Michael Ondaatje, In Peak Form

Author Michael Ondaatje's novels include 1992's
Author Michael Ondaatje's novels include 1992's "The English Patient," which was made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, left. The title of his latest, "Divisadero," about an odd family, was taken from a street name in San Francisco. (By Isolde Ohlbaum)

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By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

TORONTO

The more one talks to Michael Ondaatje about the way he writes his novels, the more one is drawn toward a simple, cautionary conclusion:

Kids, don't try this at home.

Ask the author of "The English Patient," "Anil's Ghost" and the just-published "Divisadero" if he has ever worked from an outline and he bursts out laughing.

"I did try once," he says. "I wrote a kind of treatment." But this brief stab at planning destroyed his enthusiasm for the material: "So then I said, 'Now, why would I want to write that?' "

Many writers start novels without knowing precisely where they're going. But when it comes to improvisation, Ondaatje is an extreme case.

He begins with fragmentary images or situations -- a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse -- and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years before "a kind of approximate draft" materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje's creative process, which can take two more years.

"I move things around," he has explained, "till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work's true voice and structure."

So he does have an outline.

It just doesn't show up till he's nearly done.

Writing like this is a high-wire act whose results can be both spellbinding and disorienting. Take "Divisadero," from which Ondaatje will read tomorrow at Politics and Prose.

The new novel began when, as a visiting writer at Stanford, he fell in love with the rugged, rolling hills north of San Francisco. Imagining an "odd kind of family" in that landscape, he says, "became the book." But "Divisadero" doesn't stay in that California landscape, or with that family's explosive history. A little more than halfway through, the action shifts entirely to France, carried forward by a new set of characters. Ondaatje had no clue, when he started writing, that these French people would show up.


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