'We Should Probably Listen Harder': An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

December 8, 2021
A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won...

Kris Krug

What makes you feel tethered to the world around you? Or, another way of putting it: what is it, every day, that convinces you you’re actually here, and that there’s a here to be?

Shared experiences, for many. Physical touch, maybe, anything that stimulates your senses. I don’t have a sense of smell in my dreams. Maybe it’s consumption, or conversation. Maybe you want to weigh yourself down with objects, surround yourself in a nest that proves You Were Here. Maybe it’s creation—I made that, I must be real, look how real that is. Maybe it’s destruction—I broke that, I must be real, look how broken it is.

Isolation can provoke slippery thoughts about our sense of the real. When we’re alone, when the context we’re used to is up-ended, suddenly reality doesn’t seem like something a wise person takes for granted. Pain can do this, too. Illness. Certainly, certainly grief.

In her new novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness (Penguin), Ruth Ozeki shares pages from the imagined self-help best-seller of a Zen Buddhist nun named Aikon, who writes, “What is real?...Impermanence is real.” Aikon herself is a funny trick of reality, inspired as she is by the tidying boom sparked in the West by Marie Kondo. And it’s in this liminal place between real and unreal where much of The Book of Form and Emptiness lives. It’s a book with a character who is the book itself, narrating the life of the actual main character, Benny, who spends a good deal of his time tuning out the narration of the inanimate objects around him who won’t shut up. His father is dead, his mother is drowning, and the city around him is heaving with stories, voices, suffering, and respite. Eventually confined to a psych ward, Benny’s life becomes a game of chicken with other peoples’ realities: Medical professionals trying to explain the voices he’s hearing, his mother trying to pretend him back into childhood, kids at school who call him crazy, and his new friends who call him a writer. Throughout the book, Ozeki impresses upon us the layers of reality, crafted through the stories we tell ourselves, that clutter everyday life. Did a murder of crows save a woman from freezing or try to eat her concussed body? Is a bottle collector talking to himself on the bus suffering, or a savant? Does the person you have a crush on ever actually exist? Does it matter?

Though he may not know it, Benny has a literary contemporary—another bookish young man in a long novel who can hear objects speaking to him: Belt, the protagonist of Adam Levin’s Bubblegum. Like Benny, objects communicate their suffering to Belt, and like Benny, he wishes to help them. Reading these two books during a global pandemic, “surrounded,” as Helen Shaw writes in her Vulture profile of Ozeki, “by and penned in by our possessions as never before,” I can’t help but wonder what these two boys appearing in these two books published during this time could mean. It doesn’t, of course, really mean anything—Ozeki was writing her novel for eight years, and this was Levin’s first book since 2010. That these books emerged at a time when our relationship with the things that surround us became so heightened is one of those wonderful tricks of literature, a synchronicity. The two boys exist in very different realities—across a continent from each other, one in the throes of grief, one a vehicle for an alternate future. We get to meet Belt as a grownup; we only live with Benny through the tumultuous year following the death of his father, Kenji. But isn’t it wonderful to imagine them together?

That, ultimately, seems to be the kindness Ozeki extends to Benny, and to her reader. The world is tough. See the stories where you can and hold on to them. After all, stories are as much a tether as anything else. If something offers you a narrative, listen.

Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest, and The Book of Form and Emptiness is her fourth novel. Ozeki and I spoke about both her writing and Zen practice, her previous work, including the Pulitzer- and Booker-nominated A Tale for the Time Being, and libraries, which feature heavily in Benny’s world (and, in the book, serve as a place for the reader to meet the writer’s proxy, keeping a close eye on her twelve-year-old literary charge).

Haley Cullingham: I’m curious what it is about the Pacific Northwest that keeps drawing you back for literary exploration?

Ruth Ozeki: I’ve never really thought about it, but now that you bring it up, I think one of the things, certainly, is the weather. The moodiness of it, and the culture, too, of it being a Pacific Rim city, I’m thinking Vancouver in particular, right? There’s a tie to Asia that I feel somehow congruent with. It’s the landscape, it’s the weather, it’s the ocean, it’s the proximity to Asia, I think there’s a kind of—the term pathetic fallacy pops to mind. The sense that somehow it mirrors my identity and my internal emotional state. [Laughs] Extreme. It’s also very extreme, right? So that’s part of it.

I wanted to begin by talking about the idea of things left behind. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you think about the contrast between a physical legacy and a legacy that lives in memory and spirit, and what you were thinking in that context as you were writing and as you were developing the book.

When I think about things left behind, and I think about memory and legacy, of course the first thing that pops to mind is the book. That’s what books are, they’re containers for memory. They’re containers for the stories of the past. It’s an artifact that allows you to communicate with the past. It allows you to communicate with the minds of the dead, if you’re reading dead authors. There’s that lovely idea that if you read the poems of the dead poet out loud, it’s actually the poet who’s borrowing your tongue. It’s the dead poet borrowing the tongues of the living in order to speak again. 

I would imagine most writers have this sense of the book as being a kind of conduit between the past and the present, because of course, as I’m writing the book, I’m realizing that I’m talking to people who exist in the future, who might not even be alive yet. I’m talking to people who certainly don’t exist yet. A book is a strange kind of artifact in that way. But I suppose, really, when you think about it, all artifacts are like that. All things are like that. And something that occurs to me, it happened the other day, I was walking down the street, and there was a parking meter, and these parking meters, they were old-fashioned parking meters, where you actually put coins into them, and I was thinking, they’ve been there for decades, right? Nobody uses these things anymore; phone booths [are] another thing. It’s an old technology, right? But it persists in time. And, in fact, the thing will probably outlive me. And I felt a kind of sudden pang of outrage [laughs] thinking, here’s this damn parking meter that’s going to be around long after I’m gone, and what does it think it is, anyway? Things have staying power. Things really have staying power. And in that sense, if you start to play with this idea of things having memory, or things having stories inside them somehow, not just books but objects as well, then it becomes an interesting storehouse of memory.

When I was writing the book, I was certainly thinking of objects like that, particularly made objects, as being repositories of all of that, not just of memories, but the aspects, the emotions, of all of the people who had anything to do with the process of making. It’s kind of a thought experiment, really, more than anything else, I suppose. What would those stories be? Who has come into contact with these objects, and has participated in their making, and what kind of aura remains? Those were the kinds of things I was thinking about as I was thinking about running shoes, or pencils, or any of these objects in the book. 

The idea of parking meters, thinking of them in the context of the book, makes me think of how removal is an act of care, too. I think about the moment when Benny finally says to his mum, these shirts want to be worn. Don’t make dad’s shirts into a quilt. Let them out into the world and let them do their thing. But no one takes that parking meter down because no one cares about it enough as an object to even remove it.

Right, or it’s a financial decision, you know, the city has just decided that, well, we’ll just keep them for now, because what are we going to replace them with, you know, whatever, they’ve got their reasons. It is a kind of form of neglect, in a way. They’re not important enough to remove. Phone booths being a prime example of that. I love walking around and seeing gutted phone booths, because nobody makes phone calls in public phones anymore, so very often the booths are just left there empty, because the phones have been vandalized or removed, you know? These artifacts of old technology, weird palimpsests that you see, in the city in particular. 

They’ve automated a bunch of the transit entrances here in Toronto, so there’s these ghostly ticket booths now. They definitely have an energy to them.

In Vancouver, there were weird artifacts of old streetcars, or the trains themselves, these artifacts of old technology.

I was curious, as I was reading, if there was one character or one spark where this book began, or if it came together in a different way?

I find that there’s rarely one thing. Usually what starts a book going is a collision between multiple elements. It’s like they’re particles that have to collide, and start to constellate. So when enough particles collide, then this process of constellation starts to happen. So the stories usually come from that collision itself. When two things meet, there’s a force produced, a third thing is produced from that.

In this case, the key elements were, first of all, the library, and the characters who live in the library, and the bindery itself. These were all artifacts of an early draft of A Tale for the Time Being. That book changed radically in the middle, and I had to take that book apart, maybe it was like several hundred pages, which consisted of the library and the Alice character and the Bottleman, and the bindery. All of those characters were from an early version of A Tale for the Time Being. And at some point, it was actually after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I realized that half of the book just simply wasn’t working, and so I stripped it all out, and that’s when I wrote the Vancouver Island stuff, and put Ruth and Oliver in the book, and made Ruth be the recipient of the diary. Before that, the book had been set in a library.

And so I had these pages, and they were hanging around in my hard drive, and the library as a location was still very alive for me, and the characters were very alive, so they were kind of lurking in the background, waiting for a fictional home, lobbying for a new book. And then the idea of the boy, of Benny, popped into my mind, and this idea of a boy who hears the voices of things talking to him. And so, those were the two parts that came together. And I realized that, for a boy for whom the world is a cacophonous place, a library would be a very soothing refuge, and it suddenly was like, oh, of course. That’s what happens. The two bits came together that way. It was exciting. It was also funny, because I remember thinking, Oh, this is great, I have like two or three hundred pages of library stuff already written, this is going to be a breeze, I’ll just knock this one out really fast. And, you know, eight years later, [laughs] I’m still working on it. That didn’t exactly happen the way I’d hoped. I think in a way, retrofitting is even harder. It has to change significantly in order to become this new thing.

Do you have a favourite library?

Well, I have many favourite libraries, but much of the inspiration for the library in the book was the Vancouver Public Library. I lived in Vancouver for four or five years, something like that, before we moved up to Cortez, and so I used to go to the library almost every day, and I did all of the research for My Year of Meats there, I did some of the research for All Over Creation there, it was a place that I really, really loved. And All Over Creation was chosen as the One Book, One Vancouver book, an event that’s sponsored by the VPL, so I was hanging out there quite a bit. And one of the things that I asked for was a tour of the inner workings of the library, because I knew all of the areas that were accessible to library patrons, but I wanted to get down into the bowels of the library, and up into the roof garden too, because it’s got a beautiful green roof. They were lovely, and they gave me a tour of the entire facility, and at the time, there was a defunct bindery in the basement of the VPL. And it was the last, I mean this is the story that I heard, it was the last public bindery in North America. There are private binderies, but this is the last public bindery in North America, and they had just closed it, and people were upset. The library workers were upset, I think they went on strike eventually, to protest this as well as other things, and library patrons were upset, because it really was a symbolic decision to close the bindery, because it really signaled the end of an era. The end of a time when, for example, periodicals existed in hard copy, and the printed periodicals needed to be bound into collections, and that no longer was necessary, because everything was available online. And so it was really a kind of signal of the shift from analogue to digital, from print to digital. And people were upset about this. The symbolic impact, or import, of that was significant. So there was a hue and cry about the closing of the bindery, the library workers were on strike because the binders were being made redundant, and so I remembered that story, and that’s kind of the story behind the fictional bindery in the book. And then the other thing I remembered was, the woman who was doing public relations for the library, I think she may have been pulling my leg, but she did tell me that the sub-basement of the Vancouver Public Library was haunted. And that night security guards reported hearing calypso music emanating from the basement. I’m not going to vouch for the truth of that, you know, but that was the story that was told to me, so of course that had to go in as well.

Music is definitely something that I wanted to talk to you about. I love the musicality of Benny’s name. There’s just something about it that’s like, of course his dad’s a jazz musician if his name’s Benny Oh.

I felt the same way, I felt the same way, that there was something so exuberant about his name, it was very musical.

I wanted to ask about the way you approached the presence of sound and rhythm in the book.

I’m trying to remember where the idea of Kenji being a jazz clarinetist came from. I’m not even sure. Maybe it was just that I was hanging out at jazz clubs down in the east side in Vancouver. I can’t really remember how the Benny Goodman stuff came into the book. I think maybe the whole thing started with the name Benny. It’s just a name that I’ve always liked, and I’ve always wanted to write a character named Benny, and so when I thought about this boy, he was always just Benny. I don’t remember how his last name, how the Benny Oh came into being either. It’s funny, because it just seemed like, oh, that’s it, that’s what it is. And Kenji’s a jazz musician, and there’s Benny Goodman, and Benny Goodman was a jazz clarinetist. The whole thing seemed to be already pre-existing, and I just kind of discovered it.

It’s not like I was a big Benny Goodman fan before this. I became a Benny Goodman fan as I was writing the book, and I started researching that Carnegie Hall concert, and then had to buy the music and listen to it, and all of that. Because it was a book about sound, and voices, the idea of music and musicality and rhythm and speech patterns and all of that just seemed kind of built in, once again, to the fabric of the story. And I was very aware of that when I was writing, because it gave me some kind of permission to be a little playful with the sentences. I was probably even more indulgent with internal rhyme and rhythmic structures. Sometimes you want to edit that stuff out. Sometimes you want to keep the prose from drawing attention to itself. But in this book, and this is why I say indulgent, I felt that certainly because the narrator of the book was a book, I felt that the narrator would be more indulgent, would be more self-indulgent. And it gave me permission to play a little more, on that level. There were a lot of moments where I was aware that in normal circumstances, I would have edited out internal rhymes in a sentence, but in this case, I was going to leave them.

Was there anything you were listening to in particular as you were writing the book?

I will send you my Spotify playlist! Of course I was listening to a lot of Benny Goodman. But I couldn’t really listen to Benny Goodman while I was writing, it was too distracting. So there was a lot of ambient music I was listening to as I was writing. And then there was—the astronaut theme took off, as it were, and so there was kind of space-y music that I associate with the book now, too. Including David Bowie. 

I’m curious what you think about how to capture the experience of mental illness in fiction, and why you chose to do it.

First of all, I wouldn’t characterize Benny’s condition as mental illness. I would say that he had unshared experiences. But I wouldn’t call it mental illness, that’s a diagnosis that would come from a traditional medical perspective, perhaps. Benny was an extraordinarily receptive and sensitive kid, who had these experiences that other people didn’t share. People who have experiences like that, be they visual or oral, very often are diagnosed as being not normal in some way. But I find that to be worth interrogating. It’s an assumption that’s really worth interrogating. And I think that was part of my purpose for writing the book. Because, as a novelist, as a fiction writer, I hear voices too. I hear the voices of my fictional characters, and these are unshared experiences, and my job as a novelist is to share them, and to make them quote real for other people, even though they’re fictional, and they don’t really exist. But that’s my job, to try to make them manifest in some sort of way.

And so, in this case, after my own dad died, I did have the experience of hearing his voice as if he were still there. As if he were standing outside, it was outside, behind me on the right-hand side, and I’d be doing something ordinary, like washing the dishes, and I would hear him clear his throat and call my name. He would just say my name. And I would turn around, the reflexes are so quick, right? So I’d hear it, I’d turn around, and he wouldn’t be there. I couldn’t see him. And then I’d remember, oh, right. He’s dead. But my experience of it was that it was real. So this happened maybe four or five times, half a dozen times maybe, over the course of about a year, I would say. And each instance was so quick and so brief. A couple of times it happened just on the brink of sleep, kind of a dream-like quality to it. In any case, I didn’t pay it much mind. It happened, went on, it was like, “that was weird,” and just kind of continued. And then eventually it faded away. I stopped hearing his voice. And then I kind of forgot about it.

And then, years later, I was doing an event at a library somewhere, I think it was in Michigan, and I was talking about how Nao’s voice, in A Tale for the Time Being, and how characters come to me as voices. It’s like I hear them talking, and I write them down. And somebody in the audience, this middle-aged man in the audience, raised his hand and asked me, do I hear the voices as if they are outside me and I’m hearing them with my ear, or is it more like the voices are inside my head and I’m hearing them with my mind? He explained that his son heard voices as if they were outside and he was hearing them with his ear. And they were very harsh, and very cruel, cutting voices. Critical voices. And this was very disturbing to his son. And so I thought about that. I told the man that in the case of fictional characters it’s a more internal voice, but that I had had this experience of hearing voices, my dad’s voice, as if it was outside me. And I told him that I also understood what it felt like to have critical, harsh, cruel voices, and to hear those, even though when I heard voices like that, it was more internal, the voices of the inner critic or the inner judge, just being really super mean about my writing, you know, for example. I knew what those voices felt like, too, but I’d never heard them as though they were outside my head.

So that got me really thinking about this spectrum of the experience of hearing voices. On one end of the spectrum, artists and writers and musicians, we have these, you can call them visions, you can call them inspiration, you can call them the muses, you can call them whatever you want, but it’s a common experience and it’s one that is generally, in this society that we live in, it’s one that is celebrated as a positive thing. So that’s one end of the spectrum. And then in the middle part of the spectrum, there’s the kind of critical, neurotic voices, the perseverating voices that most of us hear in some situation or another, and then on the other end of the spectrum, there are the voices that would be, if you talked to a psychiatrist, they would be considered psychotic, or schizophrenic. So there’s this spectrum the term voice-hearing kind of covers. And so, what part of that spectrum is normal? What do we call normal and what do we call abnormal? And it occurred to me that, and this is something I think about a lot, that the whole concept of normal is a social construct. We made up this idea of what’s normal. And so, since we made it up to begin with, why can’t we expand the concept? Why can’t we expand that idea of normal to include all of us? Because actually, there are a lot of people who report hearing the voices of a loved one after they’ve passed. And there are certainly a lot of people who hear voices but for whom that’s not a problem. And so it’s never quote diagnosed, and it’s never treated medically. So this is all stuff that I thought about a lot as I was writing this book. I have a lot of friends who are involved with the voice-hearing communities, and who hear voices themselves, and so this is something that I’ve thought a lot about and talked to a lot of people about, particularly people with lived experience.

It's so interesting how the instinct is always to imagine the outside world as fixed, and our internal world as the one that’s making something different. It’s interesting to subvert that.

And you know, the whole idea of objects speaking, on one hand you can just think of that as being sensible. Child’s play. Because children are constantly making objects speak, right? But we are conditioned out of that as we grow older. Animation is all about objects with agency, right? Objects who dance, who speak. Again, it’s a kind of a spectrum, I think. We’re really encouraged to drop all of that as we get older. 

Except in the context of sacred objects, which is interesting.

Exactly. And in other cultures, people who hear voices and have visions are the seers and the saints and the soothsayers and the shamans and the healers. I mean, Joan of Arc. She was a voice-hearer. For that matter, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung also talked about voices that they heard. It’s not an outsider experience necessarily. 

I read the interview you did with Lit Hub, and you were talking about writing in a dream-state, which you call precious, and I was curious about your thoughts on liminality and how that works into your creative process.

Well, I think that’s the state where I can access the story. I really do feel that fiction writing happens as a kind of dream, it’s analogous to a dream-state, and that somehow the workings of the unconscious are what produces the story. And so, as much as possible, to try to get the conscious mind out of the way, and to tap that dream-state, is really the desirable place to be if I want to write. So whatever it takes to get there is useful to me.

I think I was probably talking about writing first thing in the morning. That is my preferred time to write, when I can just shut out the world and kind of tumble out of bed and go directly to the computer and start to write. And in fact, this is one of the hardest things about living on the west coast, because you tumble out of bed, and the east coast has already been hard at work for three hours, and your inbox is already filled. I would much rather live in Europe, where I could be hours ahead of the rest of North America. That would be fantastic. The point being that, yes, time to write without fully waking up is kind of great.

But the other thing that really helps me is meditation, because that state of not-thinking, you’re dropping down to a more liminal place. It’s a way of dropping below the conscious mind, I suppose. If I’m trying to write later in the day, for example, after I’ve been dealing with emails for hours, it helps to sit for a little while, because it allows me to shift gears, and kind of move more into that unconscious space.

I’m curious if, for you, the meditation practice is always connected to the creative process.

If by creative process you mean writing, no, it’s not always connected to writing. But if by creative process you mean a kind of creative and generative and open receptive relaxed way of being, then yes, it is. 

The kind of meditation that I practice, Zen meditation, and particularly Soto Zen meditation, is objectless meditation. You’re not trying for anything. You’re letting things fall away. You’re not striving to achieve something. It’s really a type of profound relaxation, but it’s also a kind of alert and focused relaxation. So it’s not like the relaxation you do as you’re trying to go to sleep. It’s relaxation that you do when you’re fully awake.

It’s not like you’re focused on the breath, although you might start by focusing on the breath, because that helps you move into that quiet space, concentrated space. But eventually, you let that go. And you’re not trying to achieve any particular state of mind, you’re not trying to achieve calm, or peace, or empty mind, you’re just being with whatever is there.

What would your Zen reading list be? If someone came to you and said, I want to know more, what would you tell them to do?

I would probably tell them, first, to see if they could find a sitting group. Because really, it’s an experiential practice. It’s called a practice, you have to do it. That would probably be my first piece of advice. But as far as books are concerned, the first book about Zen that I always recommend is a book called What Is Zen? It’s by Norman Fisher and Susan Moon, and it’s set up as a kind of dialogue. It’s a very clear, straightforward, funny book that will give you all of the basics that you need.

There’s all sorts of wonderful Dharma talks online. I’m affiliated with the Everyday Zen foundation, and that’s Norman’s group. On the website, there’s maybe 3000 Dharma talks. So I would recommend checking out what’s available online. There’s just so much now, in every Buddhist flavour, every school, every lineage. There’s just so much now, so it’s a little overwhelming, too, but my experience is mostly with Zen, and mostly with Norman’s teachings. Any of his books, too, he’s got a long list of them and they’re all wonderful.

But I should also say that I actually got re-introduced to Buddhism more through the Tibetan side of things. So Pema Chodron is a wonderful person to start with, any of her books are really, really fantastic. They’re good at the beginning, they’re good at the middle, they’re good at the end. They’re useful all the time, but it’s a great place to start.

How did Buddhism come back into your life?

I’d always been interested in meditation, ever since I was quite little, and I tried at various times to understand how to do it. I think when I was fourteen, I started doing transcendental meditation, and was, I think you could say, initiated, I’m not sure, but I received a mantra and I had a Zen practice when I was quite young. And then it kind of dropped away, but I got serious about it again in my thirties, when my parents were getting older, and they were not well. Suddenly, when the reality of old age, of sickness, of death, kind of hit me, I realized, oh, no, I need help. And the only way through this is through Buddhism.

And that’s the traditional story of Buddhism, too, the historical Buddha was raised in a very sheltered way, he was a prince, his father tried to protect him from any kind of suffering at all, and the story is that he snuck out of the palace at night, and he saw an old person for the first time. And then he saw a sick person. And then he saw a dead person. And then he saw an ascetic, a religious person. So that was kind of his trajectory, too. And I think that really is the path for so many people, or the entrance to the path for so many people, because you realize, like, oh, suffering really does exist and I can’t do this alone, I can’t do this without something.

In the same way that we were talking about the idea of manifesting unshared experiences in art, I was wondering if you have any thoughts about the idea of art as a vehicle for spiritual teaching or exploration.

I think that, certainly, art has historically almost always been an expression of some kind of religious or spiritual experience. I mean, not always, but much of the time, anyway. In most religious traditions. It’s certainly an expression of a kind of heightened appreciation, either for the wonder or the horror of existence. The extreme states, right?

Until A Tale for the Time Being, I was kind of hesitant to put too much Buddhism in my work. Although it was always there in the background. I would argue that, if you look at any work of art, or certainly any story, any novel, any piece of fiction, through a Buddhist lens, the very fact that story operates successfully, that it works, is because of certain characteristics of existence that you could say are Buddhist. For example, we always think about Buddhism as being this special thing, but it’s not. It’s just a description of reality, and a kind of prescription for how to deal with reality, how to cope with reality. For example, all stories are, on some level, about change, and about impermanence. And if you’re teaching writing or if you study writing, one of the first things that you’re taught is that your protagonist, your main character, needs to be different at the end than they were at the beginning. Some kind of change needs to happen. I mean, whether that’s true or not is arguable, but I do think, generally speaking, that that’s true. Change, impermanence, this is one of the core teachings of Buddhism. But it’s also not really Buddhist. It’s obvious. It’s just reality, right?

Another one is the first noble truth, suffering exists. Well, most books, most stories, are about suffering in one form or another, and about overcoming suffering, right? Another core teaching of Buddhism is this teaching of dependent co-arising. Thich Nhat Hahn calls in “interbeing.” But that’s just another way of talking about relationships. That we all exist in relationship to each other, and that we cannot exist alone. And again, I would say that most stories are about exactly that. If you start to look at experience from a Buddhist perspective, through a Buddhist lens, you can see that it’s nothing special. It’s just a lens through which to understand and appreciate the basic facts of existence.

So, in any case, to go back to your question, in these last two books, I actually have overtly Buddhist characters. Both books have a Zen nun in them. And that was because, I think, in these two books, I really did want to explore, in a more overt way, some of these teachings.

There’s a whole tradition of commentary literature in Buddhism, particularly in Zen. So there’s the original teachings, and then, in Zen for example, there’s very often a poem that somebody later on writes in response to the original teaching. There’s a tradition of literary and artistic response to the teachings. This is what I mean when I say commentary literature.

With both of these two books, they both had a kernel of Buddhist teachings at the core. In A Tale for the Time Being, it was Dogen’s fascicle called Time Being, or Being Time. Dogen being a thirteenth-century Zen master. So it was his teachings on time and existence. Very much what Heidegger was talking about as well. So that was the philosophical kernel at the core of the book. And in this one, the seed or the kernel at the core would be a koan, a famous koan which asks the question, do insentient beings speak the dharma? That’s the question in the koan. So that’s what I was thinking about. That was the philosophical question that I was thinking about as I was writing this book. Can insentient beings teach us something. The idea of speaking the dharma is really a way of saying, can they teach us? Can we learn from them? And the answer is yes, and we should probably listen harder.

After eight years of working on it, the book is out, you’ve been travelling finally and talking to people about it. Has there been one particular thing that has been the greatest joy to connect with people on about this particular book, for you?  

I can’t say there’s one thing, it’s just a relief to have the voices out of my head and in the world. And I would say that’s true for all books. Up until now, this fictional world has existed only inside my head. And now, I get to share it. There’s something really wonderful and powerful about that, because in my experience, we think about a book as being a singular object. Oh yeah, it’s the book, it’s The Book of Form and Emptiness, you know? It’s my Year of Meats, or it’s A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a book. But it’s never just that. Again, and this is a Buddhist perspective on it, the book doesn’t exist without the reader. The book doesn’t really fully exist without that relationship, right? That interconnectedness. And so, there are as many books as there are readers. And I think the book actually says this, right, somewhere in there. And so it’s that experience, watching this book go out into the world and multiply, and interact with other minds, is a very exciting thing. It’s wonderful. And I feel incredibly privileged to be in a position to be able to do that. I mean that seriously, it’s an incredible privilege. I just feel really lucky. 

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won the Governor General's Literary Award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Award, and several National Magazine Awards. She is from Toronto.