Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, editor and filmmaker Michael Ondaatje needs little introduction. Yet despite being one of the most celebrated writers of contemporary times, the Man Booker Prize winner still feels that he is one of those “doubtful” writers, who begin their novels without any plan, structure or foreknowledge of their characters.
The author of Anil’s Ghost revealed that all his books “begin in a dark room, with an image.” The image of an unnamed patient talking to an unnamed nurse gave birth to his most famous work The English Patient. Often, he has no idea what his characters look like. He stated that his “books are a gradual party” and that the image is the “doorway into the story.” It is only after continuous rewriting and polishing of his manuscript, that he gets an idea of what his novel actually looks like.
In fact, Ondaatje confessed that he enjoyed the art of editing his work much more than writing the first draft. He is fascinated by the “voice” of his characters and how it develops over the course of the novel. For him, good editing amounts to a “question of peace.” After completing the first draft, he rewrites the story several times by hand, each time “taking out” scenes that “did not interest” or “bored” him as a reader.
However he stated that he does not “recommend” his writing and editing process to anyone. Usually he writes the first four or five drafts by hand, before sending it to the typist. As no one else can read his handwriting, he follows a tedious process of reading out his text complete with all the punctuation, to the tape recorder. This is later transcribed by the typist – a process that may take one or two months. After the typed manuscript is ready, he goes through it and makes corrections manually. He said, “I have to work on the page to edit.”
Moreover, while writing his novel, he usually does not read other books, as he is “fearful of influences and of losing his point-of-view.” In fact, he does not tell anyone, even his close family members, when he is writing a novel. So for the course of five years, or whatever duration it takes for him to finish a piece, he retreats into being “that weird guy upstairs.”
Ondaatje does a lot of “active research” into the professions of his characters, in order to “discover” their world. Unlike other writers who research first and write later, Ondaatje prefers to do both simultaneously. As a former poet who later turned to writing novels, Ondaatje finds the medium of fiction to be inclusive and liberating. Fiction can incorporate all other genres and “forms of writing” like poetry and non-fiction into itself, and is therefore more “entertaining” as it can contain every kind of story in it. He poetically distinguishes between the two genres by referring to the novel as “theatre,” where every element including lights and set design must be carefully controlled, and to poetry as “whisperings”.
Ondaatje, who is also fascinated by film-making and editing cinema, added, “I want to learn but not steal from all the other arts.” Perhaps that is why no two Ondaatje novels are alike. His oeuvre includes several poetry collections, novels, plays, essays, edited anthologies, literary criticism and even films. During the session, the author read an excerpt from Anil’s Ghost and graciously answered questions from the audience. The talk delighted fans and aspiring writers alike, discussing the intricacies of fiction, his writing rituals and creative process with all the humility of a genuine master.
As the Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger, this piece by me about Michael Ondaatje’s session titled “Anil’s Ghost” was previously published on the JLF website and can be viewed here.
Image Credit: JLF