Grand Cayman received a rare treat on Saturday 10 May with a visit from noted author Michael Ondaatje, here promoting his new novel Divisadero as part of a 3-week book tour.
Mr. Ondaatje, perhaps best known for his novel, The English Patient, which won the Booker Prize and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, is the author of four previous novels, a memoir, a nonfiction book on film, and eleven books of poetry.
With over 120 enthusiastic fans in attendance at the event at Books & Books at Camana Bay, Mr. Ondaatje read excerpts from Divisadero and previous novels, including The English Patient, fielded questions from the audience and held a book signing, taking a generous amount of time to chat individually with his admirers.
‘We love books and love having the chance to attend this kind of event,’ said fan Michael Cornohan.
‘This has been a wonderful opportunity to meet such a renowned author, to hear about his influences and process. It certainly was a great inspiration for aspiring writers out there.’
During the evening, Mr. Ondaatje shared his thoughts on his journey from poet to novelist.
‘It’s very different to write novels, as in poetry you only say 70 per cent to your readers – they are left to fill in the rest for themselves as participants in the discovery of emotions; in prose, you are required to fill in those spaces,’ he said.
Recognized for his intricately crafted plotting and storylines that brush the borders of the fantastic, Mr. Ondaatje said his novel Anil’s Ghost, written against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan civil war, was painful to write.
‘One has to seemingly take sides – but in that case there were at least 3 sides,’ he said.
‘I wanted to write what was not in the news headlines, rather, I wanted to describe what was happening to the average citizen,’ he said.
Not a surprising comment, considering Mr. Ondaatje is known for his ability to transport readers into new worlds through his elaborately researched characters, be it a Macedonian bridge-builder or an Indian sapper.
‘It offers a great opportunity to feed my natural curiosity,’ he said.
‘I’m spending four to five years with these characters. I must learn enough about what they have trained in to have basically gone through the same training myself, that’s what happens when you choose take on the role of filling out that invented person.’
While he said he had never had the experience of getting lost in one of his characters, he conceded that living with them intimately for years came close.
‘Despite what people think, writing novels, I don’t find lonely at all – the whole time I’m writing, I’m in the company of my characters,” he said.
He said the seed for his latest novel, which tells the story of a family rocked by an incident of violence which takes readers from California, to Nevada, to the South of France, came from a period spent living in Northern California, and the story just unfolded from there.
On the impact of seeing his work translated into film, he noted it had been an unusual experience.
‘It definitely is strange seeing an actor uttering lines that had seemed private, just mine to hear, before,’ he said.
‘I don’t see what the characters look like really in my mind as I am looking at the world through their own eyes from the inside out. And of course, reality in filmmaking is very different from the reality of a book.’
While Mr. Ondaatje was only in Grand Cayman for a brief visit, he’s promised to return for a longer stay.
One person he spoke with at the event made a particularly lasting impression.
“This fellow confessed he had stolen one of my novels because he couldn’t afford to buy it when he was younger,” said a chuckling Mr. Ondaatje at the end of the evening.
‘It was very flattering, a great compliment in a strange kind of way. I definitely won’t forget that about my visit to Cayman.’