The Book Teaches Me Something: Ondaatje

Most famous for his book The English Patient, which in its movie form won the Best Picture Oscar in 1997, Michael Ondaatje spoke about the creation of his books at the Dallas Museum of Art on May 22.

“My first books were based on one persons’ view of the world. Then I wrote about my family in Sri Lanka, so that by the time I wrote In the Skin of the Lion in 1997 I now have 4 or 5 characters, like a jazz band has 5 musicians which resulted in one aria.”

His most recent novel, just published this month, is Warlight (a word he made up), which is set at the outset just after World War II in England. Ondaatje said the time was crucial for propelling the story. “The time from war to peace is a very treacherous time. Peoples’ lives are tumbling over; it’s a precarious and joyous time.”

He likened the process of writing to “a poem that you work on for three months, and suddenly it’s all there. Somehow the book knows more than you do- it teaches me something.”

Of course it all begins with the opening line. For Warlight, it reads “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

The author said to the audience of 300 people in Dallas that “for a long time I didn’t know why I was writing this book, and I’m not sure when I had the first sentence in mind. It was a dark first section, but perhaps that is a good thing- that’s the energy I went with.”

He identifies two main concepts of writing, that of the Western world, and that of Asia. “In the Asian style,” he explained, “you follow the brush of the canvas. I think I can see an element of that in Warlight. If you see a fork in the road, take it! It’s an element of indecision.”

In Warlight, this is reflected in a pivot between the first and second parts of the book, where the narrator becomes an older person. While critics have noted an incredible syntax to his novels, Ondaatje said in the third person “You are not thinking about language when you are writing, you are trying to discover something new.”

His new book also gives the impression of deep research into such elements as the Thames river and dogs, but Ondaatje declined such an honour. “I don’t do as much research as it looks I’ve done: 70% is invented. You just need to suggest it. The emotional state of the person acting convinces you it is real.”

Warlight is by Knopf Press of New York.

Photo: Dr. Cunningham (l) with Michael Ondaatje, in Dallas

About Cliff 79 Articles
Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia, and a research associate at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He is a founding member of Sun News, and managing editor of Sun News Austin. (The photo at left shows Sun News editor-in-chief Dave Moskowitz)

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.