May 2013

Teresa Burns Gunther


An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki, author of My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her new novel A Tale for the Time Being is the profound tale of a relationship between a reader and a writer that explores the interconnectedness of humanity through time. Ruth, an author living on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia, frustrated in her efforts to complete a memoir, discovers a barnacle-encrusted plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox -- possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. The lunchbox contains an antique watch and what appears to be a copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, but hidden within its cover is a diary. A diary written by Nao, a sixteen-year-old in Electric Town, Tokyo, who has decided suicide is her only escape from loneliness and her classmates' vicious bullying. As her final act of redemption Nao attempts to document the life of her 104-year-old great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. Nao's diary propels Ruth in search of answers, pulling her into a multigenerational world across two cultures, across the gyres of the Pacific and the Internet, and through the infinite possibilities of time.

A Tale For The Time Being is about the right book falling into the right reader's hands. I'm so happy it fell into mine. I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth Ozeki last year at Hedgebrook and was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss her work with her.

What was the original inspiration for this book?

The inspiration was really Nao's voice: "Hi, my name is Nao and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well if you give me a moment I'll tell you." Those were the first words that came into my head. I knew certain things about her right away. I knew that she was a young girl -- fourteen to fifteen to sixteen years old. I knew that she was Japanese but writing in English. I knew that she had a sense of humor, and she clearly had an attitude. I knew that she was very confident by the way that she addressed me. I also knew that she was writing to someone, but I didn't who that was. I didn't know what she was up to or why she was writing, but I knew enough so that I could follow her, follow her tone. And little by little it was revealed that she was writing in a diary, that she was suicidal, and that she wanted to do this final act of redemption. I'm not sure exactly when I realized that she had a 104-year-old grandmother, but that happened pretty soon.

Things will come into my consciousness, like my husband will send me a link to an article about Japanese maid cafes and suddenly that will find its way into the book. I was reading a lot of Zen literature over that period, particularly the work of Dogen. The whole notion of a "time being" is from Zen, so all of that was circling around in the gyre of my mind and eventually just kind of made its way into the book.

How did the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami affect you and how did it inform this work of fiction?

The 2011 tsunami changed everything. It changed Japan, it changed the world, and it certainly changed this book. I started writing this book in 2006, and I'd written much of Nao's story in the years prior to the earthquake, 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 of the book, each with a different secondary protagonist and story arc. Finally, I finished a draft I thought might work and was about to submit it to my editor when, on March 11, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit. Day after day, I watched the disaster unfold. It was terrifying. I have friends in Sendai, and relatives in Tokyo, and luckily they all escaped unharmed, but so many didn't. So many just vanished or lost everyone and everything. 

An event of that magnitude radically changes our understanding of time and being, exposing the impermanent and ephemeral nature of what we think of as reality. Suddenly, Japan was a different place, and the world was different, too, and I realized with painful clarity that in the face of this catastrophe, the book I'd written was irrelevant. I realized I needed to respond to it in a serious way.  It took a few months, but in May I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao's voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I'd written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. Somehow, stepping into the role as a semi-fictional version of myself seemed to be the only way of responding to the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very, very quickly. 

Suicide takes many forms in your novel: Nao, her father (Haruki No. 2), the Kamikaze (Haruki No. 1), all while 104-year-old Jiko is preparing for a different kind of death. Did it surprise you that suicide played such a big role?

I think I might have worried about it, from time to time. How can you possibly write a book with three characters, two suicidal and one kamikaze pilot and, as you say, someone who's dying? The whole idea of a time being is a being that has a limited amount of time, a being with a time limit. So this negotiation around how much time we have and the way we think about that and the way we live our lives as a result of the way we think about it -- these are very important things in the book. And so it does make sense to me that there are so many characters contemplating the end of their life in one way or another.

I knew that Nao's father was suicidal and that he had not only tried to commit suicide once, but several times. But I knew that there was also just a little bit of vagueness about whether he'd really tried or whether it was an accident. And I knew that Nao's decision to kill herself was something that she had come to because of her father. The Haruki No. 1 character very much came from the readings of Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. It was just a heartbreaking work chronicling the diaries and writings of these very, very, very smart boys who were sent off to war to do these suicide missions. I was reading those in 2001, and that character of Haruki No. 1 has tried to find his way into other books, too. The other books didn't make it, but the character was there, and has been there for a really long time. And so finally the character found a home in this book.

Jiko is a fascinating character. Was she inspired by a Buddhist nun or someone you've known?

Yes, definitely an echo of my mother. The book is dedicated to her. She was definitely an inspiration for the old Jiko character, a guiding spirit. My mom was great. She was very old when she died. She was ninety, not as old as old Jiko, but Jiko's hands -- those were my mom's hands. Jiko's humor -- that was my mom's humor. In the scene where Jiko can't see anything, she can't tell whether the young people are girls or boys and says: "They're such pretty colors, such cheerful colors, they look so gay." Anybody who knows my mom will recognize those lines as being hers.

The book is very much about the hallucinatory aspects of creation and the creation process. So this voice enters your head, here's this novelist living on a deserted island, and she finds a girl's diary, which very much reflects my experience of being a novelist living on a deserted island and hearing a girl's voice. It's almost like various real elements of Ruth's life get transposed in various ways into this magical, other story. Nao's story. So you can definitely find parallels between my life and Ruth's. And Ruth's character's life and Nao's. Both Ruth's and Nao's characters in the book are obsessed with the past. They're living in the past but they're both in search of now. Ruth in the book is a failed memoir writer, but you can also look at Ruth's sections in the book as being the failed memoir. That is the failed memoir. It's in the book. What makes a failed memoir is a memoir that fails to tell the truth. That starts to make things up. And Ruth is clearly failing to write the memoir and so it turns into a novel instead.

I was struck by the depiction of cruelty and violence in the Japanese military, as well as in Nao's school. This cruelty is juxtaposed with the most beautiful aspects of the culture that Jiko and her world represent.  Were you saying something about the Japanese culture or simply about our human experience?

I think it's just the human experience. If I wrote this book about Akron, Ohio, nobody would think that I was making a comment about Akron, Ohio. However, having said that, there is kind of a bully culture that exists in Japan. I think it exists here, too. I was reading stories about teachers in Japan being complicit in the bullying and that was shocking to me. But the teachers are bullied, too. There were other stories, a substitute teacher, a young woman who was pregnant, and being bullied by her high school students and she ended up losing her child. It was a physical bullying. In the Japanese military horrifying incidents of bullying have been well documented, but it's true in our military, too. It's that military culture. It spawns a certain kind of attitude towards weak people, so it's as much about bullying in America as bullying in Japan. I wrote this during the Bush years and this book is a response to the Bush years. If anything I was making a statement about bully culture in the US. But when you're writing a novel you're not thinking about representing anything, you're just writing the story. This is a story about one fictional character in Japan.

Dreams figure large in the novel, particularly in Ruth's story. Do dreams play a role in your own work?

I don't dream quite that way. My dreams are not that memorable or coherent. Although I will from time to time have dreams that are so vivid that I know, I'm absolutely convinced, that this world exists. It seems inconceivable to me that I could have made it up, because it's so realistic and vivid, down to the minute, tiny details. That's always interested me that there are dreams that are so concrete and specific, so real feeling; in this book I tried to evoke dreams like that. But I also like the idea that dreams are portals into more surreal experiences, other worlds, and that there could be a kind of magical realism involved.

The character of Ruth in this book is me. I'm a fairly realistic person. I exist. I'm real, I think. So people will assume that I'm real. So I thought it would be nice to inject a little surrealism, a little magical realism into Ruth's life in the book. Even though I don't really have dreams like that myself, the process of writing fiction is like a dream. You fall into it and magical things start to happen and you can travel anywhere in your mind. In Japan, going back to the tale of Genji, there's almost a cliché that life is like a dream. It's a Buddhist expression and so that's part of what went into making these dreams.

There are things writers are told in classes and workshops -- like don't use dreams.

Never believe any of those people. Yes! Don't use dreams. What else?

Don't use dreams, don't write about yourself...

Don't write about writers. Don't do dreams. Don't write autobiographically. You can't have all women characters in a book. All of those went through my head and I systematically broke every one of them. I think you can do whatever you want as long as you do it well, as long as it works. If it works no one's going to complain. If it doesn't work then everyone's going to make a rule about it. Don't believe what writing teachers tell you in workshops.

You are a Zen priest. How does your practice inform your writing and vice versa?

I used to think of the Zen practice and the writing practice as being two different things. But the more I practice both the more I realize that actually they're the same. The forms are different but the intention and the spirit behind them and the motivation are the same. So I don't really see much difference anymore. Practically speaking, I think the meditation practice really helps me sort of downshift into a quieter, more receptive place. What meditation teaches you is how to take the backward step, to a place where you can really listen to things that are important. By that I mean things that are troubling you, voices of characters when they come, feelings that you have, all of those kinds of things.  One of the things really important in Buddhist practice is not just meditation, but also the ethical practice. There's a whole ethical component to the Zen practice, though you'd never know it looking at the scandals, one after the other, with the kinky priests doing bad things. But there's supposed to be a strong ethical component to the practice, and for me that's really important in my writing. I want to write from that place of telling stories not just for the sake of telling stories but telling the kind of stories that reflect these ethical questions that arise when we're beings on earth. That seems to me to be very important.

These ethical questions are in your other books.

That's true, in this book in particular. This book is the most overtly Buddhist, the most overtly Zen, but I would argue that both of the other two books are influenced by Zen. The other books are about interconnectedness, or what we call in Buddhist books dependent co-arising, that we all depend on each other and we create each other through our interdependence, and that we don't have an independent self. There's no such thing. It's too much responsibility. It's too lonely.

Yet so much of our effort in our culture is striving for that independence.

Because we're afraid of death. We set ourselves apart because we're afraid of dying. We're afraid of not being ourselves. Whereas, the only way we can really be ourselves is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as self, that we are a much more distributed entity. That we are here thanks to other people. Clearly, obviously, how else would we be here? This is not mystical stuff, its very practical, very real.

Your novel focuses on time and death, the search for home, the idea of living as a preparation for death. Do you think you could have written this book in your thirties?

No. Absolutely not. It's a book for the time being I am right now. No, I couldn't have written this in my thirties at all. This is a book that comes out of almost two decades of Buddhist practice, and it comes out of two decades of caring for dying parents, watching time beings live and die. The older we get the more we understand time. That's what we're here to understand. That's the thing that we can learn. Now I'm fifty-seven, I'm sure when I'm sixty-seven, if I should live that long, or seventy-seven or eighty-seven, I'll be looking back at my fifty-seven-year-old self and thinking, wow, I just understood nothing about time.

You explore parallel worlds and end the novel on Schrodinger's cat and the idea that perhaps science could answer these questions that seem so unanswerable. Do you think it's possible to answer these questions?

I think that there are certain questions that will just never be answered. What science is good at is asking questions. What fiction is good at is asking questions. I don't think that just because a question is asked it needs to be answered, or necessarily can be answered. What are interesting to me are the asking and the exploration that the question provokes. I'm interested in this as a philosopher and a fiction writer, not as a scientist. I will never in a million, billion years, in any world imaginable be able to understand the math behind quantum mechanics. I did contact three physicist friends and asked them to weigh in on this and critique it. There's been a lot of Buddhism in quantum physics discourse over the years and I didn't want it to be reductive and silly, I wanted it to be interesting in a different kind of way, so I did pass it by these friends to make sure that my understanding of, for example, Schrodinger's cat was right, that it made sense and wasn't silly. I think I managed to play with these ideas in a way that made sense and wasn't trivializing. People have told me that to end the book with that is a little mind boggling, but I've had people come up to me and say that for the first time they now have an understanding of Schrodinger's cat. And that to me was Yes!

It was a hopeful ending.

Absolutely. I wanted the ending to be an opening out so that an endless array of endings exists. It's another quantum metaphor. The end of the book is an array; it's multiple and not a single particle. So in a way you can look at the book as being a defying of the observer effect.

You're a filmmaker as well as a novelist; did you make the wonderful trailer for your book?

Thank you, yes. I love the trailer. It was unbelievably fun to make. I had this idea that I wanted to make it. My editor kept very gently reminding me: Ruth, you used to be a filmmaker... you live in a beautiful location... Wouldn't it be nice to…? I heard that and I really did want to make it. So I called my friend Bill Weaver; we talked about it and he volunteered to come up and shoot it for me. And I had this beautiful music, Le Mepris. It was the music I listened to while I was writing the book. I always listen to music while I'm writing. By the time I finish a book I have a huge playlist of the music I've been listening to throughout the writing of it. The composer (René Margraff) told me I could use it, which was unbelievable because it's hard to get the right soundtrack music. So I almost felt like I had to make the trailer to use the music. It was too wasteful to not do that. But all I had in terms of visuals was the island and myself. So I decided to do all of the Japanese stuff from the Internet. The nun situation was really great because, how do you go about finding a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun? I wanted to evoke her in the trailer somehow and I found this picture of this nun on the Internet and I just fell in love with her. I could tell she wasn't 104 but she was just beautiful. I tracked down the photographer, Linda Butler, and she said we could use the photographs and I was just so happy. She sent me all the digital images and we chose about five and that little piece of magical animation that happens in the picture frame was thanks to her.

Teresa Burns Gunther is a freelance writer living in California. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, most recently Best New Writing 2012.