76 facts you might not know about Michael Ondaatje

Sept. 12, 2019 marks the 76th birthday of one of Canada's most celebrated novelists.
Michael Ondaatje is shown at the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala in a 2011 file photo. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Sept. 12, 2019 marks the 76th birthday of one of Canada's most celebrated novelists, Michael Ondaatje.

CBC Books has curated a list of 76 interesting facts about the writer behind books like The English PatientIn the Skin of a Lion and Anil's Ghost. 

1. Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Colombo, the capital of colonial Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). 

2. At the age of five, Ondaatje's parents separated and, the following year, his mother moved to England with his brother Christopher and sister Janet. He and his sister Gillian stayed in Ceylon with aunts and uncles. Ondaatje joined his mother in England at the age of 11.

3. Ondaatje's mother kept her young family afloat in the U.K. by working in hotels.

4. Ondaatje says when he moved to England he became preoccupied with surviving in this new, very different country and, in a sense, forgot about his childhood in Sri Lanka.

In Running in the Family, Ondaatje returns to Sri Lanka for the first time in almost 25 years and sifts through the legends of his family's tumultuous history. (Vintage Canada)

6. In London, Ondaatje attended Dulwich College, where he went by the nickname Kip

7. Ondaatje's father died of a brain hemorrhage after the writer left Sri Lanka as a young boy. "My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult," he wrote in Running in the Family. To the Guardian he added, "He was a sad and mercurial figure. There was a lot I didn't know about him, and that was recurring in my books: trying to find the central character. It became a habit. In all my books there are mysteries that are not fully told." 

8. In 1962, Ondaatje travelled to Canada to attend university and moved there permanently.

9. In many interviews, Ondaatje has stated that he probably wouldn't have become a writer if he hadn't moved to Canada. He explained that in England there was a sense that writing literature was for the "haves" — scholars at Oxford and others of that ilk. "The thing about Canada was that I met writers who were my age. They were making books and discussing poetry. That was a gift I was given. The community of writers was what allowed me to try writing and continue writing."

The Dainty Monsters was published by Coach House Books. (Coach House Books)

11. He won the CBC Short Story Prize in 1982 for the story The Passions of Lalla. It was adapted as a chapter for his memoir Running in the Family.

12. An ideal writing day, according to Ondaatje, entails working from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. where he concentrates on his writing and nothing else: "The only rule I have is don't go out for lunch. That takes two hours, and you can eat a sandwich in eight minutes or so."

13. Twice Ondaatje has shared a major literary prize with another writer: the Man Booker Prize in 1992 and the Giller Prize in 2000.

14. The Man Booker Prize was tied in 1992 between Ondaatje's The English Patient and Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger

Above, Michael Ondaatje accepts the Golden Man Booker Prize in July 2018. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

16. The Giller Prize, now the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was tied in 2000 between Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost and David Adams Richards' Mercy Among the Children.

17. When it first won the Booker Prize in 1992, The English Patient became the first Canadian book to receive the award.

18. In his Golden Man Booker Prize acceptance speech, Ondaatje said that he hasn't read The English Patient since it was published in 1992.

19. When he started writing The English Patient in 1985, Ondaatje thought it might be a brief novella. It turned out to be over 300 pages long.

Ondaatje spoke of his visit to the Greyhound Hall of Fame to Caryn James of The Wall Street Journal in 2018. (Bergadder/Pixabay)

21. The English Patient has been translated into 30 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide.

22. Ondaatje always writes the first drafts of his books with pen and paper, saying, "It just seems more natural to me [than typing] and I can think better by hand writing."

23. In his handwritten manuscripts, Ondaatje uses magazine photographs and poem excerpts as visual breaks throughout the text. These, he said, may have some subliminal influence.

24. Ondaatje told The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in 2018 that despite the name, Warlight is not a war novel: "'Warlight' is an invented word. At one moment in the book, I describe the River Thames at night during the war... I wanted to write a tone or a kind of light to suggest that time for those around before and after the war."

Above, Michael Ondaatje accepts his fifth Governor General's Literary Award in 2007. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

26. Before writing fiction, Ondaatje won two Governor General's Literary Awards for poetry for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979).

27. Anil's Ghost also received the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and Prix Médicis

28. Ondaatje's elder brother Sir Christopher Ondaatje is a successful businessman, explorer, philanthropist and represented Canada in four-man bobsled at the 1964 Olympics.

29. Ondaatje served as an editor at the Canadian literary magazine Brick for 30 years.

Photos of Brignolia ondaatjei submitted by National Institute of Fundamental Sciences. (U.G.S.L. Ranasinghe/Suresh P. Benjamin)

31. Ondaatje calls his novels "cubist," by which he means that he eschews linear narratives and experiments with the form.

32. Ondaatje is married to fellow Canadian novelist Linda Spalding, whose books include The Purchase, a Governor General's Literary Award winner from 2012, and A Reckoning.

33. With his first wife, the artist Kim Jones, Ondaatje has two children.

34. Ondaatje admires the music of American saxophonist Ornette Coleman and adopts the musician's creative approach to his own writing when starting a new book: "(T)here's a great line by Ornette Coleman — the thing you play at the beginning is a territory. What follows is the adventure."

Billy the Kid was a notorious murderer who was killed in 1881 at the age of 21. (Public Domain)

36. In a 2018 interview, he told Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel that a love of cartography partly inspired novel Warlight: "I just love looking at maps. The visual beauty of them fascinates me. And I know many artists do drawings on top of maps which are always beautiful."

37. Ondaatje says his favourite review of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid came from a Texas journalist who questioned how a Canadian got the rights to edit Billy the Kid's journals.

38. In a 1992 interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Ondaatje says poetry didn't teach him how to write beautifully, rather it taught him how to structure novels: "You can leave a lot more for the reader to fill in... [Poetry's] taught me how to write a certain kind of novel and also to believe in the tightness and concreteness of words."¹

39. In 2004, Ondaatje, narrated and wrote the screenplay for the TV movie Shadow Pleasures. The film was a one-hour performance film, a dance interpretation of Ondaatje's evocative poetry and prose, and was conceived and directed by Veronica Tennant.

40. Ondaatje's love of cinema manifests itself in the 2002 nonfiction book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. The book documents Murch's life and career as a three-time Oscar winner and collaborator with noted directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas at Zoetrope studios.

41. In 1970, Ondaatje posed for this smouldering portrait on the grounds of University of Toronto campus. The photographer was 24-year-old Shelly Grimson. It was featured in Grimson's 2012 exhibit How beautiful we all were..., which collected portraits of 16 Canadian poets.

A portrait of Michael Ondaatje at the age of 26. (Shelly Grimson)

42. A former school teacher was quoted in a British newspaper saying that he wouldn't have predicted young Ondaatje would win the Booker someday as he had "always seemed more interested in cricket."

43. Some works of literature Ondaatje considers to be classics are The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, Waterland by Graham Swift, The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon, The Land Breakers by John Ehle and The Letters of Townsend Warner edited by William Maxwell.

44. Growing up, Ondaatje found that stories of the Second World War featured mainly white European or American heroes and generally ignored the large contributions of soldiers from India. This is how Sikh sapper, Kirpal Singh, came to be a central piece of The English Patient. 

45. Ondaatje was saddened by the shrinking of the character Kip in the film version of The English Patient because he felt very close to him when writing the book.

46. The 1996 film adaptation of The English Patient was helmed by director Anthony Minghella and starred Ralph Fiennes as the titular character, Kristin Scott Thomas as Katharine, Juliette Binoche as Hana, Willem Dafoe as Caravaggio and Naveen Andrews as Kip. It won nine Oscars.

47. Ondaatje called In the Skin of a Lion his "first book with a real plot." He spent about a decade working on it.²

48. Ondaatje says his books begin with a couple of images. For In the Skin of a Lion, it was "a boy walking across a field eating rhubarb and an older man going into a dark room trying to answer the telephone."²

49. Scenes of rural life in In the Skin of a Lion are inspired by Ondaatje's time living in Bellrock, Ont., where he knew a farmer named George Grant.³

Canadian theatre magnate Ambrose Small disappeared in 1919 at the age of 56. His body was never found. (Public Domain)

51. Grant was full of stories like, "One day I pulled a cow out of a frozen river. It was quite difficult."³

52. For research on In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje used a Ouija board and asked "How did Ambrose Small die?" The answer he received was "elated."³

53. When an interviewer complimented the author on his spare prose and moments of lyricism, Ondaatje said the balance comes out of many rewrites: "And during that period of rewriting, you say, 'This is too much. This section is boring; perhaps we should just drop it.' I don't say to myself, 'This needs more lyricism.'"

54. In a 2018 interview with Publishers Weekly, Ondaatje compares his writing process to archaeology: "I don't really know the characters before the book is written — they're not fully formed yet," he explains, saying that he needs to "live with the possibilities of characters for a period of time." 

55. Ondaatje admitted to the Toronto Star that he doesn't plan his novels in advance and actually knows very little about what's going to happen in them until he writes it.

56. In 2017, the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center acquired 90 boxes of Ondaatje's personal documents, which include original manuscripts of The English Patient, Academy Award paraphernalia and correspondence with writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.

57. The English Patient manuscript takes up four notebooks

58. Ondaatje chose the University of Texas-based Harry Ransom Center because he was impressed by its photography collection and literary archive, which includes Robert Browning's address book and correspondence between Tennyson and Whitman.

59. Ondaatje's first novel was Coming Through Slaughter, published in 1976. It was a fictionalization of the life of jazz musician Buddy Bolden.

Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, Queen Elizabeth II and Michael Ondaatje in 2002. (Jim Young/Getty Images)

61. Ondaatje says there was a perverse pleasure in titling one of his poetry collections Handwriting because people have complained about his handwriting for years. 

62. Alt-country singer Justin Rutledge received some songwriting assistance from Ondaatje on his 2010 album, The Early Widows

63. In his 1998 interview on Writers & Company, Ondaatje admitted that in his previous interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC, he was hungover.

64. In 2013, Swiss luxury watchmaker Rolex announced that Ondaatje would mentor a young author under the brand's mentorship initiative. He would become the second Canadian author to do so; Margaret Atwood was a brand mentor the previous year. He would go on to mentor Bulgarian writer Miroslav Penkov.

Pictured above from 2017, former President Barack Obama attends the Gates Foundation Inaugural Goalkeepers event. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

66. Ondaatje has said when he gets stuck writing, he just works on a different scene

67. Ondaatje once said his notoriously illegible handwriting may be a result of his university days, when he tried to write down everything a lecturer said.

68. Ondaatje has said he'd love to publish books in their original handwritten form, but no one would be able to read them.

69. Ondaatje told Eleanor Wachtel in 2018 that he doesn't know the ending when he starts writing a novel: "If you write a novel with a huge plan and know exactly where you're going, then that's not a big problem. But if you begin with this one sentence at the beginning of the novel, which sounds like the beginning of a fairytale, where do you go from here?"

70. It was announced in 2017 that his Giller Prize-winning novel In the Skin of a Lion will be adapted into a feature film by U.K.-based screenwriter Simon Beaufoy of Slumdog Millionaire movie fame.

71. The English Patient film was at the centre of an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, can't stand the film and is dumped, briefly fired and sent on a plane to a desert in Tunisia as a result. 

72. In contrast to Seinfeld's Elaine, Ondaatje has always been very complimentary of the film adaptation of The English Patient, for which he was a consultant.

73. Just a few weeks after winning the Golden Man Booker, Ondaatje's novel Warlight was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize

74. In writing Warlight, Ondaatje recalls his middle childhood to be a freeing time in his life: "I was 11 years old, rather like the boy in the novel, I went from Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) to England, and I had no parents watching over me so I felt tremendously independent for the first time in my life."

Michael Ondaatje's investiture ceremony took place at Rideau Hall in Aug. 2017. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

76. Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion was the very first winner of Canada Reads, defended by Barenaked Ladies founding member and former frontman Steven Page in 2002

¹Interview on CBC's On the Arts with Eleanor Wachtel. 1992.

²Profile on CBC's The Journal by Alberto Manguel. 1987.

³Interview on CBC's Midday. 1987.