From The Washington Post:
The more one talks to Michael Ondaatje about the way he writes his novels, the more one is drawn toward a simple, cautionary conclusion:Kids, don’t try this at home. Ask the author of “The English Patient,” “Anil’s Ghost” and the just-published “Divisadero” if he has ever worked from an outline and he bursts out laughing. “I did try once,” he says. “I wrote a kind of treatment.” But this brief stab at planning destroyed his enthusiasm for the material: “So then I said, ‘Now, why would I want to write that?’ “
Many writers start novels without knowing precisely where they’re going. But when it comes to improvisation, Ondaatje is an extreme case. He begins with fragmentary images or situations — a plane crashing in the desert, say, or a bedridden man talking to a nurse — and starts constructing scenes from the fragments. It will be several years before “a kind of approximate draft” materializes. Then comes a prolonged self-editing phase, crucial to Ondaatje’s creative process, which can take two more years. “I move things around,” he has explained, “till they become sharp and clear, till they are in the right location. And it is at this stage that I discover the work’s true voice and structure.”
So he does have an outline. It just doesn’t show up till he’s nearly done.