Trick Questions
A Conversation With Michael Ondaatje

The following excerpt is from a workshop Michael Ondaatje gave at Oklahoma City University in April 2001 during the annual Thatcher Hoffman Smith Distinguished Poet Series. In addition to his bestselling work as a novelist (The English Patient, Anilís Ghost), Ondaatje has published several volumes of poetry, his most recent being Handwriting.

Let me start with a quick history of how I came here. I began as a poet. I began as a reader. If anyone asks me how I became a writer, it is because I love to read. I still prefer to read than to write in some ways. The first book of poems [I wrote] was lyrics very close to my world. After a couple of books like that, I wanted to find a structure that was bigger than the lyric. So rather than having a book that had 30 or 40 poems within it, I wanted to see if there was a way of shaping the whole book and placing those individual poems in a way that built a story. That really was my first attempt at trying to have what is called a serial form.

In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid , I began with the idea of writing a whole book from the point of view of Billy the Kid, writing lyrics from his brain. Halfway through that book I realized I wanted to escape the lyric form, and to do so I had to start writing prose. After two years of writing lyrics, I started writing prose where he would jump on this horse and ride off in all kinds of directions and have adventures that were not possible within the lyric form. That was a very freeing moment for me. The prose had always been waiting to come out. While all the poems in that book were very, very tight and gnarled and double back on themselves, the prose was flowing out of emotions and words and adventures. It was a book, I discovered, I could shape like a collage.

For me, there are two stages of writing a book, the stage of actually discovering the poem, discovering the story, and then a later stage of shaping the story into the book. It is a very different emotional feeling for the writer. In the first one you are trying out everything, there are very few restrictions, very few governors at work in your head. But at the later stage, when you are trying to shape the book with all the material youíve got, itís much more like a scientist or a doctor saying, ďOkay, now weíve got 400 poems, they go in 75 different directions, what we want now is a story line.Ē You move things around, you change them, smash them together to try and find a clear story. Iíve always been interested in the structure of the book. On the way here someone asked me, ďWhat do you think is a big influence of having been a novelist on your poetry?Ē I think in a way it is again a stronger sense of a story even in a book of poems. A book of poems can suggest a story, even though they are individual lyrics.

The two influences in terms of my own work are theater and film. Theater, because you can actually see how you can take a scene and sharpen it, tighten it, add lighting, take away lighting, change the pace of the scene to make it betterówhich is very close, in a way, to what you do with a poem when you are editing it. And film, because I think in the editing process of filmóIíve made two documentary filmsóthere really is an even greater obsessive care in editing. In a film, each second is broken into 24 frames and if you cut at the second frame as opposed to the seventeenth frame thereís a huge difference in pacing. That influenced me a great deal in how I edit a book.

Iíve always been interested in editing. I think the craft of editing is something that will always double the value of anything you write. If I look back at the book Anilís Ghost , which took six years, Iíd say three and a half years of that time was spent writing and discovering the story, and the last two years or so was spent looking at the material with a very different pair of eyes, saying, ďOkay, how can I fix this? How can I save it? How can I keep it as complicated and subtle and private as I want to keep it, but also make it a public thing?Ē Itís like building a house in one place and being told you have to move it 200 yards that way, over that line, to make it a public objectóand that sounds like you are compromising yourself, but in fact you arenít.

What is fascinating about the art of writing and rewriting and editing is how, by going back to the problem and looking at it and altering small pieces here and there, you can make it not just more public but more subtle. Perhaps you say less. Perhaps you have to just underline a few more things. Itís a craft that is very interesting and, for me, involves, usually, cutting back. Itís almost as if I painted a scene where three or four people exist and I then erase as much of the background as I can without the whole thing collapsing.

Okay, Iíve talked a bit about some of the things Iím interested in, so if you have any questions about any of the books of poetry or prose, or trick questions about writing you want to ask me, Iím here.

Q: How do you approach a book? Do you have a preconceived theme or issue you are dealing with, like the self-consciousness of the writer as you write versus a story that comes up and a theme emerges from that.

Ondaatje: Letís talk about the act of being self-conscious first. For me thatís the really deadly thing to a writer: to sit down imagining whether what I wrote today is going to be read by somebody two years or five years down the road. Suddenly you are conscious of an audience. The thing I have to do is to actually forget that possibility of being read. So my device is to say Iím going to try this for three or four years and see if it will go anywhere. If it doesnít, thatís fine, I can parachute out of it.

When I begin a book I really have no idea what the book is going to be about. This isnít to say that Iím right and everybody else is wrong. I think, quite honestly, if I could feel relaxed knowing what I was going to write about and it didnít influence my level of boredom, that would be fine. But if I knew the story I was going to tell for the next five years or four years, I really would be bored.

I tend to begin a story with very, very littleóa possible situation, a time period, a place, some small clue or image. In the English Patient , I began with this image of a plane crash in the desert. Then there were two or three other images that came: a thief having to steal back a photograph of himself; the idea of a patient in a bed talking to a young nurse. So I follow this trail, this one image of the situation and I donít really know the full context of the situation. The thief and the nurse and the plane crash are all very vivid small images. I start building around those things until the circle of that one meets the circle of the next one. Suddenly the guy in the plane crash is the patient who talks to the nurse. But I still donít know where the story is going. I donít know who the person is in the plane or who the patient is, and those things are gradually discovered by me. It is almost like archeology, unearthing a body and finding out that this leg or this dog belongs to the man who was in the plane crash. And then who else was in the plane? Was there anyone else in the plane? You are asking questions that take you deeper into the backgrounds of these people. Thatís the way I work. I really donít have a plan for what the story is aboutóI find that will always take care of itself. The grand themes always take care of themselves.

Q: So halfway through you become conscious of the emerging theme?

Ondaatje: Yeah. For instance in the English Patient , about halfway though, two-thirds through, I finally realized, in terms of time period, that we were approaching the time when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I was conscious of that possibility, say 50 pages before I got to it. But in a way everything in the story is about defusing bombs already before I even thought of that subject. Similarly with the appearance of Kip, I had no idea he was going to be in the book until Hana is playing the piano and he comes into the room and thereís a lightening storm. Iíve got this guy here, who is he? Is he a sapper? He sounds interesting, so Iíll find out about bomb disposal. Youíre learning and bringing a character into the story simultaneously. Not many writers work like this. The result is that it takes much, much longer to write the story. Thatís why I needed two years of editing at the end.

Q: Many writers do a lot of research ahead of time. But it sounds as if, for example in The English Patient , at some point you realized you were going to have to start reading about the desert and desert explorers; and the North African campaigns during World War II; and winds; and all that wonderful stuff that gets in there. When in the process did you realize you had to do that?

Ondaatje: It came to me when I became interested in the desert. Because of the plane crash in the desert, I started finding out about these things. A friend of mine told me about this story of a man who went across the desert and was a spy in Cairo. He said to read this book called Cat and Mouse, [which] refers to the man who guided the spy across the desert to Cairo. And I thought, well thereís already been a book written about the spy, a book called The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, but to me the spy was just the typical spy youíve heard about thousands of times before. This guide who took him across the desert is much more interesting. I found out the guideís name, then I went to the Royal Geographical Society in England [and found] there was very little stuff about him. Thatís how I got to discover him. Then I wanted to find out about the desert and what it was like in the í30s when all these guys were there. Because the information on the actual personalities of these guys was minimal, I had to invent those personalities by seeing what kind of context they moved in, like sand dunes and winds and water holes. That revealed their personalities.

Q: You talk about a world without maps, a theme that overlies everything. At what point did that take over your thinking, or did you always have that philosophy yourself?

Ondaatje: I feel some of the most obvious themes youíre not even conscious of. Iím talking about explorers, so maps are an essential part of the vocabulary. From that, there is the way Kip talks about, ďIf I am India, then you are Czechoslovakia,Ē using the body as a map. Maps seem such an essential part of the vocabulary and they become metaphoric as a result.

Q: Are you referring to your philosophy about nationalism?

Ondaatje: When I was writing the book, the English patient was an enigma, certainly at the beginning of the story. I did not know what he was or who he was or where he came from. Then gradually, when I discovered who he was, I was waiting. It was like having him on the set the whole time, having him in the scene, even though he wasnít talking. About two-thirds of the way through he starts to talk and it was almost like he was waiting for that voice. That voice was not my voice, the philosophy that he expounds is not my philosophy, but it was coming from me. I was inventing it. Itís really having to live with a character long enough that when he begins to talk about ďwe were beyond nationalitiesĒ or whatever it was, it was interesting. That was the point when the book really took off for me, when he starts to talk and suddenly a new opinion is there that I did not have when I began. The thing about the novel for me is I do begin not knowing anything. It is the act of learning or the act of curiosity that is the most important thing that keeps me going when Iím writing a book. Iím writing a book to learn something, not just to say what I already know. So in a way Iím waiting to discover what the patientís values are in the book. It is always a surprise that that element is in me as well in some way.

Q: Under what conditions do you write? For instance, what is your routine, time of day, what do you do to prepare? What instrument do you use, what software? When do you do your editing, your rewriting?

Ondaatje: I rent a place away from my house. I go there every morning about 9:00 or 9:30 and I stay there until about 3:00 or 3:30. Itís like a playpen. I write there and no one can reach me, which is goodóthatís the first principle. I donít tend to rewrite at that early stage. When Iím starting a book Iíll just write and do the rewriting later on, much later, four years later when everything is done. I donít have any trick or schedules. I donít use a computer, I usually write by hand. I use the computer as the very last stage of editing, but usually itís by hand.

Q: So, do you ever sit down for the day at 9:00 and just say, ďToday Iím going to work on such and suchĒ?

Ondaatje: Iíll say, ďToday at 9 oíclock Iím going to sit down and try and write something.Ē One of the things I do, if I am working on a long thing, a sequence of poems or a novel, Iíll sit down and write in the area that interests me. If Iím writing a novel and the area that interests me today is point ĎMí and Iím only at point ĎD,í Iíll write point ĎMí because thatís where the energy is.

Q: Who wrote the screenplay for The English Patient? Did you contribute to it?

Ondaatje: Anthony Minghella wrote the screenplay and directed the film, but we talked a lot about it. When he and Saul Zaentz, the producer, first approached me, we talked about what kind of film we didnít want to make. Minghella wrote the screenplay and sent me the first draft, then the three of us got together and I responded to it and we all talked about it for about three days, very, very specificallyóword by word almost. Every time there was a new draft we would do this. I always saw where it was going. When I saw the first draft I realized that the structure was very different from the book. They were making this story out of it as opposed to that story, and actually that made it more interesting to me. I felt, ďOkay, this is something new, so Iíll participate and throw in some new ideas as well.Ē I knew that the film had to be different from the book, so we got along very, very well.

Q: There is something Iíve been curious about. At the end of The English Patient , where you have Kip and Hana in different countries and they are involved in a synchronous event, for just a moment you step out of the omniscient voice and you make a very personal comment about yourself as the author relating to Hana. It is a beautiful sentence, and I want to read it: ďShe is a woman I donít know well enough to hold in my wing, if writers have wings, to harbour for the rest of my life.Ē It surprised me when I read it. Why did you honor her with such a sentence?

Ondaatje: It was a complete surprise to me as well. I knew I was reaching the end of the book, and everything is heightened. Itís like the last time you can say something, like the music is swelling up. You have come to that conclusion and there is a sense of genuine loss for the characters when youíre ending a book. I also wanted to suggest that it is a book controlled by an author, but at this point the characters take off on their own. I always feel that there is no real closure at the ending. There is a kind of giving up, I suppose, of control or shaping.

So Hana goes off and Kip goes off and the other characters go off and we donít discover what happens to them anymore unless they come back on stage, the way characters come back later in a play. The minute the character leaves the page they are on their own, they have their own lives. I guess it was partly emphasizing that by bringing myself into the book in that appalling way. Iím glad I did it, of course, but in a surprising way I realized that I had to find other places where I came in as well, otherwise it would be too much of a shock. I think there are two other spots where the authorial voice comes in. I canít remember the third one, but one [is] a very simple sentence where [Hana] is watching the patient and she says something, but essentially I must be saying the thing because she wouldnít have known itóabout the way Duke Ellington looked when he played ďIn My Solitude.Ē This is obviously me, not Hana or the patient. Itís not as obvious as the intrusion at the end, but I needed to have a couple of places where that happened.

Q: With Anilís Ghost , did you set out to do a political exposť? Were you trying to make the political situation in Sri Lanka more broadly known?

Ondaatje: Iím not sure that was my essential motive. I suppose I knew that if I were going to write about it, it would become more of a public thing. Very few people know whatís really happening in Sri Lanka, but it wasnít just to publicize that. I donít think that was the intent, it was me really trying to understand it. Iím trying to understand how this could have happened, and also how we would behave in that situation. I also wanted the place to be a very real place as opposed to a place that was just a name on a map.

Q: In relation to Anilís Ghost , you worked with Clyde Snow, who is from Oklahoma. He actually appears as a character in the book, or is referred to. Could you tell us how he was involved in the creation and with your curiosity in this novel?

Ondaatje: I began the novel in 1992 and by the next year I had Anil working as a forensic anthropologist and I started to read up on various things about it. Strangely, this one archeologist in Sri Lanka mentioned Clyde Snow and that they were trying to get him to come to Sri Lanka. Iíd read some of Clydeís articles, about his work in South America mostly, and then I heard that he was coming to Sri Lanka to give a weeklong class and set up a program there. I went to those weeklong sessions, so I got to know him quite well there. Then I came to Oklahoma a few years later and visited the labs with him. I sent him the manuscript to check, once I had it, and he wrote back this terrifying first note saying, ďIíve got about 170 points.Ē They all were, of course, very usefulóvery, very minor points, some of them major. So he was a great help to me.

Q: I am interested in how you determine, when you begin a new project, if it will be poetry or prose, and how you negotiate the time between the two forms.

Ondaatje: I used to be able to do both simultaneously. My first four years of writing were poetry, and then into the prose and Billy. I wrote Coming through Slaughter, which is a novel, alongside writing poetry. Then halfway through the novel In the Skin of a Lion, I had to stop writing poetry because I thought, ďThis is just too complicated. Iíve got this really difficult story to choreograph and writeómany characters, 30 yearsóI canít write poetry as well.Ē So I stopped and didnít write poetry again until after The English Patient. Then I really wanted to write poetry. I spent about a year or so writing poetry. That led, in fact, into Anilís Ghost in some way. I tend now to do either one or the other, but I know which one Iím doing.

Q: In the publishing phase of your books, many writers speak of the push-pull, love-hate relationship in working with their editors during the final work. You talk about ďdoubling the valueĒ with the editing and the extraordinary time spent in shaping your books. Please talk about when you are working with an editor, and the difference between your prose and your poetry in working with the editor at the publishing phase.

Ondaatje: I think if one goes to editors with a kind of closed, self-protective attitude youíre going to get nowhere. But what I do, after Iíve worked on this book endlessly for Ďxí number of years, I give it to three of four friends, not editors, who are tough as well as friends, and get their response. The important thing is not to give it to them as a group so they donít turn into a pack of wolves. You start with them individually. Youíll find that one will say, ďThis is very good, but thereís too many dogs in it,Ē and then the other will say, ďThere are not enough dogs. I like the dogs in your books,Ē and theyíll never agree, but youíll get a sense of things. They might say something very useful, ďI love this character, why does this character disappear on page 20 and never come back?Ē and you realize maybe you need to bring that character back. You fix those things that you think should be fixed and then you take it to an editor.

I really use the editor, even the copy editors of the publishing house. They are wonderful people, and they can save you from horrific mistakes. If I had a choice between a publisher [that] would pay me more or a publisher that had a better editor, I would go with the better editor. It sounds sentimental but itís very true.

Q: How do you define poetry?

Ondaatje: How do I define poetry? This is where the trick questions start.

Q: You donít have a definition?

Ondaatje: No, I donít have a definition. God, I should know by now, right?

Michael Ondaatjeís workshop was transcribed from audiotape by April Johnson & Michael Pace and edited by Harbour Winn, Elaine Smokewood, and John McBryde.

Source: Oklahoma Humanities Council, "Humanities Interviews" Winter 2003.