The Book of Form and Emptiness - An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

The Book of Form and Emptiness - An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

How are you? How have you found life over the past year or two?

The pandemic has been difficult, of course, but the years preceding it have been difficult, too. The belligerent divisiveness in the USA has gotten so much worse since the 2016 election, and this seeps into all aspects of life, both real and fictional.

What does your writing process look like? Do you have any go-to books which help you find inspiration or help you unwind when in the middle of a project?

When I’m in the midst of a project, I curate my reading list and try to read books that “speak” to the book I’m trying to write. So for this book, I was reading Walter Benjamin and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as books about trauma, voice hearing, objects, and clutter clearing. When I’m feeling dull and uninspired, I haul out my old copy of The Riverside Shakespeare and read a few pages, just to get the sounds of that poetry into my head again.

Did you find anything different about writing The Book of Form and Emptiness compared to your previous books? What was your main inspiration?

Every book is different, I think, although there are some similarities between The Book of Form and Emptiness and my previous novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Both are stories of troubled young people who connect with others though books and find salvation through writing. When I summarize the books like this, it becomes clear that the inspiration for both comes from my own life.

The Book of Form and Emptiness presented technical challenges that the previous books did not, particularly having to do with voice. The novel is structured as a dialogue between Benny Oh, the young protagonist, and the narrator of The Book of Form and Emptiness, who is the Book, itself. Sometimes Benny and the Book speak to each other, and sometimes they speak directly to the reader, and each shift in address required a shift in tone of voice. And then there are all the voices of the objects that Benny hears, so getting all these voices right was a challenge.

Both the characters and the objects throughout the story have such strong, vivid voices. What came to you first, Benny’s voice or the voice of the book? Or was there another voice which spoke to you before either of them?

I think the voice of the Book came to me first, although at the time, I didn’t know that it was the Book who was speaking. I thought the voice belonged to an omniscient narrator. But then Benny broke in, interrupted the narration, and started arguing with the narrator. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and it took a while for me to understand who he was arguing with, but eventually I realized it was his Book, and his Book was actually a character, who is telling Benny’s life story. This kind of thing always happens to me. I think one thing, but the characters have different ideas.

How did you come up with the title – The Book of Form and Emptiness?

The phrase “form and emptiness” comes from a Mahayana Buddhist text called the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Compressed and translated into English like this, the teaching sounds somewhat abstruse, but what it means is just that because phenomena (form) are impermanent, they are therefore empty of an essential, independent “self” or identity. Or, put more simply, everything changes, and everything is inextricably connected with everything else.

The Book of Form and Emptiness was the first title I thought of, because the phrase seemed to echo so many of the themes in the book. Then I started worrying that it sounded too abstract and started calling it The Book of Benny Oh. In the end, and with the encouragement of my editor, I went back to the original title.

What do you find most difficult about writing and do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Being patient. I am an impatient person, and it takes me a long time to write a book. Every year, I resolve that this is the year I’ll finish the draft, and then another January rolls around, and I’m still not done, and I sigh and again vow, This year, without a doubt, this year I will finish. The cycle repeats, seven, eight, nine, ten times…it’s taxing! So learning to live with my impatience is crucial.

When we’re starting out trying to write, we fantasize there’s a way to do it, and if we can find that way, we’ll be able to call ourselves writers. But I think this is wrong. There are as many ways to write as there are writers, and it’s up to each of us to figure out what works, when. Personally, I’ve found that my method changes all the time; what worked last week doesn’t work this week, and what worked for the last book doesn’t work for this one. So I guess my advice is: switch it up. If you usually write at night, try writing in the morning. If you think you need long uninterrupted hours to write, try writing in short bursts on the train. And hang a pen around your neck and stick a little notebook in your pocket, and every time you want to check your phone, pause and look around. Notice one thing you would not otherwise have noticed. Write it down, then check your messages.

What are your thoughts on being chosen as a Goldsboro Premier book of the month pick and the special edition?

I’m absolutely delighted, and more importantly, the Book is delighted, too! The Book has asked me to tell you that they have never been a Goldsboro Premier book before, and they are chuffed to be incarnated in such a special edition, and given such a beautiful new outfit to wear! It’s a real honour, and we are both very thankful.

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