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The Shores of My Imagination: A Conversation with Ruth Ozeki

by Brendan Dowling on January 8, 2014

In Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth, a novelist living in an isolated island off the coast of British Columbia, finds a package washed up on the beach during a morning walk. Inside is a Hello Kitty Lunch box containing, among other objects, the diary of Nao, a suicidal American teenager living in Japan. Ruth believes the package washed up as a result of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, and is soon consumed by discovering Nao’s fate. Alternating between Ruth’s life on the island and excerpts from Nao’s diary, the reader learns how Nao ended up in Tokyo, as well as the stories of Nao’s great-grandmother, a 104 year-old Zen Buddhist nun, and Nao’s great-uncle Haruki #1, a World War II kamikaze pilot.  Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and praised as a “a tantalizing narration that brandishes mysteries to be solved and ideas to be explored” by The Washington Post, A Tale for the Time Being was one of 2013’s most acclaimed novels. Ozeki spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on January 2nd and 6th.

Public Libraries: One of the main characters of the novel is Ruth, and she’s a fictional version of yourself. Was including yourself in the novel a risk for you? Did you feel more exposed than you had in your previous novels?

Ruth Ozeki: I don’t think I felt more exposed. And I didn’t really feel it was a risk; that’s not the word I’d use to describe it.  It felt like an inevitability. It felt like something I had been resisting since the very beginning, because when I started the book in 2006—when the voice of Nao started coming to me—I knew that she was writing to somebody, and it occurred to me that maybe she was writing to me. I was the one who was hearing the voice after all. So I thought maybe I should be a character in the book. But I very quickly discarded that idea.

And it wasn’t until after the [2011]earthquake and Fukushima [nuclear disaster] that I finally came back to that idea, having spent the intervening years looking for this other character—Nao’s reader—and not really finding one. Even though I had finished a draft of the book, I still wasn’t satisfied with it. It wasn’t until then that I realized that I had to step into the book, that I had to be that character of the reader. I had resisted it for years.

PL: The events of the world were so big that you had to step into the book?

RO: I had finished the book and it was a book about Japan. I had written a pre-earthquake, pre-tsunami book, and suddenly reality intervened. The earthquake and tsunami changed the world. When reality occurs with that much violence you have to respond to it. So then I was really perplexed because how do you respond to a reality that is so disturbing?

It was actually Oliver, my husband, who said, “You need to step into the fiction. You need to break the fictional container of the novel and allow reality to penetrate.” It also gave me the opportunity to comment and reflect on all that was going on in 2011. By breaking the fictional container and by stepping into the fiction as a semi-real character, it allowed me to respond more directly.

PL: It seems it would be so tempting to let the fictional version of yourself behave in the best way possible.

RO: If you’re writing a fictional version of yourself, you have to do the opposite. In a way, you’re working with the reader’s expectations. So if you’re writing a fictional version of yourself—one that is recognizable to the reader as being a fictional representation of yourself—you have to make yourself into a more limited character, because otherwise the reader’s not going to like you. If you pretend to be smarter than you are or better than you are, then the reader is going to sense that immediately and hate you.

And you see this very often in first narratives of any kind. Very often the first-person narrator character is actually the lesser character, plays the foil. And the reason is because if you have a character speaking in the “I” voice who is self-aggrandizing and smart and always makes the right decisions, that character is almost by definition going to be really annoying to the reader. So I went out of my way to make the Ruth character in the book a limited person. She has her limitations. (laughs)

PL: You’re also a filmmaker, and I wondered how creating a story on film influenced how you create a story on the page.

RO: I still work very much like a filmmaker in a sense. When I’m writing a scene, for example, it’s almost like I have a camera and I walk into a room, look around, decide where to set up the tripod and what lens to use, and then pan the camera around and look for the opening shots. I still operate very much like a documentary filmmaker. Certainly in the editing and the construction of a scene, I think about it with an editorial eye, a visual eye. And that’s pretty natural because that was my training for so many years.

PL: I was reading an interview you had given where you talked about how so much of documentary film is the filmmaker’s version of what happened and is affected by the music and the editing.

RO: Very much so. This is the sort of strange distinction we still hang on to so desperately between fact and fiction, documentary and fantasy, or objective and subjective. Personally, as somebody who made documentary films, I know perfectly well that the reality you’re purporting to portray is not real. It’s a representation. It’s shaped by the decision you make about the camera angle, the lens that you use, certainly in the editing and the music—it’s a manipulation. You’re presenting reality in a certain light. Two filmmakers can make a film about the exact same thing and they’re completely different.

Every time you’re filtering information through a certain consciousness, it’s going to change very much. And I think the same thing is true for the distinction we make between fiction and non-fiction. I think it’s a specious distinction. It’s a distinction that’s really a taxonomical one. It helps libraries and booksellers determine where to place something on a bookshelf. But really when you examine it, I think it’s kind of a continuum rather than being an either/or.

And this book, while it’s a novel and it’s a fiction, and many of the things in the novel didn’t happen in real life, still a lot of the things did happen in real life, like the earthquake and the meltdown in Fukishima. For example, with Nao’s diary, I didn’t actually take a walk on the beach and stumble across a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a diary inside it. On the other hand, I was probably walking along the beach when I started to hear the voice of this young girl speaking in the back of my mind. So in a way, her voice washed up on the shores of my imagination, so you can look at the book as being a metaphor for the creative process as well.

PL: As a reader you get so caught up in the Ruth version of the story and the fates of characters that might not exist.

RO: And I was doing that on purpose. I was very much playing with what’s real and what’s not real. And how do we experience reality, how do we experience the gradations of what’s real and what’s not real? And also how do we experience uncertainty? Having planted the seed of uncertainty, it’s always going to be there vibrating in the background.

And the book is about not knowing, too. Once again, I go back to the tsunami and the thousands of people who were washed out to sea. And we don’t know. There’s so much that we don’t know.

I look at the Ruth section of the book as being my failed memoir. Because in reality I was thinking about writing a memoir, in fact I was working on a memoir—

PL: And this was in 2003-

RO: This was in 2003, 2004, 2005, actually, all the way through. I’m still thinking about writing a memoir. (laughs) It’s something I’ve been toying with for many years now. It’s kind of funny, because I think of myself as primarily a fiction writer, and how does a fiction writer fail to write a memoir? Well, obviously she turns it into a fiction. So you can look at the Ruth half of the book as being the failed memoir that I’ve been trying to write for so many years.

PL: And the beautiful aspect of it is that it fails as a memoir but succeeds as a fiction.

RO: Fiction writers, we get our material somewhere, right?

PL: You were ordained as a Buddhist priest in 2010, which was during the process of writing your novel. How did delving deeper into Buddhism influence your approach to writing?

RO: That’s a question that’s still unfolding, isn’t it? I don’t know. It’s hard to answer because we’re so much in process still. It’s so hard to answer this truthfully, because the relationship changes. It goes back and forth. There were times when I thought meditation and the Zen practice was really helping my writing and making it easier for me to go more deeply and more quickly into it. There were times when I thought meditation and Zen practice were interfering by making me almost too self-conscious. Thankfully, that phase seems to be passing, but it’s hard to tell, because things come and go like waves. But I look at this book—and I’ve written three books, and right now I think this is the best book I’ve written. And I couldn’t have written this book without Zen practice.

PL: The other big part of the novel is the violence that characters live with and endure, particularly Nao and her great-uncle. Can you talk about the reaction you’ve received from readers about this aspect of the novel?

RO: One of the things that I wanted to do in the book was to talk about the cultures of violence and to show how bullying—for example the way Nao experiences it in junior high school—is not an isolated occurrence. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Haruki #1’s experience of bullying in the army—it was interesting to do the research on this and see how the names of these bullying games are the same. The ones that were used in World War II, people recognize these names and still use them today.

What’s interesting, too, is that I was writing about Japan, and American and European readers very often comment on this and say, “Wow Japan must be a terrible place because of all of this terrible, cruel bullying. This would never happen in our country.” This is always shocking to me when I hear this. Because the other kind of story that I hear in the US and Canada and the UK are from people who have been bullied. The stories I hear from bully victims [here] make Nao’s experience look quite tame. In Japan these stories about bullying have been around and are very common. You certainly see it in the newspapers. You see stories of children who have been bullied and have committed suicide.

It’s almost been a theme in Japanese pop culture for quite a while. It’s in the news and it’s being talked about; whereas in the West, it’s still very deeply repressed, we’re not really talking about it. It’s interesting to have a book like this out in the world that seems to be inviting people to speak up and discuss it. And I hope that’s a good thing.

Cyberbullying in particular is much more prevalent than we realize. Last year in Canada, two young women were sexually abused and the photographs and videos were put up on twitter. And these two girls on two different sides of the country at two different times committed suicide. In the States, we’ve had similar kinds of cases. I don’t think this is in any way confined to Japanese culture. Here in the West, we’re just not talking about it yet.

PL: What roles have libraries and librarians played in your own life?

RO: Ever since I was a very little kid, I always went to the library with my mother. She used to take me in the summer when I wasn’t in school. We would go to the library in the morning and spend long hours there. I remember my library had a summer program. We would read books and write little book reports and the person who wrote the most book reports would win a prize at the end of the summer. I was always amongst the kids who won prizes. (laughs) It just seemed to me to be the most wonderful thing. You could do this thing, which was so wonderful anyway—you would read a book, you would write about it, and then you would win a prize for it? Yeah, what a great thing!

PL: Do you remember any of the books that you wrote about?

RO: They were all of these kids’ books. Little biographies of famous men—Ben Franklin, stuff like that. Books like The Borrowers, Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time. All of these books were big favorites of mine.

It occurred to me recently that the reason I like books like Charlotte’s Web and Harriet the Spy is because they’re about writers. Charlotte’s Web is about a writer, who happens to be a spider.

PL: And it’s also a story about the relationship between a reader and a writer?

RO: This was probably the genesis for A Tale for the Time Being—probably Charlotte’s Web. Saving lives, it’s great!

I was always in libraries from the time I was a really little kid. I remember in seventh grade, I was in the school library with my friend and we had been given an English assignment to write a poem. We were reading e.e. cummings at the time. I was feeling frustrated because my mind was not a whimsical mind, it was a very prosaic, leaden, plodding kind of mind that couldn’t think of anything interesting in the way of a poem. I was lying on the floor and I was looking at the spines of the books lined up and I started reading them out loud to my friend And she started writing them down and there was something about this list of fictional titles that started to arrange themselves into poetry. It was like found poetry. That was when I first discovered the magic of serendipity and the power of browsing—that if you kept your eyes open in a library and you read things randomly and pulled them off the shelf that it could inspire you to feel and recombine. These are lessons that writers really need to know. And I was very lucky because I learned it early on in the library.