Michael Ondaatje – of Sri Lankan origin – says in a recent interview that he doesn’t research a novel before writing it. If there is a bridge to be built (in the novel that is), he says that he does the research on bridge-building as the work progresses.
One may as well add – it shows.
Well, that’s just for laughs, but yes, in Anil’s Ghost for instance, Ondaatje’s research was really rather shoddy which is why the book, to say the very least , did not become the last word on Sri Lanka’s conflict-related body count, though the theme was, if I remember right, all about bringing up the bodies.
This is writing workshop stuff.
I remember that this was the answer given by Romesh Gunasekera once when a writer known to me asked whether fiction writing should be done with eyes literally closed!
In Gunasekera’s case, it’s anyway a case of the blind leading the blind, which means it shouldn’t matter much anyway, whether he literally has blinkers on when he puts pen to paper, or not.
But I do digress.
When Michael Ondaatje says that he writes a single novel in five years or so, and then thinks that he has probably finished with his writing career, he is probably not being entirely truthful.
He knows he is not about to run out of juice. He can always have one more go at doing an Anil’s Ghost, as that’s all about meticulous research anyway, and not about creative writing.
I’m joking again, but only mildly.
Ondaatje says in his interview that his books are conceptualized in the manner of a drama or an opera; he says there are sets in his mind, and he then envisions the way there are entrances and exists. (Well he doesn’t say so in so many words, but you get the general idea.)
But hats off to the gentleman, he knows that the art of crafting a novel is exhausting and time consuming. Three to five years is the industry standard.
Most Sri Lankan writers do worse than potboiler writing because they stick to the cookie-cutter format.
I know there are two cliches there, but Ondaatje could teach our writers that writing is a solitary pursuit.
It is a lonely avocation.
Workshops can be done, and bless those who organize these, even those at which Romesh Gunasekera could talk about his blind man’s buff style. Whatever!
Ondaatje further says that he was inspired when he first moved to Canada by the eloquence of his English teacher.
Apparently that worthy used to keep him mesmerized in class, and it is good to think of students being moonstruck by something other than goal-scoring or the perfect square cut.
In today’s Sri Lanka, it is hard to think that there are schoolteachers who leave potential authors spellbound with their poetry. It was not quite the case for instance, particularly in the immediate pre independence period when this writer’s father was a student, and had a poetry teacher who was so poetic that he was nicknamed Poeta.
Did Poeta teach Michael Onddatje who had his very early schooling at S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia?
That question is rather academic given that Ondaatje remembers his Canadian poetry teacher, but no other, but we all know he had a hard time in that ship when he sailed to Canada, and may be had a terrible attack of amnesia after all those tragicomic but traumatic experiences.
It is refreshing however to listen to someone as well known as Ondaatje talk about the craft of writing in the detail that he did in that recent interview.
Says the writer of The English Patient, that he begins any novel with a ‘fragment’ which is often an image in his mind.
In English Patient, it was an image of a patient talking to his nurse, he says, but adds that that there was a second image of a thief, and claims the two stories merged somewhere – but none of it was pre-planned and executed.
Well, for drama, that is totally ex tempore one might say, but it is arguable whether there is any other method. Are there any writers who have the plot all written out in their minds, but execute that plot in a masterwork that builds on the meticulous architecture?
No, novel writing is thankfully not house-building or landscape design, and for most people it is almost a form of venting.
There is the imagery, what one of this writer’s friends called the ‘thousands of ideas bursting inside my head’, and the consequential itch to scratch the urge to put those images down on paper purely for somebody else’s pleasure.
That’s writing, and it is mostly so I would imagine for Ondaatje and a million other writers both successful and famous, and unsung and unknown.
Says Ondaatje that when he began writing English Patient, he did not know who the patient was, or did not know who the nurse was, but began with simple conversation.
Here is someone who knew virtually nothing of what he was going to write about, but yet he took five years over it, and that is in contrast to those who knew everything but took one month, as a result of which the mental imagery became much like the architecture and nothing more, with the images coming out as sketches rather than a final product resulting from the structure modeled on the original mental blueprint…
Ondaatje says if the writer stays with the image long enough, something would come out of it.
Long enough must be the operative term. The ideas take time to germinate and the imagery has to take root in the writer’s head.
It’s the most natural way to approach a craft which most people practice as a compulsion. Others who do it for quick fame are condemned to live with their mediocrity, mostly as a result of their hubris. They think writing is difficult, so difficult that it has to be done in a month,
On the contrary, the art of creative fiction is a pleasure that has to be savored for years, and the when the book ends, one has to grieve that the period of sweet hard labor has finally come to a close.