Winter Words 2015
Featuring: Ruth Ozeki
Moderator: Carole DeSanti
Ruth Ozeki: But the other reason that I like to read is because novels, when they first come to me, they come to me as a voice usually. It’s something that I hear, and it’s usually the voice of a character, one of the characters in the novel, though sometimes it’s also the voice of the book itself. And there’s a certain tone that comes with this. There’s a kind of an attitude that comes with this. And until I actually hear that voice —I can have ideas for plots and things like that—but I can’t actually start writing the book until I start to hear that tone, that voice. So in 2006—and I know exactly when this was because now we all use computers and word processing programs, and everything has a date stamp, so you can’t lie to yourself about how long it’s taken you to write a book—in December of 2006, this voice came to me. And it was the voice of a character, this young Japanese schoolgirl named Naoko Yasutani. Her name is, she’s called Nao, N-A-O. She’s a young Japanese schoolgirl living in Tokyo. And I started to hear the voice. So, I’m just going to read a little bit from the beginning so you can hear it in the same way that I heard it.[She reads.] “Hi, my name is Nao, and I’m a time being…” [continues for approx. 30 minutes”] [Carole joins Ruth onstage.]
Carole DeSanti: I kind of want you to read us the rest of the book… One of the really fun things we got to do was to have Ruth read the audiobook, which is kind of unusual in publishing these days because you have to sort of hand it over to the audio producers, and they bring in the “talent,” the professionals, because those people don’t need breaks, they don’t need food, and they go straight through a 12-hour day. But as I pointed out, Ruth reads really beautifully and she’s not like other authors. So, we actually had Ruth read the audiobook, and it was wonderful.
RO: I really wanted to read the book, but I knew it was difficult to actually be allowed to do it. And so I figured out that if you just put enough Japanese in the book, then they would have to let you do it, right? So that was my strategy.
CD: That’s true. There was one email, and it was, well, there’s French, there’s Japanese, there are footnotes, and there’s a lot of Zen, so it really just might be easiest if Ruth did it.
RO: I have to say, too, that it was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in publication, to do that audio book recording. You know most of the time when you’re a writer, you finish a manuscript, and you send it in to your editor, and then it disappears for a long time. And when it comes back as a bound book, it’s not like I’m actually sitting there, binding the book and stitching it together and gluing on the cover and doing all of the work. Whereas, in doing the audio book recording, it was entirely different, because it was literally bringing every single word up through my body again and out into the world. And it was a beautiful, sort of very intimate and wonderful experience. I really enjoyed it. And they booked 80 hours of audio studio time — in other words, two weeks — and I did it in four and a half days.
CD: You aced it, Ruth! Yet again. And she poured saké for us at the same time. Speaking of stitching. Ruth is actually one of those authors who would like to be in the bindery stitching up the books and putting the jackets on. Ruth’s affection for crafts has sometimes come between us in our editor-author relationship, and never more-so than when Ruth decided to take a break from writing her second novel—which we haven’t mentioned yet, but it’s also a wonderful novel called All Over Creation—and decided to embark on a lengthy ordination process as a Zen priest, and one of the things that she was called upon to do, I found out after a few years, was to sew a robe with many, many, many thousands of stitches. And of course, in publishing, patience is not one of our cardinal virtues. People were asking me, you know, “What about another novel from Ruth Ozeki? What’s going on?” And I would think about those stitches … and each one of them could have been a word.
RO: Carole [and I], at one point we were having dinner, and I’d just bought a craft book, a beautiful book on Japanese crafts. And I was so pleased with it. I took it out to show it to her, and she said, “Oh let me see that.” And I handed it to her and she promptly just put it into her bag and she said, “I’ll give it back to you after you turn in the manuscript.”
CD: But in fact, it really was a long gap between your second novel and this novel. There were periods when I just didn’t know if we were ever going to be able to have another novel from you. And when this manuscript came in, it was so … I mean, we were just astonished by it. Not that your other novels hadn’t been wonderful, because they were. But this book really took such a giant leap forward in scope, in subject matter, and I think just in terms of the canvas of your imagination, [it] had somehow enlarged. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
RO: Well, you know, it’s just a question of where to start. In a way, this book is a book I’ve been writing since the late 90s, when my father died. And it was a time, with the death of a parent, that was very traumatic and very upsetting. And it was a time when I started taking Buddhism very seriously again. Buddhism is very effective and a wonderful thing to practice when you are confronting these issues of sickness, old age, and death. And I certainly was at that time. And I started practicing Buddhism very seriously and thinking about how we are, in fact, all of us, time beings. In other words, we are beings with a timeline. This is something that of course we know. But we don’t really pay attention to it. And yet I was living with this. I was living—I’m an only child, so taking care of my parents at the end of their lives very much fell into my lap and there was no escaping it. And at the same time in 1998 when my dad died, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. So it fell to me to take care of her during the last years of her life. And once again, it was very clear that she was a time being who was very gradually, little by little, dropping out of time. She was traveling backwards in time almost, as her memories of even the recent present were ephemeral and they just disappeared. She couldn’t remember one minute from the next, but her memories of the past were very, very strong. And so, this was something that I was watching on a daily basis. And all of this and also the Zen practice I was doing at the time, all of this got warped into A Tale for the Time Being. And it was a very circuitous route. Carole only saw the last draft of the book, but there were about five drafts before that that you were spared. I said earlier in the talk that when I was starting out, I knew Nao had a reader. That this book was going to be about the conversation between a writer and a reader. I knew she was going to have a reader, and I didn’t know who it was, and I spent about four years auditioning readers for that role in the book. And it literally was that. I would think up a reader. I would invite the reader into the fictional world, I would arrange for the reader to find the diary, to read the diary and start to react, and the fictional world would start to grow and get all nice and big and plump and juicy and then one morning, I would open up the manuscript and find the whole thing had just collapsed. And I would realize, that’s the wrong reader. I would usher the reader out of the world, and then we’d go through the whole process again after a suitable period of grieving. And this process went on about four or five times with four or five different versions of this world, of this book. Finally, I finished a draft that I was reasonably happy with, even though I knew that there were problems with it. But in any case, my agent decided that we would now submit it to Carole, and I was just doing that final polishing, sort of moving columns around, when on March 11, 2011, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami hit. And that was one of those events, it was such a catastrophic event, it almost causes a riff in time. I had family and friends also in Tokyo and Sendai, so it was a very traumatic event, but in any case, somewhere in there, I realized that I’d written this book that was a pre-earthquake, pre-tsunami, pre-Fukushima book, and that we were living in that post-earthquake world.
CD: We had dinner the day after. I knew that Ruth had been working on this book very hard and really struggling with it, and then she sat down and said, well, I’ve written a book about a Japan that no longer exists and I can’t publish it, and I can’t continue with it because of this gigantic event. And we just kind of sat there and looked at each other. And ordered another round of saké or bottle of wine. And talked about it. Talked about taking on this world event with unknown ramifications and consequences. And how do you work through that, through it in fiction, because I’m telling you, I was not going to let her give up this novel. I didn’t care how many bottles of wine it might take. We were going to sit there.
RO: I ended up talking with [my husband] Oliver, and he was the one who came up with the suggestion that I step into the book as a character. And his idea was that reality had intruded on this fictional world, and had broken the fictional world. So the way to continue was to step into the fictional world as a real person and allow it to continue to be broken and then to really address the issue of the earthquake, the tsunami, and Fukushima directly in the book. And so that’s what I ended up doing. I ended up taking the manuscript, unzipping it, throwing away about two thirds of it, and then starting again from scratch. And that, it was brilliant. It was one of the best writing periods in my life. It felt so right to be doing it. I knew at that point that this was the book. All those years that I’d spent searching for it. This was it.[Q & A]
Q: It was delightful while reading this to see the illustrations of the fish and the crow and the way you played with fonts as well. And I’m just wondering how you came to that decision.
RO: The book is very much about the physicality of books, the enduring nature of matter. And so one of the things I was playing with… I was contrasting the physical book with the virtual world of the Internet. And so physical matter was something that I wanted to play with, to bring that into the text. So when I was writing the book, I was kind of sketching and playing with fonts and doing all of that myself. But this is where you have a production team behind you, and wonderful, wonderful book designers who then took those ideas and just went with them and I think did an incredible job on the interior of the book. All of the illustrations and the visual tricks were really very beautifully done. It was an idea that I had originally, but then Carole brought this into being somehow.
CD: It was one of those projects that everybody had a chance to contribute to creatively… the audio producer, designers, and the evolution of this jacket, too, was an interesting process in that the first dozens of versions of this jacket featured a very calm scene, with some cherry blossoms floating, and of course I knew that Ruth was never going to tolerate something that was slightly an Asian cliché, which was one branch of cherry blossoms after the next. And you knew you had to go in absolutely the opposite direction. Think bold. Think bright colors. Don’t think a sort of Zen meditation guide. So, that was another area in which we had a sort of breakthrough, and we came up with this. The art director was practically trembling when he finally saw Ruth’s vision and he paired it with his own ideas. So that was also wonderful.
RO; I was fascinated by the character of Old Jiko, and I was wondering if you can talk a little about her and how she kind of seemed to be like a force of nature.
CD: I think in a way Old Jiko is a strong character because we all have our own inner Old Jiko. In a sense, she’s kind of an archetype. She’s the wise elder that we all know. We all know that voice. We all know her very, very well. We all have our own version of her. And so I think she’s kind of universal in that way. The inspiration for that character came from a whole, multiple different sources. It came from a lot of my own teachers, my Zen teachers, but a lot from my mom. Old Jiko has my mother’s sense of humor. You never quite know whether she’s joking or whether she’s being straight. And my mom was like that right up until the day she died. So, Old Jiko inherited that, I think, from my mom.
Q: I was wondering at what point in the process of writing this did you know that the time bending thing was going to happen, and if you could talk a little bit about how that developed in your work, through the narrative, the plot, the characters, and so on.
RO: I have always wanted to kind of play with this thing we call “magical realism.” And I wanted to play with magical time. But I didn’t … I had always admired people who were writing in that tradition, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. And I never quite knew how to do it, and it scared me, and I really, really wanted to try. And so, when I was writing this book, I had this idea that time was going to do something funny, right? And I was terrified by that because I didn’t understand how to do it. And I was getting closer and closer and closer to the moment when it was going to have to happen. And then I realized, oh, you just do it. You just write it. It’s not like I’m going to have to actually go backwards in time here. You’re not going to have to actually bend the time-space continuum. Describe it. Right? And it was a real breakthrough for me. I know that sounds kind of stupid but… I am a relentlessly logical and reality-based person, and so at that moment, something changed. But I have to say, too, that I think that the Zen practice that I’d been doing was really important for that. There was something in the Zen practice that sort of freed me to walk through that wall, the wall that wasn’t even there. I think partly this is because of Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Zen master, quoted in this book. Dogen’s view of time is that it travels in all directions. And so, in a way, the book is a kind of performance of Dogen’s view of time. In that sense, I was being quite literal to Dogen’s view. I think that helped.
Q: I was wondering at what point in your life you found your “supapawa”?
RO: Well, my supapawa, I have to say, is meditation. And I started meditating when I was very, very young. But I didn’t know what I was doing. I just was sitting on the floor staring at a candle because I thought it was kind of cool. I grew up in the 60s, and then I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation when I was 14, and I got my mantra, and then I didn’t do it for a long time, and then I came back to it. So I’ve been going in and out of this for a really long time. I got serious about it, though in 1996, 1997, when my dad got really sick, and I needed something to hang onto. And this was it. And it really got me through that period of time when he was dying. It really enabled me to sit through the period of time when I was taking care of my mom. And it’s just something that’s a very beautiful, literally encouraging practice. Because it gives you courage, it gives you some sort of … you can say it’s a faith-based practice because it develops a sort of faith in yourself. Not in something else, but in yourself. And so it’s a very wonderful thing. It’s helped with my writing tremendously.
Q: We found out that two of our daughters are teaching your book.
RO: Wonderful! Tell them thank you for me. For us.
Q: One of them is a professor at UCLA and she actually wrote in the last chapter of her thesis about your work, and she’ll be teaching A Tale for the Time Being this summer. And the other one is teaching 11th and 12th grade in Durango. So, my questions come from the kids. You’ve answered some of them. The one I thought was the most meaningful is who and what is the inspiration for Nao, given that Ruth seems autobiographical. Is Nao rooted in the truth as well?
RO: That’s a lovely question. In a way, I would say yes. I think that all characters are in some way autobiographical, in the sense that they come from your, from the writers’ experience somehow. And some of them are more or less directly autobiographical. But I think that even, for example, the villains in your books have to be, in some way, autobiographical. Because they come from your experience, your lived experience. In this case, with Nao, I think she is an autobiographical character. I didn’t realize that when I was writing it. This is something I think I only realized after I wrote it. But I was also a fairly traumatized and unhappy and depressed teenager. There were certainly times when I was in my teens that I did think about suicide. And so this is a territory that I know very well. And it’s interesting that I didn’t even make that autobiographical connection until quite later on. But I do think in that sense she is an autobiographical character, and that she saves her life by writing. And I think that’s exactly the way that I managed to make it through my turbulent youth, some of which Carole has told you all about. I think I did it by writing, in the same way that Nao does it, too. That as long as she continues to write, she’ll be okay. And I think that’s true for a lot of writers.