“Books are magic”: an interview with Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki.jpgWhen I met Ruth Ozeki, I experienced a strange feeling of déjà vu, as if I had met her before. Of course, in a sense, I had. About two months previous, I had met a fragment of Ruth in her novel, A Tale for the Time Being, in which one of the central characters is based partially on herself.

A Tale for the Time Being focuses on two lives: that of Ruth, a half-Japanese author living on a Canadian island with her partner Oliver and cat Pesto; and of Nao, a teenage girl brought up in America, now living in Tokyo with her parents. These two geographically distant lives converge when Nao’s diary is washed up on the beach of the island – swept across the ocean by the Japanese tsunami of 2011 – and discovered by Ruth.

Nao’s world, full of torment, bullying, sadness and anger, collides with Ruth’s, a seemingly perfect place of peace and quiet. Physically, Ruth and Nao’s lives join via the ocean: via the Great Pacific Gyres. Perhaps more importantly, metaphysically they fuse via a means more deep and meaningful: a common experience of the intense feelings associated with loss, grief and worry. As the book proceeds, Ruth and Nao grow closer and closer until they seem to slip into each other’s worlds and even alter them.

“I can’t think of anything nicer than to visit a [book]store where there’s a thriving community of readers”

“The character, Ruth, is very autobiographical in many ways,” explains Ruth. It’s a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon and we have just sat down in Russell Square. “I think that the spirit of the character is very true to who I have been at different times in my life, but it’s an exaggerated portrait really. In a sense, the Ruth in the book is part of my past; she’s an exaggerated version of who I once was. Though, saying that, in a bigger sense, Ruth, the author of A Tale for the Time Being, is also a fictional character, just like Ruth the character. She’s not me, not the person you’re sitting here talking to.”

Ruth stirs her iced coffee with a tall spoon as she talks. “The Ruth that I was when I was writing that book has already gone. She’s disappeared; she doesn’t exist anymore. But she’s captured in the book. So there’re different versions of this thing that we call the self and it’s always changing… each one has a different scope, a different perspective. And one version of myself is Ruth, the character.” She smiles. Ruth’s words are elegant, considered and honest, just as they are in her writing.

Cover of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki - UK edition.jpgThis year, Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being was awarded the annual Independent Booksellers Book Award. As part of the Independent Booksellers Week, the festival with which the award is affiliated, Ozeki toured some of the UK’s independent bookshops. “The independent booksellers are really the lifeblood of what I do and without them, I really don’t think that I would be writing. Books like mine aren’t Fifty Shades of Grey or Harry Potter, you know? So I really rely on booksellers who understand literature and can really champion books that they like so, an award like this is really a wonderful thing for me,” Ruth explains. “So many of these bookstores have a real sense of community around them; they bring in authors and do in-store events and so on, and I can’t think of anything nicer really, than to visit a store where there’s a thriving community of readers. Without the support that these places give to literary authors, we would have a very hard time reaching readers. I am indebted to them.”

“I always start with a voice and with this book, it was Nao’s voice that I wrote from first”

I ask Ruth what, if any, difficulties she has encountered as a female author and she replies: “Well… I guess I don’t really know as I’ve only ever been a female author. I don’t know what it would be like if I wasn’t!” She laughs. “My books aren’t very easily categorised, so they don’t easily fall victim to any particularly gendered marketing. Lots of people have tried to work out whether or not I’m an Asian-American writer however; of course I am an Asian-American author considering my heritage, but I don’t always write about things that are specifically Asian-American; I write about other things too, like the meat industry and genetic engineering so, in that sense, maybe I am not an Asian-American author.”

“I think the same thing applies to whether or not I am a writer of books for women. I certainly have strong female protagonists, but that is not through any devising on my part. They just end up being the characters who I seem to want to write about. I think my books are, technically, considered to be mainstream women’s fiction; that’s the marketing category… I think. But, I also know there is a big crossover in the readership and I do get a lot of men reading my books as well.”

“These categories are difficult,” Ruth continues. “When you’re writing, you’re just writing! You don’t think about how or even whether your book will end up on the bookshelf; you hope that it will at some point, but you can’t even be sure of that, so you just write and it’s only afterwards that people try to fit you into some category or some niche, and that’s fine, but it’s just not my business to think about! And, if I do think about it, it really intrudes and disturbs my writing.”

I ask Ruth how she started A Tale for the Time Being and she pauses momentarily. “I always start with a voice,” she says, “and with this book, it was Nao’s voice that I wrote from first. I knew that she was writing a diary and I knew, too, that she was addressing it to someone… but I didn’t know who and she didn’t know who either. I proceeded to audition characters for the role of her reader for a few years thereafter. At the end of 2010, I had finally finished a draft, but it was very, very different to how the book is now. ‘Ruth’ wasn’t in the book; the reader was a different character entirely. And then, I was just about to turn it into my editor in 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.”

Ruth sets her coffee down onto the table and places her left hand into her right. Her voice quietens slightly. “I realised, then, that Japan was a completely different place now and that, well, the whole world was a different place… You know?” I nod and she nods along with me. “There was just no way to proceed with the book as it was. It would have been like writing about a world that no longer existed. It was only after the tsunami that I realised that I should be the character of reader. Once I realised that, it just started to happen very quickly and it was finished just six months later.”

“The book is dedicated to my mum,” Ruth explains as we begin talking about her family and the memory of her parents. Her hands unclasp and she moves her coffee and my tea to one side as if clearing a pathway across the table for our now quieter conversation to travel along. “She is very much in the book. All of the description of Ruth taking care of her mother is very similar to my own, personal experience, but, once again, it is just a small slice, little tiny moments. The feeling of it is there though. I took care of my mum whilst she had Alzheimer’s over the last six years of her life and she lived with us, just like in the book.” Ruth pauses, smiling. “It was hard, but it was really wonderful. She was lovely. I miss her a lot. I’m an only child, so it falls on you to look after your parents; I learnt a lot, caring for them, a lot about life and death.”

We begin discussing one particularly curious character in A Tale for the Time Being: Nao’s great-grandmother, Yasutani Jiko, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, who lives on the side of a mountain. The novel is scattered with her musings and views on the world. Nao, who endlessly is trying to escape her troubled Tokyo life, strives to adopt Jiko’s peaceful and philosophical outlook. Jiko becomes an unlikely role model – or more aptly, hero – to the teenage protagonist and she becomes, by the end, a symbol of acceptance: acceptance of not only death and loss, but also life.

The fragment of Ruth whom I have known for the last couple of months has completely disappeared and in her place the real Ruth (or the Ruth I met today at least) lives instead

Buddhism is a core of the book; it is also central to Ruth’s life. “I’m a Buddhist priest,” she replies when I ask about religion. “Well,” she continues, “I’m just a baby priest! I’m just starting. I’ve been practicing Zen for many years, but in the lineage of which I’m part of, which is American Soto Zen, you ordain as a priest and then you start formal priest practice at that point. I ordained in 2010, so I still have many years of study left to do. When I get back to the States, I’ll be doing another monastic residency and going back on to a more formal practice, which I’ve had to take a break from to support the book. It’s really important to me and it has been, really, since I was quite small.”

I ask Ruth how and when she first encountered Buddhism and she smiles. “My grandparents were Buddhist, and I knew that about them from very early on. The first memory I have as a little person was of my grandparents meditating. They had come to visit us and they were staying in my parents’ bedroom. My mother sent me in – I was just three at the time – to call them for breakfast and I remember going into the bedroom, opening the door and seeing them sitting on the floor, which was very odd to me because I’d never seen adults sit on the floor before. They were my height when they were sitting! And they were cross-legged, rocking back and forth. I remember thinking it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen! I remember it so vividly…”

I ask Ruth if she’s always written and if she’s always known that she’d be a writer and she replies, nodding, “Yes, it’s been constant really. When I was a little kid, I used to write little stories and little books, when I was a teenager I was writing poetry and short stories, when I was in college, too, I was writing short stories… and so on. Then, after college, I tried to write a novel, but I found I didn’t know how. Then I became a filmmaker for a little bit, but the writing was still there. I always knew that it was what I really wanted to do.”

It’s closing time and, as the café is packed up around us, we gather our bags and choose to move onto somewhere else to continue talking. “Writing… is a brilliant thing,” she says as she rummages through her bag looking for her phone. She looks up, eventually, with it in her hand. “It’s portable and cheap and, as long as you stay faithful to it, it finds its expression.”

Later, returning home after another hour of talking with Ruth, I return to A Tale for the Time Being with a pack of biscuits and a cup of tea. As I begin reading from where I left off just this morning, I realise that something has changed. The fragment of Ruth whom I have known for the last couple of months has completely disappeared and, in her place, now, between the pages of my book, the real Ruth (or the Ruth I met today at least) lives instead. Later, emailing Ruth to tell her this, she replies: “Books are magic. We read each other into being.”

Images show: (1) Ruth Ozeki (used under a Creative Commons licence, with thanks to the American Library Association and (2) the cover of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Edited on 25 July 2013 to correct small typographical errors and change the image to the cover of the UK edition.

Claire Hazelton is a writer and classical musician living in London. She is currently writing her first novel and a non-fiction book with musician John Parish. Follow her @ClaireHazelton.