Ruth Ozeki Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Ruth Ozeki. Ruth is a filmmaker and novelist, who has won major awards in both fields. Her novels My Year of Meats and All Over Creation garnered over a dozen awards, including an American Book Award, a WILLA Literary Award, and a New York Times Notable Book designation. Her film Body of Correspondence won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and she has also worked as a director of film and television documentaries. Ruth also frequently speaks on college and university campuses. Her latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, is an Indie Next List Selection and a Barnes and Noble Best Book in March 2013. [Penguin Audio and] Blackstone Audio [copublished] the audio version of A Tale for the Time Being, simultaneous with the hardcover on March 12, 2013. Welcome Ruth. Thanks for joining us today.
RUTH OZEKI: Thank you so much Malcolm.
MH: Congratulations on the release of A Tale for the Time Being. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?
RO: I’ve been very serious about my practice of Zen Buddhism for many years, and I was actually inspired by the writings of a thirteenth century Zen master named Dōgen Zenji. He had written an essay in Japanese that’s called Uji, and it can be translated as either “time being” or “being time” or “for the time being.” I’d been reading that essay and was very inspired by this expansive, and at the same time, nuanced and granular way that he interprets time. I think that somehow his message came into my mind through the voice of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl. I think it was the voice of a girl channeling a thirteenth century Zen master that led me to start writing the book.
MH: The idea of time just seems to flow through the work so completely. Was it purely your study of Zen and Buddhism that made you focus on it or is it something deeper or older?
RO: It’s an interesting question. I don’t know whether it was deeper and older, but it was certainly more personal too. My father passed away in 1998, and my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, died in 2004. So I was certainly very, very aware of the passing of time. It was something that affected me personally, and I became very conscious of the fact that we are all time beings. That we have a limited time here on Earth. And I think these very personal concerns were behind the exploration of time in the book.
MH: In A Tale for the Time Being, you include yourself directly into the story. Are Ruth and Oliver really you and your husband? How accurately do they represent you?
RO: They are us, and they’re not us. Both, at the same time. The way I look at it is that Ruth and Oliver are fictionalized versions of us, which means that they are necessarily much more limited than we are. A fictional portrait is a kind of a facet, a swath of who a person is, and in this case, too. Although the outlines of the characters very much correspond with the reality of my life and Oliver’s life, there are certain details that are very different. For example, the Ruth character in the book is confronting Zen Buddhism for the very first time, whereas Ruth the author has been practicing for quite a long time. Other things from specific details that are different to generalized details are different as well. For example, the character Ruth in the novel finds a freezer bag on the beach containing the diary of the sixteen-year-old Japanese school girl, whereas the author Ruth certainly has never found any such thing. So in that sense I suppose you could think of it as a fictional proposition. What if I had found a diary containing the last writings of a sixteen-year-old girl? What would have happened to my life? How would I have reacted?
MH: Let’s talk for a bit about that sixteen-year-old Japanese school girl. I mean, what a marvelous creation. How did she come into being?
RO: Some characters just appear. I don’t want to sound too mystical or “woo woo” about this, but her voice just came into my head and she announced herself. She said: “Hi, my name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well if you give me a moment, I’ll tell you.” And this voice just came into my head and I wrote it down. I didn’t know much about her, but I knew that she was a Japanese girl. I knew that she was a school girl. I knew more or less what age she was—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I knew that she was writing in a diary, but I didn’t know who she was writing to. And so the rest of the book is really an exploration or an investigation into who she’s writing this diary to. It’s interesting because Nao didn’t know who she was writing it to either. So it took me many years—it took me six years—to figure out who it was that she was writing to. I actually wrote four or five versions of the book, auditioning different readers for her, until finally I decided that clearly she was writing to me.
MH: Now, I read in the New York Times interview, you said you actually don’t know any sixteen-year-old Japanese girls, so how did you flesh it out? Because she seems so perfectly detailed from what I understand of a teenager in Tokyo today.
RO: Once again, some of the things like her tone of her voice and her attitude and all of those attributes, who knows where they come from? I really don’t know. I could speculate that in a parallel universe she exists and that she’s somehow managed to cross over and connect with me and I’m just transcribing her. That’s sometimes how it feels. But speaking about it more realistically, I think that she’s an amalgam of experiences that I’ve had—places that I’ve lived, places that I visited in Tokyo—a whole range of things.
MH: Then leading from her also to her relationship with her great-grandmother and this marvelous exchange between the two of them, can you tell us a bit about that? I mean, how did you imagine those scenes? How did they evolve?
RO: The great-grandmother figure is an interesting figure—old Jiko. When I look at her now I realize that there is an awful lot of my mother in her. My mother, who I mentioned had Alzheimer’s, became very funny and sweet and wise as she got older. She was ninety when she died. So I think there’s certainly a lot of my mother in old Jiko, but there’s other real-life inspirations too. Specifically, there’s a wonderful Japanese Tendai Buddhist nun named Setouchi Jakucho. I’ve been following her long and illustrious career for many years. She was a novelist who became a Buddhist nun at the age of fifty and is a political activist and still a very prolific writer, and once again, a very wise woman. There’s quite a bit of Jakucho in old Jiko as well.
MH: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you actually rewrote the book a number of times, and I think one of them was as a result of the tsunami and the devastation that it caused them in Japan. How did that event cause you to reshape the book?
RO: I’d been auditioning readers for Nao, and some of them were male, some of them were female, some of them were young, some of them were old. None of them were exactly right. And I knew that. I had a very clear sense that none of these readers completed the book in the way that I’d hoped. But I also had reached a point where I knew I couldn’t go any further with it on my own. I needed help. So I had submitted the book to my agent and we were just about to turn it in to my editor when the earthquake hit Northern Japan, followed by the tsunami, and I remember spending the next weeks just glued to the screen, watching the images of the tsunami as it just ripped through the areas around Sendai and devastated that entire coastline. And then also following in the wake of that was the meltdown at Fukushima. So watching these images—I had family and friends in that area as well—worrying about them, I suddenly realized that of course Japan was a different place now, and the world was a different place as well. And certainly the book I was trying to write, it was clear to me that it was irrelevant. It no longer worked. So I withdrew it and sat with it for a while. Then several months later, I took the book and ripped it in half. I think I realized then that the only way to really respond seriously to the devastation in Japan was to put myself in the book. A way of stepping forward and meeting those events and responding to them directly. So that’s what I did. And I wrote the Ruth and Oliver sections. That took me about six months.
MH: This was the first time you’ve narrated one of your own books. What was that like?
RO: Well, it was very interesting. The Nao character writes in the first person. She’s writing a diary, so she uses “I”. The Ruth and Oliver sections—the sections with Ruth—are all written in the third person. So it was kind of an interesting way of slightly distancing the character from me. I found it very satisfying somehow to write those sections, and it was very, very easy. It came very quickly. I feel like I was able to do it with a certain amount of…I don’t know if I want to call it distance, but humor anyway. (laughs) I found it very amusing. I thought it was funny. That was really enjoyable to me to write those sections.
MH: Did you find that your background in film was at all useful to you in coming to actually narrating? As a writer, maybe you read your stuff out loud as you’re writing it?
RO: I certainly do read everything out loud. One of the most fun things I did in this whole project was doing the audio recording. I have to say it was so much fun to do that. I never knew that I would enjoy it that much, but I did. And when I was writing it, too, I read it out loud, and once again found the experience of reading it out loud helped me understand what it was to put myself in the book fictionally. Because I think that, in a way, writing fiction is a kind of a performance, and the author takes on certain attitudes of the fictional characters, and through taking on those attitudes, in a way becomes the character and is able to express the character on the page. So I think in that sense, because I have had a background in film, it was easy for me to get to that place and a lot of fun.
MH: What made you make the shift from documentary filmmaking into writing narrative fiction? How did that come about?
RO: It was really a financial necessity. I had made two independent films, and I had gotten grants to make them, but in the end I’d ended up using my credit cards to finance them as well. And so I think I was about thirty thousand dollars in credit card debt after finishing the second one, and I just realized it wasn’t a sustainable way of moving forward. Then it occurred to me that if I shifted to writing novels, how much does a ream of paper cost? It costs, what, three, four, five dollars, right? And you can write a whole novel on a ream of paper. And so that seemed like a really wonderful alternative to this far more complicated and expensive medium of creative expression. So that’s what I ended up doing. And I mean to say, that’s one truth. The other truth is that I had always, ever since I was a very, very little girl, wanted to write novels. So in a way it was just coming back to this thing that I really had always wanted to do.
MH: So as you became a writer, which writers influenced you?
RO: That is such a difficult question to answer because I think that really any writer who I’m reading at the time, in a way, is an influence. And that’s certainly true for this book. A lot of this book came from nonfiction work that I was reading, including the thirteenth century Zen master, an oceanographer who was studying the great oceanic gyres, another historian who was reading and analyzing the diaries and journals of kamikaze pilots during World War II. There’s a huge number of influences. In terms of literary influences, however, I think there are certain writers who I’ve always held their voices in my head, and one of them oddly enough is Kurt Vonnegut. There’s something about his ironic tone and his humor that has always inspired me. Another writer would be Hiroki Murakami, the Japanese writer. Once again, I think it’s a question of the tone in his voice. There’s humor but there’s also kind of a flatness of his affect that I have found interesting to look at. The other extreme, I would have to say Shakespeare because when I was, for example, writing this book, it’s set on a stormy island and certainly I was reading The Tempest and really just enjoying the richness of the poetry in Shakespeare’s language. It never fails to inspire me. I mean, if I get stuck, I turn to Shakespeare and I read a little Shakespeare, and it seems to kind of loosen things up.
MH: A couple of things you said have really struck me. The sense of finding a little distance. I read in another interview you mentioned the fact of being a Japanese-American, how that shaped you, that sense of two cultures. That gives you a perspective that’s unique. I’m sure that’s affected how you write and your point of view. Could you talk a bit more about that?
RO: Yes, certainly. I think that growing up as a mixed-race kid in the United States, I was very aware of identity, of race, of not quite being part of the mainstream. And that was always my experience growing up in the States. The rest of the culture saw me as a Japanese girl, and so that’s how I learned to see myself as well. I adopted all of the attributes that I assumed were appropriate for a Japanese girl. I was studious and serious and quiet and good at music and all of those kind of things. It wasn’t really until I went to Japan and people started seeing me as an American that I realized that yes, I’m an American, too, and therefore I can take on all of those cultural attributes. I can be loud and obnoxious and I can have a sense of humor. Things like that. It was a terribly liberating realization. But I think in terms of how that affects me as a writer, I’m always on the outside looking in. Of course, the best vantage point is always from the outside. It’s where you can see the most. And I think that’s a very useful place for a writer to be. When I was a kid I wanted to be like everyone else. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that actually being different, it’s a very useful position.
MH: Now, A Tale for the Time Being has gotten some phenomenal reviews. Karen Joy Fowler says, [“A Tale for the Time Being is equal parts mystery and meditation. The mystery is a compulsive, gritty page-turner. The meditation—on time and memory, on the oceanic movement of history, on impermanence and uncertainty, but also resilience and bravery—is deep and gorgeous and wise. A completely satisfying, continually surprising, wholly remarkable achievement, this is a book to be read and reread.”] How does it feel to get such rave reviews from your peers?
RO: It feels wonderful. I don’t know how else to say it. It feels wonderful. I respect Karen Joy Fowler more than anyone I can think of. And certainly I can say the exact same thing for Junot Diaz and Jane Hamilton and for all of the people who have supported me, all of my peers who’ve supported me and supported this book. It’s a wonderful feeling. And at the same time it’s interesting because it’s not personal either, and I don’t know how to explain that except to say that we’re all writing these books and the books come to us in some way as a result of a myriad number of causes and conditions in the world. And our job is to just show up and to write them. In a way it doesn’t feel that personal. It feels like it’s something we do out of love. It’s something we do out of dedication to our craft. We don’t know exactly why stories come to us in these particular ways, but it’s a gift. In the same way, you don’t really take a gift personally. You accept it and then you pass it on. I’m so appreciative of all my fellow writers who are engaged in this work together because we do it together. It’s something we do I think as a community of writers.
MH: It’s been delightful speaking with you and thank you for joining us today. We’re really excited about the audio release of A Tale for the Time Being. Thanks again.
RO: Thank you very much, Malcolm.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Ruth Ozeki. You can find A Tale for the Time Being and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in March 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
A Tale for the Time Being
A brilliant, unforgettable, and long-awaited novel from
bestselling author Ruth Ozeki
“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there is only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who has lived for more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and it will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.
Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and unknown fate, and forward into her own future.
Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, history and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.
A Tale for the Time Being, co-published with Penguin Group (USA) Inc. and Blackstone Audio, Inc.