Ruth Ozeki divides her time between Manhattan’s Alphabet City and a tiny island in British Columbia. It would seem difficult to reconcile these drastically different lifestyles, but the coexistence of apparent opposites is an integral, recurring theme in Ozeki’s life and work. The characters in her novels connect over great physical and psychological distances; in her latest book, A Tale for the Time Being, an author named Ruth (Ozeki’s stand-in) in British Columbia finds a Japanese teenager’s diary and becomes lost in its pages.
About 10 years ago, you said in an interview, “I always wanted to be a novelist and now I can be one.” Can you describe the path you took to get there?
It was pretty clear to me very early on that I wanted to write novels. I was trying to write novels in sixth grade, and of course failing dismally. But after college, I ended up going to Japan and thought that I was heading toward a career as an academic. I ended up getting very interested in Japanese Noh drama and learning performance. When I moved back to New York, there weren’t a lot of jobs for Noh performers or classical Japanese literature scholars, so I got a job on a film set as the art director for a film called Matt Riker Mutant Hunt. It was a really, really low-budget film, which is why I got hired. After we finished that film I did another one called Breeders, and after that was Robot Holocaust, and Necropolis—horrible films. I spent my time making breakaway walls and orgasmatrons and alien breeding pits. After several years, I moved into Japanese television, and 10 years later I started making my own films. After a couple of independent films financed using credit cards, I ran out of money, and I thought, ‘You can write a novel for the cost of a ream of paper.’ So that’s when I started writing my first novel, My Year of Meats.
Do you think that you also had to grow into your desire to write?
Yes. I needed to make my mistakes elsewhere, and I was able to do that in the film world. I printed out My Year of Meats on the eve of my 40th birthday so I could say I’d written my first novel by the time I was 40. And I think it took that long to get to the point where I could do it.
Your first two novels dealt with agriculture and farming, and A Tale for the Time Being does not. Can you talk about that departure?
Rather than talking about what’s different, I think it’s interesting to discuss what the three share, which is a concern with mediation. In My Year of Meats, it’s television. In All Over Creation, it’s public relations and science. And in A Tale for the Time Being, it’s the Internet and also, in a way, the mind.
Several of the characters are both obsessed with and repelled by the Internet.
I live in a very remote place in British Columbia, so the Internet is this unbelievable portal into the world, and I’m addicted to it. At the same time, I realize that being online a lot has changed my neural processing. There are times when I need to take three to four weeks offline. Then, my narrative mind starts to function again, and I’m able to do that deeper work in the storyline that I am not able to do when I’m being constantly distracted and pulled away.
Ruth and Nao, who are both writers and characters in A Tale for the Time Being, seem to invent each other in a way. And then there’s character Ruth versus author Ruth. Can you talk about the triangle between character, reader, and writer?
Very often we think about literature as a one-way thing, from the mind of the novelist into the mind of the reader. I think of it as a co-creation. The book that you read is going to be completely different from the book that somebody else reads. And the experience of reading something changes you a little, just as writing something changes you, so there is this a reciprocal exchange that goes on between the writer and the reader. That’s what’s happening between Nao and character Ruth, and also what’s happening between Ruth and the readers of this book.
Can you talk about writing a character based on yourself?
When I first started thinking about this novel in 2006 or 2007, what came to me first was the voice of Nao. I knew that she was writing a diary, and as soon as I knew that, I also knew that she needed to have a reader. My first thought was, this is a character in search of an author. I’m the author, so I should be her reader. But I shied away from it, because it felt so self-conscious. I auditioned and wrote four novels with four different characters in place as the reader. At the end of 2010, I finished a draft that I felt reasonably happy with. But in March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami hit in Japan, and I realized the book I had written was utterly irrelevant. So I unzipped the narrative again and threw the reader half away. At that point, the reader was a genderless, ageless, nameless character, and all of the action took place in the library.
As if to represent all readers.
Exactly. As you can imagine, it didn’t work very well, because it was a placeholder. After the tsunami and earthquake hit, I realized that Japan is no longer the place it was, the world is no longer the place it was, and now I really have to step up to the plate. It seemed like the only way of taking the story seriously was for me to step out from behind the curtain and take responsibility for it.
Did it feel natural once you created the Ruth character?
I started in May, and I finished in November. So that’s how natural it felt.
You were ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010. How did that play into your writing process?
Writing the novel and moving towards ordination went hand-in-hand. At various points along the way, I thought the novel wasn’t going to happen at all. But the thing about Zen practice, and especially zazen meditation, is its practice of return. And so is writing a novel. You give up, and then you come back. In a way, both writing and Zen are faith-based practices.
A lot of what old Jiko’s teaching involves is the freedom from duality. That seems to apply to the story itself, too: Ruth and Nao merging with each other, and writers merging with their characters.
Writer, reader, same thing. Character, author, same thing. I think it’s true. In Buddhism, one of the key principles is this idea of non-duality, where we don’t exist as separate beings, we are fundamentally connected. Is the wave separate from the ocean? When you look at a wave and you take a picture of a whitecap, yes, it’s different—but then, of course, it’s not. Same for people: we’re here, and then we’re not. We’re much shorter-lived than trees; compared to a wave, we have a longer lifespan. So it’s a matter of your temporal perspective. Which is the second principle of Buddhism: impermanence. And I think the book is really about those two things: We’re impermanent and we are interconnected in these really fundamental ways.
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York.