COLUMBIA — When writing literature, it's important to start with a character and not an idea, author Michael Ondaatje said Friday night at the Missouri Theatre.

"Every book is based off of curiosity," he said during the talk. "I don’t begin a work knowing what I’m going to say — the plot, the structure, I know none of this at first." 

Ondaatje, the author of "The English Patient" and several other literary works, marked the beginning of the first Unbound Book Festival on Friday with a talk about his writing practices and techniques. Mark Doty, a poet, interviewed him on stage in front of about 800 people. 

The talk focused on creating fresh ideas and exploring them within poem or novel. Ondaatje talked about writing "The English Patient," a story he said began with just a patient in a bed talking with a nurse. He emphasized the importance of letting a book write itself. 

"I didn’t know who the patient was in the first 20 or 30 pages," he said. "I had to discover who he was, and then eventually I discovered a voice for him."

Doty asked Ondaatje questions for about an hour and then accepted questions from the audience. Ondaatje answered questions about his writing, his editing and his best advice for enterprising writers. 

Ondaatje's advice: Stay focused. He said he typically works from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and tries to concentrate on his writing and nothing else. 

"The only rule I have is don’t go out for lunch," he said. "That takes two hours, and you can eat a sandwich in eight minutes or so." 

Ondaatje's commentary had the audience engaged and interested. Audience members laughed at funny remarks, smiled during readings of poetry and applauded throughout the whole discussion. 

"I found myself wondering how he is so creative," audience member Karin Spradlin said. "How he goes about crafting his works and the process behind them was really interesting to me."

On Wednesday before the talk, Alex George, a local author and lawyer who organized the festival, said there probably wouldn't be a more high-powered event anywhere in the U.S. 

"Having a Booker Prize winner being interviewed by a National Book Award winner makes for just such an excellent and intellectual conversation for the audience to hear," George said Wednesay.

He said Ondaatje's talk was just a taste of what is to come on Saturday. 

"(Ondaatje's talk) is an appetizer ahead of a literary feast," George said.

Other lectures and panels are scheduled to take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. No tickets are required, but seating is unassigned and on a first-come, first-serve basis. The festival's schedule can be found on the Unbound Book Festival website.

Supervising editor is Jack Witthaus.

  • I'm an advanced reporter on the Public Safety/Health Beat. You can reach me by email at or by phone at 816-878-7050 Twitter: Jackwaddell7

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