Notes on a Reading

We asked novelist and Public Books contributor Ellis Avery to tell us about the Public Books event she recently hosted at Three Lives Books in Manhattan’s West Village with Ruth Ozeki, the author of ...

We asked novelist and Public Books contributor Ellis Avery to tell us about the Public Books event she recently hosted at Three Lives Books in Manhattan’s West Village with Ruth Ozeki, the author of A Tale for the Time Being, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

After thanking Public Books and Three Lives, Ozeki read from A Tale for the Time Being, a novel which alternates between the story of unhappy Tokyo teenager Nao Yasutani and that of the novelist Ruth, who finds Nao’s diary when it washes up on the shores of British Columbia in a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  (You can read my review of Ozeki’s novel here.) Following the reading, Ozeki was gracious enough to answer some of my questions, offering replies that radiated buoyant steadiness and clarity.

I asked about the inspiration for A Tale for the Time Being. She said that for a long time she’d had the phrase time being percolating in her mind after encountering it in translations of Dogen’s Buddhist writing, where it seemed to mean both now, the present and something else, some sort of noun, a being that existed in time.  That said, what really sparked the book for Ozeki was hearing Nao’s voice in her mind, saying “Hello, my name is Nao, and I am a time being.”

Ozeki said that she had written the whole book with Nao’s diary being found by a different reader, not “Ruth,” but when the tsunami struck northern Japan in 2011, it rendered the novel she’d written irrelevant, so she rewrote the whole book with herself—heartbroken by the tsunami, obsessing over it online—as Nao’s reader instead.

Then I asked what Ozeki has in mind when she names her characters, and asked if she’d be willing to give us an example.  “Novelists lie,” she confessed, revealing that the original voice in her head had said, “My name is Miho,” not Nao.  “Miho” served as a placeholder until Ozeki hit on the perfect name.  For a while, Nao’s name was going to have been Ai, which means “love” and puns on the first-person pronoun. (Traces of the importance of this name can be found in the novel, among them, the fact that Nao’s beloved great-grandmother, the 104-year-old anarchist feminist nun Jiko Yasutani, is the author of an I-novel called I, I, the title of which is a borrowing from a poem by her contemporary, Akiko Yosano.)  After exploring the possibilities of Ai, however, Ozeki found that Nao (which is both a real name, Naoko, and a pun on Now, the time being) worked even better.

I asked Ozeki about the decade between the 2003 publication of her last novel, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being in 2013.  How did the long interval affect her sense of self as “a writer”?  She said that in the case of her first two novels, she was writing from a sense of remorse—there were things she wished she’d said or done differently that she could go back and address better in fiction. The 10 years—during which time she first cared for her mother, who was struggling with Alzheimer’s and cancer, then trained for ordination as a Buddhist priest—gave her a chance to reevaluate the emotional source from where she writes and find a different and perhaps better wellspring instead.

It was powerful to hear firsthand how one might outgrow one’s deep psychic reasons for writing without ceasing to write or be a writer: those reasons might simply change.

Lastly, I read aloud a passage Ozeki had written about the fiction-writing mind versus the meditating mind: “In zazen, we become intimate with thought in order to see through it and let go. In fiction writing, we become intimate with thought in order to capture it, embellish it, and make it concrete. Fiction demands a total immersion in the fictional dream. This is not compatible with sitting sesshin [meditation], which demands total immersion in awakened reality. You can’t do both at once. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

For those of us who try to attempt both, I asked, how do you switch gears? Ozeki said that there was a while where it broke her heart to let go of an idea that came to her, and that she’d even sneak a notepad into her meditation session. However, because meditation makes one so familiar with the workings of one’s own mind, over time, she began to notice that the good ideas simply come back of their own accord.

Although I would have loved to ask more questions, by that point the time had come to turn the floor over to the audience, my favorite of whom was the older man who asked Ozeki if she believed in reincarnation, “because I’m getting vibrations,” he said.

“My jury’s out on that,” she said kindly. “I guess we’ll just have to wait until our next lives to find out.”

                                                                                    — Ellis Avery icon