For a novelist, a trusted reader is as precious as a beloved friend. Ruth Ozeki ’80 has found both in Carole DeSanti ’81, a fellow novelist and for nearly 20 years Ozeki’s book editor at Viking Penguin. “Every writer has a primary reader, someone she writes for, and Carole has been that for me,” Ozeki says.

Their professional partnership began when Ozeki’s manuscript for what became the acclaimed novel My Year of Meats (1998) landed on DeSanti’s desk at Viking Penguin. Their third book together, the multilayered A Tale for the Time Being, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; it won the LA Times Book Award and the Dos Passos Prize.

Through it all, their friendship, which began at Smith in Ann Jones’ comparative literature class in 1980, has been the bedrock of their working relationship. “[It’s] the shared understanding that our friendship comes first, before anything else,” Ozeki says. “Over the years, it has become the testing ground for everything else.”

In April, Ozeki, who is teaching at Smith this fall, visited Aspen, Colorado, as the featured guest of literary arts organization Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute. She appeared onstage with her longtime friend and editor. Following are some of Ozeki’s comments, excerpted from the conversation with DeSanti.

Follow that voice

“I like to read aloud because novels first come to me as a voice. It’s something that I hear, and it’s usually the voice of a character, though sometimes it’s also the voice of the book itself. Until I actually hear that voice—I can have ideas for plots and things like that—but I can’t actually start writing. So in December of 2006, this voice came to me, the voice of this young Japanese schoolgirl … [saying], ‘Hi, my name is Nao, and I’m a time being….’”

The Zen of writing

“I’ve been practicing Zen Buddhism since 2001, when I met my teacher, Norman  Fischer, who ordained me in 2010. Zen practice has helped me become a person I can live with. It’s the ground for my life and for everything I do, including writing and teaching. Being a priest allows me to share the Zen practice.”

Bringing words to life

“I really wanted to read for the audiobook, but I knew that publishers usually use professionals. And so I figured out that if you just put enough Japanese in the book, then they would have to let you do it, right?  So that was my strategy. … It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in publication. It was literally bringing every single word up through my body again and out into the world. And it was a beautiful, very intimate and wonderful experience.”

Inspiration for a character

“In a way, old Jiko [from A Tale for the Time Being] is a strong character because we all have our own inner old Jiko. She’s an archetype, the wise elder that we all know. Old Jiko has my mother’s sense of humor. You never quite know whether she’s joking or whether she’s being straight. And my mom was like that right up until the day she died.”

Returning to Smith

“As a student, I worked well at Smith and wrote well, too. I’m excited about working with the students in the advanced fiction writing class,  and I’m hoping, too, that being on campus will trigger a kind of Pavlovian response in me, and I’ll dig in and get serious and get to work on my new novel, so I can set a good example!”
Full transcript at aspenwords.org

SAQ, Fall 2015