Authors and Ashbury: Writers Fest starts with a showstopper

The Cat's Table is Michael Ondaatje's latest novel

Originally from Scotland, Helen Morris arrived in Ottawa almost six years ago. She loves being able to bike to work in the summer and skate along the Rideau Canal to the office in the winter. Other interests include dark chocolate and Wensleydale Cheese.

Michael Ondaatje (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Most Ottawa International Writers Festival events I have been to tend to have audiences taken from an older demographic; not so last night’s fall opener with Canada’s celebrated novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje.

Though one of my table companions did speculate as to whether it was event host, novelist Joseph Boyden, who was responsible for pulling in the younger portion of the near capacity crowd.

Last night’s reading and question and answer session was held in a hall at Ashbury College. I have to agree with some audience members that the jury is still out as to whether this works as a Writers Festival venue. The hall has seating all on one level, along with some hefty pillars, making it hard to see the stage from some seats.

Venue aside, I was here to see Ondaatje. The last time I had heard him speak was a good few years ago at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I didn’t know much about him or his books then but came away from the event thinking what a great storyteller.

Last night, the audience were held spellbound as Ondaatje read from his new novel The Cat’s Table. For the most part, the novel takes place during a 21-day sea voyage from Ondaatje’s native Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England. The protagonist, an 11-year-old boy, is called Michael but Ondaatje says the novel is not autobiographical. While the author made a similar trip, he says he remembers little of his own voyage save for playing ping pong.

Moments into reading extracts from the book, Ondaatje had painted a vivid scene of life on board for the 11-year-old and two other children described by Ondaatje as a ‘real troublemaker’ and a ‘slighter troublemaker.’

The OIWF runs until Oct. 25

During the question period, Ondaatje explained that the characters were all made up and not based on real people as he wanted to create a fantastic story of this trip on a ship. He said that he does not have a clear idea of who a character is at the start of a book but says the details of the character start to emerge as he develops the plot. While the fixed location of the novel brings limitations, Ondaatje said it allowed him to populate the ship, giving him access to stories and areas he could not otherwise reach.

The author said that using the view point of an 11-year-old was perhaps why some found this book more accessible than a number of his other works.

Having not been on a long boat journey since childhood, two years into writing The Cat’s Table, Ondaatje took a ship from the U.S. to Europe. He said it was scary as an adult and when he sat down at a table for dinner he realised the characters from his novel were not there.

If you want to spend some time with Ondaatje’s troublemaker characters, I would highly recommend the Cat’s Table.

On a practical note if you are leaving Ashbury College after an event, don’t turn left out of the school if you are looking for the bus stop to take you back downtown. A left turn will take you along a very dark street with lots of construction and very large holes in the road … if you persevere and manage not to fall down aforementioned large holes you will eventually reach the bus stop.

I for one am glad my next Writers Festival event is being held at Knox Presbyterian downtown.

Thanks Helen! We’re also excited for the upcoming Writers Fest events. Check them all out here.