Last week I finished my first pass page proofs for Shadow Child, my new novel coming out in May. I started it in the year 2000.
Holding those pages in my hands, with their elegant design and their printing marks, I was amazed at how much effort has gone into the creation of this book, effort from people at the publishing house with whom I have become deeply connected and others I have never met. After almost two decades, my book has a face – the jacket I have attached here is brand new and just posted by Grand Central – and it’s a face that, as gorgeous and perfect as it is, is also one I could never have dreamed of. The birth of this book is much like the birth of a child, in that you imagine what your child will look like, but the person who was created in some magical and mysterious way from your DNA is both instantly recognizable and utterly unfamiliar.
It is taking a publishing village to get Shadow Child out into the world. At Goddard, when we write, we might imagine that we are done once the final draft is ready to send out into the world. This is not true. The draft that will be published, which had already been read in various stages by friends, writer friends, agents and editors, was so thoroughly…engaged with…by my brilliant editor that on some pages there were so many comments I literally had to take a deep breath, close the document and come back to it a different day.
As wonderful as my pre-publishing experience has been, we hit a snafu the other day when I turned in my acknowledgements and was told that they had only saved three extra pages for them, never expecting that I might need…eight.
I couldn’t cut the names of the people I interviewed, around fifty, even if my story changed and I didn’t use the material, and even if some of them have already passed on. I couldn’t cut the people who helped. I held onto the list of books that served as resources and inspiration because my novel is partly historical and the reader might want to know what really happened. Some of the decisions I made about how to use that history, what to identify, where to let go of fact in my quest for a greater truth – I felt that context was essential to include. And more than all of that, I could not cut my community.
Over two decades, the community around this book is vast, and I know that, as much as I tried to list my many supporters, by name and affiliation, there are perhaps an equal number of people who have not been named. This is because my brain is old, but also because the people who made a difference are not always the ones who read the whole manuscript or gave me feedback. They are my friends, my colleagues, the people I spent time with. They are my students who, in asking questions about their own work, sparked an answer to a problem I was having in my book for me. They are fellow travelers, Pele’s Fire writers who create an electric buzz of brainstorming around them wherever they go; listeners who insist that the passage I read cannot be cut, even if I have to reshape the novel to keep it there, or who remember a scene from six years before; friends whose comments on a piece of art we saw together, or a movie, crystalized an idea in my brain. We don’t always know where our ideas come from, or how they shift and change. There is a time when it is just us, and our muse. But there is a far longer time when we are writers in the world, and the others around us are collaborators and inspiration whether they know it or not.
I offered to drop my bio to accommodate the acknowledgements. They refused. They offered to compromise the internal design. I refused. We were able to move a few things around, and I got ruthless with my sentence structure to gain some pages, and so far, it looks like the acknowledgements are going to fit. They won’t be as long as a book two decades in the making requires, with apologies to anyone whose name I have forgotten.
My advice to you who are still writing? Jot down those names, make a note of the passing conversations. Seek out your community and cherish it. Never forget you are a writer in the world.
This interview was originally published on the Women Authoring Change blog for Hedgebrook, an amazing retreat for women writers. In their own words, “Our mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories shape our culture now and for generations to come. Our core purpose is equality for women’s voices to help achieve a just and peaceful world.” I highly recommend you go to their website and find out more.
Hedgebrook: Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?
Reiko: Sadly, yes. I’m a self-taught writer, so every time I write a book, I have to teach myself to write all over again, and it’s not a quick process. For my first novel, Why She Left Us, I read like crazy and mapped out the books I liked to figure out what a novel was. I dissected them, teaching myself everything from how to end a chapter to how to format dialogue.
When I started my next book, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a memoir, I didn’t realize there were new rules, new expectations, until the first draft was done and it was terrible. And then I had to look at the central question of the memoir, the reason why I was telling the story so that I could use it to create the skeleton… I’ve just finished my next novel, and now I am working on my fourth: a fantasy, possibly for young adults, though that’s not even clear. With, you guessed it, yet another set of rules and assumptions that I need to learn, to play with, and possibly to break.
Complaining aside, perhaps it is truer to say that I will always have to teach myself to write this new book that’s in front of me no matter the genre, because this new book has the potential to be anything and how else could I find out what it needs to be? And as hard as it is to keep shifting (and failing, over and over), I also expect I would be bored if I was repeating myself.
Hedgebrook: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Reiko: Yes, though it’s taken me a while to realize it. When my memoir was still a manuscript, and Amy Scholder at the Feminist Press asked to see it, I did think to myself, “Why would she want my book? I’m just a mom.” Of course, if you are a woman who believes that fathers can take care of children as well as mothers, that mothers should be allowed to travel for work without being vilified, that you are equal and your voice is important too, then you are a feminist. But at the time, I didn’t consider those views as political statements. They were my experience, my reality. I thought it was just common sense.
Hedgebrook: Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?
Reiko: I think all writing is activist when you speak from your heart and from your truth. When what you have to say is urgent to you, and when your exploration of an idea or a form or a vision is consuming. I write about motherhood, gender roles, racism, discrimination, historical trauma and war. These topics emerge, regardless of what I think I am writing; I don’t plan them, and especially, I don’t start with them. I start with people, relationships, situations, inheritance. I often find myself circling around identity, with my characters trying to figure out who they are, what they want for themselves, what they refuse to be, and how their sense of themselves is different than the stereotypes and misperceptions others hold.
Again and again, in my books, you’ll find women stuck in roles that suffocate them. You’ll find lots of racism, individual and global. The internment of Japanese American citizens by their own country is just one example from my own family’s history, which is still relevant today. More relevant than ever in the aftermath of this presidential election. Our history is full of times when we created the label “other” for people who were not like us. Full of times when we changed laws and twisted all logic and reality in order to enforce that separation and to justify our acts of racism and hatred. We assassinate, enslave, perpetrate genocide, imprison, drop bombs on entire cities. This history infuses my books, but I keep my focus on people, and on the human consequences of hating, judging and limiting each other.
Hedgebrook: What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?
Reiko: I hope my readers will experience a new way of seeing the world. Art should be surprising, challenging, exhilarating, and tenderizing. Of all of these, this last is most important to me. Despite my earlier answers, I’m not trying to hit anyone over the head with my “message.” The point is not that war, racism, oppression and misogyny are bad – we know that. To me, the point of reading is to be able to leave your daily life. The world of the book may be wonderful or ridiculous or terribly sad, but that’s how we practice our empathy and stretch our own boundaries. We need empathy now more than ever. And we get it by immersing ourselves inside the character who is suffering, striving, facing down oppression. The character who is just like us after all.
And in a society without enough empathy, a society of fear and separation like the one we live in now, I want to help to give voice to the stories, experiences and people who are not often heard. As a writer, in my subject matter, but also as a teacher, mentor and activist. This is where it begins. We need to hear ourselves, validate our experiences, find allies and community, claim our space. This is the Hedgebrook mission, of course, and I guess my own point here is that society cannot and will not change until the silence is broken. So that’s my mission: to speak the truth I see and help others speak their own.
Hedgebrook: What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader/audience member?
Reiko: Some form of, “Thank you for sharing this story that does not get told.” “Thank you for seeing me, and for reflecting my struggles and my experience.” “Thank you for showing me that I too will survive.” I’ve heard from many women struggling to define their own motherhood who were grateful that they were not alone. From children of internees whose parents would not share their own stories. But also from people whose lives are very different from my characters’ on the surface, but who see themselves in a broken family, an adopted child, a family secret. We are, at heart, the same. That connection is everything.
Ruth Ozeki is a critically-acclaimed filmmaker and novelist, and a Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, the Kiriyama Prize winner My Year of Meats and American Book Award winner All Over Creation, have been translated into eleven languages and published in fourteen countries, and her documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS and at the Sundance Film Festival. I had been waiting for a decade for Ruth’s next book and was thrilled to be able to interview her about her just-released novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Here, Ruth talks about being a writer (and a thinker) in the world first, and how that writer and her preoccupations end up on the page.
In A Tale for the Time Being, you have created a fast-paced and deeply moving story that is also an impressive balancing act: the novel weaves together a Japanese school girl, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese kamikazes of World War II, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…among other things. Novels about issues are hardly new for you; you took on the meat industry in My Year of Meats and genetically engineered produce in All Over Creation. Do you think of yourself as an activist? How do you thread your concern with environmental and political issues into your work?
Ruth Ozeki: I always start with the voice and the character, and the issues are secondary…no, tertiary…actually, I don’t think about the issues at all, and I’m always surprised when others do. When I wrote My Year of Meats, I remember going into my first marketing meeting and Viking team was really happy because there were so many issues in the book that would generate marketing angles, and I was like…huh? Issues? What issues? I didn’t get it.
To me, the so-called issues are just things that I’m interested in, or thinking about, when I’m writing, which then find their way into the books. I look at writing as a vehicle for working out questions or problems. Writing fiction is my way of thinking. It’s very concrete. What do I think about the meat industry? What do I think about commercially sponsored media? What do I think about genetically modified crops? How do I feel about the bully culture we live in, about suicide bombers, about the 2011 tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima?
The novel provides the excuse and the container for researching and investigating these questions, but this is going on in the background. In the foreground is the character, or characters. Usually I will “hear” them, first. A young girl, who announces herself, “Hi. My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.” And then I work from there.
Writing a novel is a way of acting out, on the page, a series of very concrete what if? propositions. What if a TV producer found herself in an ethically compromised position on a feedlot? What if a group of environmental activists decided to make a potato farmer in Idaho a poster child for their cause? What if a diary washed up on my shoreline?
So I’m not an activist. I am not trying to convince anyone to believe anything or to think in certain ways or, god forbid, to teach anyone anything. What do I know? I’m just sharing the way I think about things.
It’s been close to a decade since your last novel was published. Tell me about the vision and re-envisioning process that went into this book.
Ruth Ozeki: I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.
In the novel, the character of Ruth has writer’s block. She is struggling and failing to write a memoir. She is worried about her mind, that she might be losing it. Is any of this true to life?
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, this part of the book is quite true to life. I’d been trying to write this novel for many years and failing, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. At the same time, I thought it might be interesting to write a memoir about taking care of my mother, and about the ways that caretaking had encouraged my spiritual practice and my decision to ordain as a Zen priest.
My mother had Alzheimer’s. For over a decade, I’d been watching the slow deterioration of her mind. I became very conscious of the way the disease works and worried that something similar was happening to me. I was having a terrible time focusing, and there were times when I was afraid I was losing my mind.
You know what it feels like when your arm falls asleep and you try to make a fist but you can’t? That’s how my mind often felt: like a hand that can’t grip. My journals from that time are filled with adjectives like foggy, scattered, distracted, vague, fuzzy, fractured, fragmented. I thought about getting genetic testing, but if I had Alzheimer’s, did I really want to know? Maybe it was menopause, or ADD, or just garden-variety grief and depression.
The loss of mental focus was affecting my writing. I’d write a couple hundred pages and become overwhelmed. I thought I’d lost the capacity to hold complex fictional worlds in my mind. I was pretty sure I’d never finish another novel.
But then, luckily, I went on a writing retreat, where I had limited access to the Internet, and I realized that there was nothing wrong with my mind that three weeks offline and long unscheduled days of writing wouldn’t fix. This was in 2009. I was able to go back to the novel, penetrate the material, and find my way through.
You and I met through Hedgebrook (a writing retreat for women off the coast of Seattle and the hub of a growing community of “visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”). Tell me about what retreat – and community – mean to you as a writer.
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, Hedgebrook was my salvation! I’m pretty sure I would not have finished A Tale for the Time Being had it not been for the serendipitous retreat at Hedgebrook. I’ve never been anyplace where I’ve felt so utterly supported as a writer, and this was part of what helped me find my way back to writing novels. So I think Hedgebrook is a miracle, and the community of writers I’ve found there has been miraculous, too. It’s like in bike racing, when you’re cycling in a pack with other riders. When I’m at Hedgebrook, I feel like I’m drafting the energy and momentum of the other writers. Of course, the writing work itself has to be done alone, but the company of other writers reduces the resistance and pulls you along.
I often teach master classes there, but I also had the great fortune to be invited to attend one given by Karen Joy Fowler. She is an astonishing writer and teacher, and if you ever get a chance to take a class with her, you should. This was in May of 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami, after I’d unzipped my manuscript and thrown half of it away. Karen helped me find the courage I needed to begin again. I will always be grateful to her for that.
You are ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and Buddhist philosophy plays a big role in A Tale for the Time Being. How has becoming a priest influenced your writing? How are your roles as writer and priest related?
Ruth Ozeki: This question is complicated and also very simple. The simple answer is that the two, writer and priest, are the same. I am just one person, just one time being, so how could there be a difference?
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 in the world.
Zen practice has changed the way I write and has helped me continue writing. Part of my struggle was that I’d reached a point as a novelist where 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 crisis of faith. Zen practice provided 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 I would say that my Zen practice and my writing practice are the same, 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.
A Tale for the Time Being will be released on March 12th. Ruth will be reading in New York at the NYU Bookstore on March 12th at 6:00 pm and again on April 1 at 7:00 pm at Book Court in Brooklyn. In between she will be reading in sixteen cities, maybe in a bookstore near you! To find her, stop by her website, ozekiland.
Where are you writing? Aerogramme’s new list of retreats for 2015 includes Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers near and dear to my heart: hard to get into (with 1500 applications this year!) but worth reapplying for, since, once you are a Hedgebrook alumna, you have a family for life. I’ll be teaching there for Vortex with the amazing Ruth Ozeki, who just visited Goddard, where I am on the faculty of the MFA in Creative Writing program, on the coldest day in anyone’s memory in Vermont (minus 23). At Goddard, we have just finished an action-packed week of writing, reading, learning, listening, dreaming, and thanks to Ruth, meditating our way into our stories so that we can access the world of our stories with our bodies. The MFA students are still talking about you, Ruth, and voraciously reading their new signed copies of A Tale for the Time Being.
If your writing life is inclined less toward a two year Masters’ program, and more toward a three day weekend retreat (and if you are female!) this year, Hedgebrook’s Vortex is offering small workshops, lectures and panel discussions with a new group of teachers, including Carole DeSanti, Dani Shapiro, Victoria Redel, and Hannah Tinti. What an amazing group of writers for a long weekend! (Full bios and brand new workshop descriptions on the Hedgebrook website here.) It would be lovely to see you there, in one of the most magical places I know.
I am blessed with more than one in my life. This one, Hedgebrook, I am privileged to share with so many amazing women writers, including some of the ones you see here: Holly Morris, Hannah Tinti, Monique Truong, Suheir Hammad, Gloria Steinem. I am so grateful to Lisa Halpern’s magic in creating this documentary, which was aired on PBS on the Seattle Channel in May. Thanks and love to Amy Wheeler, Vito Zingarelli and every single person on the amazing staff who make Hedgebrook happen every day. And to Nancy Nordoff, who dreamed it and gifted her vision to us.
Take a look:
(ArtZone Hedgebrook Special, Women Authoring Change)