The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Marketing of Ondaatje

by Tricia Dower

I was one of around seven hundred people who paid eight dollars for An Evening with Michael Ondaatje last Saturday at Victoria’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall. He had been in Vancouver the day before and was scheduled for Nanaimo the day after (where tickets were $15 but you got finger food). Colin, our friend Ava and I snagged front row seats on the far right, next to Chapter’s book selling concession. I decided to buy my copy of his new book before he came on so I’d be ready to get his signature.

“Do you want a personal inscription?” a woman with a Chapters name tag asked. “Sure,” I said. She printed my first name in big letters on a yellow Post-it Note and stuck it to the top of the title page which she marked with the jacket cover. To save the author time when he signed it, she explained.

As Chapters/Indigo was hosting (translation: exploiting) the event, the first person at the podium was Charlene Hess, their marketing manager for Western Canada. She nervously noted this was one of the largest turnouts on Ondaatje’s tour; that they’d had to book smaller venues for other cities where there weren’t even a hundred people. “That didn’t come out the way I wanted it to, Michael,” she said.

She introduced Jo-Ann Roberts from CBC radio’s All Points West who gushingly introduced Ondaatje who got up, said hello and turned the podium over to a woman raising funds for an organization he supports: Dignitas International. After her spiel, he came back and, for about twenty minutes, read from parts of his latest book, Divisadero. His accented voice was easy to listen to. He fetchingly rubbed a shoe against his pants leg from time to time.

After the reading, he and Jo-Ann perched on stools and she led him through a brief and mostly congratulatory interview. The audience was invited to ask a few questions and it was all over except for the signing. The marketing manager appeared again to announce that Michael would stay for as long as it took to sign all of our books and that he’d personalize our copies of Divisadero but if we’d brought along older books, they would get his signature only. People who had won some Chapters contest got to line up first. A multitude followed, mollified somewhat by a young woman at a grand piano playing How High the Moon. Eventually, I made it to the steps of the stage where a gauntlet of Chapters staff verified that I had the new book and my yellow sticky. On the stage, Charlene took my book and opened it in front of Ondaatje who gave me the briefest of smiles and wrote “To Tricia” followed by a signature that looks like an ECG flatline. I felt sorry for him but should I have? Ava told me she heard he was shy and didn’t like to give interviews, didn’t like public appearances. I wondered why he had agreed to be such a trained seal. Would the book not have sold without the tour?

I did come away with something of value besides Divisadero (which I’m still reading). A few comments Ondaatje made during the interview and Q&A session stuck with me. He doesn’t like to “close all the doors” in his books, likes to leave some things unanswered for the reader to wonder about. In real life we leave stories before they’re done, so why not in fiction? Besides, he gets to a point where he really doesn’t know any more about his characters. He likes to write about what he doesn’t know and researches and writes simultaneously. His relationship is with his characters until he’s nearly done and must make his story “a bit more public,” must make something clearer. His books and characters all represent parts and “states” of him and he’s never gone back and re-read anything he’s written.

Just like me, I thought. Except for the output and the artistry and the legion lining up for a signature.

Photo credit: Mauricio Lima. Michael Ondaatje is the author of the novels In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Anil’s Ghost. His other books include Running in the Family, Coming Through Slaughter, The Cinnamon Peeler, and Handwriting. He lives in Toronto.


Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

"Except for the output and the artistry and the legion lining up for a signature"- sure! But other than that, practically a Canadian Writers Collective member.

I'm going to sell ads in my novel. Why not? People can read around them just like they do in magazines and newspapers. Also, I will have sex with the one millionth customer.

Sat May 12, 01:51:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You will be a marketer's dream, Andrew. Hurry and get that book written!

Sat May 12, 03:06:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Lucky you, just the same, Tricia. He's starting to look like Santa Claus, don't you think?

Sat May 12, 09:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You're right, Tony, he is!

Sat May 12, 10:48:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

I meant to go to the Vancouver reading... Oops. While it is indeed a marketing madness, at least the tix weren't horrifically overpriced; it seems tours are a necessary evil, afforded only for the biggest names. The little'uns could use that kind of marketing attention, but rarely get it.

Thanks for this; I feel like I didn't miss too too much. Except that voice. I do love that man's voice (and writing, of course ;) )

Sun May 13, 07:43:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Santa for sure, with maybe a little Kenny Rogers (the new one with all the plastic surgery) mixed in?

Great post!

Tue May 15, 05:10:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

I got to meet Ondaatje way back during the last millennium at the Canadian Film Centre. It was lunchtime and he put a piece of quiche on a plate for me...and then looked at me with those eyes. I thought I was gonna die.

Wed May 16, 03:02:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and reading Tamara, Steve and Mel. Stay tuned for more next Saturday.

Thu May 17, 07:10:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

Once they iron out the bugs in Margaret Atwood's online signing tool, Ondaatje and others can do cross country tours, if they like, by simulcast from their living rooms. Might need to limit the number of simultaneous events though. Could end up with carpal's tunnel syndrome just signing copies.
I know a book dealer who tells me Ondaatje's signature has gotten nearer, as you say, a flatline over the years.

Sat May 19, 07:33:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, Martin, good to see you here! I'd heard about Margaret's invention. There will be no mercy for authors then, will there?

Sat May 19, 04:11:00 pm GMT-4  

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