Pillbox

Michael Ondaatje: Author of "The English Patient"

Michael Ondaatje, author of ?The English Patient,? reads at Pitt
Writer gives a lyrical presentation of both his oldest and newest works

Checklist for achieving the ?Writer?s Look?: Beard? Check. Glasses? Check. Graying hair? Check. Deep, warm voice? Check. Omnipresent scarf? Check. Michael Ondaatje has all those characteristics. But he has a few marks on his r?sum? other writers don?t. For one thing, he?s written in the genres of poetry, fiction, and memoir. For another, a film based on his novel The English Patient won no fewer than nine Oscars.

Michael Ondaatje has lived in Sri Lanka, England, and Canada, but was born to Indian and Dutch parents. He started his reading at the University of Pittsburgh?s campus by saying that when he started his first book of prose, he felt like ?I was either going mad or I was on to something.?

Obviously, he was on to something.

When Ondaatje sits down to write now, he has to worry about his sanity. At his reading last Thursday he drew a standing-room only crowd, and it?s no surprise. After all, Ondaatje is responsible for writing the novel that became an Oscar-sweeping film. Ondaatje?s story-telling capabilities drew crowds to the film and praise from the critics.

Ondaatje read from both of his poetry collections, including Handwriting, which he wrote in his native Sri Lanka. His readings of poetry are more suited to his musical style and rhythmic voice than prose readings. He read the title poem from his collection The Cinnamon Peeler ? a beautiful piece that uses the sense of smell as few poems do. Throughout ?The Cinnamon Peeler? the sense of belonging to a lover is conveyed through scent.

Between each break Ondaatje cracked little jokes. His autobiography Running in the Family, he suggested, would be better titled Running Away from the Family. The works about family are the most engaging: his grandmother truly came to life as he described her stealing people?s prize roses from their gardens and dressing his mother up as a lobster so that she could win the prize in a costume party.

Finally Ondaatje read from both The English Patient and his newest book, Anil?s Ghost. All his stories are full of rich sensory details. Ondaatje uses meaningful metaphor with grace, likening the beating heart of the title character to ?a clock on a mine.?

During audience questions Ondaatje addressed every topic from whether he still looks at the stars to his feelings on the editing process. He described his influences as ?a mix of poets and novelists?; the list includes Robert Creeley and William Maxwell.

Ondaatje may be critically acclaimed, but the way he plans a story may give hope to all the would-be writers out there that feel they can never come up with the ideas that some authors have. ?A lot of writers know what the last sentence [of their novel] is going to be,? Ondaatje said, ?I don?t know what the second sentence is going to be. It keeps me tense, [it] helps me to write.?