Michael Ondaatje by Willem Dafoe

BOMB 58 Winter 1997

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


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Michael Ondaatje. Photo by Dan Coleman.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a novel cherished by readers for its lush, subliminal prose. At the end of World War II, four characters find themselves in the remains of a deserted Italian villa. The enigmatic English patient, burned beyond recognition, speaks through a morphine haze. His young nurse, Hana, suffers from her own emotional shell shock. Kip, a Sikh soldier in the British army, dismantles bombs left by the Germans. And Caravaggio, a thief turned spy for the English, sets out to reveal the English patient’s true identity. While the book’s imagery lends itself to film—a plane crashing, its pilot falling from a desert sky in flames; Kip hoisting himself up a rope, lighting flare after flare to gaze at a fresco of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; Hana playing the piano in a bombed out room—the narrative in the desert, the time at the villa, backstories told in flashbacks, the English patient’s diary, are the stuff of literature. Therefore, it is with great anticipation, and some cynicism, that the novel’s readers, all of us enamored, await the film version.

Willem Dafoe met Michael Ondaatje on the film’s set in Rome during the first few days of production. It was important to Willem, being one of those enamored readers, that the film and his being cast as Caravaggio in the film, had Michael’s blessing. Willem said, “I don’t pretend to know him, but we had some wonderful walks in Rome where we would wander … into a church or a café for coffee. They were long walks and it was great to have Michael on the set.” They met this past October in New York to discuss the novel’s transformation to film. They’re both, by the way, very happy with the film, not because it replicates the novel, but because it has become its own story.

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Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio. All photos by Phil Bray from Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, courtesy of Miramax Films.

Willem Dafoe Let’s start with The English Patient. Why didn’t you want to do the film script?

Michael Ondaatje I spent six years writing the book, the last two years of which were spent creating the only structure I thought it could have. So to turn around and dismantle that structure and put the head where the tail was … There’s no way I could have been objective and known what should go, what should stay.

WD Were you involved in the initial script development?

MO Quite a lot. Anthony Minghella, Saul Zaentz and I met every time there was a draft, and I think we worked well and adventurously together. The script felt “new,” and was not a “shadow” of the book. Because all three of us were working on something new it was a much more exciting project. I was amazed, right from the beginning, how Anthony got the voices, when Barnes meets Katherine and says, “Of course, I know your mother,” that sense of class knowledge of each other was caught perfectly. In any case, each time there was a new draft, we would meet up. It was a real education in terms of how a script gets tighter and tighter. Film is much tougher. I don’t think I could write a great chapter and then give it up because of the book’s overall time limitations, as you sometimes must do with entire scenes in film. That’s like a bad joke for a writer.

WD I run into so many people who, when they hear I’m involved with the film, say, “Oh, I loved the book.” And I get this sinking feeling, not out of disrespect to the movie, but that somehow they’re not going to see the book, not even a version of the book. They’ll see something that grew out of it.

MO I feel the film has become something quite distinct, with its own DNA.

WD It’s a book that people have very personal reactions to. People either sat down and read from page one to the end, or it was so rich for them that they could only read three pages at a time. I was the three pages at a time guy. Are some of the things that struck you about the process of working on the film still percolating in your head?

MO I have made a couple of documentary films, and I edited those films, that was what I really enjoyed. The precision of 24 frames a second—you can cut it frame seven, or frame 21. I really enjoyed that kind of microscopic timing.

WD How is that different than working with words? Particularly in poetry.

MO I do do that in poetry, and coming out of poetry—which is what I wrote before I wrote novels—I try to edit novels the same way, obsessively—taking a sentence from over here, and putting it over there, so the whole thing topples over into new suggestiveness.

WD Is there anything you consistently notice about a piece when it’s done? How do you know when to stop working? I read your novels before your poetry, and when I went to the poetry, it was so precise. When you talk about this long editing process with the novel, I can’t imagine it.

MO I do take very much care. Once I finish a story, which takes around four or five years, it’s all over the place. The order is not necessarily the order it ends up in. So the editing stage then begins, shaving it down, until you’ve got a cleaner line of the story. What more can you remove without losing the story? I have a tendency to remove more and more in the process of editing. Often I’ll write the first chapter last, because it sets up the story. The last thing I wrote in Coming Through Slaughter was “His geography,” almost like a big landscape shot, with buried clues you can pick up later.

WD As you edit, how much does it shift around? Particularly The English Patient where you’re dealing with so many points of view. How much do you fall in love with different characters? Or do you discipline yourself to maintain an overview right away?

MO I go wherever it takes me. I try everything. I completely test it, jostle it, so I’m not locked into the rhetoric, or the order I wrote it in. In a way this is what Anthony and Walter Murch did in the last stages of the film, taking a visual from one scene and putting it in another scene and creating something different. It is collaging and piecing.

WD Do you usually start out with a few rough ideas, central images?

MO I don’t have a rough idea. It’s usually an image.

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Juliette Binoche as Hana and Naveen Andrews as Kip.

WD Reading the book was a revelation. And when we were shooting, I felt it deeply in my body, my mind, and my soul. When I was in a room shooting with the other characters, Kip, Hana, the English patient, and my character, Caravaggio, I thought, what a great story that can possibly contain all these people. It’s a very special world.

MO There’s something about that story—half of me wants it to be a long, nine-hour TV thing: thirty years of Caravaggio’s history and twenty years of Hana’s history, and they all come together in that moment in the room. The book began with the plane crashing, and it began with Caravaggio. In fact, the very first thing I wrote was where he steals the photograph of himself in the dark room. And Hana was there. Hana, Caravaggio and the English patient, but I didn’t know how they were linked.

WD And Hana comes from any place in particular?

MO Hana was in one of my previous novels, In the Skin of a Lion. But the nurse in The English Patient was there before I discovered she was Hana. I don’t like repeating characters, but Hana seemed so different, like a new character.

WD Does the process of flushing out a fantasy become somewhat personal, a self-revelatory process? Even if it’s not about you, it’s about your taste, what you’re attracted to. So you’ve got this wonderful mask …

MO Yeah, and that’s a sort of costume. It’s what you have as an actor as well, this ability to reveal yourself through the character much more amazingly than you could by yourself.

WD Absolutely.

MO I can do things in fiction that I couldn’t do in a poem, for that reason.

WD I’m getting to the point where I only really love films from other cultures, and the classics, much more than any film that comes from my culture, these speak to me. I think it’s because I’m dealing with them through such a heavy mask. The irony is that the story hits me all the harder, because it’s not about me. I’m like some schoolboy that’s drawn to the exotic, to the other. And I find myself there, almost to the degree that I project myself as that. I feel it so deeply, it’s better than any movie or place I’ve ever seen in my life.

MO It is a learning process. It’s why I’d rather read a book that is completely unlike something I could do, in the way it’s written, than read a book that’s very similar to my habits or style or subject. William Maxwell—I couldn’t write like him if I had a gun to my head, but I love a book such as So Long, See You Tomorrow.

WD This is embarrassingly academic, but what’s the connection—is writing really an extension of reading? Why did you want to start writing, did that desire come out of what you were reading?

MO The reason I’m a writer is that I read like mad all through my teens. And I’m sure it was mostly trash that I was reading … .

WD And the first things you wrote, were you imitating what you’d read?

MO No, it kicked in when I went to University, when I started to study poetry. I had just arrived in Canada, I was living alone, I was starting a new life. After reading Robert Browning I started writing these dramatic monologues. And that was it. It wasn’t really connected with the reading I had done, that reading kicked in later on, as some sort of influence. There’s a huge connection, but I don’t know how it in fact literally influences you.

WD But when you started writing, did you have the impression that this was how you were going to live your life?

MO No, no, it was a private, secret act. I never really admitted to anyone in the real world that I was a writer. It took a long time to get over that … thing. So I wrote, got involved with small literary magazines where you could fall flat on your face and no one would notice. If I had been Jay Mclnerney who had such huge success with his first published work, Bright Lights, Big City, I would have been completely fucked up.

WD Look, I’m amazed at anybody with terrific literary success, that they can write another good book.

MO Yeah, well, I went into a tailspin after The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. I won an award for it in Canada and I went into this hole. So I wrote Coming Through Slaughter, which was a huge fury about fame. It was on a very small scale, but it was big enough. I mean, the thing is to continue to avoid being self-conscious. To write and forget that you wrote other books. Because I don’t think it becomes any easier, it becomes more difficult.

WD And you’re reading the same author—you.

MO Yeah, that’s probably why I don’t reread my books once they’re published.

WD I never see a film once I finish it. I see it when it goes to press so I can talk about it, but after that, there’s no real reason to go back. And particularly for that reason: you don’t want to be self-conscious, you don’t want to reflect on it. You’ve made the gesture and there’s no taking it back. But my memory is so bad about how stuff happens, and in the end, the only thing that matters publicly is the performance that people see. Everything else is deep dark secrets that I will only access if I’m forced to.

MO In that last editing stage, I am outside myself. I’m looking at it much more clinically and saying, okay, get out of this scene quicker. There’s that element of technique and dramatics and timing and “lighting” in those last stages. Punctuation and paragraph. But I don’t at any point say: What is this book really about? It’s unsaid. I worry instead that it’s cloudy over here or the brambles need clearing. And there are links between the books. There’s a scene in In the Skin of a Lion where Ambrose dies, it’s only about half a paragraph long, and perhaps that is really the germ for The English Patient’s plot in one half page. I just recently realized that each book is a re-writing of what you didn’t quite get to in the previous book.

WD That’s charming … Yeah, I think so.

MO I saw a documentary about a New York artist, and when he had almost finished a painting he had someone hold up these boards at the edge of the painting,so he could see where the painting might possibly end, as opposed to where it did end.

WD Just framing what he did differently.

MO Yes. Recognizing a new arc. That goes on a lot in the final editing of a book. And watching how Walter Murch and Anthony Minghella edited the film, you could see it there too.

When you came on to the set as Caravaggio, for The English Patient, how much of your character was prepared before you got there?

WD Very little. You meet something that isn’t you halfway, and you make a third thing. That’s always the process of finding what you’re doing. Ideally you want stuff to work through you, and you believe that you’re an everyman; and framed properly, in good faith, you put yourself in a place where you can receive the adventure, then the character makes itself, I think. That’s the philosophy. Practically, there’s stuff that you have to do: impressions you may have to make; things you may have to accentuate or play down about what comes off of you as a separate persona—because you’ve seen pictures of yourself, and you recognize certain innate talents or deficiencies. But as far as finding the character, it’s all pretty mysterious. And really, it’s all pretending. It sounds a little cute and glib, but you can’t prepare entirely for that. Preparation only gives you the confidence, the authority, to do the pretending. Because philosophically, you are all things, all things are in you, right? If you buy into that as an actor, and I do, then it’s about making yourself available to the story, and the story will use you. It’s the way you participate when you read a poem.

MO When I was writing The English Patient, what became really interesting was how the patient evolved. At first, I didn’t know if I liked him at all. I wasn’t sure if he was a villain or what. And after about three years, I discovered a voice for him, and once he had a voice … I guess, with acting, you were doing things, as I was with writing, that you were not at all aware were in you. At one point, the patient talks about an aerodrome, as opposed to an airport, and, bang I realized I was in another era, writing alongside him. So, a simple word like that, or a gesture, throws you into the character.

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Juliette Binoche as Hana.

WD What are you working on now? Various things, or one thing?

MO I’m working on, I guess, a novel. I hedge my bets as long as I can. I’m working on poems as well. I really wanted to go back to writing poetry again after finishing The English Patient.

WD There are different demands, right? You don’t have to live with a poem all the time, you can keep revisiting it, you can do your work and then you can go away. But I imagine writing a novel stays with you all the time.

MO Also, in the last stages of a novel, the last couple years of writing a novel, you’re writing at a different level, you’re shaping it, you’re aware of a scene in the context of this big arc. You are not just creating a moment. And you cannot write lyrics when your mind is like that. So I had to get away from that huge thematic thing, into something that was just a moment. Describing an emotion, seven lines long, or ten lines long. That was important for me, to get back to writing the small scene. Because that’s how my novels get written. Small scenes that build and merge, and then you recognize the larger context.

WD And in that last process, does the story complete itself for you, and then it becomes an obligation to order it properly so you can have other people read the story?

MO There is this stepping back so you can see it as someone who doesn’t know the story. That’s why I give it to others to read, to get that kind of reaction, which is often quite simple, like, “What happened to this guy? He was very interesting and he doesn’t appear for a hundred pages?” Those are very real problems, as opposed to the “Theme,” which I don’t think about.

WD People really look for interpretation, particularly if you do personally charismatic and mysterious work. The English Patient is mysterious, partly because of how it’s structured, and partly because it’s so rich and the narrative is fragmented. Because you jump around, people want to be reassured that their reaction is all right. I think so much of, even criticism, involves that impulse. And the extension of that is wanting to find out who you are, so they can interpret the work through your personality.

MO Some things are too important to share. It’s not even about protecting myself, it would just be spoiling the book.

WD So you don’t complete it, you leave enough air for that participation from the reader we were talking about. That mystery

is so important. In a puritanical, Western culture, there’s a prejudice that if it’s not a familiar form, or if it can’t be reduced to a certain kind of meaning for everybody, then it’s obtuse. That’s the prejudice against art.

MO Yeah.

WD Now you’re going to be the guy who wrote the book that this movie came from. How’s that feel?

MO I feel responsible for what’s out there, and yet I’m not responsible for it.

WD It happens to actors all the time, of course. You’re not an actor, you’re that guy from NYPD Blue … It will be interesting to see how the movie affects you.

MO It’s a great guard for me. Now people ask me about the movie. And that’s fine. I say, “Well they’re in Italy, they’re in Tunisia.”

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Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio.

WD Are you collecting stuff for a novel?

MO Yeah, well …

WD From The English Patient, to Coming Through Slaughter, and In the Skin of a Lion, I have this fantasy of you taking trips, going places to get a historical perspective. And then you rip on into the writing.

MO That is what I do. I live a life where I go to work in one era, or place, or historical moment, and at the end of the day return to another. It’s schizophrenic, but it’s a constant thing. I’m often uncertain about what I’m trying to make. The clarity doesn’t click in until somewhere near the end. Let me ask you, the career you have as an actor on stage, and the career you have as an actor on film—is there any parallel between that and say, my thing with poetry and fiction?

WD One’s more public, one has more cachet: the two are in different places in society. One’s lonelier, one’s more celebrated. The biggest difference, particularly working with The Wooster Group, is that my responsibilities are so different than they are in a film. In film, one is constantly interrupted, it’s so fragmented although the activity is basically the same. And the big thing about theater is of course the timing. Do you perform your poetry much?

MO Yeah …

WD Do you enjoy that?

MO Yes, I do. But Willem, you obviously like this kind of theater. It keeps you very sane in some ways.

WD The theater work predates film for me, and I don’t have a lot of control over film because it is a collaboration with many more people, and often I do it with strangers. I love doing films, but because of the theater, for better and for worse, I feel outside the system, which always raises the question: you’re cheating both worlds. You should make some sort of decision. Often people envy me, being able to go between the two. It’s weirdly lonely that way, because you’re a man without a country. And I admit, I can only do it because the people in The Wooster Group allow me to leave and come back. It’s a good situation. Things take a natural balance you know … It’s the old story, the grass is greener. When you’re working on a film, towards the end, you long for that different experience of performing in a theater and vice versa. The English Patient was quite a huge success … Do you feel the pressure of that, meeting people who say, “Michael! When’s your next one coming? We’re starving baby. Loved your latest. Come on, get on with it brother. What’s wrong … ?”

MO Yeah, that happens a lot.

WD It’s awful, isn’t it? I mean, some truck driver will pull up, who’s seen an action picture two or three years ago, and he’ll say, “Hey baby, what’s happened to you, don’t you make movies anymore?” And I’m like, yeah, Tom and Viv.

MO Well, in the book trade, there are these guys who finish a book, and they’re on to the next one the next weekend. I am completely exhausted by a book, and I have to take a major break and change my vocabulary. My role models are those writers who take 17 years between books. Truly.

WD But that’s a different kind of activity when people turn out books like that. It’s like an actor I know, he’s a good actor, but he works all the time, and I think his power is diminished by his availability. It doesn’t have the same kind of gravity because you see him so much. That transforming magic takes a little while. You’ve got to go away to come back. That’s what I tell myself.

MO I know who that actor is.

WD Do you?

(tape recorder shut off)

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Kristen Scott Thomas as Katherine.

WD You went back and forth on the shoot. What were you doing when you were on the set? Were you just hanging out?

MO I was very interested in how it worked, not so much in what the words were saying, but the blocking and the lighting and how things were put together. The director is creating the thread between actors, how someone feels, an emotional state. I haven’t necessarily written that. And so, although film is done in little bits and pieces, what you’re really watching is how the points are joined to make another kind of thematic sense. I find it fascinating.

WD How quickly do you give over to that transformation? As a writer, you’ve given your character a face, and you know that face. Then to have an actor come, and have it radically changed. Can you accept that pretty quickly? Do you forget the old face?

MO I don’t have a face for people I write. I’m inside Hana’s head. I don’t know what Hana or Caravaggio really look like.

WD Can’t you not help but see them in the world? Or have a model for them? Or not really, because you’re inventing the world.

MO During script development and in rehearsal I got a sense that we were all on the same wavelength about what qualities there were to the characters. What was very interesting to me as a writer was what happened in the screenwriting. For instance, the patient needed a scene where he talked about the desert. And I said, “I think he has to have an aria, where he explains the desert to Katherine … It’s got to happen right here … .” And Anthony took off, and then wrote a scene that was not point M, but at point C, and about something completely different but that solved that problem. He was very good at not hitting everything on the nose, but he was able to solve it, subtly.

WD You work from a central idea, or image, and it sounds like you do a certain amount of research. How does research lead to invention and where does it get in the way of invention?

MO That’s still a very difficult thing to know. You can always fuck up by having too much research. You can paint yourself into a corner by finding out everything about 1926. Or you can hear someone on a bus say something that happened to somebody, and that’s enough to keep you going for 50 pages. It’s difficult to know what’s right and wrong. The kind of research I do, as a result, is quite intentionally random.

WD But do you go when you feel the need to? Oh, I’ve got to take a trip to North Africa, or do you say, Oohhh, I’m going to get a good atlas and look up the names?

MO Yes … (laughter)

WD I always think of this writer, very popular German guy that wrote novels about the American West. He never went there. And many a German boy grew up learning about the American West from him. He wrote these terrifically detailed stories, and he got all his information, as I understand it, from other books. (laughter) And just making it up.

MO And there are those great spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone. On the first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere. I was stuck in London, Ontario; sending off letters at that time to archival libraries. Often what happens with research is that what you really want to find out cannot be found. You can’t find the photograph or the person you want to find. So then you invent the photographs and the photographer. Often the best stuff comes out of staring at a brick wall.

WD In theater pieces, all your greatest creative things come out of practical solutions for getting stuff on its feet.

MO Sometimes it’s not real research, but an invented research. With The English Patient, I did go to the Royal Geographic Society but I didn’t spend that long there, a couple of afternoons actually. They weren’t very friendly. “What specifically do you want?” they asked, and I didn’t know what I specifically wanted. I went away and came back and said I want to find out about something or other in the desert in 1935, and then they let me in. And once I was in, then I could look around in a more random way. It is a defensive kind of research, I don’t want to know everything about the desert in 1935. I needed space to invent, choreograph. Similarly, I limited myself to knowledge of bomb disposal up to about 1941. That was the early period, where they were literally using hammers and ropes. In this way you’re writing and learning at the same time, and that’s the best for me. You’re writing about building the bridge and you’re also reading about how the bridge was built, with how much concrete and wood and mortar. So it’s a simultaneous learning about it and getting it down fast.

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Ralph Fiennes as the English patient.

WD Where did you get the central image of the plane crash, do you even remember?

MO I just got the image and it was there. The artist, Joseph Beuys, was in a plane crash in the far north, not in the desert, but I already had this image in my head. It was one of those things where I’d heard about Beuys and his obsession with felt and that worked its way in too. That was enough. I didn’t need to know anymore. The medicine man …

WD Yes, where did that come from?

MO That was an adaptation of something I’d seen in Cairo. I was there in 1978. You pick up a gesture or an image from a long time ago. You put yourself in a position where you come up with those more subliminal references, and you have to keep writing in order to find those sorts of things.

WD Were there ever points in the actual filming, let’s say something like the man with the bottles, that did not jive with what you had in mind?

MO The art direction was interesting to witness because while most of it seemed dead on, it was more dead on than the book. It really bugged me when I heard from the art department that they had gone to the Royal Geographic Society and were welcomed with open arms. I said, “Weren’t they difficult?” And they said, “No, they were so nice.” What’s interesting is if I’m writing a scene in the patient’s room and it’s from Hana’s point of view, I see about three feet, as if with a small light. She’s reading a book and she sees the floor. And the patient’s over here and Caravaggio is over there. But I never really get a sense of the whole room and everything in it. It’s almost black and white spotlights in an odd way. Suddenly I was in that set, and the whole room, the exact kind of stone floor that would be right for that period or a fresco that was created … Everything was there. That was a shock to me.

WD That’s not decided in your head when you’re writing, it remains liquid and instinctive.

MO I build the aspects of the room as I write over a period of years. And then there’s a stage when you’re editing when you start erasing stuff. You have dressed the room completely, but it might be getting in the way of the story. So how much can you remove of the background so that the reader is concentrating on Hana’s emotional state? I think a lot of historical novels get too involved with art direction. If it’s set in Germany in 1943 they know the exact kind of cigarettes that were smoked and the length of the leather jackets. But that is what we were talking about earlier on, everything is liquid, where any aspect can come into the story. I don’t write with a plan. Most people do write with a plan, but I tend not to. I tend to …

WD … feel your way around.

MO It’s an emotional thing when you’re writing. The problem for me with novels is when I sense the writer’s talking down to me. Like a puppeteer. Too sure of what is about to happen.

I thought Juliette Binoche was wonderfully instinctive as an actress, she allowed things to come out of the blue in the middle of a scene. When you were both in the kitchen and she started weeping in the middle of your speech. It was quite wonderful, I don’t know what it would be like for an actor to work against that.

WD It doesn’t matter. It’s happening.

MO I love those moments—a curtain opens for a second. You get a further glimpse into a truth.

WD People have this notion that in writing or any other art form, you get better, you improve, that it’s cumulative. And it’s just not true.

MO In fact, it’s more difficult to write the eighth book than the first book.

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Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio and Juliette Binoche as Hana.

WD Have you ever started something and then had to finish it where the spirit wasn’t really quite with you?

MO No, but I’ve stopped books like that. When I wrote In the Skin of a Lion I began it from the point of view of the millionaire, it was about what happened to him when he disappeared. I wrote 200 pages of the thing and realized I hated the guy. I was just plodding, I was forcing myself to write. It was dead. So I stopped and left it for a couple of years. And went back to the minor characters who were just starting to emerge and they became the main characters. I think people want to believe that artists know what they’re doing, and that there’s a solution at the end of all that. But when I write a book, I’m sitting down to discover what the story is, as opposed to telling the story. I don’t have that story yet.

WD I feel that so much as an actor. As I get older I feel more and more shamed by opinion. I believe more and more in stuff happening, and I participate as things happen. As an actor, it’s the fundamental difference between doing things and showing them. On the other hand, if you’ve been doing something long enough you accumulate, you revisit certain things enough that you get an instinct that almost becomes a technique. But it isn’t necessarily connected to cognitive intent.

MO In terms of skill, I’m never sure that I’ve learned anything. And I don’t think about “style” when I’m writing. Writing is a kind of tunneling, that’s what it feels like.

WD How did you come upon Herodotus?

MO I had already read some of him. Then there was a reference to him in one of the explorer’s desert journals; one guy who said, “I was responsible for our library on one of our expeditions. But our library was only one book, Herodotus.” And I thought that was great, because he was an historian writing about a place where these guys are many hundreds of years later. The idea of a contemporary history and an ancient history that links up … These explorers in the 1930s were out of time. I love the idea of them checking out sand dune formations. I love historical obsessives. And I kept thinking of writers like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley in some odd way. Creeley in his toughness, brittleness and lovely guarded lyricism was a clue for me about the patient, Almazy. And this wonderful, heroic era of exploration that was then ignored, while the twentieth century became more mercenary or mercantile. Also Herodotus’s sense of history is great because it’s very much based on rumor. If he heard a story in the desert, he wrote it down. Anyway, I liked the sense of people reading books within the novel. That there is a library in the villa. And then the other thing that came up was the Rebecca spy code. I originally found out about Almazy through a friend of mine’s parents who were in Cairo during the war. Rommel had sent a spy to Cairo to send information back to the Germans. And he used a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier as the code book. Ken Follet wrote a book about it called The Key to Rebecca. The spy was finally captured by the British, and my friend’s parents were involved with his capture. So I was asking them about it. And in a non-fiction book about the episode, there was this paragraph of how the spy got to Cairo. He was taken across the desert by Almazy, an explorer. Almazy seemed much more interesting to me than the spy. Who was this guy? What was he doing there? So I found out more about him.

WD Writing not in contemporary times frees you up a lot.

MO Yeah, it’s wearing that mask.

WD Particularly if it takes you six years to finish a book. (laughter) A country in Africa may change its name before you finish. Sorry.

MO I know, I know. So that’s how I got interested in this man. And it opened up a whole world of explorers, and a way of seeing the world. What was useful in the Royal Geographic was not so much the information, as it was their manner of writing; very low key, not at all self-aggrandizing, or chest beating, or beautiful sunsets or flies. No complaints. No praise. It was just, you had to get from here to there … So many kilometers. There’s a waterhole here. That kind of laconic Robert Creeley voice. But these were all fragments I collected or wrote down over a five year period. One gets really interested in map making or bomb disposal, this relationship here, you’re constantly learning and you’re not quite sure if it will hold together, if there’s a whole ship.

Nominated for his performance in Platoon, Willem Dafoe has played a wide variety of film roles including Wim Wenders’s Far Away, So Close, Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and Tom and Viv with Miranda Richardson. His upcoming films include Victory, based on the Joseph Conrad novel, and Speed 2, in which he plays the villain. Dafoe has been a company member of New York’s internationally acclaimed theater company, The Wooster Group, since 1977.

Salman Rushdie  by Ameena Meer
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Originally published in

BOMB 58, Winter 1997
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