Author Michael Ondaatje Shares His Wisdom as Part of the Living Writers Series


Laura Mucha Maroon-News Staff

On Thursday, September 22, acclaimed author Michael Ondaatje spoke to faculty and students in Love Auditorium as a part of the Living Writers series.

Associate Professor Jennifer Brice, who leads the Living Writers program, introduced Ondaatje with a short history. Born in Sri Lanka, he moved to London for schooling at age 11. She then went on to talk about his books.

While he is best known for “The English Patient,” which won the Booker Prize and was the basis for an Academy Award winning film of the same name, the author spoke about two of his other books. “Running in the Family” is a fictionalized narrative of his family, while “The Cat’s Table” is a novel about a young boy’s adventures on a ship from Sri Lanka to London for school. Although the novels were published almost thirty years apart, the author referred to them as the “bookends” of his career.

“Both pieces are rooted in the myths that grow around and encrust the home,” Brice said.

Ondaatje began the talk by reading various passages from both selections. From his book “Running in the Family,” he focused on a character based on his grandmother.

“We now enter a phase for which Lalla was best remembered… She always loved flowers, but in her last decade couldn’t be bothered to grow them,” Ondaatje said. “Still, whenever she arrived on a visit she would be carrying an armful of flowers and announce, ‘Darling, I’ve just been to church and I’ve stolen some flowers for you.’”

Ondaatje answered questions about his work, writing style and development of ideas.

“I began as a writer hoping to discover something, but I really don’t know what’s going to happen at the end,” Ondaatje said. “My main focus is the characters. I allow myself to discover how the characters create the story… [My best characters] pop up in the middle of the novel. They are born out of the plot.”

Ondaatje was an excellent choice for a collegiate audience thanks to his literary prowess and incontrovertible sense of humor. He made the audience laugh while also educating them on how to better themselves as writers and readers.

“Michael Ondaatje is a writer whom I very much admire,” Head of Medieval Studies Program and English Professor Lynn Staley said.  “His writing has a texture to it that manifests his curiosity, his delight in the world, his openness to experience and his deep and wide reading. He brought that generosity and intelligence to the reading, as well as his courtesy.”