A Midsummer Day’s Dream

It was pure serendipity.  Finding out there would be an interview with Michael Ondaatje at the Banff Summer Arts Festival was a wonderful surprise.  Hours later I was on my way to Banff National Park.  The 90-minutes drive through the Rockies listening to the soundtrack of The English Patient was surreal.  And the destination was just as picturesque and dreamlike:

Banff Summer Arts Festival

The Banff Centre

In the event entitled ‘Literary Primetime’, Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lanka born Canadian poet, novelist, filmmaker, winner of the Booker Prize for The English Patient, was interviewed by Marni Jackson, the Chair of the Literary Journalism Program at The Banff Centre, an acclaimed writer in her own right.

Ondaatje’s impressive body of work includes novels, memoir and a dozen books of poetry, editorial work and documentary filmmaking.  But perhaps the most famous is The English Patient, which was adapted into film by the late Anthony Minghella.  The movie was awarded nine Academy Awards in 1996.

ondaatjeThe literary event started off with Ondaatje reading several passages from Divisadero, a book that brought him the fifth Governor General Literary Award.  I sat in the huge dining hall with an audience of a couple hundreds, entranced.  From afar I held my gaze at the silver haired writer framed by the large picture windows, the evening sun seeping through majestic evergreens, and silence shrouded the place except for one man’s gentle voice.  It was simply mesmerizing.

But it was the interview that made the dreamlike experience most rewarding.  The conversation explored the creative mind behind the writing process.  I jotted down some helpful tidbits:

Curiosity goes a long way.  It sparks off the research process, generating and sustaining the creative energy for the work.

Listen to the rhythm of the sentences.   “He would” or “he’d” could elicit very different effects.  Sound advice from a poet.

I was excited to hear Ondaatje address questions stemming from his book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, which coincidentally, I am currently reading.  Murch was the film editor of The English Patient, one of my all time favorite movies.  The serendipity is most gratifying.  The art of film editing parallels that of writing… the essence is knowing what to cut, and when to move on.

While Minghella was writing the screenplay, Ondaatje was involved in the drafts.  The story had to be taken apart and rewritten to be adapted into film.  When you see your work being dismantled and reconstructed into another form, I imagine it takes courage, trust, and humility to accept that.  Ondaatje appreciates the art form of film and respects others’ expertise, entrusting his work in their hands.  This team effort, this alchemy of talents is most prominent in the making of the movie.

In the Interview, Ondaatje was asked about one excerpt from The Conversations. The writer and the film editor shares a common appreciation for the Chinese auteur Wong Kar Wai and his film In The Mood For Love.  The layering of sounds suggests the multiplicity of going-ons, events happening off-screen.  Such an effect can also be found in The English Patient.  The thickness of the actual and imaginary scenes adds complexity and depth, weaving a much more interesting tapestry.  Again, the parallel can be drawn with novel writing.  It’s the multiple offerings and the possibilities of interpretations that make a piece of writing intriguing:

“We are not held hostage by just one certain story, or if we are, we know it is just one opinion: there are clear hints of other versions.” (The Conversations, p. 160)

There were a couple of ideas I was a bit surprised to find.

First there is the ubiquitous self-doubt throughout the writer’s creative process.  Strange, and yet comforting, to find talented minds share this same psyche.  It is a humble sign to admit self-doubt.  The architect Frank Gehry and the late filmmaker Sydney Pollack came to mind.

“Her only virtue is self-doubt.” (Divisadero).

Second, and perhaps the most precious gem I collected from the event was reflected by Odaajte’s own words on the creation of a story: “I don’t know what would happen… I don’t want to know.”  The excitement of writing is that the story reveals itself as if it has a life of its own.  The writing process is an exploratory experience.  How gratifying to know we don’t need to follow a predetermined structure to plug in the story elements.  The creative mind is not bound by structure.  Let the story lead, and, enjoy the ride.

At the end of the Interview, Ondaatje was asked about a skills and job match questionnaire he once did when he was a young man.  The results showed that he could make one good customs officer.  Aren’t we all glad he had chosen to march to a different drummer and diverged in his career plan.



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

5 thoughts on “A Midsummer Day’s Dream”

  1. Great post. I enjoyed Divisadero very much.

    Sandra, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. You have a wonderful book blog and I look forward to reading more of your opinion.



  2. What a wonderful experience for you, Arti. The setting, the drive, the reading and interview – it sounds as though they made for a perfect whole.

    As with your essay on Frank Gehry, I’ve found a few little signposts here to suggest I’m still on the right track. Curiosity’s one of my primary traits, of course, but I’ve always held it’s the first step in the writing process.

    And the quotation from The Conversations (We are not held hostage by one story…there are clear hints of other versions) reminds me of a line from Godot/Godette: “On the other hand, everyone who writes knows the same facts can give rise to quite different narratives.”

    And his point that the story reveals itself “as if it has a life of its own” absolutely parallels my own experience. Structure’s critical, but the structure grows organically rather than being imposed from outside.

    Gosh,what a stimulating post. Lots to think about, here!


    You know, I thought of you when I was listening to the Interview. Yes, I remember ‘Curiosity’ is on the the top of your list of ‘personality traits’. And thanks for reminding me about the line in your post ‘Godot/Godette’. This happened to my positive review of the animation Wall-E. Someone commented that she fell asleep in the theatre.

    What I find most interesting is the author welcoming and maybe even generating the multipliciy of interpretations for his story. Another fascinating notion is that the writer starts to write, without knowing where his destination is… allowing the story to lead and develop on its own. All these points are comforting confirmation to me too. Thanks for sharing.



  3. Oh, my, Arti, how wonderful to have heard Michael Ondaatje! Much thought provoked by this post. Have not yet read Divisadero, but it’s on the list. Have also not yet gotten to your meme, but am working on it (so I’m not reading Linda, for example & probably should not have read this.But it’s too late now)…


    Yes, it was pure serendipity… I’d never expected the day would turn out like that. MO has a mesmerizing voice too, and he signed two of his books for me. As for the meme, don’t worry out it… take your time, and it’s ok to pass too… no pressure intended. Summer’s for relaxation. I look forward to reading more of your posts on your summer reading.



  4. Oh, oh, oh! I was SO glad to see this entry. First, I got hung up on the fact that you went to Banff.

    For years, I had heard about Banff from friends who ski and they chirped and warbled about its excellence and beauty.

    And then last year, I went to Calgary on business. And a colleague and I drove one (early) evening to Banff. OMG, I couldn’t believe I was there. I couldn’t believe how good it smelled, how surprising it was to come upon it, how clear and later dark the sky was. How…far away it seemed from everything.

    And all your notes and info on Michael O are wonderful. What a treat. How wonderful you attended. Thanks for sharing this!


    After living in Calgary for decades, I’m proud to call Banff my neck of the woods. So, the next time you’re in Calgary, do let me know. I’ll be glad to be your personal tour guide… taking you to Banff and Lake Louise. You definitely should come again. And for MO, I admit I haven’t read many of his books. I’d like to explore more of his work, including his memoir and poetry.

    I’m glad this post brings back fond memories for you!



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