How Michael Ondaatje Writes His Stories

Michael Ondaatje tells big, layered stories with big, layered plots.

They span and sprawl across countries and characters and time periods and loud events and hushed moments and many, many things around and between.

How in the world, it’s easy to wonder, does he write them?

Frequently, Mr. Ondaatje (pronounced ON-datch-ay) doesn’t know what, exactly, he’s trying to make when he starts writing. You cast out in the dark, he says. Clarity doesn’t click in until somewhere towards the end, he says.

He is often scared before each of his books is published. Because with each book, “you attempt to do something that you haven’t,” he said in Bomb Magazine, “and that you are not quite sure you can handle.”

Which is why In the Skin of the Lion is different from The English Patient, which is different from Anil’s Ghost, which is different from The Cat’s Table.

Different books. But not entirely unrelated. There’s a half paragraph from In the Skin of the Lion that was the seed for The English Patient. Sometime in the 1990s, Mr. Ondaatje realized that each book grows out of what he “didn’t quite get to in the previous book.”

Mr. Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, educated in England, lives in Canada. He started as a poet. And it’s with a poet’s eye for small, precise phrases that he edits his big, layered stories – “taking a sentence from over here, and putting it over there, so the whole thing topples over into new suggestiveness.”

But before he edits, he writes. And when Mr. Ondaatje writes, he doesn’t take on the whole big, layered story with all the characters and all the countries. After all, he doesn’t know what, exactly, he’s trying to make.

So, he takes his stories one small scene at a time. And the small scenes begin to build and merge. And the large narrative begins to develop and emerge.

And that’s how Michael Ondaatje writes his big, layered stories.

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