By Kara Veldman
Bestselling author Ruth Ozeki was featured at Mount Baker Theater Friday, March 4 through Whatcom Reads with her novel, “A Tale for the Time Being.”
Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest, with books including “My Year of Meats” and “All Over Creation.” She was born on March 12th, 1956 in New Haven, Connecticut, later attending Smith College and Hara University. Ozeki has won the Kiriyama Prize and the American Book Award. She currently lives in New York City and British Columbia. Ozeki opened her speech by thanking Whatcom Reads for bringing her to Bellingham.
“It is so wonderful to be in Bellingham,” she said. “I really love this city.” The theater was packed with various ages and book club members.
“How cool is it that we get this many people in here to talk about books?” said Rachel Meyers, a public library trustee.
Ozeki also thanked Village Books for “validating her identity as a fictional character and making her feel just a little bit more real.” She explained how her name, Ozeki, is actually a pen name, created in order to protect her father’s identity. Her real name is Ruth Diana Lounsbury.
In 1998 Ozeki published her first book, “My Year of Meats.”
“The book was full of sex, drugs, bad language, and lots of drinking,” Ozeki said. “My father was afraid of having the family name on the cover of it.” She offered to change her name so that “he could stop worrying and die in peace.”
“I have to confess that when I see my name and picture on posters, I experience a strange uncanny response,” Ozeki said. “There is a big difference between the writer who sits alone in a cabin dressed in her pajamas and writes, and the author who appears before large audiences and has to pick cobwebs and owl droppings out of her hair in order to make herself presentable.”
Ozeki read many passages from her book, “A Tale for a Time Being” out loud.
“It reminds me of when I was a child and I would snuggle up close to my father and mother and listen to them read,” she said. “It also reminds me of hearing all those stories that inspired me to become a writer in the first place.”
Ozeki explained in detail the process of writing her most recent book. The idea for the book first started in December 2006 when “I woke up one morning to a voice in my head of a young Japanese school girl that said, ‘Hi, my name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? If you give me a moment, I will tell you.’” Her words caught Ozeki’s attention, and little by little, Nao’s story emerged.
“Novels very often come to me as voices, and as soon as I heard Nao’s voice I knew certain things about her,” Ozeki said. “I knew that she was a junior high school student, I knew that she was sitting in a cafe in Tokyo, and that she was writing in some kind of diary. I sensed she was troubled, perhaps even suicidal, yet she had a quirky sense of humor, which pointed towards an inner sense of strength. She was writing in English to someone specific.”
Nao didn’t know who were reader was, and so neither did Ozeki.
“It was my job then, as a novelist, to figure this out,” she said. “Who is Nao’s reader? This took her five years, which is an “achingly long time for a novelist.”
Ozeki’s interest in time began in 1998 when her father passed away, which was also near the start of the new millennium.
“There is nothing like the death of a parent or loved one to make you think of the urgency of time passing,” Ozeki said. “We were all thinking about time back then because we were standing on the cusp of a new millennium.”
During the first few years of the new millennium, Ozeki was “in a bit of a funk.” “The processing of finding Nao’s unknown reader was a bit like casting an actor for a role in a film or play,” Ozeki said.
“I would think of a character, invite him into the fictional world, arrange for him to find the diary, and then they would read it and begin to react. Little by little the fictional world would start to grow.”
Ozeki casted many different characters, but each time she would open up the manuscript a few months in and find that “the fictional world had gone flat.” She would then realize that she had the wrong reader of the diary, and would start the whole process over again. This happened four or five times. At the beginning of 2011 she finally finished her first draft.
“It was a completely different book than the one that was published,” Ozeki said. “It had a different reader, a different plot, and it was set in a library.”
In March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.
“The world was now a different place,” Ozeki said. “At some point, it hit me that the novel I had written was no longer relevant. I requested the manuscript back from my editor and figured that was the end of it.”
Although Ozeki thought it was the end, Nao’s voice still would not leave her alone. After talking with her husband, he pointed out to her that indeed the earthquake and tsunami had broken the fictional world in her novel, and the only appropriate response was to acknowledge the brokenness.
“The way to do this was to step into the novel myself, as a ‘real’ person, and break the seamless illusion of a fictional world and allow it to stay broken,” Ozeki said. “Nao’s reader had to be me, and the catastrophic, real events of Japan had to be included in the story.”
This process only took about five months. “This illustrated an important point,” Ozeki said. “Novels are time beings too, and they simply take the time it takes.” Ozeki continued on to explain her view of time. “Many of us seem to lead busy lives, bringing us to feel out of step with time. I think this comes from our limited understanding of time, which in itself, is a function of both who we are, and the times we live in,” Ozeki said.
“We are materialist, living in a post enlightenment culture. The values and beliefs we live with today make up the lens of which we see the world, and how we experience our lives.”
According to Ozeki, time becomes a limited commodity, which comes from our linear view of time. She argues that viewing time as linear, beginning with God’s creation and ending with the end of the world is only one way of understanding time.
“It seems important to understand that there are many other ways to understand and experience time. The way we view or map time results in the way we experience time,” Ozeki said. “The only thing we know is this present moment. The past doesn’t exist, and neither does the future. Our bodies and minds are rarely together in the present moment, which causes all sorts of suffering and anxiety.”
Dogan Zenj, a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher, and founder of the school of Zen in Japan said in 1250 that the time it takes to snap your finger is equivalent to 65 moments.
“The snap of a finger gives us 65 opportunities to wake up,” Ozeki said. “Every one of those moments is a precious opportunity to reestablish our will and choose an action that will be beneficial. There are many ways of experiencing time. The way we know it may not be the best.”
Ozeki views meditating as one way of being in the middle of time. “The power of meditation is a form of a superpower. Taking yourself out of the striving of everyday life and turning your attention to your breathing,” Ozeki said. “We are training ourselves to be fully present in time, just simply being.”