News Center

Award-Winning Writer Reflects on Work and Process

By Rachel Thomas '14

Michael Ondaatje strode across the stage in Staples Auditorium and pulled a stack of books from a canvas book bag, tossing the bag aside.

He read from a broad selection of his works, some relating more or less to "the motif of criminality," as he put it, a reference to the "crime" theme of this year's programs and events sponsored by the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature and Language, which sponsored Ondaatje's visit to campus.

Ondaatje read poetry from his collections The Cinnamon Peeler and Handwriting, prose from his most recent novel The Cat's Table, selections from his memoir Running in the Family, and several sections from the work The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a prose-poetry hybrid.

Ondaatje considers Billy the Kid, despite its hybrid nature, his first prose work.

"It was the first prose I had written so I was not used to it," he said. "It was like riding a horse. It was in control of me."

Although Ondaatje is perhaps best known as a novelist, and in particular as the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient, he started out as a poet and, when he met with Hendrix students on the afternoon of his lecture, he spoke about his poetry first.

The students were from creative writing professor Hope Coulter's poetry class, Dr. Tyrone Jaeger's fiction class, and the creative writing senior thesis class. All the students had read something from Ondaatje's large body of work in preparation for his visit.

Jaeger started the discussion by telling Ondaatje about the works that the various classes had read. He said that the senior thesis class had read Billy the Kid.

"Which was published quite a while ago," Jaeger added.

"300 years, I believe," Ondaatje responded, referencing the fact that the book is told from the perspective of the infamous Billy.

Ondaatje added later that one of the best reviews of the book he had received was from a writer in Texas who wondered why a Canadian had been allowed to edit the journals of Billy the Kid.

Now a Canadian citizen, Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, when it was still the Dutch colony Ceylon. When he was 11 years old he went to England by boat, a trip that the narrator of his novel The Cat's Table would also take. He was educated in England, and in 1962 he moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen.

He has written books of poetry, novels, and several nonfiction works, and he has received numerous international awards, beside the Booker, including Canada's Governor's-General Award, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, and the Giller Prize.

Retired Hendrix theatre arts professor Dr. Eric Binnie, who was a major driving force in bringing Ondaatje to campus, said when introducing the author that he had been a fan of Ondaatje's novels for years, but it had been a student at Hendrix who told him that Ondaatje was "one of the greatest contemporary poets."

"With a poem you have to be quite fast, quite sparse," Ondaatje said. "In prose there is more time to build a setting, which is a central part of Ondaatje's process."

"The prose poem is kind of an interesting one because it is kind of outside the boundary of poetry," Ondaatje observed, adding that he liked artists who used many genres in their work, and that he liked a variety of notes, in reference to a question about the form of Billy the Kid..

"I don't want book to have just one note," he said. "I like the variety of tones in my books. There is not much changing of gears in a lot of books."

"I think the whole idea of mixing document up with fiction and poetry was interesting to me," he added.

That interest would return in his later work Coming Through Slaughter, a novel about the jazz musician Buddy Bolden, of whom Ondaatje said, "All I knew about him was that he went mad in a parade."

Ondaatje had been a jazz fan since his youth and had found the story of Buddy Bolden interesting enough that he researched him and finally managed to visit New Orleans.

"I finally arrived during Mardi Gras," Ondaatje said. "I thought it was the worst time to be there so I went to Baton Rouge."

He decided to visit the hospital where Bolden ended up and on his way there from Baton Rouge drove through the little town of Slaughter, La., where he bought a watch that broke half an hour later. He decided that this town would be part of the novel, hence the title, Coming Through Slaughter.

"I went back to New Orleans after Mardi Gras and, of course, everybody was hung over," Ondaatje said. "And it was great, because it really felt like the 1920s, the 1910s, because all the tourists had gone home, all the Masons had gone home, and it was a very laid back, don't-talk-too-loud kind of city."

Ondaatje told the students that he always liked to start with a specific thing.

"I need a basis in reality," he said.

"Even when I'm writing prose," he added. "It will be something like 'How do you get from this town to that bar by bicycle?' And then there will be complications, like what if there's a dog on the bicycle with him."

Ondaatje said that he often started with a place and then characters would appear, and he would learn more about them as he wrote.

His work has also changed over the years in its approach to characters, he said.

"My first books were usually based on one character," he said. "And as I continued to write, I gradually had more and more characters…I kind of like that because it's not a monologue anymore, it's a dialogue."

Ondaatje said he gets very close to his characters since he's often with them for the four or five years it takes him to write a book.

"You're so focused on that person, and that's all you're focused on," he said. "I'm always interested in how people evolve and how they grow, not just in their characters, but in a book… You're like a shepherd in a way with a character. You're not going to destroy them. You're going to get them through the book."

"I'm trying to depict them as honestly and as complicated as they really are," he concluded.

Ondaatje took questions at both the class meeting and the reading about the adaptation of his novel The English Patient into an Academy Award-winning film.

Ondaatje said he became very close with the director and the screenwriter and that he saw every draft of the script. He felt like he was part of the process, but he wasn't the guiding force.

"Stuff that I thought was going to be obviously in the movie was never even shot because there's a different kind of logic in the film," he said. "All the laws of film and books are completely different, and that was what was interesting to me."

He added later, "I didn't think that they could make the film so that was a plus that they did…The thing is, no book is going to translate properly into a film, you can't do that," he added.

He felt that ultimately the film tells the same story but that because of the different medium, it tells that story differently.

"It's like making a sonnet with, you know, 4,000 people," he added.

Dr. Jaeger asked Ondaatje about reading his work because Ondaatje read the audiobook version of his most recent novel The Cat's Table himself.

Ondaatje said he had felt compelled to read the book himself because he recalled how much he had disliked it when the book on tape of The English Patient was recorded.

He also recounted a time when his daughter had been driving with her boyfriend and put on an audiotape of one of his books. Her boyfriend fell asleep and drove off the road.

Ondaatje had decided he didn't want something like that to happen again but admitted he didn't know quite what he was getting into.

"I'd never read it aloud before, and I hadn't realized what an intimate book it was," he said of The Cat's Table. "I was whispering more and more as I went along, but it was interesting."

Ondaatje told the students that actually he almost never reread his books.

"I worry what if the pacing is wrong, I can't fix it now," he said.

He admitted at his reading that he worries when he's writing too, and so he finds it necessary to go someplace where he doesn't know anyone to write.

"Even a dog I know is a problem because I start worrying about the dog's needs," he said.

Ondaatje spoke to the students, many of them English majors with creative writing emphases, about the writing process.

"The thing is not to kind of think about when it has to be published by when you're writing," Ondaatje said. "I try not to think about the audience who's going to read it or when it has to be finished by."

After completing several drafts, he gives his latest draft to a trusted person or group to read, he said.

"That's the most exciting part," he said. "Because you bring out this secret thing and you ask 'Is this okay?' and they say 'Oh, it's fine, but you have too many trees or too many scenes with a canoe' or something.'"

Editing is an important part of the process, he said.

"I've tried to write a story with an idea and the idea runs out after a page and a half," he said. "So you have to stay closer to the ground and look at the characters and the place. And then in editing you might find out the real idea of the book."

He said that he saw this as the difference between William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot. Williams stays "close to the ground" and Eliot "starts with a grand idea."

On the subject of writers, Ondaatje also recommended the poets W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Cszeslaw Milosz, Jane Hirshfield, and Gary Snyder. He said that Snyder's Earth Household  was an influence in writing Billy the Kid.

Rachel Thomas is a sophomore English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.