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A writer with the soul of a poet

Though he is best known as the author of the Booker Prize-winning novel "The English Patient," Michael Ondaatje possesses the soul of a poet.

The Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist and poet was the guest author Wednesday for the Just Buffalo Literary Center's third annual Babel lecture series in Asbury Hall at Babeville, where he read excerpts from his works and shared aspects of his writing process.

"I find [that] if I have an idea for a book, that idea has withered by page four," Ondaatje said.

That was in response to a question regarding how Ondaatje proceeded from an opening premise about a plane crash in the desert that eventually evolved into "The English Patient," an intricate tale about a critically burned man, his Canadian nurse, a Canadian thief and an Indian sapper in the British army, all sharing an Italian villa at the end of World War II.

"There is a lot of debating going on while I'm writing about which way the story progresses, and usually for me, the first or second draft defines the story," Ondaatje continued.

"The English Patient," first published in 1992, was adapted into a film by the same title that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1997.

Ondaatje has written five novels. The most recent was "Divisadero," published in 2007. He has written 13 books of poetry.

"I think the way that someone like [poet] William Carlos Williams writes about place and landscape is more believable to me than the way T.S. Elliot writes. Eliot imposes his mind-set on that landscape, and Williams goes into it and kind of discovers [it] . . . " Ondaatje said.

A student from the Gow School in South Wales, who attended Thursday's lecture, astutely observed that as a novelist, Ondaatje writes more like a poet. Ondaatje's novels, the student noted, are "written in such a way that the fluency and phrasing is almost like poetry [and] more like human thought than conventional writing."

"How are you able to convey a story writing this way so it not only makes sense to you, but to your readers as well?" the student asked through Michael Kelleher, director of Just Buffalo, who also served as moderator for the event.

"Well, I think that's the only way I can write novels," Ondaatje responded. He added that he does not think chronologically about the story.

"When something is revealed in a book about someone it has to be at the right time [and not necessarily] at the chronologically [right] time," he added.

Ondaatje moved from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) to England with his mother in 1954 and then at 18 moved permanently to Canada, where he received his undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto and his master's degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

A recurring theme of mixed alliance of identities pervades the author's novels.


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