Interview with Ruth Ozeki

Posted by Goodreads on December 9, 2013
Time beings, Pacific Ocean gyres, the teachings of Dōgen—these are just a few of the preoccupations floating in the mind of writer and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. Her latest meditation on the human experience is A Tale for the Time Being, a novel in which flotsam washed up on a Canadian island serves as the catalyst for the unlikely meeting of two souls. The diary of Nao, a suicidal Japanese teen, survives its voyage across the Pacific (preserved in a Hello Kitty lunch box) and is found on the beach by a writer named "Ruth." In addition to her first two books, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, the Japanese American artist is also a filmmaker whose works include the autobiographical documentary Halving the Bones. Ozeki chatted with Goodreads about writing with backbone, how she plans to become immortal, and the special piece of armor she puts on every day to write.

Goodreads: When we ask an author's fans to submit questions, one of the most common questions we hear is, "Is this character based on someone real?" There's an expectation that the real world has more influence over a writer than imagination. Since you made yourself, or at least a novelist named Ruth, a character in A Tale for the Time Being, you are, in a way, inviting such questions. What does the "real or fiction" dichotomy mean to you?

Ruth Ozeki: I look at it as a spectrum. I don't have that much faith in the distinction between what we think of as real and what we think of as imaginary. I come from a documentary film background, and in documentary film, of course, it's supposed to be real. The documentaries represent reality. The problem is in this word "representation." Any time that you try to represent something, you immediately start to editorialize, you start to cut, you start to shape, you start to mold. And before you know it, you are re-creating reality in your own image. Every documentary filmmaker knows this. You add music in, and that completely changes the tone and therefore the message that you're trying to convey. And so as somebody who's come to novel writing from that background, it just strikes me that these distinctions are not as hard and fast as they appear to be. That's one of the things I've always played with in my fiction. My Year of Meats is once again explicitly about that—the manipulation of reality through the process of representation. And so this [book] is an extension of that exploration.

GR: Nao's diary is written in the first person, and the chapters with Ruth the novelist are told in third person. Did you experience Ruth as an "other," a "she"?

RO: It took me a while to realize that Ruth was going to be a character in the book. It was an idea that I had at the very beginning and discarded [in 2007]. It just seemed too self-conscious and postmodern. I wasn't comfortable with it, and there wasn't really a reason to do it. When the earthquake and tsunami hit, I'd finished a draft of the book by then. At that point I realized that the book I'd written was not relevant anymore, and I needed to do something to address and respond to the events in Japan. Actually it was my husband who came up with the idea. He said, "Why don't you put yourself in the book?" And that would give you a voice to use to respond to these events in a more direct way. The events were so real. This is an example of reality insisting on itself. There was no way to avoid the reality of what was going on in Japan, both with the earthquake and tsunami, and particularly with the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. That's when I decided to use a character named Ruth, who could raise these questions of reality.

But at the same time I didn't want to do that in the first person. That felt too direct to me. The character of Nao is written in the first person, and so having two first-person voices next to each other, it felt too competitive. I knew that Ruth needed to play more of a supporting role. Nao is the primary voice; she has the writer's role, and Ruth is the role of the reader. So it made sense to me to write Ruth in the third person. It was a lot of fun, I have to say! It gives you just a little bit of distance from the character, and since this was a character who was patently autobiographical, it created just a little space to play.

GR: A reinvention of self.

RO: It was. An exploration of the expression of self, but also of, "How do we hold this notion of self?" You can identify with it and say, "I am Ruth." But to create a little gap there is what the third person accomplishes, and now that I'm talking about it, it dovetails with Buddhist practice as well. In Buddhism we have a phrase, "no-self." The idea that we identify very closely with the self, but that we don't have an existence that is separate from the rest of the world. We can't isolate ourselves. This was another way of playing with that, I think.

GR: What place do big historic events have in fiction? Can a writer write about New York City without writing about September 11? Did you feel obligated to write about the Japanese earthquake, or did it simply make sense for the story you were telling?

RO: My books grow out of my preoccupations. So I am a being in time, and things are happening in the world around me, and I read about them or experience them and react to them. I become interested, I start to investigate, I ponder them. In a way, the writing of a novel is less about telling a specific story and more about allowing a process of inquiry to shape what happens on the page. These events will happen in the world, they'll enter my mind, I'll start to think about them, and the juxtapositions will somehow start to generate story. At that point my job is just to follow that. So when the earthquake and tsunami hit, the draft of the novel that I'd had prior to that was washed away. I couldn't continue. I didn't believe in it anymore. The world had changed. So the book was going to have to change in response to that. I just allowed that to happen. And my preoccupation and concern for what was happening in Japan was pretty intense. Watching those images of the tsunami washing away whole cities. I couldn't not write about that.

GR: Nao tells the reader immediately that she plans to commit suicide, explaining, "I'm going to drop out of time. Drop out. Time out. Exit my existence." The concept and experience of time is a major theme. Can you talk about suicide and how it relates to an individual's place in time?

RO: We all know we're going to die, but we don't know when. It's really a question of timing. Suicide is a way of exercising a kind of control over how much time you'll be alive. The book plays with time in many different ways, and this was one of them. Nao is writing this diary, supposedly to recount her great-grandmother's life story, but in a way it's a Scheherazade-type relationship she has with the journal. As long as she keeps writing, then she will continue to live. So she's almost writing in order to forestall her death. For those of us who are writers, that is the relationship we have with our practice. [Laughs.] There's a sense that as long as we keep writing, we're going to be OK. When we stop writing, for whatever reason, it feels like a little death. When you ask a writer, "How's the writing going?" what you're asking is "How's life?" It's a very powerful thing.

From a more philosophical standpoint, writing does keep you alive. It's a type of immortality. The ancient Greeks believed that if a living person recited the poetry of a dead poet, it was actually the dead poet who was borrowing your tongue in order to speak. And that's beautiful. So it is a kind of immortality, even though one doesn't like to think about that when one's writing. Too much pressure.

GR: Goodreads member Ben writes, "In your book various philosophers, such as Heidegger, come up. What philosophers have influenced you, both in general and specifically behind your motivation to write A Tale for the Time Being?"

RO: Well, I suppose to some extent the Western philosophers—Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Sartre—and that's all background. I haven't read any of those philosophers for years. But really the main philosopher who influenced me was Dōgen, the Japanese Zen philosopher. I spent several years studying a couple of his essays and specifically his writing about time. So the book is a direct response to my study.

GR: Goodreads member Mindy Roberts writes, "I'm amazed by your incredible depth. [You are] a brilliant philosopher and a comedian, but you also have a dark and disturbing side—a Zen Buddhist priest with a wicked sense of humor. I wonder where this darkness comes from. [Do you] find writing the violent scenes in books as difficult as I seem to have reading them?"

RO: They are difficult to write, yes. They're difficult to know about in the world. They're difficult to read about in the world. The world is filled with terrible things. My feeling as a writer and as a Zen practitioner is that we can't turn away from those things. To pretend that they don't exist is to be living in delusion. And yes, there's humor, too. There are terrible, terrible things in the world, and there's a lot of joy and beauty in the world as well. This is the kind of range I would like my fiction to inhabit.

GR: Nao is the victim of some brutal bullying from her schoolmates. Why did you decide to put a spotlight on the issue of bullying?

RO: Very often people will ask me after reading this book, "Oh my goodness, is bullying really that bad in Japan?" Implying that this is a Japanese problem. And it's not. This is a problem everywhere. In Canada in the past year, two young women have committed suicide after being sexually abused and cyber-bullied. It's important to recognize that this is a global problem and not to marginalize it.

I don't write with goals in mind. It sounds like I do, but I don't. Once again, my concerns are purely private. I've been following these [bullying] stories, and they bothered me. I found them very disturbing, and I wanted to investigate them. When you're looking at story, story is all about power relations. Bullying is an abuse of power. So this was something I was thinking about, certainly in the post-9/11 period. We've become a culture of bullies, from the top down, so this was the kind of inquiry I wanted to make through the fiction process.

GR: Goodreads member Nancy writes, "A Tale for the Time Being was so heartfelt that I had the guilty feeling that I was invading your privacy while listening to your audiobook reading. In light of that, I was interested in the blog you wrote about Jakucho Setouchi and her statement about needing a backbone to write. Do you have a hard time releasing your work to the public?"

RO: I don't have a hard time releasing my work. The backbone for me—it's not separate from my Zen practice. I suppose it is about putting stories into the world. You're contributing to a cultural discourse. You put something out into the world, and it has ripple effects. My feeling is that as a person, as a storyteller, I want to be very careful with the kinds of things I put into the world. I want to make sure that I am writing from a place of integrity, whatever that might mean. For me, it means that I am writing in the most honest way I know. And that doesn't mean telling the truth.

I don't want anything in the stories to be manipulative and gratuitous for the sake of effect. It has to come from a deeper place, a more grounded place. Probably every writer is motivated by these same kinds of concerns—any writer who is trying to write serious literature. I don't think I'm any different. Perhaps because I have my Zen practice, I just think about it in a more overt way.

You can get a sense of the author's character from a book. And probably most people who are writing fiction, to some degree or another, write because they are concerned with these great matters of life and death. In that sense, all fiction writers are philosophers to some extent. Whether they think of themselves as philosophers or not, that's another question. Probably not. Probably most fiction writers would listen to what I'm saying and say, "That's ridiculous!" But I do think that that's what novels do. Novels exist in order to engage with these larger questions. And if you're going to engage with these larger questions in a public forum, you need a backbone.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

RO: I wake up in the morning and meditate, for half an hour, 40 minutes. I get a cup of green tea (the green tea is pretty important, I have to say), and then I go directly to my computer. I'll sit there and write until I can't sit there anymore. But it also depends on where I am in a project. At the beginning of a project, when I'm getting the first draft down, it's very difficult. That's the hardest part for me. So I tend to be more restless and fidgety, and so I'll get up a lot and move around. At the end of a project, when I'm really bearing down on the end, it's completely overwhelming. I tend to spend long, long hours at the computer. Usually I write until mid-afternoon, and then I'll do other things: check email, go for a run, cook dinner, be a human being. In the evening I'll usually go back and review the material or spend the evening reading or researching.

I have these fingerless gloves—I'm wearing them in my author photo. They protect my wrists; the surface of the desk after long hours, it gets sensitive there. Wrist warmers become very important to me. It's like putting on a piece of armor when heading out into battle—having my pulses protected is very encouraging and comforting to me.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

RO: My Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, is a huge influence, especially for this project. He has a very interesting way of talking about language, philosophy, and in particular his interpretations of Dōgen. I'm always aware of how I'll often take something that he said and turn it in my mind and find that it emerges as a story or a character. So both his writing and his talks have been very influential over the years. He has a great website: I'm also the editor of that website; I try to keep it going. There are 2,000 or 3,000 downloadable talks. If people are interested, it's a great resource. He has several books out as well.

GR: What are you reading now?

RO: Right now I'm in the process of reading manuscripts that won't be published until next year. One of them I just finished is The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, which is coming out in 2014. It's a really, really wonderful book. I think it will be big.

A book I read this year that I absolutely loved was Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. That book is fantastic. The next book I'll read is Margaret Drabble's new book, The Pure Gold Baby.

GR: Just one more question: We had many readers write in to say how much they enjoyed the audiobook version of A Tale for the Time Being, which was your first time being your own narrator. Tell us what that was like!

RO: I have not had that much fun since...I can't even tell you! I just loved it. I had never done that before, and very often publishers don't like the author to do the audio recording. So I really had to make a pitch, because I wanted to record it. There's so much Japanese in the text, and all of the crazy footnotes and appendices and all of that, and I was able to convince them that really it was going to save them time and be a lot more authentic, because I can read the Japanese and the French. And then I could also make decisions on the fly about the footnotes. And so they went with it. They booked two weeks, five days a week, 9 to 5, in the studio. And I did it in four-and-a-half days. I was very proud about that.

I read out loud to myself all the time. I never would put a page into the world that I haven't read out loud, because I have to hear it to know whether it's working. So all of the passages I've read many times to myself, but the idea of reading it start to finish aloud—and especially being recorded—that was very different. And it was a very profound and moving experience, too. It was a way of releasing the words: Somehow by speaking them it kind of released them and sent them out into the world.

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by Nan (new)

Nan Read this interview. Not only did it make me eager to either read or listen to this new novel, but there are so many interesting links to other books and sites.

message 2: by Hala (last edited Dec 11, 2013 05:03AM) (new)

Hala Alnahas Really enjoyed the thoughts of this writer , looking forward to reading her book , and the books she's reading herself seem equally interesting too .

message 3: by Chuck (new)

Chuck Schobert Great to read this interview after just finishing the very uniquely crafted and wonderful book!

message 4: by Sri (new)

Sri Yuliana Very deep discussion... wonderful! just looking for her book.

message 5: by L. (new)

L. Toh Our reality is what we think it is. A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant piece of writing and I thoroughly enjoy reading the book. Although I do not understand the quantum mechanics explanation, I appreciate how we are aptly described as time beings as life is fleeting and change is constant.
Delighted to read the interview after having read the book. Will definitely have to read her earlier novels.

message 6: by Ladidis (new)

Ladidis I honestly agree with her, and i say bravo,you are great writer, ilike ur book, thanks nancy,

message 7: by Heather (new)

Heather Jenkins I was impressed by the content of the interview and her thoughts. Will be looking for her book!

message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol Harley Superb book and wonderful interview! Thank you!!

message 9: by Rosemary (new)

Rosemary Derwent Great to read the words of the Interview wiht Ruth. Really loved the book, fascinating subject and exceptionally well told.

message 10: by Linda (new)

Linda Dalziel I really enjoyed a Year of Meats which a friend recommended and lent to me. When I saw another book by the same author, I never dreamt it would be such a well conceived and beautifully crafted novel. I am recommending it to everyone. It was interesting to read Ruth Oseki's interview but I prefer to think about what I have read and how I have experienced it - reading is such a personal experience. Will now look out for the second novel which I haven't read.

message 11: by Jan (new)

Jan Watson Emotionally I didn't want to "let this book go"> I just wanted to hold it close!
Important and pressing environmental themes.
Skilled writing esp. the different "voices" of Nao and Ruth. Thank you.

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