Ruth Ozeki: On Writing for Answers and Money

Interview by 
Kayi Wong
Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki refers to herself as a “generalist.” A writer of three acclaimed novels, she has also published essays, short stories and a short memoir, directed independent films, documentaries, and was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010. She received a Kiriyama Prize for her first novel, My Year of Meats (1998), an American Book Award for All Over Creation (2003), and the L.A. Times Book Prize for A Tale for the Time Being (2013), which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In her novels, the writer explores subjects such as media representation, genetically modified crops, sexism, bullying, and suicide, but always with her signature wit and warmth.

At the end of summer last year, I spoke to the American-Canadian writer over the phone while she was in Whaletown, B.C., where she lives with her husband, Oliver, in a house not unlike the one depicted in A Tale for the Time Being. Over the course of our conversation, Oliver, a permaculture teacher, brought her fruits of their labour from the garden as the author talked about how she went from making videos in high school, to directing corporate-sponsored Japanese TV programs, to juggling the paradoxical relationship between writing and Zen Buddhism.

ROOM: I read in a previous interview that you grow a lot of your own food on Cortes Island. 

RO: Well, we used to, but we are not here as much so we have kind of given up on that. My husband, Oliver, and I teach on the east coast in the U.S., and we come back here during the summer, and the inter-term period in January. Oliver is an avid tree planter and amateur arborist; fruit trees are of great interest to him. We have many different kinds of apples, pears, figs, and nut trees—even more than we can harvest. They bear every year without really much ongoing labour involved. He—oh thank you—in fact, just brought me—what are these, Oliver?—a bowlful of wild plums.

ROOM: What piqued your interest to investigate the science and politics around what people eat and the way they eat in your writing?

RO: Honestly, when I started out writing my first novel, My Year of Meats, I wasn’t really thinking about food. My background was in filmmaking and ever since high school, I have been interested in media and representation. That was what interested me—how we represent our world, and how commerce and corporate agendas influence the way that we represent, and therefore perceive our world. For many years, I was working in commercial television in Japan and during that time ran into all sorts of situations that posed certain kinds of ethical problems for me. For example, I was hired to produce a program that was about art in New York, and of course as someone who’s interested in the arts and New York, that was a wonderful show. The problem was that it was sponsored by the tobacco industry, Philip Morris, and this was at a time when I was trying to quit smoking myself. In every show, we needed to include a shot of a person—preferably young, healthy, and attractive—smoking a cigarette. I would find myself handing out Marlboros to young, attractive, healthy-looking people, asking them if they would smoke for us so that we could film them. Obviously, you can see the conundrum here. This is something that did not sit well with me, but at the same time, the program was interesting, and I needed to pay the rent. There were a lot of reasons why I continued to do this. 

Similarly, I did programs that were sponsored by the milk industry, the cosmetics industry, and also the meat industry. When I started writing My Year of Meats, I didn’t realize it was going to be My Year of Meats. I was trying to think about a product, because I knew that the issue of commercial sponsorship was going to be central to the book. At first I thought of cigarettes because that had been such a personal struggle for me, but somewhere along the line I realized that talking about meat was more interesting in many ways. The program that we did for the meat industry was called Mrs. America. After I had thought of and proposed the program, I was very surprised when the production company came back and said: “we have a sponsor, it’s the meat industry, and we’re turning the program into a cooking show.” It was a program that was very much like My American Wife in the book. Writing about that gave me the chance to write about women’s issues as well, and that just became more and more interesting because, of course, if you start poking around at the etymological roots of capitalism, you’ll understand that capitalism is intrinsically tied up in male ownership of cattle. Our entire economic system in the west, and in the world, is based on the ownership of living beings. Through that, I ended up becoming more interested in food and the kinds of things we consume. In My Year of Meats, my interests were largely around the pharmaceutical use in livestock, and the pharmaceutical abuse of livestock, but also specifically in the kinds of pharmaceutical products that are made for women. I think that, in a way, all fiction centres around the question of identity: “Who are we?”, “What is it that makes us who we are?”, and “What is it that makes us human?” And food ended up being a wonderful way to investigate these questions, and what “you are what you eat” really meant.

After writing My Year of Meats, I realized that these decisions are very complicated and I wanted to delve more into the situation for farmers, who are caught in the model of agriculture that is extremely difficult. With small farmers going out of business at a very rapid rate, it just seemed very important to investigate more about the lives and problems that farmers faced. I was also interested in biotech because it really scared me and I didn’t know much about it. That’s really why I end up writing things, because I want to spend time learning about them, and because they bother me on some level. That’s how I got involved with genetically engineered potatoes and that’s how All Over Creation got inspired.

ROOM: It’s interesting that you came from a documentary background before your first book. Why did you decide to find answers to these questions through a fictional narrative instead of non-fiction writing?

RO: I have always wanted to write novels; fiction has always been the genre that’s closest to my heart. After years of making documentaries, I was very aware of the difficulties in claiming that what you are representing is “the truth.” “The truth” is quite problematic. Truth is very perceptual, and I think that there are so many truths. When I was making documentaries, I also saw in television the way that truth is skewed. It just seemed to me that it is more interesting to just write something and give myself the freedom to fictionalize, and not try to boil down a complex network of truths into one definitive statement that claims to be true. And I think fiction in many ways is truer, it’s a different kind of truth, but it allows you to perform a different kind of truth-telling. That’s why I chose to do it that way. 

ROOM: With All Over Creation, there’s this exploration of what one consumes being tied to one’s identity. How do you think a person derives their identity from the food they consume?

RO: Literally, you are what you eat. I think that that’s really the primary level that I’m talking about, but even that’s complicated. Everything you put in your mouth represents a choice. There’s ethical, health, and religious choices involved. There are many ideological choices, and certainly, there’s political choices. It’s all there in every mouthful. I grew up in the seventies during the heyday of feminism, and there was a slogan, “The personal is political.” I grew up with that and I really believed that—that the personal choices you make are extremely political, and that the political choices that are made with or without your consent also inform who you are and what is happening to you.

ROOM: That reminds me of Akiko in My Year of Meats. She embodies this intertwining relationship between food, fertility, and feminism.

RO: Akiko was an interesting character to me because she was a character who was waking up. She was waking up because of this exact same interconnecting nexus, this interconnected web, and she was doing it in a very different cultural context and in a very different way than Jane was, so I think that’s kind of what the book is about. It’s about these two women who are very different, who are waking up to the same network of relationship that you’re talking about—feminism and politics—and they’re both realizing and beginning to understand this not just intellectually, but also in their bodies. It goes back to the etymology of the word “capitalism” again [laughs], the fact that these are economic truths, political truths, biological truths, and certainly they are feminist issues as well. 

ROOM: When I read the reviews for My Year of Meats, a lot of readers claimed that they had converted to a vegetarian or vegan diet after reading the novel. How do you feel about that? I have a feeling that wasn’t your intention.

RO: No. When I’m writing a book, I don’t have messages or agendas in my mind—just questions, and the book is representing an attempt to answer these questions. It’s a very personal issue and a personal process to write a novel. I’m not really thinking about readers at that time. I’m trying to understand what’s going on here, and to understand that through the interiority of the characters themselves. If the book encourages people to be more mindful of their choices and these kinds of connections we’re talking about, then I think that’s good. That’s the wonderful thing about fiction, it really does get under your skin. It moves you to think about your life and the world in different ways. That’s what good books have always done for me. It makes me happy as a novelist because if people are making changes based on their experience of reading the book, it means that the book has moved them in some profound way, right? 

ROOM: Definitely. I think literature has the power to influence and inform a reader’s lifestyle and choices.

RO: Absolutely. Every book that I have loved has changed me in some way. I read because I love to read, and I love to be moved. It might not be something as overt as: Oh I read this book and I started getting up at six thirty in the morning instead of seven. To my mind, it’s not something that linear, but most of the time when I read a book that moves me, it makes me feel differently about the world. It makes me see the world in a different way. For example, reading Proust, you start to experience the world differently. Time changes, time slows. A moment sort of explodes and unpacks. Your experience of life changes as a result of your reading. I think that’s the wonderful thing—the magical thing about reading. In A Tale for the Time Being, Nao says “together we will make magic,” and that’s what it is. That book is very much about my feeling about the process of reading and writing, and the relationship between reading and life. 

ROOM: How did you transition from writing and directing for TV and film to writing fiction?

RO: Well, I did because I had to. I didn’t have a choice—I ran out of money. 

ROOM: And writing paid more?

RO: It’s not that it paid more, but it cost less. At that time, it wasn’t even about making money, it was about not losing money [laughs]. In that way, writing was enormously profitable, because I wasn’t hemorrhaging money. I ran out of money by making two films, and I was in a lot of debt, and it was too demoralizing to think about going on in film. I realized that you could write a novel with basically a little bit of time, and a ream of paper from Staples. That seemed like a bargain.

ROOM: That’s a great attitude. Most writers complain, reasonably so, about how writing doesn’t pay. But you’re right—the resources you need are minimal.

RO: Yeah, it doesn’t cost anything. You have to pay your rent and food, but you have to do that anyway, so it’s not like you’re spending money on top of that. 

ROOM: I’m going to put that quote over my desk.

RO: It was great. I didn’t have huge ambitions with My Year of Meats, because I didn’t think it was going to be popular or anything. I had about thirty thousand dollars in credit card debt, and my wildest hope was that I could sell the book, make about thirty thousand dollars and zero out. It seemed doable. I had talked to my friend who was in publishing at that time, and I wasn’t sure why but she said, “I don’t know, maybe thirty thousand.” And I thought “Great! That’s exactly how much I owe.”

ROOM: I’m glad that worked out for everyone.

RO: It did. I paid off my debt [laughs].

ROOM: I think many of your readers see you as a writer who embodies a multitude of identities and expertise. How does your identity and experience as a writer inform the other aspects of your life? 

RO: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, first of all, I just have to take exception to one word that you used—“expertise.” I would not consider myself an expert in anything. An expert is somebody who devotes their life to one thing, and I’m the opposite of that. I’m a generalist. I know a very little bit about a number of things, but I do have a wide range of identities and interests. I think as a novelist, you have to be a generalist. That’s what being a novelist is, right?

ROOM: Otherwise, you would have nothing to write about.

RO: Otherwise you would have nothing to write about! Or you would be writing the exact same thing each time—which maybe we do anyway. Maybe every book is the same book, written at a different time of your life. But to flip that, how does the writing and the novel writing in particular inform the other things that I do? Well, I’m not a filmmaker anymore, that identity I’ve left behind primarily because it’s too expensive and difficult. However, I did make the book trailer for A Tale for the Time Being, which I worked on with a friend of mine, Bill Weaver, and that was fun. The area that seems interesting and important here is probably my identity as a Zen practitioner, an ordained Zen priest. I’m a novice priest, and that’s interesting because the relationship between Zen and writing is a perplexing one in some ways. So much of Zen is all about paradox. There’s so much Zen writing about the foolishness of writing [laughs], about how real enlightenment goes beyond words and letters. There’s this uneasy relationship in the Zen literature about the relationship between literature and Zen, and I always find that really amusing, but it’s also very interesting because I think it’s true, and like all good paradoxes, there’s no one right side. Both are true. I find that very much the case in my own life too, that so many of the questions that I’ve struggled with in my fiction are also questions that arise for me as koans when I’m practising Zen. I see the two processes being very related to one another, and my experience is that they enrich one another. Certainly I know that my Zen practice enriches my writing, and I think that my writing also enriches my Zen practice. And in fact so much so that I’m not sure that they are different. I mean there’s a different kind of manifestation obviously and a different tangible result, but at their heart, the two practices do not feel so terribly different.

ROOM: I guess writing is a kind of meditation on life, society, and the world around us. 

RO: It is. It is a kind of thought experiment. Obviously, when I’m meditating, I’m meditating, and when I’m writing, I’m writing. But writing and meditation are both expressions of who I am at this moment. In fact, that’s all there is. They’re just different expressions of that. 

Kayi Wong reads, writes and does graphic design when she’s not contemplating her next meal. After living in Hong Kong and Singapore for many years, she is currently based in Vancouver and has been a member of the Room editorial board since 2013.

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