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‘Novels as collaborations’
Celebrated author Ruth Ozeki ’80 shares insights into her latest novel, ‘The Book of Form and Emptiness,’ and the craft of writing
Ruth Ozeki ’80 is a multihyphenate in every sense of the word: an award-winning author, filmmaker, Zen Buddhist priest, and Smith College English professor. Last year, she published her fourth novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, which features memorable characters (including talking objects) and an engaging storyline that revolves around themes like loss and attachment that very much reflect her Buddhist philosophy. In June, the book was awarded the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary awards, and it is this year’s Smith Reads selection for the incoming first-year class.
In this excerpt from a recent webinar hosted by the Office of Alumnae Relations, Ozeki, who as a Smith student double majored in English literature and Asian studies, discusses the genesis of The Book of Form and Emptiness, her writing process, and how her Zen Buddhist practice has influenced her work.
Books as multiverses
I have a very strong sense of novels being collaborations. We think of a novel as being an object: like this is The Book of Form and Emptiness, and so it’s a singular thing. But I don’t think books work like that. I think books are multiplicities, and every reader who reads a book is a collaborator with the writer in creating a book that is unique to that writer and that reader. In other words: a book is a multiverse. There are as many [versions of] The Book of Form and Emptiness as there are readers who read it. From my point of view, I don’t know who’s going to pick up the book and read it. It’s a mystery. But to me the magic of writing is that it’s not something I can do on my own. I do my part, but then readers bring their own lived experience to the page, and together we co-create these fictional worlds.
Zen Buddhist influences
I really think the last two novels I’ve written—A Tale for the Time Being and The Book of Form and Emptiness—as being partners or siblings or maybe cousins. Both books are about young people who are struggling with psychological and mental health issues. Both books are very much inspired by Buddhist philosophy, and in particular Zen Buddhism. Both books have Zen nuns in them as characters. Both books are about reading and about the power of storytelling as a kind of healing endeavor. Both books, too, are about the ways in which we understand and represent reality.
The spark of random elements
I very often get asked, “Where do your books come from?” There’s never just one answer. It’s more like there’s a constellation of random factors that start to swirl around. Maybe it’s a book that I’ve read, or a conversation that I’ve overheard at a coffee shop. Sometimes it’s a dream that I’ve had. Very often it’s something in my past, something that I’ve felt remorse about. Remorse is wonderful—it’s awful—but it’s wonderful inspiration for writing. These random elements come together, and they start to constellate, and then from this constellation the novel starts to speak. I say “speak” intentionally because novels come to me as voices. Very often it’s the voice of a character, which I will follow to see where it takes me.
The meaning of emptiness
[In cleaning out my mother’s home after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis] I found a little box, and it was empty. My mother had carefully labeled it on the outside in both English and Japanese, “empty box” then “karabako.” It posed such a conundrum because it was an “empty box.” I couldn’t put anything in it. By putting something into it, it would turn it into exactly what it wasn’t. I remember thinking, “What is the point of this?” I couldn’t throw it away, so I ended up putting it on my Zen Buddhist altar, where it sits today.
This idea of “emptiness” is something that’s very important to the book. “Form and emptiness” is a phrase from a Mahayana Buddhist sutra called the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, or in English, the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra. The key lines are:
Form is not different from emptiness.
Emptiness is not different from form.
Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.
A metaphor that works visually for me is to imagine a vast ocean of emptiness so big you can’t see the shoreline. And suddenly, due to the winds and the tides and the turning of the planet, a wave forms. And this little wave starts to poke up its head, and it gets bigger and bigger until it gets a little white cap on its head. And it looks around. And it looks at all of the emptiness, and the wave is like, “Look at me. I’m a wave, I’m bigger than everybody else around me. I’m more important. I’m something, the rest of that is nothing.” And then, of course, the planet shifts, the tides shift, and the wind subsides, and the wave starts to drop back down into the ocean. And the wave doesn’t like this. The wave is like, "Wait, no! I’m a wave!" And then before you know it, the wave is just once again part of the vast ocean of emptiness. The wave can’t exist without the ocean, and the ocean can’t exist without the wave.
It took me eight years to write The Book of Form and Emptiness. Part of that is because I also teach at Smith and do my Buddhist practice. I wear lots of hats, but, also, I’m just a slow writer. I don’t outline. An idea will occur to me, and I’ll write it down and follow it. And then I’ll let the book and the characters kind of lead me through it. And sometimes it takes a long time to understand where the book wants to go. But I do have this feeling that the book has its own agency in a way; that the best thing I can do is get out of the way, and let the book find itself, let the characters lead. I show up at the computer, sit behind the keyboard, and get ready for ideas that come. I also use something that I call a “process journal,” which is something I teach my students about. It’s a separate document where I write about what I’m writing. I ask questions. I give myself homework assignments. I do little writing exercises in it. I argue, I complain. The process journal is like my writing buddy. I’ve had this journal going since 1995.
Advice for emerging writers
I never think of myself as an author, I think of myself as a writer. The author is the one who does what I’m doing right now, goes out and talks about the book, and helps the book move out into the world. But the book has to be there first, which means that the writer has to do the work. I do not think about the marketplace. I do not think about publication.
I do anything I can, everything I can, to look inward and to try to focus entirely on the book, and the characters and the sentences and the words, the commas, the periods, the pacing—all of the technical and craft-related stuff. That’s what’s fun. That’s what I love. Publication is secondary. It’s outside of my concerns as a writer. And so that’s really the first thing is, if you’re interested in writing, if you love writing, that’s great, and that’s where you should start, and forget about the rest. That’ll come later.
Write, read, repeat
If you’re not at school, then find other people to write with. I always have a writing group. We have deadlines; we give each other feedback. The accountability and support are really useful. And then of course the other thing is to read—a lot. There are so many wonderful books out there that teach you how to read like a writer. One of them is Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, a book that I use in all my classes. Another one, more recent, is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, one of the most brilliant writers alive now. He teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse University. And there is so much online, including groups you can join. It’s a rich time for writers.