Author Ruth Ozeki Talks About Writing and Her Latest Novel

 

Ruth Ozeki
Author Ruth Ozeki

by Katherine Valdez

On a recent sunny afternoon, I had a choice between two activities: watching the Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots for the AFC Championship, or attending a reading by author Ruth Ozeki.

The aspiring novelist in me Orange-Crushed my inner football fan to the ground.

Ruth Ozeki is an award-winning novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. The Chicago Tribune says her work possesses “shrewd and playful humor, luscious sexiness and kinetic pizzazz”

“Do you like being read to?” Ozeki asked the audience at Council Tree Library on Jan. 19. Many nodded. “I love reading out loud.” She explained she doesn’t have children of her own, so she’ll sometimes borrow a friend’s kids. She’s read almost the entire Harry Potter series aloud.

Before reading from her new novel A Tale for the Time Being. Ozeki paid tribute to the building we were sitting in.

“Libraries are incredible places,” she said about the concept of a building filled with books. “…It’s kind of a vision of heaven.”

I’ve been a bookworm ever since I learned to read, so I wholeheartedly agreed.

In A Tale for the Time Being, a mysterious diary washes up on the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. A novelist finds the diary, written by a suicidal 16-year-old girl in Tokyo, and becomes obsessed with discovering the girl’s fate.

“When I’m writing, I’ll usually hear a voice, a character’s voice…,” Ozeki said. “I write it down and it keeps coming back to me. This is what happened with this book, in 2006. I kept hearing the voice of this young girl.”

Ozeki read the opening page: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being…A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means, you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be….Who are you and what are you doing?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap?…diary of my last days on earth….if you do decide to read on, then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic!”

With that engaging beginning, I could see why the book is already a best-seller. The author revealed how she was able to get into the head of a 14-year-old girl: reading manga and watching animé. Holden Caulfield’s voice in The Catcher in the Rye inspired her to tackle the “interesting challenge” of writing a young voice.

During Q&A, someone asked how much of the novel is autobiographical. “I don’t believe in pure fiction. I don’t believe it exists,” she said. Everything she writes “has to exist somewhere in my experience.”

On the writing life, she said the most important thing is to write regularly. Reading her work aloud is another daily practice. “That’s the only way I can see and hear awkward sentences,” she said.

Ozeki said she’s never been able to use outlines. As a result, she tackled major revisions after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. “I probably threw out about two-thirds of the book, because once the interaction between Ruth and Nao started, [the novel] demanded a different ending.”

The author’s reply to one of the last questions made me glad I chose to attend this event instead of watching the Broncos game. She addressed the challenge every writer faces, published or not.

How do you know to keep going?

“You don’t,” Ozeki said. “…When you’re writing you don’t know if it’s good. You desperately hope that it is…you’re pretty convinced that it mostly sucks. I think most writers swing between those two extremes. Great, sucks, great, sucks.”

I had to laugh at this because I understand it so well. And I’ve spoken with enough writers to know it’s a common feeling.

“The more you do it, the more faith you have in yourself. You build up your muscle of faith…” she said. “There’s something lovely about this gentle, dogged practice, day in day out.”

Katherine Valdez believes in the Denver Broncos and is the author of“The Monster in Her Bedroom,” published recently in the debut issue of Havok Magazine, the speculative fiction imprint of http://www.SplicketyMagazine.com. Read about other author talks at http://www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com/blog. Like her on Facebook, www.facebook.com/AuthorKatherineValdez, and follow her on Twitter @KatValdezWriter.

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