An Interview with Ruth Ozekiby Jessica Doyle
Junot Diaz calls it bewitching, intelligent, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Philip Pullman calls it ingenious and touching. With such rave reviews it's no wonder Ruth Ozeki caught the attention of the 2013 Man Booker judges with her third book, A Tale for the Time Being. "It's very exciting - it's a huge honour," Ozeki expressed from New York City. "It's wonderful to have the book included with other really amazing titles. For me, that's one of the loveliest things about it. It's a wonderful occasion to celebrate books and express gratitude to all of the people that have worked so hard behind the scenes to get these books out into the world."
Ozeki's latest book to make it out into the world is, in part, the story of a woman living on Cortes Island, British Columbia in an area known as Desolation Sound. The woman happens to be Ozeki herself, and Cortes Island is indeed Ozeki's home. "You meet a guy, you fall in love, you end up living in Desolation Sound," she explained. In A Tale for the Time Being, remote Desolation Sound moves significantly closer to Japan when Ruth discovers the secret diary of a 16-year-old girl living in Tokyo washed up on the beach after the 2011 tsunami. What happens next is an incredible story of shared humanity and the powerful relationship between reader and writer.
Read on for an interview with author Ruth Ozeki.
AbeBooks Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki › Play Video
AbeBooks: There are two protagonists in A Tale for the Time Being - Nao, a Japanese girl and writer of the diary, and Ruth, Nao's reader. How did you become Nao's reader?
Ruth Ozeki: It was not meant to be. When I first started writing the book in 2006 I was not the reader. I knew that there would be a reader, a character that would read Nao’s diary, but I didn't know who that would be. I basically auditioned characters for that role. I kept trying new characters and rejecting them. For one reason or another, none of them would work. I would start writing with a new character and get 50 pages into it, and the whole thing would just go flat.
I did finally finish a draft. I knew there were problems with the draft, but I was about to submit it to my editor because I needed somebody to take a look at it. This was in 2011 when the Japanese earthquake and tsunami hit, and that changed everything. It changed Japan, it changed the world. It certainly changed the way I was thinking and feeling about Japan and the world, so I withdrew the book.
When a catastrophe of that magnitude happens it changes everything. I thought about the book some more, and asked the question - how does a fiction writer respond to something that real? And not only real, but something that is occurring as we speak and will continue to unfold - the effects of the tsunami, the meltdown at Fukushima, all of that. They weren't going to go away. There was going to be an ongoing tragedy. How do you respond to that as a fiction writer?
I was talking it over with my husband, and he was really the one that came up with the idea - that as a fiction writer you have to break the fictional container, and you have to put yourself on the line. He suggested that I need to step in and be in the book, and he was right. It would allow me to respond in a more direct way to these very real events. And I said, 'that's great, but you realize that if I'm in the book, you have to be in the book too', and he agreed. That was several months after the tsunami. I basically ripped the book in half, unzipped it, and threw two thirds of it away. I proceeded to rewrite it with this Ruth character, who is a semiautobiographical character, and finished it in about six months. It went fast because it was the right answer.
AbeBooks: Ruth mentions her struggles with writing a memoir several times throughout the book. Is this story, in part, your memoir?
Ruth Ozeki: Yes. Exactly. I was thinking about writing a memoir and had been playing with this idea over the past decade, but had never quite committed to it. When I put Ruth in the book I was kind of amused by it, because how would a fiction writer fail to write a memoir? She would turn it into a fiction. Ruth's half of A Tale for the Time Being is her failed memoir. That's exactly what it is.
AbeBooks: A Tale for The Time Being is dedicated to your late mother. How did she inspire the story?
Ruth Ozeki: She's in the story. Jiko is certainly a version of her - a fragment of my mother. She's very much in the book. Her spirit is infused through the book somehow. She's in all of the characters, in all of the stories - not just the story of her Alzheimer's and her demise. In a way, every book that I write has a kind of ghost. I guess my mom is the ghost or the spirit of this book. Her presence is there, it's felt in the book, I think. To be more specific, it's something about the resilience of the characters and the spirit and humour. That's her.
AbeBooks: Nao reads a lot of manga, Japanese comic books. What were you reading when you were Nao's age?
Ruth Ozeki: I was reading Faulkner. I was reading Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Anais Nin, Adrienne Rich, and Shakespeare. I was reading Norman Mailer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jane Austen. I was a pretty precocious reader. I read a lot. I remember I started reading Norman Mailer when I was in elementary school. I don't know why exactly, but that's just the culture I grew up in. My friends - that's what we did. We liked reading books that were way ahead of us, and we thought we were very cool to do so. It's interesting - I would love to go back and read that now, because I don't know what we were actually reading. I can't imagine what book it was that we thought we were reading. Whatever it was, we were enthusiastic about it. I got something out of it. They stayed with me. Light in August, that stayed with me.
Tender is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen
Delta of Venus
by Anais Nin
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History
by Norman Mailer
Light in August
by William Faulkner
AbeBooks: Ruth mentions a deal she made with her husband when she moved from New York to Desolation Sound - she was allowed to order any book she desired as long as they lived there. Is that true? What are some of the books on your shelves in Desolation Sound?
Ruth Ozeki: That's right. The two of us order a lot of books! Really, I order books that I use for research. Most of them are fairly archean books, for example; Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Times; Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan; The Bluestockings of Japan: New Women Essays and Fiction from Seito 1911-1916; Japan at War: An Oral History; In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist; Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist. These are books that I actually have doubles of. I'm reading them here - I'm sitting in front of my bookshelf in New York, but I have copies of all of these books back on Cortes.
Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times
by Miriam Silverberg
Japan at War: An Oral History
by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook
In the Beginning, Woman Was the Sun: The Autobiography of a Japanese Feminist
by Hiratsuka Raicho
Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist
by Hee-Jin Kim
AbeBooks: You split your time between the remote coast of British Columbia and bustling New York City. Where do you do your best writing?
Ruth Ozeki: Mostly in BC. I do my writing on Cortes Island. When I'm writing, I'm on Cortes. It's a wonderful place to work. It's where we spend most of our time, and it's where I prefer to be - because I would always prefer to be writing.
AbeBooks: A Tale for the Time Being is largely about the relationship between reader and writer. Which side do you prefer?
Ruth Ozeki: That's an interesting question. I don't really have a preference. Maybe because I just see them as a continuum, I don't see them as being separate. Writing is a response to reading - it's sort of a conversation, and you can't have a conversation by yourself. It's a conversation that unfolds over time. I don't really see them as being different. Although having said that, one of the wonderful things about having finished a novel is that now I can read lots of novels. When I'm writing a novel I tend to read more non-fiction, and I'm not as current with fiction as I'd like to be. I find that there are only a limited number of hours in the day, and the non-fiction I read is usually research that I'm using for the writing process. The other thing is that a fictional world, whether you're reading it or writing it, is completely engrossing. You want to be able to submerge completely, but when I'm in the process of writing, I can't do that.
AbeBooks: As a filmmaker, would you ever want to make any of your books into a feature film?
Ruth Ozeki: No. Absolutely not. No interest. I made a book trailer though. Have you seen it?
AbeBooks: Yes, it's beautiful! It made me wonder if you'd ever make a full length film of A Tale for the Time Being.
Ruth Ozeki: You couldn't pay me enough to do it! For me, it's a novel. It was incredibly fun to make the trailer with my friend Bill Weaver, a Victoria film maker. He's brilliant. He's a beautiful cinematographer and wonderful editor. It was so much fun to make it. But still, that's a two minute film - it was really hard! It's too hard. It takes too long. My days of that kind of filmmaking are over. I could see making other kinds of films, but I wouldn't want to make something I've already made in one medium in another medium.