OAKLAND -- Award-winning author, filmmaker and Soto Zen priest Ruth Ozeki writes books that are a lot like zippers. Meshing facts on one side with fiction on the other, the ridged differences -- and the ridged mindsets holding the genres separate -- disappear in magical, tour de force performances.
Her first two novels, "My Year of Meats" (1998) and "All Over Creation" (2003), respectively, paired television cooking shows with big agriculture and family farmers with eco-activists. Ozeki's newest book, "A Tale for the Time Being" (Penguin Books, $16, 2013), carves a forceful literary trail through a thickly stocked pantry. On the "shelf": the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Canadian crows, World War II Japanese kamikaze pilots, pornography, quantum physics, schoolgirl bullying, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, Silicon Valley startups, Proust, Pacific wave gyres, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the lives of two women separated by thousands of miles and yet bound as tightly as a well-made book by their love of writing and reading.
Ozeki will read from her Man Booker Prize nominated novel at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 La Salle Ave., in Montclair Village.
In an interview, the 57-year old writer says she experiences no sharp demarcation between story and reality. Instead, she writes along a rim of gradation; allowing autobiographical characters to play across semi-fictional stories.
"One of the things that perplexes me is that we need to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction," she said. "That's never quite worked for me."
Ozeki's rich blend of sly humor, edgy subject matter, culture-bridging themes and riveting characters does work for readers. Interconnectedness, relationships, and what happens to information over time, emerge as common themes. And reviews of her latest tome, like The New York Times Book Review's glowing a "delightful yet sometimes harrowing novel," and Kirkus Reviews' "A masterpiece, pure and simple," lend critical backbone to her well-populated mantel of writing awards.
Interestingly, "Time Being" is a far different book than the one she submitted to her editor in early 2011.
"I finished a draft and wasn't happy with it. I was hoping she'd help me figure out the problems," Ozeki said. "Then the tsunami hit and I was transfixed. The book was no longer relevant."
Ozeki "unzipped" her book; inserting a fictional version of herself in the narrative and asking her writer self, "Do I respond to reality?" Six months later, she delivered the greatly altered story of Ruth, a novelist living on a small island in British Columbia and married to Oliver (Ozeki is married to the German-Canadian environmental artist Oliver Kellhammer and lives in Cortes Island, B.C., and New York City), and a 16-year-old girl, Nao Yasutani, who chronicles her father's suicidal outings and her 104-year-old grandmother's sagacity from Tokyo. When a barnacle-covered package containing Nao's journal, a WWII bomber pilot's wristwatch, a packet of letters and a fragile journal written in French captures Ruth's attention during a beach walk, she is consumed by what Ozeki writes is a question, "floating like a retinal burn in the darkness of her mind: What happens in the end?" Ruth becomes a reader and her feverish investigations of quantum physics, a dip into Proust's "À la Recherche du Temps Perdu" and help from island residents find a topsy-turvy harmony with her Japanese counterpart's desperate/delightful dichotomous existence.
Grand and global subjects line up with gruesome deaths and girlish fetishes. Along the way, lyrical writing rewards the "real" reader. Describing the final calligraphy Nao's grandmother creates "for now, for the time being," Ozeki writes, "the brush swooped like a black bird cutting across a pale grey sky, and a moment later, five dark, bold slashes lay wetly across the page."
Ozeki claims she's a slow writer and is especially aware of emotional streams of thought. Growing up in New Haven, Conn., as the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian-American father, she said all she wanted was to be blonde. Today, as an adult writer, she likes "being on the margin" between her Japanese and American heritage.
"My interests are formed by who I am," she said. "Cross-cultural stories interest me. It's not about drama, it's a way of exploring, of testing that line.
"This book was five years of not knowing," she said, ironically aligning herself with her semi-fictional Ruth. "It was constantly frustrating because I really didn't know until the end who Nao's reader would be. I learned patience."
After her book tour, Ozeki will assume the Elizabeth Drew Professor of Creative Writing position at Smith College and work with undergraduate students while continuing to write. And reading, as time allows.