I write in order to think. It's the way I ask questions and interrogate the world. It's the way I experience life most fully.

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. A Tale for the Time Being is her third novel.

Nao’s diary is written inside the covers of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. How meaningful was it for you to have this literary reference in the novel? 

The references to In Search of Lost Time were very meaningful. Proust was concerned with impermanence, which is also a very Buddhist preoccupation, and his exquisite evocation of dreams, of involuntary memory, of time and the ephemeral nature of phenomena were very inspiring to me. I love his discursive asides on writing, art and representation, all of which were themes that I was working with. And, too, since I was using a semi-autobiographical character in my novel, I liked that Proust had, too. 

In Search of Lost Time is an astonishingly beautiful work, which of course has become a literary monument, and yet despite its stature, like all monuments it seems somehow fragile, too. That a Tokyo hacker might cut the pages out of Proust in order to make a blank diary seems almost blasphemous, but it reflects our culture today, in which everything is a quotation or a repurposed mash-up. 

The characters in your novel are beautifully portrayed. Did you have any real-life inspirations? 

Well, yes. And no. Nao and Old Jiko’s world is pretty much entirely imaginary, but the character of Haruki #1, the kamikaze pilot, and his letters and diary, are based on historical record. The characters of Ruth and Oliver, of course, are based on myself and my husband. I would call them semi-autobiographical, in that they are both real and not-real.

You are a novelist, but you are also a Zen Buddhist priest. Does writing an I-novel such as the one Ruth is investigating helped you deal with your own identity? 

Two of the most important tenets of Zen Buddhist philosophy are impermanence and no-self. All phenomena are impermanent. As such, nothing has a fixed self or identity, but instead, all things exist in a state of radical interconnectedness. Impermanence and no-self are called “marks of existence,” of which there are three. The third is “dukkha” which is often translated as suffering, but can perhaps more accurately thought of as “dissatisfaction” or “dis-ease.” Dukkha is what we experience because of our unrealistic attachment to permanence and fixed identity. 

So yes, putting “myself” in as a character in the book, who is radically interconnected with the imaginary world of Nao, is very much a way of exploring, in a personal way, these Zen issues of identity, impermanence, interconnectedness and no-self.

In her diary, Nao addresses someone, although she doesn’t know who it is or will be. As a novelist, who are you writing for? 

I think I write for myself. At least that’s how I start. But then, during the process of writing a book, I think my sense of self changes and expands, so that by the end I’m writing for everyone. That sounds grandiose, but I don’t mean it to. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the process of writing dissolves the boundaries between “self” and “other,” so that by the end, there’s not much distinction or difference between writing for oneself and writing for the world. (Writing is communication, after all, and the point of communication is to dissolve the boundaries between self and other by sharing or finding common ground.)
Was the tsunami an event you had planned to include in the novel or did it happen after you began to write it?

I started writing the novel in 2006, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami happened in 2011. So no, I didn’t plan to include it. In 2010, I’d finished a draft of the novel that was very different. The character of Nao’s reader was completely different, and that half of the book took place in a library, not on an island on the west coast of Canada.

I was about to submit this manuscript to my editor, when the earthquake hit. Suddenly Japan was a different place. The world was a different place. The earthquake, tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima were such terrible events, and they raised a question: How can a fiction writer respond to a tragedy that is so recent and of such catastrophic magnitude? This was a disaster that would not go away, and I knew we would be dealing with the aftermath for decades. In the wake of all this, it became clear to me that the book I’d just finished was no longer relevant and I would need to address the situation directly somehow. I took the manuscript back, threw half of it away, and rewrote it, and that’s when I decided to put myself into the book as the character of Nao’s reader. It allowed me to break the fictional container and to comment on these very real and terrible events.
Nao suffers a lot from bullying at her school, and some descriptions of what she goes through are quite graphic. Was it painful for you to write those lines?

It’s an interesting question. To be perfectly honest, it’s probably more painful to read than it was to write it. The writing process is odd that way. It happens in a different time frame. Scenes, incidents, emerge much more gradually and slowly, over months and even years, and so there’s a feeling of inevitability about events, which gets truncated in the telling. Many of those scenes were based on news items, which I found shocking and painful to read, but when I sat down to write them, they didn’t feel painful as much as necessary. They needed to be told. And, too, Nao is doing this telling after the events transpired, so her words are the words of a survivor. All stories are stories of survival, as long as they get told.
At some point in the novel, Jiko says to Nao: “Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories.” Is this the reason why you are a writer?

Yes! I write in order to think. It’s the way I ask questions and interrogate the world. It’s the way I experience life most fully.