Tucked in the Performance Penthouse of the UofC’s Logan Center, Michael Ondaatje induced just as much laughter as he did thought at his talk last Monday, unafraid to admit that he’s neither working on any writing nor aware of the fact that students might dissect his work word by word. He settled the debate of electronic reader vs. printed book by pointing out that one could fish a book out of water if it was dropped, and leave it to dry. A Kindle would simply short-circuit. He relayed wise advice from a former editor: start a poetry collection with a good poem and end with a good poem–if one must include a bad poem, hide it on page forty-six. Far from unapproachable, he referenced Monty Python in an effort to make the reading and conversation as casual, comfortable, and enjoyable as possible. A Monty Python-esque documentary about him as a writer, he noted, would be particularly boring as the most exciting shots would be of him at his desk, scratching out lines and revising.
Behind Ondaatje’s light-hearted demeanor is an enduring history of printed works which have brought complex emotions, empathetic characters, and moving landscapes to inspired readers for decades. His most well-known book, “The English Patient,” centers around a burn victim with hardly any knowledge of his identity, and explores the intersections of several histories and characters. The English Patient garnered the Man Booker Prize for Ondaatje, who explained at his talk that the book started with a simple setting. A patient in bed, a nurse, and the two talking–such situational elements comprise what Ondaatje calls a “keyhole” to the content of his novels.
Ondaatje, white-bearded, looked every bit the part of the authorial sage. He spoke of the writing process, and how his mind spawns a novel from a well-visualized setting–which he relies upon to provide the underpinnings for characters, themes, and plot. He also read a few selections from his poetry collection “Handwriting,” and some new fiction. With gentle intonations and an unstirred focus on his creation, Ondaatje presented three passages from “The Cat’s Table,” which was published in 2011. He shared some excellent insights, expanding on the importance of setting to his writing, and he admitted to having no official process, or formal understanding of how he writes. As evidenced by the precisely constructed work he recited, Ondaatje remains an artist in every sense of the word.