really healthy if that's the case.
ONDAATJE: Yeah, yeah. I think we both are.
NORRIS: Michael Ondaatje, I have so enjoyed talking to you. Thank you very much.
ONDAATJE: Thank you.
NORRIS: Michael Ondaatje, his newest novel is called "The Cat's Table." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.