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Michael Ondaatje

June 13th, 2012

Years ago, while travelling with an architect in the southern provinces of Sri Lanka – my friend was looking for window frames and other odds and ends — he paused, bending over to look at some medieval rain spouts that are still used in Sri Lanka, and remarked ‘In Sri Lanka 90 per cent of architecture is loitering’. And I thought to myself, of course this is true of literature as well. In fact, in any art you spend your time waiting for the revealing of some small anecdote or piece of gossip, or to witness a remarkable accidental gesture. You literally lounge around until you discover, suddenly, that room with a story, and with luck a vista. How an architect gathers and how a writer gathers, how they assemble and collect it all into some organic shape, is not that different. And what is unearthed will influence not just the content of the story, but its style, its very language.

This is Calvino:

“Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages,
Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps,
cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings,
or with objects he took from his knapsacks – ostrich plumes,
pea-shooters, quartzes – which he arranged in front of him.

I have spent most of my life since my early twenties as a writer, and I am still fascinated by how similar the various arts can be, how they echo each other, from the collaging process of gathering and shaping, to the eventual editing of a work. (I was told once by a prima ballerina that since she retired the closest thing to dance that she found was the editing of film – in the way one finessed and fine-tuned an intimate gesture until it was just the right length). In fact I am compulsively curious about how the arts influence each other, how writers can learn from painters, musicians, architects, film editors, gardeners, typographers, choreographers, set designers…. By studying other arts I discover what writing cannot do, believing therefore it is what writing wants to do. And so I attempt, against logic, to include those skills and qualities — how a gardener grows and then edits a landscape for colour and texture, for instance in those ‘Gardens for the Blind’ where the odour of each carefully placed herb or flower gives a clue of what to move towards, and how different kinds of gravel or stone or grass or a path of wood chips provides a map that is a code of sound. Or how film is edited almost microscopically at 24 frames a second, so a camera pausing on a face for too long after someone has finished speaking, for even just an extra two seconds, will suggest subliminally to the audience that the speaker is not to be trusted.

I love these “secrets of the rehearsal”. There is a delight and  magic in discovering such wayward techniques that are possibly available to the art of writing – which seems physically to be the most docile of the arts.

The visual arts have, at certain historical moments — impressionism, collage, whatever — governed the surrounding culture. In the same way jazz effected more than just our ears, it influenced the rhythm of prose. And film editing since Godard’s Breathless, edited by Cecile Decugis, allowed the removal of a good per cent of the too familiar and unnecessary bridges of plot, not just in film but in literature. So as writers we are influenced not just by where we grew up, and by place and race and culture, but also by the genres and forms of art around us. And we can be just as easily influenced by an ancient text as a contemporary one. A few lines of Basho can deliver us completely into a new perception. Witness these two beauties:

A cuckoo!
Masters of haiku

Or this –

clear moon
A boy afraid of foxes
walked home by his lover

In the same way we can be transformed the way Edward Said was by the complexity of something as ancient as a Bach fugue:

By contrapuntal I mean many things going on at once but not in a random way, not just a lot of noises happening together but rather, as in a Bach fugue – to me the most intriguing type of music…. Intellectually, even spiritually, I’ve always been looking for equivalents in areas other than music. So my attraction to it comes from a dissatisfaction with single lines and single explanations – not that I’m not interested in single lines. But in single lines with other single lines. The notion of combination is central to it, and it can be quite beautiful and can have its own kind of transformation. And, above all – as in the case of Bach – it lends itself to a dizzying series of complications or complexities which I’m enamored with on a sheer physical level


In Sri Lanka in the mid-twentieth century, the dancer, Chitrasena, was essential in reviving and celebrating the vernacular in dance. I asked him once, late in his life, what had made him a dancer, and he said it began when, as a young man, he read the autobiography of Isadora Duncan. A book by a dancer in Europe made him a revolutionary dancer in Sri Lanka. He had never seen her dance.

For me this blending of places and genres is a wondrous thing. One of my favourite stories is the meeting and friendship in 1913 of the famous Cambridge mathematician G.H.Hardy and the completely unknown Indian mathematical genius Ramanujan. That sharing of knowledge, that meeting of strangers, would change the world of mathematics. It is a surreal link, somewhat like the way Ford Madox Ford, an heir of pre-Raphaelite artists, sat down to discuss ‘literary impressionism’ with the Polish sea captain Joseph Conrad. Violette Leduc, the author of La Batarde wrote, “Recently I pressed Beckett’s Malloy against one cheek, then against the other. A great writer is a great brother, he just falls into your life, it is stronger than any bond of blood.” James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman always rings Twice, said his favourite book of all time was Alice in Wonderland. There must be a hundred such examples. Literature is full of such links and journeys. Remember Ovid in David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life so altered and then enlarged in his world of exile.


Growing up in Colombo I was surrounded by an oral tradition rather than a literary one. Tall stories, gossip, arguments, lies at the dinner table, —  this was what ‘stories’ or ‘literature’ were to me as a boy. So when I eventually came to write my memoir about Sri Lanka, Running in the Family, it was not so much the content that I struggled to catch but a voice — that free-wheeling conversational art of the anecdote — that I had to get right. For while I was researching those family stories I knew that in many cases, like Herodotus, I was listening not to accurate memory but exaggerations and falsehoods. ‘In Sri Lanka a well told lie is worth a thousand facts’, I would write.

Written literature would not influence me until I was sent to school in England when I was eleven. That was when I really began to read books, slipping into imaginary lives. “The book rested on her lap, like a doorway,” D.H. Lawrence writes in The Rainbow. And so, while I was surrounded by the realities of an alien English private school’s structures and rules, books were my escape. I was already distrusting the voices of power, and the rhetoric that went along with them. I wanted the intimacy of someone talking to me in a book.

  And yet, at that time, although I was a voracious reader, I never thought of ‘a writing life’. On the back of one Penguin paperback I’d read that the author, Nigel Balchin, wrote his first novel during his honeymoon! It sounded a dire warning of what had to be given up.

Besides a judgement had already been made as to what I should be when I grew up. The literary magazine I work on, BRICK, asked various writers a few years ago what they would probably have been if they were not writers. I said I would have liked to have been an illustrator of Historical Novels (such as N.C. Wyeth). Or a piano player (specifically Fats Waller). But at the school I went to in England, a group of specialists were brought in to talk to each student for 20 minutes and then tell them what their career should be. I was told I would be a good ‘Custom’s Officer’, and as a result have always behaved suspiciously, dubiously, or too casually, when I stand at that red line in any airport of the world.

It was not till I came to Canada when I was 18 that I stumbled or perhaps leapt passionately into writing, and found my literary home. I began writing poetry and became involved with a small  publishing house in Toronto called Coach House Press. Being part of a small press for the first 7 years of my writing career was a gift. Most of all it allowed me time to find a voice while protected in that more private arena. And just as important, it was where I also learned about the way a book was made and designed — that it was not only a vehicle for a collection of poems, but that the making of a book was an art in itself.

But by now I was also besotted with all the other arts around me – theatre, film, popular music, jazz. (I suspect that Ray Charles and that piano of his governed my diction more than Wordsworth). Even when I lived in England I was listening to and reading the Americans — Sam Cooke, songs like “Poison Ivy” and “Young Blood” by The Coasters, the stories of Damon Runyon – all of this must have created a bizarre portrait of America for me, before I even went there. Nowadays I try to imagine what kind of country I was expecting the United States to be: a place where Tom Waits was the President perhaps. 

Even today, while I do have my literary heroes, I know that what I write and how I write has also been influenced and altered by Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings, or the echoes in a Diego Riviera mural, or by Sri Lankan temple frescoes with their non-chronological format. We learn from everywhere: the radical beauty of Kurt Schwitters’ collages, whose work whenever I see it at The MOMA I want to slip into my pocket; the delicious democratic list of raw materials in a Rauschenberg work – (oil, pencil, fabric, photographs, newspapers, wood, baseball, metal fork, found paintings, hinged wood door and brick on string); and always the subliminal influence of architecture around me, wherever I happen to be. Stanzas in a poem literally echo the stanzas or rooms of a villa. I remember I was writing The English Patient and another architect friend was guiding me through Hadrian’s villa in Rome and speaking of ‘the poetics of the villa’. And I know that somehow his remarks were a huge influence on the structure of my book.

There are artists we will never meet who are essential to us. We live in a time where we no longer have to be tied to a local influences or a local vernacular. A person grows up in Colombo and his or her true mentor could be Juan Rulfo or Miles Davis, someone from a far away place and time. If a single book inspires a man 3000 miles away to become a dancer, a writer can be altered by some geographical site or the great swerving jazz of ‘Potato Head Blues’. So the Russian poet Akhmatova would influence Neelan Tiruchelvan a politician in Sri Lanka with a sense of moral duty, and be quoted by him often in parliament…. A sentence, a sketch, a distant melody will change us. We no longer have to trust one political voice, or be handcuffed to one narrative, one radio station. ‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one,’ John Berger writes. This is the great gift of ‘Mongrelism’. And Berger’s sentence that desires to have an all-inclusive perspective and point of view is of course a political as well as an artistic statement.


And yet, and yet, one’s own sense of place is so important. The booksI read growing up in Sri Lanka tended never to be about Sri Lanka. They were all about England. The music my parents danced to were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers songs.

But one of the gifts of literature is its acknowledgement and recreation of place. When I moved to Canada at the age of 18, I discovered it first of all through novels — Montreal and parts of Quebec by reading Hugh MacLennan and Leonard Cohen, the interior of British Columbia by reading Sheila Watson and Howard O’Hagan. Still, I remember being warned, when I was beginning to write, that it was commercial suicide to set a thriller in Toronto or any Canadian city as opposed to New York or Miami.  Even Delhi, they said, was better than Toronto.

But it is heaven to stumble upon a familiar location in a work of art. We know a hundred plots that take place elsewhere — in Baker Street, in Zane Grey country, on Mars, on the Orient Express, or even that more unfortunate train station in Anna Karenina. But we also long to recognise what is familiar around us, in the country we live in.

There’s a remark by a young Russian writer, responding in excitement to discovering a house in Kiev where the fictional characters in a Bulgakov novel lived:

“I don’t know how other people feel, but for me the exact “topography” of
a book is always extremely important. For me it is essential to know —
precisely! — where Raskolnikov and the old money-lending woman lived;
where the heroes of 
In a Blind Alley lived, where their little white
house with its tiled roof and its green shutters was. I have always felt
it important to know where the heroes of their books lived, not the
authors. They have always been more significant to me than the authors
who invented them. To this day for me Rastignac is more “alive” than
Balzac, just as I still find d’Artagnan more real than Dumas”.

Some years ago, while teaching in Hawaii, I organised “The Prewitt Walk” — the famous walk in the novel From Here to Eternity that the character (played by Montgomery Clift in the movie) makes to his girlfriend’s house after he has been stabbed. The students living in Hawaii had never read the book, one of the few set in their own landscape, so I made them read it and then organized this re-enactment of the walk. Going with students and friends up the steep streets of that neighbourhood of Wilhemina Rise in Honolulu, we were no longer just in a fictional world. And there eventually stood the square-shouldered bungalow, its shape as true to the time and place of that story as any house could ever be.

I think my favourite and most sophisticated use of Place in a novel is in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, where our hero is being hunted by the police. In those pages the specifics of that Paris chase can clearly be followed on a detailed map, street by street by street. And then the hunted man escapes — how? By entering a fictional street invented by Victor Hugo — thus a street the police do not know about. And so Jean Valjean escapes.

Most of our lives are unmapped, unhistorical. When I was researching my novel In the Skin of a Lion, there were hardly any sources to find out who the people were who had actually built the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto. Eventually I heard about one Macedonian bridge builder, Nicholas Temelcoff, who’d worked on it. So for me it was important to name him in the novel, someone who — as far as official Canadian history went — was ‘unhistorical’.

What saves us from being ‘unhistorical’ is Art – a painting, a book, a song — and by ‘us’ I do not mean just the artist but citizens who become a part of history by discovering themselves in a familiar place. In my novel Anil’s Ghost the doctor Gamini meets his brother’s fiancée for the first time (both of them disguised during a fancy dress party) in the architect Geoffrey Bawa’s garden in Lunuganga. A real architect. A real garden. Other events take place at a specific Negombo rest-house, or The Kynsey Road Hospital. To have your fictional people live or work in such known places builds their character as much as a family bloodline. The reader walks away from the novel with a larger historical awareness than the one depicted in the book. Balzac points out that, “The events of human life, be they public or private, are so intimately bound up with architecture, that we can reconstruct nations or individuals in the full reality of their behaviour from the remnants of their domestic remains.”


I have now lived in the west for most of my adult life, and for all of my writing life. But I have only recently discovered that I follow, or perhaps have guessed at, an aesthetics that comes from the east. Donald Richie, the American writer who has lived in Japan now for over 60 years, writes about the difference between west and east in a small book called Tractates:

In the conventions of a Western discourse – order, logical progression, symmetry – impose upon the subject an aspect that does not belong to it. Eastern aesthetics suggests that ordered structure contrives, that logical exposition falsifies, and that linear, consecutive argument eventually limits.

Most likely to succeed in defining Japanese aesthetics is a net of associations composed of listings or jottings, connected intuitively that fills in a background and so renders the subject visible.  Hence, the Japanese use of juxtaposition, assembling, and bricolage.

Many Japanese writers,” Richie continues, “prize a quality of indecision in the structure of their work. And something too logical, too symmetrical is successfully avoided when writers, in the Japanese phrase, simply follow the brush itself.

I cannot tell you what comfort there was in discovering these lines by Richie. They echoed and seemed to justify a hesitance, an uncertainty, as well as a brashness, that comes during writing. ‘Following the brush’ is a haphazard reconnaissance, and one is sometimes lost. Or the work is unfinished. Or the link between artist and reader or viewer is tenuous. Still I suspect most of the writers I am drawn to write with that uncertainty and doubt, which helps form that intimate and therefore trusted voice. “This curiously home-made pact,”  as Robert Creeley describes writing.

The journey or process where an artist ‘follows the brush’ is the same path a writer or architect takes when ‘loitering’. It is light years away from a political or public reason for existence. ‘One always writes for someone. Rarely for several people.  Never for everyone’, says Colette. Following the brush you are simultaneously drawing on all those influences that have shaped you, while at the same time also anchoring yourself where you are — a stage in your imaginary life or somewhere as physically regional and home-made as a garden. Gardens, like any autobiography, follow the rules of local climate and site, as well as the visionary hand of the gardener.

Picking up a book one always hopes to find that distinct intimate voice. Just as visiting any country one hopes to discover that rare thing — the personal garden; a garden made perhaps by a post-master in France, a garden made by a ‘concrete poet’ in Scotland, a garden conceived by a monk in Japan. These are places as private and yet as universal as the work of a great writer. In Sri Lanka you would most likely be directed to two such gardens – one created by Bevis Bawa, and the other by his younger brother, Geoffrey – a rare pair of siblings whose landscapes could not be more different, for each of them brought their own vision to a precise and specific landscape. In Geoffrey Bawa’s words:

When you look at the better examples of what remains to us of earlier buildings, you will find that they all look at the rain, at the termites, at the social needs, at the view to be had from the verandahs and windows, at the needs of life at the time.

Great gardens are often self-portraits. For Geoffrey Bawa, a world renowned architect, his was the garden at Lunuganga. And it is in every way as autobiographical as a memoir. Bawa was a gracious and gregarious man. He had wit and courtesy, but he was also difficult and private. In some way Lunuganga represents both sides of him. He made no attempt to turn it into a pompous estate. The gardens there are various, suggestive, full of personal notes (see the grave of Ensa his ayah), and yet as ambitious (lowering the horizon of a hill) as The Duino Elegies. Each vista, each location feels like another elegy or another voice – the first person, then the third person, the vernacular, then the classical. You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others later in life. It is a complex and a subtle place, so subtle that there is the well-known story about the visiting Englishman who said, looking over the landscape, ’but Mr Bawa- wouldn’t it be a lovely place to turn into a garden?” It was, Geoffrey Bawa said, the best compliment he ever got.

In any case, it is a world he made by ‘following the brush’ into what became a long intimacy among the rains, and the termites, and ‘the needs of life at the time’.


For me each book begins with two essential things: a location and a time period. They are more important than an idea for a book. An idea usually runs out after a couple of pages. While time and place will invite in characters and the interaction of these not fully formed people in a detailed landscape will lead to a story and eventually, a long way down the line, we will perhaps discover what the story is really about.

Being a mongrel, a nomad, a person of several countries, the landscape seems to change with each of my books. It might be the imagined landscape of New Mexico in a book like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, because I could not afford to go there while writing it, or New Orleans when writing Coming through Slaughter where I went for only 5 or 6 days. So what is built in those books is an improvisation of the landscape as well as a story. Compare this peripatetic journeying to that lucky breed of writers who come from just one specific place — William Faulkner and Garcia Marquez and Alice Munro. All nomads are very jealous of them.

“The thing you play at the beginning is the territory. What follows is the adventure”, says the jazz musician, Ornette Coleman.

For some writers a book begins with nothing but that territory. There is no imagined plot, no resolved conception or idea. And so one lives in fear all through the writing of the book as to whether what is being searched for will ever be discovered. There are other more secure writers who know the last sentence of the book before they even write the first, their story already mapped. Writers like me have a more unsure time, and of course weare once again envious of the security we don’t have. Should we be abandoning the story or keep going? A few years ago I read about the problematic habits of lady bugs in The New Scientist, and it sounded familiar. “Ladybugs are stupid”, wrote Bill O’Neil, “they can spend up to 4 hours mating with a dead female before realizing something is wrong”.

There are also writers who research everything before they begin. Whereas for me writing and research is a simultaneous act. I write towards the surprise, a discovery, the accident, the swerve of the plot, the unexpected appearance of someone – it could be Kip in The English Patient, or Gamini in Anil’s Ghost, or the sudden flowering aria by Miss Lasqueti in The Cat’s Table.

It was not until the young bomb disposal officer, Kip, arrived that I began to research bomb disposal techniques. So it was a case of simultaneously learning how to dispose of a bomb while he was actually performing it in the book. Or in my novel In the skin of a Lion, it was ‘writing the bridge’ while discovering how they actually built it in 1919.

I am a passive researcher. If I am writing about doctors in the peripheral hospitals of Sri Lanka, I approach them more as a witness than an interrogator. Spending time with them, I witnessed how badly or easily they slept, how they had their breakfast at a roadside stall, or listened to cricket on the radio during operations, how they could not relax, how they hid their tiredness, how some were obsessed with taking their own blood pressure daily. And I would carry any stray remarkable lines said by one of them in my pocket for days until I eventually found the right place to put it, often in a totally different context.

Sometimes the best stories you hear do not work in a book. They always remain like a boulder of anecdote. A friend of mine working in Human Rights in Colombo was driving home after a very difficult day when the U.S. Ambassador’s car drove up alongside her. She looked over to the American flag on the hood. There was a chauffeur. And then she saw a clown in the back seat. My friend thought she was having a breakdown. But there turned out to be, of course, a logical story behind it all. The Ambassador’s wife happened to be a professional clown, and often she would go out to villages and perform her clown acts for the children there. I loved the story and longed to use it in Anil’s Ghost. But I knew it would be too magic-realist or symbolic or unlikely.

There was another story I discovered when researching The English Patient. One of England’s best bomb disposal experts descended into a man-hole to dismantle a bomb, but then suddenly climbed out screaming. He said he had seen a rat down. His squad sent a man with a rifle down there to shoot it, after which the bomb disposal officer went back down into the darkness, calmly whistling.

Both stories were too complete in themselves — self sufficient, rather than suggestive. What works best for me is the half told story. If I had been just told about a sapper who feared rats, I could have run with it for pages.

     Often it is precisely when a writer cannot find the evidence in research that he or she needs, that the writer will improvise, and the book takes off. A neighbouring farmer told me once how one of his cows fell through the ice and he had to somehow get it out. Very curious, I asked him how he did. ‘It was difficult’, he said, and walked away. He must have felt he had said enough. And that in fact was enough for me to imagine the accident and the solution that he came up with.

The necessity of improvising, of inventing something from the bedrock of an incident, of painting a whole literary canvas that draws from all the sources at our disposal, means it is not surprising that a work of art will criss-cross the border between fact and fiction, or truth and a half-remembered memoir. We believe in and accept the reality of someone’s portrait in a drawing. But the truth of a book is tested more severely. We as writers and as readers should admit there is no such thing as “non-fiction”. ‘We lie with every breath we take’ says William Maxwell in So long, see you Tomorrow, his novel about a remembered childhood.

Or as Kinky Friedman says, more succinctly, “There’s a fine line between fact and fiction, and I think I snorted it in 1976.”


Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, when asked about his writing and editing process, said ‘he would write in the morning and go swimming by the reef off his house (in Jamaica) in the afternoon. He would aim to write 2000 words a day and finish a book within six weeks. ‘I never correct anything and I never look back at what I have written, except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you once look back, you are lost.’

Meanwhile Miles Davis says: ‘I always listen to what I can leave out’

As someone who is in love with the craft of editing, to the point where I did a book called The Conversations about the craft of film editing with Walter Murch, the remark by Ian Fleming sounds appalling, and especially so as I read all those books as a teenager and found them flawless.

All I can say is that the pleasure of the edit is for me equal to the pleasure of composing the first draft of a novel. The argument here could go on for days and it has already been discussed obsessively in the Murch book. So let me give the final vote to Elizabeth Bishop, in her small and well-edited poem called ‘North Haven’.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
And the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
Pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

A Mongrel Bookcase

India, China, the South Seas, the Far West, his   characters come home from the ends of the earth to   blackmail and murder each other…”

Kenneth Rexroth on the Sherlock Holmes stories

Looking through my bookcase, I make a list:

Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, Ford Madox Ford, Amitav Ghosh, Doris Lessing, Sam Selvon, C.L.R.James, V.S Naipaul, Julio Cortázar, Chris Marker, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Eduardo Halfon, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Martha Gelhorn, Josef Skvorecky, John Berger, Gertrude Stein, Isak Dennison, G.V. Desani, Salman Rushdie, Henry James, J. M. Coetzee, D.H.Lawrence, Gandhi! , Sappho?, James Baldwin, Anita Desai, Mavis Gallant, Derek Walcott, Steven Crane, Donald Richie, Caryl Phillips, Graham Greene, Dionne Brand, Joseph Conrad, Rohinton Mistry, Leonard Woolf, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Teju Cole, Gregor von Rezzori, W.G. Sebald, Ovid, Elizabeth Bishop, Basho.

…What a bizarre and essential group of writers who once travelled and lived or still live in a place that originally did not belong to them. Yet they are part of any literary map of our mongrel world. Perspectives have changed. We now live light years beyond a time when we saw those foreign villains arriving so dangerously in Sherlock Holmes stories, or even more villainously and racially distinct in John Buchan thrillers.

In his memoir, Anecdotage, Gregor von Rezzori quotes a small moment – from the 13th of The Thousand and One Nights.

I arrived here this very night, and was standing
there uncertain where to go, when suddenly I saw
this second mendicant; so I salam’d to him, saying:
“I am a stranger!” and he replied: “I, too, am a
stranger.” While we were conversing our third companion appeared and saluted us, saying “I am a stranger,” and
we replied: “We, too, are strangers.

In each case these writers made solitary journeys and lived a solitary existence in a new country before they became house-hold names. And in some cases they would never be fully recognised. Sam Selvon coming to England a generation before V.S.Naipaul wrote a masterpiece called The Lonely Londoners, but few know of his work.

Still, what is magnificent in nearly every one of these writers is their evolving, the translation they made of themselves, refusing to remain who they originally were. They arrived, carrying a past vision and history but also that necessary half-open door in themselves so they could discover the new land.