AUDIENCE: There is such vivid imagery in your writings, as well as powerful emotional resonance. Does one come before the other, or are they intertwined? Do you start with a feeling or do you start with imagery?
ONDAATJE: I don’t think I begin with either one. I begin with a scene. Three girls are sitting down at a breakfast table in Peru—and I just know that if I keep writing, something will happen. I don’t think about the imagery. In the first draft, I don’t think about any of those things. What I want is to get the most complicated scene in the clearest way on the page—or the most intimate scene, perhaps. A girl walks into a barn and sees her sister lying on the ground, and then a horse comes in and suddenly you have three things going on simultaneously. And she is remembering all this from much later on, so there is that kind of layering as well. I’m not trying to make things complicated for complication’s sake, but I think things are layered. If I describe a scene where someone walks into a pizza parlor, has a pizza, and goes out, that’s fine—I have no problems with that. But if it’s going to take up much of a book then something else has to be happening subliminally or subconsciously—or maybe this is his seventh pizza in the book. That would say something. A conversation with Michael Ondaatje and Colum McCann at the New York Public Library in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival 2008.
At a certain point in my writing a first draft I need to read particular authors on writing. Michael Ondaatje is first among them. Sometimes I feel like I am a black-velvet painting artist visiting a Caravaggio exhibit but I quel that negative voice and try and soak up as much as I can without my ego interfering (for make no bones about it - our ego is also what is at the base of any lack of self-confidence). Today I offer snippets of interviews and I will suss out the tip from them.
MO But that is what we were talking about earlier on, everything is liquid, where any aspect can come into the story. I don’t write with a plan. Most people do write with a plan, but I tend not to. I tend to . . .
WD . . . feel your way around.
MO It’s an emotional thing when you’re writing. The problem for me with novels is when I sense the writer’s talking down to me. Like a puppeteer. Too sure of what is about to happen. Michael Ondaatje being interviewed by actor William Dafoe
Tip: Keep writing and something will happen.
Top: Michael Ondaatje
How it works in my life: I'm at a dangerous spot in my first draft. I have to really really slow down and listen to my characters or I will try and force a climax and become one of those puppeteers Ondaatje is talking about. Part of it is that I don't have a genre for this novel. That isn't unusual for me but a genre gives you a certain structure or convention even if you are writing loose. This isn't a mystery and, as it seems to be turning out, it isn't the YA (young adult) novel I first thought it might be either. I remind myself that I am in the dark with a weak flashlight just looking at what is directly ahead of me and not worrying about where it is going. Not yet - for in the first draft I am telling myself the story so...I need to listen.