Thursday, March 21, 2013

Author Q&A: Ruth Ozeki author of A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki, author of the book A Tale for the Time Being, stopped by for a Q&A.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

World peace. Seriously. I’m waiting for the time when every last person finally realizes how stupid and deluded it is to waste our precious moments here on earth feeling angry and waging wars, and we all take a backward step and just give it up. However, I’m not holding my breath. In the short term, perfect happiness would be a day of unstructured writing time. A day? I meant a week. No, make that a month.

What does your ideal day look like?

I wake up alone in the sleeping loft of a tiny cottage in the woods. I climb down the narrow stairs, wash my face and sit zazen for forty minutes in the window seat, then I make myself a pot of green tea and open my computer. Maybe I listen to music—Baroque or early Renaissance at that hour, or, depending on the weather, possibly Gregorian chant. I noodle around for a while, rereading what I’ve written the day before, and then an idea that’s been flickering around the edges of my mind suddenly flares up and I follow it. Hours pass. Deep in the fictional dream, I have somehow managed to feed myself (miraculously, there is food in the house, granola and fruit, or toast and a poached egg), and now I need a break. I change into running clothes and go for a long run, stretch, shower, and then make coffee and lunch. The music is different in the afternoon, an evolving playlist of ambient songs that form the soundtrack to the fictional world. I spend the afternoon much as I’ve spent the morning, and then at 5:30, I close my computer and walk through the woods to a farmhouse, where a delicious dinner is waiting along with a small group of writers, good friends, who have been working all day in their own cottages in the woods. Together we eat and drink wine and talk about nonliterary things. In the evening I return to my cottage and listen to jazz, read a novel and go to bed.

What is your greatest extravagance?

My imagination.

What possession would you be heartbroken if you lost?

I have a string of prayer beads, called a mala, that was given to me by a dear friend. From time to time I misplace the mala, or the cat steals it and drags it off somewhere. The first time this happened, I was devastated. I searched everywhere. My husband helped. Finally we concluded it was truly lost. I mourned for that mala, but then, months later, my husband found it in his travel medicine bag. The only way it could have gotten there is if one of us—me, Oliver, or the cat—put it there. We know who did it. Anyway, the point is that I still misplace it from time to time, and every time the pang of losing gets a little less severe. It’s like that wonderful Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I love that poem. Losing, she says, is something we should practice: “Lose something every day. Accept the fluster...” and that’s what I seem to be doing, because little by little, I’ve come to see the prayer beads as already lost, so that now when I put them on, I’m a little bit surprised and grateful that they are still with me.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would stop trying to change myself and everyone around me, and learn to be content with who we all are.

What childhood fear has followed you into adulthood?

Death. But I’m working on it.

Do you take comfort in darkness or light?

Darkness, the crepuscular Pacific Northwest variety.

Do you remember your dreams?

Sometimes. Sometimes they are so vivid, filled with such palpable and convincing detail, that I wake up convinced that Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics must be right. It’s as if, in the dream, I’m able to catch a glimpse of myself as I am in one of the array of multiple, alternate worlds.

How do you collect snippets of observations and ideas that come to you unexpectedly?

I have a system that I learned from a writer friend. I buy a stack of those little 3” X 4” Marble Memo books and ask the nice young man behind the desk at the copy center to cut the stack in half for me with his industrial paper cutter. Horizontally, I tell him, so as to preserve the binding. I’m careful to be clear about this because once he actually asked me which way I wanted them cut. He was nice, but not too bright. Once cut, they are small enough to tuck into a pocket, along with a small pen, and I capture ideas in these booklets. Later, when I’m at the computer and I get stuck or am doing housekeeping, I go thru the little booklets and transcribe the ideas into files where I can more easy access them.

But having said all this, more often than not, I forget to carry my little booklet, and when I have the idea, I can’t write it down and so the idea gets lost. This used to bother me, but it doesn’t so much anymore (see Question 4). Also, over the years I’ve come to know my mind well enough to trust that if the idea was really any good, it will come back to me.

What emotions do you experience when you sit down to begin a new work?

...the way I imagine it would feel when you first realize that you have gills and can breath underwater. You’re swimming down deep, say near an intact coral reef, gliding across a crenulated landscape of weird sponges and beckoning anemones, surrounded by brightly colored fishes, wanting to stay there forever, knowing you can’t, holding your breath, needing to breathe, until finally you know you must surface or die, and instead you...inhale. And you don’t die! You take another breath. No problem. Amazing.

What is your favorite way to avoid writing?

Filling out questionnaires.

Does being in love propel or postpone your work?


How do you work under pressure?


What published book do you secretly wish you had written?

I hate questions like this! There are far too many either to keep secret or to list here, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s just say any book by David Mitchell. Before he got all famous with Cloud Atlas, he was relatively unknown, and I felt like he was a secret. My secret. Now everybody knows. And Karen Joy Fowler’s new book We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which is coming out in May. Do not miss this one!

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Sei Shonagon, author of the Pillow Book. She was a handmaiden to the empress of Japan about a thousand years ago, a documentarian, a contrarian, and famous for her lists. She made fabulous lists: things that gain by being painted, things that give a hot feeling, things that arouse a fond memory of the past, things that give a pathetic impression, things that make the heart beat faster, things that cannot be compared. The list of her lists goes on and on, and I think they are wonderful and poetic. I love taxonomies and I love list-making. The lists we make shape the way we see the world.

If you were reincarnated as a person or a thing, who or what would you be?

My cat. I would like to know what he is thinking. Or, rather, I would like to know if I’m right about what I think he’s thinking. I would like to know if he loves me.

Tell us one thing you can’t prove but believe is true.

Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

About the book:

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

About the author:

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. She is the award-winning author of three novels, My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being. Her critically acclaimed independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been screened at Sundance and aired on PBS. She is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation. She lives in British Columbia and New York City.

Visit and follow @ozekiland on Twitter.


Monika said...

Great interview!! Thanks!

Post a Comment