“Many of my books—many writers—are in an archaeological situation of unearthing story, of unraveling clues and events to find out what really happened, who was the patient and so on,” Ondaatje explained during a recent visit to Parnassus Books in Nashville to promote his newest novel, Warlight.
Like an archaeologist who may discover a tiny fragment of a bone prior to exposing a larger find, Ondaatje’s books tend to begin with something very minimal, “almost like a clue,” which in turn leads to a more encompassing narrative. In The English Patient, it is a nurse speaking with a patient in bed. “I don’t know who he is, I don’t know who she is,” Ondaatje said. But as he wrote further, he began the process of discovering who they are, how they got to this particular point in time and how each feels in this moment that gives rise to their fascinating story and relationship.
“A lot of novelists know where they are going to go, which is just terrific for them. I just don’t,” he said.
In Warlight, the author (born in Sri Lanka but now a Canadian resident) had only an image for the first sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”
“Right away I had the possibility of not just the parents and the children who invade their lives,” Ondaatje said. “They kind of take over the story and govern what happens to Rachel and Nathaniel in the story. So I could kind of go anywhere with that.”
The first line immediately evokes the possibility of adventure, whether ominous or joyous or both. The narrative ultimately follows Nathaniel into adulthood, where Ondaatje adds another perspective as Nathaniel is able to reflect on his memories of his childhood.
The process of discovering his characters through their memories and interpretations of events—rather than simply listing events as they happen—adds authenticity and richness. “In The Cat’s Table—some people think of it as a memoir, but it’s a novel—it was supposed to be a story about an 11-year-old boy [coincidentally also named Michael] on a ship and his journey,” Ondaatje said. (The author took a similar trip in his childhood from Sri Lanka to England.) “But there came a group of people getting involved with the boys on the ship, so it became a story not just from the point of view of the boy.” Like the characters in Warlight, Michael also offers his interpretation of events from that of an adult looking back on his journey.
As with a spelunker of fossils, Ondaatje’s process is one of patience and intuition. He writes the first three or four drafts by hand (“I don’t think I could write on a computer or typewriter. I need to see the scratches and doodle. It makes me feel closer to the story.”) and avoids thinking about sentences as he’s writing them (“I just try to see what’s happening as clearly as I can, not just physically but mentally, about how people are thinking about what’s happening.”).
It’s a lesson in trusting the process, and it allows readers to act as archaeologists, too. “In a poem, you don’t say everything. You suggest. The reader is a participant. In prose, I want to keep that.”
This article originally appeared on BookPage.