Ransom Center acquires Michael Ondaatje archive

Handwritten notebooks reveal potent points of inspiration for "The English Patient" and other novels


When Michael Ondaatje wrote the Booker-winning novel “The English Patient” a random image of a drunken party, clipped from a magazine, proved to be the inspiration to a critical plot point.

“That party scene got totally recast into a scene where Almasy imagines meeting Katharine when she was young, long before he actually met her,” said Ondaatje.

The author’s archive has been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, center officials announced recently.

Ondaatje composes his novels in handwritten notebooks adding found images among his manuscript pages.

“These so called “notebooks” are what I actually write the novels in. I usually write about four drafts of a book by hand before it moves to a typewriter or computer,” Ondaatje said in an interview with Ransom Center director Stephen Ennis.

“They are not just scrapbooks. This is where the novel gets written and thought out, each notebook reflecting a specific stage in the making of it. I always enjoy the look of these handwritten books more than a typed manuscript. Ideally I would like to publish a novel that way, but my handwriting is terrible, unreadable, even to me sometimes.”

Indeed, among the materials in the author’s archive are audio recordings of Ondaatje dictating his difficult handwriting to a typist.

Filling more than 90 boxes are research notes containing background detail on the places where his fiction is set, drafts of Ondaatje’s many books, address books, calendars and photographs.

Born in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) in 1943, Ondaatje immigrated to England in 1954 and moved to Canada when he was 18. He has said of himself, “I am a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres.”

“Displaced by history, the inhabitants of Michael Ondaatje’s novels often find their most stable home in language,” said Ennis. “He is a master stylist in both poetry and prose.”

During a career spanning more than 50 years, Ondaatje has written fiction, poetry, short stories and a memoir. He is perhaps best known as the author of “The English Patient” which was also made into an Academy Award-winning motion picture.

Ondattje followed the success of “The English Patient,” with “Anil’s Ghost” (2000), “Divisadero” (2007) and “The Cat’s Table” (2011), each of which is represented in the archive with extensive manuscript drafts.

Also present in his archive are drafts for each of his poetry collections including “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” (1970), “Secular Love” (1984), “The Cinnamon Peeler” (1990) and “Handwriting” (1998).

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

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