Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Q&A with Ruth Ozeki, author of A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING

You are ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and Buddhist philosophy plays a big role in A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING. How has becoming a priest influenced your writing? How are your roles as writer and priest related?

This question is complicated and also very simple. The simple answer is that the two, writer and priest, are the same. I am just one person, just one time being, so how could there be a difference?

My interest in Buddhist philosophy is overtly apparent in A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, but I can see the beginning of this inquiry in my first two novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, which are very concerned with the interconnected nature of our lives in the world.

Zen practice has changed the way I write and has helped me continue writing. I reached a point as a novelist where I could no longer trust my voice in the world. I felt like my writer’s voice had become wobbly, unreliable and untrustworthy. I suppose it was a crisis of faith. Zen practice provided a philosophical and ethical ground, a trustworthy foundation, for my writing practice. Or to put it another way, it helped me grow a backbone.

So I would say that my Zen practice and my writing practice are the same, but of course, in practical terms, the roles of writer and priest are very different. For one thing, I do not wear Zen robes when I write. I wear a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of overalls. And I sit at a desk in front of a computer, rather than on a cushion in front of a blank wall. And when thoughts arise, I write them down rather than letting them go.

March of 2013 will mark the two year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake that triggered the infamously destructive tsunami. The two main characters in the book are brought together by these events. Did the idea for this story come out of that disaster? Do you think there are opportunities for people to connect more meaningfully after environmental catastrophes?

If there’s one Buddhist notion at the heart of this book, it’s what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” the idea that we are all deeply and inextricably connected with each other. In our globalized world, this has never been clearer. “Local” is now as wide as the ocean and vast as the sky.

So yes, connection is everything! There are so many wonderful stories about communities that form in the wake of disasters and catastrophes. After Hurricane Sandy, I read studies showing how communities with strong connections were the ones that coped best. The critical factor wasn’t aid from FEMA or outside agencies. The critical factor was the coherence of the local communities. In Japan, especially in more rural areas, community ties are ancient and very strong, so this helped in the wake of an unthinkable catastrophe.

I can’t say that the idea for the novel came entirely from the earthquake and tsunami. Half of it did. A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is a story about a writer and her reader, and it’s told in two parts. The writer is a Japanese schoolgirl named Nao, who is trying to record the life story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother in the pages of her diary. Nao is getting bullied at school, and she’s decided that making this record of her great-grandmother’s life as an anarchist, feminist Zen nun will be the last thing she does before she commits suicide.

I’d written Nao’s story in the years prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and I knew that Nao needed a Reader, someone she would call into being to find and read her diary. I “auditioned” four or five characters to play the role of Nao’s Reader, which meant I’d written four or five discrete versions book, each with a different secondary protagonist and story arc. Finally I finished a draft that I was reasonably happy with, and I was about to submit it to my editor when, on March 11, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit. Suddenly Japan was a different place, and the world was different, too, and I realized, with great clarity, that the book I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I basically unzipped the manuscript, threw away half, stepped into the role of the Reader myself, as Ruth, and started again from the beginning.

The character of Ruth is also a writer. How much does the fictional Ruth resemble the author Ruth?

I would call her semi-fictional (although if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too). Character Ruth and author Ruth have much in common—a husband named Oliver, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a house on an island in Desolation Sound—but character Ruth has a more limited perspective and a different set of experiences. For example, character Ruth learns about Zen meditation from Nao, whereas author Ruth has been meditating for decades. Stuff like that.

I like to think of it as playing out a series of “what if...?” propositions, and then following them through to a logical conclusion. What if I had never started practicing Zen? What if I stumbled across a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach and found a diary? What kind of Ruth would I be? I also like to think of it in terms of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics (something that fiction writers can’t seem to get enough of!), which would posit that character Ruth and author Ruth (and many other Ruths as well) all do exist, only in different quantum realities. The antithesis of ruthlessness!

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING questions assumptions about writers and readers, namely that the writer is always in charge of the story. What do you see as the power of the reader?

Oh, but the writer is never in charge of the story! That would be a disaster!

I see the two roles, of writer and reader, as symbiotic. The writer creates the reader; Nao creates Ruth and literally calls her into being. But in this case, Ruth, the reader, is also a writer, and so when Nao founders, Ruth can intervene and help.

Now, of course this seems like awfully fanciful stuff. As writers, we don’t actually rely on our readers to intervene and co-write our scenes or finish our sentences. Or do we?

Actually, I would argue that we do. Writing is reading. Readers are writers. Every word I write can only be unlocked by the eye and mind of a reader. My scenes come to life because a reader invests them with his or her experience and imagination. The process is essentially collaborative. Of course, logically this means that every reader is reading a very different book. The Tale that Reader A reads is very different from the Tale that Reader Q reads, and anyone who has ever been in a book club knows this to be true. Again, it’s a beautiful analogue to quantum Many Worlds.

The narrator, Nao, endures some horrendous bullying. How did you decide to include this hot button issue in the story? What is your advice to young people who are being bullied?

Bullying is in the air. It’s in our politics. It’s on our billboards, television screens, and in our shopping malls. It’s on our food shelves at the grocery store and on our dinner plates. It’s certainly in our foreign policy and in the wars we wage and the way we treat the people we call our “enemies.” And of course it’s in our schools, too. When I’m writing, I don’t parse the world into categories like “hot button” or “issues.” Bullying is simply part of the air I breathe, and I have to write about it.

There’s no single answer to the problem of bullying, but my first piece of advice to young people who are being bullied would be to tell someone. Tell an adult or someone in a position of authority. Tell a teacher. Tell a counselor. Tell your parents if you can, but don’t try to handle the situation alone. And if you see someone being bullied, too, don’t ignore it or pretend it isn’t happening. Tell someone. Don’t just be silent. Silence means the bullies have won.

Another thing I’d advise is to develop your supapawa! If you can learn to meditate and practice mindfulness, it will help you stay calm when you’re being bullied, rather than reacting by getting angry or scared or losing control over yourself, which is exactly what the bully wants.

The internet is both a connector and a disruptor in the novel and your characters are very plugged in. How much do you engage online? What are the benefits and dangers of living our lives online?

I love being online. I love the connection with others and the world. I love being sucked down the black hole, into the great information gyre. And I am addicted to email, which can be a problem.

The danger, for me, is that being online conditions my mind to behave in ways that are antithetical to what’s required to write a novel. It conditions my mind to look outside itself for answers or ideas or relief from uncertainty. When I’ve been online a lot, I can feel the restless, grasping, skittery quality of my attention, and I lose my ability to hold the fictional world in my head. At one point, several years ago, my mind felt so compromised, I was worried I had Alzheimer’s. I was convinced I no longer had the capacity for the deep, sustained, penetrating focus that novel writing requires. I was working on A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING at the time, and I gave up. The manuscript sat in an untouched folder on my hard drive for over a year, until I went away on a three week writer’s retreat where the cottages had no WiFi connection. It was kind of miraculous. I started working on the novel again, and I was able to concentrate and focus deeply. I realized there was nothing wrong with my mind that quality offline time wouldn’t correct. So thank god for neuroplasticity!

Now I try to be very disciplined about the time I spend online. Email is the worst time suck. Email is an inexhaustible list of things that other people want you to do, and of course I try to oblige, but in the end I’m resigned to the fact that I will always fail. It’s kind of a relief, actually. I try to limit the amount of time I spend doing email. In the morning, I try to do three things on my task list, including any writing that I’m working on, before I go near my inbox. But even as I write this, I’m aware of it, calling to me...

What do you want readers to take away from A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING?

A sense of the way we and the world are interconnected through time and space. Gratitude for the precious and fleeting time we have here on this earth. An appreciation of the earth, itself, and maybe a resolve to treat it more kindly. The earth is a time being, too.

It’s been nearly a decade since your last novel. What has been different this time around? Have you missed anything about the publishing process?

While it’s wonderful to have books out in the world, the process of publishing can be pretty grueling. At the same time, I love the collaborative nature of the editorial process, and it’s so gratifying to watch a manuscript flower under the guidance of a skilled editor. I’m exceedingly lucky, because my editor, Carole DeSanti, is one of the best editors working today, and she and my publishers have saved me from my excesses and delusions on countless occasions. But it’s not just the editor and the publisher. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people involved in the publishing of a book, and when I think of all the hard work they put into bringing my book into the world, I feel humbled and deeply grateful to them all. Without publishing, this book would have no readers. Without readers, Nao and old Jiko would only exist in my mind. Like ghosts. That feels awfully sad and lonely.
Who would be in your dream book club? Where would you meet and what would you talk about?
My dream book club would consist of half a dozen novelist friends—writers who live and breathe long-form fiction. We would meet once or twice a year, in front of a fire in the living room of a beautiful old farmhouse on Whidbey Island. I don’t care what we read as long as it is a novel and it is great. We would read great novels and analyze them and talk in great and obsessive detail about craft.
What’s your next creative project?
I’m working on a new novel, but it’s nascent, and so I don’t know much about it yet, except that it’s probably set in a library. The problem with being a writer is that one’s range of direct experience tends to narrow until the only thing one really knows about is writing books, which is why, eventually, most writers end up writing books about writers and books. So setting a story in a library is kind of inevitable. But I hope it will be a very exciting library.
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your time?
I like hanging out with my Zen sanghas, sitting zazen and generally helping out. Writing is so solitary, so this kind of community activity is a welcome counterpoint. I study and read a lot, too, which is the not-writing part of writing. I also like to run. This is new. I used to dislike exercise and found it boring, but I’m older now, and I need to stay in shape if I want to keep writing. Last year I downloaded a training app, and now I’m running between nine and twelve miles a week. I’m a very slow runner, but I enjoy it, and this year I want to try entering a race. I’ll start with a 10K. My dream is to run a marathon some day.

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