A nurse talking to a patient. A boy on board a ship all alone. A fragment of an image is often the starting point for a novel for Michael Ondaatje. The Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, who won the Booker Prize in 1992 for his novel The English Patient, was speaking at the first day of the Jaipur Literary Festival about the process of writing, where the difficulty in getting precise information is often the lubricant that powers the design and content of a novel.
"With too much research you pin yourself into a corner," said Ondaatje. "When you are unable to find out something, you have more freedom." He was speaking at the packed front lawn venue at Jaipur's Diggi Palace in the session titled 'From Ink Lake', named after the acclaimed 1990 anthology of Canadian short stories of the same name that Ondaatje had edited.
Ondaatje's starting point for his most recent novel, The Cat's Table, emerged from the chambers of his own childhood memories as a boy on board a ship who undertook on his own a 21-day journey from Sri Lanka to England. The process was something like "turning unremembered autobiography into fiction". Ondaatje said he spends most of the time alone in hisoffice "surrounded by fictional characters". Migration have been a steady theme. "It is the story of my generation - How do you get from here to there?" he said.
Discussing the delicate balance between rotating through a broad spectrum of narrative viewpoints - instead of allowing one character to hijack the story - Ondaatje reflected on the significance of polyphony in his novels. "It's more interesting to have various voices," said Ondaatje. "Politically, you can't have one voice to a story," he added referring to the issue of the "margin coming to the centre" as both an "aesthetic as well as political issue".
Ondaatje's artistic identity as a poet has also inflected his novelistic works, as moderator Amitava Kumar brought up during the discussion, referring to it as his "wonderful precision". "One of things about poetry is you try and not saying everything, the reader participates," said Ondaatje. "I want to keep that element of interaction with the reader and not [have the reader be] be told everything and chaperoned from A to B to C. The less you say the better it is."
This quality was also reflected in parts of the film version of The English Patient, as moderator Kumar pointed out during the discussion. "There should be something hanging when a scene ends so there is a reason for going into the next scene," said Ondaatje. "I learnt a lot from [Walter] Murch [the editor of the film]. The scene shouldn't be too fulfilled."