[Novels] come mysteriously and very gradually. It’s really a case of lugging something around for about five years, and leaving things behind in somebody’s house and having to go back and pick them up again, building an arc situation. My books begin with very small things — overheard conversations, or personal and historical details. You build the pieces over a period of time. Then you have to try to knit them all together in some way, and it becomes something very different from what you thought you were writing while you were writing it.
From an interview of Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, with Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC radio show Writers & Company, explaining the inspiration for his novels.