Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being (2013), won the LA Times Book Prize, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been published in over 30 countries. Her new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness, is published by Canongate.
The books on your bedside?
Essays One by Lydia Davis. Nobody’s Normal: How Culture Created the Stigma of Mental Illness by Roy Richard Grinker. The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender. The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken. When You Greet Me, I Bow by Norman Fischer.
The first book you remember?
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. I hadn’t seen it in years, so I found a PDF online and was surprised at how weirdly flat, still, and empty it feels – like my childhood, lonely and comforting.
There was one page I did not remember. In the middle of all the Goodnights to the moon and the balloon, and the kittens and mittens, tucked between Goodnight brush and Goodnight mush, there is a single, pictureless, black and white page that reads, Goodnight nobody.
The page disrupts rhyme and reason, opening up an existential hole in the world – but just as you start to fall in, the rhyme plucks you out again and the universe is restored: “Goodnight stars, Goodnight air, Goodnight noises everywhere.”
Your book of the year?
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk (see below).
Who is your favourite literary character?
Right now my favourite character is Janina Duszejko from Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk, because she is old, anarchic, and angry. I love the way she is portrayed in the movie adaptation, Spoor.
A book that changed your life?
My first instinct was to choose a book that I read as a young person – but instead, I’m going to choose a recent book: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, which operated retroactively – reaching backwards in time into my childhood, changing my past, present, and future.
The book you couldn’t finish?
50 Shades of Grey. I did a dramatic reading from the sample pages on Amazon for some writer friends.
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror,” I read darkly. “Damn my hair – it just won’t behave...” when one of the writers interrupted to note that Anastasia’s “wayward hair”, which is “brushed into submission”, functions as an objective correlative, and a debate broke out about whether it succeeded in making us feel Anastasia’s frustration.
I tried to read on but was derailed again a few sentences later. “I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet.” I never made it past the first paragraph.
Your Covid comfort read?
Madeline Miller’s gorgeous novels, The Tale of Achilles and Circe. I’d read them in print, and during the pandemic I listened to the audio books. Compared to the travails inflicted on mortals by the Greek gods, ours are trivial.
The book you give as a gift?
Sum, by David Eagleman. This blows my mind. It’s a collection of short stories that are more like beautiful thought experiments about life and death and the nature of existence. I periodically order a box from the publisher and give them away to people I meet.
The writer who shaped you?
Every writer I’ve read has shaped me, so I’ll just grab a name at random from my bookshelf: How about Kurt Vonnegut? I am of a generation shaped by his sense of humour, his political orientation, his irony, and his earnestness. I cried when he died.
The book you would most like to be remembered for?
I tend to forget books once I’ve written them, and I never reread them, so I’d have to say The Book of Form and Emptiness – because it’s my most recent book and the one I best remember.