Anyone wondering what writers talk about when they are at ease together might have liked being a fly on the wall at the Betsy Hotel the other night. Most literary events at the Betsy are not only public but also free. But this was a small private dinner party put together by the hotel and one of its literary partners, the Creative Writing Department at Florida International University. The guest of honor was the esteemed Canadian-Sri Lankan writer, Michael Ondaatje, best known for his novel The English Patient and a vastly influential memoir, Running in the Family.
Among those present for the steak and swordfish and yummy-yummy side dishes were Les Standiford, director of Creative Writing; Campbell McGrath, award-winning poet and FIU writing professor; Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books Bookstore, and co-founder of the Miami Book Fair; and Deborah Briggs, the hotel’s vice president for marketing, philanthropy, and programs.
As might be guessed, the conversation featured much inside-baseball, including talk of other writers, living and dead. Ondaatje praised the “heroic generation of American poets” born in the 1920s, those titatns of mid-twentieth century American letters, when books were the world’s dominant art form, and American writers dominated world literature.
Enthusiasm was shared, titles exchanged. Ondaatje admired African-American writer Edward P. Jones, and his novel, The Known World. “I was just talking to Joyce Carol Oates about the book,” he said. Ondaatje also lauded John Ehle’s The Land Breakers as an overlooked American masterpiece.
McGrath mentioned the atypical sci-fi writer, Kim Stanley Robinson. The name of the enigmatic Italian novelist Elena Ferrante was murmured with something close to awe. Jane Gardem’s Old Filth. Peter Jinks, Kent Russell, Lily King. Frank Conroy and his seminal memoir, Stop-Time.
It is amazing, after the success of the 1996 film version of The English Patient, said McGrath, that no movies had been made of other Ondaatje books. Ondaatje said he had “talked about things” with the British director David MacKenzie, whose movies incude Young Adam, and Mr. Foe. Standiford said he has been teaching Running in the Family to his writing students for 25 years.
The subject of grown children arose near the end of the evening. Where they live—Japan, Boston—and what they are doing. Speaking of Japan, Ondaatje asked if the table knew the movie most beloved by Buddhists? No one did. “Groundhog Day,” he announced, smiling.
Michael Ondaatje is a bestselling and award-winning Author of The English Patient, Running in the Family and The Cat’s Table. One of the world’s foremost writers—his artistry and aesthetic have influenced an entire generation of writers and readers. Although he is best known as a novelist, Ondaatje’s work also encompasses poetry, memoir, and film, and reveals a passion for defying conventional form. His transcendent novel The English Patient, explores the stories of people history fails to reveal by intersecting four diverse lives at the end of World War II. This bestselling novel was later made into an Academy Award-winning film.
Chauncey Mabe is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. This Spring, with funding from The John S. and James L Knight Foundation, The Betsy Hotel-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document literary programs from the inside out – sharing the creative viewpoints of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room (betsywritersroom.com) during March, April, and May, 2015.