Interview With an Independent Writer: Ruth Ozeki

by Catherine Meeks, ASLE News Editor

Originally published in the Spring 2013 Edition of ASLE News

ASLE_photos_ozekiRuth Ozeki is a writer and filmmaker. She is the best-selling author of three novels, My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being, as well as the director of several independent films, including Halving the Bones. She is on the advisory editorial board of the Asian American Literary Review and a member of the Creative Advisory Council of Hedgebrook, a women’s writing retreat center on Whidbey Island. She is affiliated with the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Everyday Zen Foundation, and lives in British Columbia and New York City.

Several of your novels incorporate current environmental issues as either a backdrop–like, in your most recent novel, A Tale for the Time Being, the Pacific garbage gyres–or driving force in the story. In your writing, how do you balance concern for the environment with your approach to serious literary fiction?

Hmm, interesting! Your question seems to presuppose an opposition between concern for the environment and serious literary fiction and to imply that a preponderance of one imperils the other. Do you think that’s true? I may be wrong, but I don’t see it that way.

I think there are several issues here. The first is that fiction written to serve an agenda–any agenda–has a hard time being seriously literary. Literature, the writing of it and the reading of it, seems to me to be about inquiry. Agenda-driven fiction is antithetical to inquiry. Agenda-driven fiction has its mind already made up.

My concern for the environment is part of who I am, and since I write about what I care about, naturally my environmental concerns find their way into my fiction. Writing is how I think, how I interrogate the world, and the novel is my medium for my interrogation. It’s a thought experiment, which I initiate and then send out into the world as an invitation for readers to join.

I don’t write books like My Year of Meats or All Over Creation in order to tell readers what I think about genetic engineering or factory farming or to convince them to agree. To do so would be to write screed or propaganda, and I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in exploring what I think and feel, or how I think and feel, or to what extent I can think and feel about these issues.

So it comes down to intent and chronology. Since I write in order to try to understand what I think, I usually start with a question, something I’m curious about, or something that worries or frightens me. What’s all this about growth hormones in meat production? How does Terminator technology work? What are these Great Garbage Patches? Where–and how–can I begin to think about these issues? I’m not starting with a conclusion and trying to prove it or “teach” it by means of the novel. The novel is not a vector for an agenda. Rather, the novel is a means of exploring a question, and to the best of my ability, I approach it with an open mind.

This is really important, because readers, especially fiction readers, are very sensitive to didacticism and pedagogy. Nobody likes to be manipulated or told what to believe. Nobody likes to be tricked into caring for characters only to realize that the characters are sneaky little vectors for an author’s opinions. The novel is not, and should not be, a Trojan horse.

However, having said all this, I know, too, that my mind is not free of bias. I have tons of opinions. I’m terribly concerned about the environment and I think everyone ought to be, too.  We ought to be terrified! We ought to stop buying stuff and throwing stuff away and squandering fossil fuels and driving cars and flying in planes. We ought to stop subsidizing agribusiness and using so much energy and cutting down trees and scraping the bottoms of the oceans. I feel quite strongly about all of this, but I’m on a plane typing this on my computer as I fly across the country to promote a book that is printed on paper (FSC certified, but still…), so I have a lot of remorse about the myriad ways that I am contributing to the problem.

All my novels, to some extent, have been written from remorse. Remorse is a powerful impetus for writing. The good news, from a writerly perspective, is that I’ll never run out of things to feel remorseful about. The bad news, from a timebeing-on-earth’s perspective, is that I am not willing or able to eradicate all the many causes of my environmental remorse.

How does your spiritual life–and your role as a Zen Buddhist priest–intersect with and inform your writing life? For instance, have the two always been complementary, or has one tended to challenge the other?

This question is complicated and also very simple. Zen practice has changed the way I write and has helped me continue writing, but this happened slowly. I’d reached a point as a novelist where I felt I could no longer trust my voice in the world. I felt like my writer’s voice had become wobbly, unreliable and untrustworthy. I suppose it was a sort of crisis of faith.

When I first started practicing Zen, I thought that I might not be able to continue to write novels, at least not in the way that I used to. I thought that Zen practice might wreck my writing, and indeed, for several years, I found it very difficult to write.

But then things shifted, and now I would say that Zen practice helps. It has provided me with a philosophical and ethical ground, a trustworthy foundation, for my writing practice. Or to put it another way, it helped me grow a backbone.

So now I would say that my Zen practice and my writing practice are complementary, but of course, in practical terms, the roles of writer and priest are very different. For one thing, I do not wear Zen robes when I write. I wear a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of overalls. And I sit at a desk in front of a computer, rather than on a cushion in front of a blank wall. And when thoughts arise, I write them down rather than letting them go.

My interest in Buddhist philosophy is overtly apparent in A Tale for the Time Being, but I can see the beginning of this inquiry in my first two novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, which are very concerned with the interconnected nature of our lives and the world. In Buddhism, we call this dependent co-arising, or “interbeing,” to use Thich Naht Hahn’s term. Nothing exists independently of anything else. Novels, stories, are always about relationship, so they are a beautiful way to investigate and to talk about this quality of interbeing, the way we inter-are.

Which came first for you, the novel-writing or the film-making, and how has one influenced your approach to the other? Do you feel that novels and films share something in common that attracts you to both genres?

Well, the desire to be a novelist came first. That desire had been there ever since I was a very small child. I wrote short stories throughout grade school and high school and college, and I tried to write a novel or two before giving it up and going to grad school to study classical Japanese literature. My plan was to get a doctorate and teach Comp Lit.

Somewhere along the line, though, I kind of fell into filmmaking. I needed a job and a friend knew of a production company looking for a storyboard artist for a horror film. I had some rudimentary drawing skills, and so they hired me, and I ended up being the art director, too. The film was called Matt Riker, Mutant Hunt. The next one was Breeders. And after that Necropolis and then Robot Holocaust. Of course I was young at the time, but somehow the literature of the Heian period paled in comparison, and I never looked back.

Eventually I got tired of making exploding heads and severed hands for horror films and ended up directing and producing Japanese television, and it was in the editing room where I really started to learn the fundamentals of storytelling. I mentioned that I’d tried to write novels earlier on, but what had always stumped me was narrative chronology. Novels are time-based and need to move through time, but I didn’t know how to accomplish this. I didn’t know how to move a character across a room, never mind across months or years or a lifetime. Editing film and video teaches you how to do exactly this, and the techniques I learned in the editing room I was later able to apply to scenes in my novels. And I think, too, that working in film and video has taught me to “see” novels in cinematic terms. I think about things like frame size, and focal length, and I use filmic techniques like visual description, rhythm, and montage when I write.

As for what they have in common….well, they are both ways of seeing the world as story, and that is what I seem to be drawn to do in this lifetime. But the differences between the two genres interest me, too. Film is a more direct, concrete and sensual medium, relying on images and movement and sound. In that sense, it’s a bit more like music and operates on the emotions directly. It doesn’t handle abstract ideas well, however, so I would say that film is less “intellectual” than writing. The written word, however, allows for all sorts of discursive inquiry and conceptual play, which I admit I find exciting. I have to be careful, though, and not overindulge. It’s a balance issue.

Can you place your work within a creative “lineage”? Or, who/what have been major creative influences for you?

Thankfully, this is not my job! Determining lineage is something that I will leave to scholars who are studying my work, should I be so lucky to have any, and any attempt I make to do this will only sound pretentious.

My influences have been myriad, too numerous to name, which is not to say that I’ve been at all successful in emulating them or paying them homage. It’s embarrassing to name them, because I can see all the ways that my writing falls short. But having said that, I will try to name a few of the writers and books I love and why:

  • Kurt Vonnegut, for his deadpan humor, stubborn innocence, political sensibilities and his enormous broken heart;
  • Jorge Luis Borges, for his labyrinthine formality;
  • Annie Dillard, for her gorgeous pacing and her ability to weave disparate elements into a poetic montage;
  • David Mitchell, for the unbridled range of his imagination and what he dares to do with structure;
  • Milan Kundera, for his pacing and the audacity of his narrative voice;
  • Anything by Jane Austen, for her wit, opinions and ironic distance;
  • Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, especially Never Let Me Go, for the delicate sensibilities of his unreliable narrators;
  • Many of Haruki Murakami’s novels, especially Kafka on the Shore, for their loose-limbed structures and fantastical worlds;
  • Margaret Atwood’s nonfiction (although I love her fiction, too), especially Negotiating with the Dead, because she is so wise about writing;
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for his serious magic;
  • Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, for its celebration of the power of storytelling;
  • Karen Joy Fowler for her subtle intelligence and heartbreaking sense of humor.

And of course I always go back to Shakespeare. Whenever I am stuck, I read Shakespeare, because the beauty of his poetry always inspires me to try again.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on two projects, or, rather, I’m thinking about two projects, but I’m not at the stage where I can talk about either of them yet. I’m not being coy. It’s just that I find that in the nascent stages, when a book is still barely an idea, it isn’t wise to talk too much about it. Secrets have a special kind of energy, and talking spends and dissipates that energy, and the story loses its urgency. Why write it if I can just talk about it? So much easier! So I don’t. However I think it’s probably safe to say that one of the stories seems to be set in a library, and the other seems to be set in a university, at least for the time being.