A Tale for the Time Being is a profoundly inventive, funny, and emotionally striking novel infused with Zen perspectives on time, reality, and suffering. It begins with these words from a Japanese girl’s diary that has washed up on the shore of British Columbia and found its way into the hands of a writer named Ruth: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. 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.”
Junot Diaz calls A Tale for the Time Being “an extraordinary novel about a courageous young woman, riven by loneliness, by time, and (ultimately) by tsunami…Ozeki is one of my favorite novelists and here she is at her absolute best.”
Matt Borondy: On the surface, Zen emphasizes simplicity, the here and now, while fiction writing emphasizes cleverness and imagination. How do you navigate those two worlds? Are they as different as they seem? Do they complement each other?
Ruth Ozeki: Well, I wouldn’t agree that fiction writing emphasizes cleverness, really, but yes, novels are complex, and a novelist must hold intricate imaginary worlds in his or her mind over extended periods of time, which seems like the antithesis of Zen…or at least the antithesis of zazen. When you sit zazen, you notice your mental constructs and then let them go. You don’t hang on to them. But when you write fiction, you have to hang on to your mental constructs, first, for a very long period of time, before you let them go.
But having said this, I do think they complement each other. Zazen is good training, and it develops certain abilities that are useful for fiction writing: for example, the ability to sustain focus and concentration; or the ability to tune in to one’s body and mind and to pay attention to intuition; or the ability to notice what’s causing remorse and suffering.
MB: Many people are drawn to Zen because of its regimented nature. Is that the case for you? Is routine important to you? What’s your writing routine like? How do you integrate your writing time with your meditation practice to make the most of both?
RO: Yes, having a routine is useful to me for two reasons: it helps keep me on task and focused; it gives me something to react to and rebel against. So yes, it’s very useful.
In a Zen retreat or in a monastery, routine is everything, and Zen practice is really just about keeping the schedule. When you eat, you eat. When you sleep, you sleep. When you sit zazen, you sit zazen. When you clean the temple, you clean the temple. You learn to bring your full body and mind to the task at hand, and you also practice letting go of your preferences for one activity over another. In other words, Zen practice trains you to show up fully and to make transitions with ease…and what is living other than showing up and then making transitions, right? Life is just one transition after another, and our normal inclination is to resist. So Zen training is very helpful.
My writing routine changes depending on where I am in the process of writing a novel. At the beginning, when I’m still writing a first draft, I can’t work for long periods at a time. I have to break it up. First drafts are awful. I hate them. They are so hard, like digging a foundation, or mixing cement. Tedious. Boring. Fraught. The very beginning isn’t so bad, but there’s the dreaded hump in the middle that is really hard to get over. But once I’m over the hump and have developed some momentum, I can work for longer stretches. And then, when the first draft is done and I’m working on a second or third pass, it’s like flying, and I can hardly tear myself away from the keyboard.
Meditation is something that’s a part of my life, whether I’m writing or not. Sometimes I’ll let it slip for a day or two, but I always come back to it. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t meditate.
MB: Why do you write?
RO: I don’t feel like myself if I don’t write. It’s my way of thinking, of making sense of the world.
MB: If you were forced to give up either writing or Zen practice, which would you let go of?
RO: Ouch. Let’s see. My right hand or my left? My head or my heart? Impossible choice.
MB: Have you ever lived in a monastery for an extended period of time?
RO: Well, depends on how you define “extended.” I’ve done a two month monastic practice period, which from a Zen perspective is short, but when I tell non-Zen people, they think it sounds long. I’m planning to do a three-month practice period soon at Tassajara, which is an American Soto Zen monastery in California. One of these days, I’d like to live in a Japanese monastery.
MB: Does the concept of maintaining anonymity as a writer appeal to you? Would you have been willing to publish this book anonymously if that were an option?
RO: Yes. I think it was Edward St. Aubyn who said that his preference would be to toss his finished novel into the world over a very high wall. I like that. Most serious novelists I know would prefer to live in anonymity. It’s much easier to stay focused on what’s important, which is the writing. It’s easier to eavesdrop, too.
MB: I read that you struggled with several versions of this book for years, then rewrote it when the tsunami happened. What specific complications caused you to struggle with it for so long? If the tsunami hadn’t hit, what might you have done differently?
RO: Yes, by the beginning of 2011, I’d finished a draft, which I knew was flawed, but I didn’t know what to do with it, so I sent it to my agent anyway. Then, just as she was about to submit it to my editor, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, followed by the meltdown at Fukushima. Overnight everything changed. The world was a different place. Japan was a different place. I spent the next few weeks tracking down friends and relatives and watching Internet coverage of the disaster as it unfolded. And all the while, at the back of my mind, it was becoming clear to me that the novel I’d written was no longer relevant. Instead, I was left with a new question: How do I, as a fiction writer, respond to a catastrophe of this magnitude, whose fallout will continue to be felt by people I love, in a country I love, for decades to come?
I withdrew the manuscript from submission and took it back to my cabin in the woods. There was no help for it. I tore it in two and threw half away, and started again, trying to answer this new question.
The problem had been that I didn’t know who one of the characters was, and I was resisting the obvious answer, which was that the character was “me.” I’d always suspected that I might be a character in the book, as a version of myself, but for various reasons, I resisted this. It felt too contrived. Too metafictional. Too postmodern. The earthquake and tsunami forced me to put myself on the line, as it were, and to step into the fictional world and participate. If this hadn’t happened, I would have written a lesser book.
MB: Many of the characters in your book endure bullying and violence. Have you ever been in a fight?
RO: A physical fight? No. I’m conflict averse. I don’t like to fight, verbally or physically. I’ve been bullied, though. We all have. We live in a bully culture.
MB: A Zen priest with whom I formerly practiced struggled with the question of when, if ever, one should take painkillers and psychological drugs. What do you think about drugs that numb and/or alter people but help get them through tough times?
RO: Like antidepressants? Morphine? I’m not anti-pharmaceutical. It’s each person’s choice. Every person’s condition is different, and we do what we need to do in order to survive. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with depression, and when I was a teenager, I was prescribed very strong antidepressants. I had an adverse reaction to them, and I’ve never taken them since. I’ve heard writer friends say that antidepressants interfere with their ability to write, and I wouldn’t want that to happen, so I don’t take them. Now, I find that my meditation practice is helping me work with my afflictive moods and emotions. I’m not sure what I’ll do on my deathbed, but if I’m in a lot of pain, I hope I have the option of asking for morphine.
MB: Random question: What is boredom, really?
RO: I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. The closest I’ve come is during a depression, but even then, I wouldn’t say I was bored, exactly, because I would find something interesting in the condition of the depression itself, and I would write about it and try to figure it out.
MB: Who are some Buddhist (officially or not) fiction writers you admire and why?
RO: David Mitchell. I doubt he identifies as a Buddhist, but his books are organized around notions of interdependence and impermanence, which resonate strongly with my sense of the way life is. And he’s a very compassionate writer.
MB: In your mind, what is the most indispensable book on Zen?
View the book trailer for A Tale for the Time Being:
Photos of Ruth Ozeki by Kris Krug.