I was on a hotel elevator with him once at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He asked if I knew where a particular conference room was. I pointed to the location on my program. I looked at his beautiful white hair. I listened to his voice steeped with Canada and Sri Lanka. I looked at his hands and thought about all the beautiful words that had come from them. I didn't say "You're Michael Ondaatje!" I knew. He knew I knew. He thanked me and nodded as we got off the elevator and went in opposite directions. "I love your work," I said over my shoulder and wished I could have come up with something more genuine, something closer to how I really felt.
What I wanted to yell was "I write better because of you!"
The books? Yes, yes. Of course reading the books. Reading always helps writing.
Perhaps many writers write like this. I suspect they do. But for me it was Ondaatje who first gave me the visual of the bridge of words from one place to the next and the potential for tension in that approach. He freed me from the restraints I felt when someone tried to explain gut and instinct and art in convulted terms. Sometimes writers sound like mathematicians instead of magicians.
Maybe the simple truth is that I heard what I needed to hear at that particular time. But no matter if it was what I needed to hear, his words were magic, filled with conjure. I write better now because of Ondaatje. Or at the very least, I can say that I am now moved to allow my own stories to rise up on their own accord, hoping I'll build a bridge later. I nod toward Ondaatje for that.
The English Patient
Anil's Ghost: A Novel
In the Skin of a Lion
Running in the Family
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (this is the only one I haven't read. I'm not sure why.)
Coming through Slaughter (probably my favorite)
The Cinnamon Peeler (probably my second favorite)