When Ruth Ozeki was doing research for her first novel -- My Year of Meats published in 1998 -- she didn't realize she was opening a door so wide, she'd want to pull other, future novels through it.
"When I finished with My Year of Meats I found that I'd learned so much about the way things work and the food system and I started getting really interested in agriculture issues and farming issues," says Ozeki. While Ozeki's latest book, All Over Creation, is a very different sort of tale, it also thrusts into "the way that agriculture is all about the sort of imposition of human will on the land; on nature. And that is a crucial issue in the world now," Ozeki says. "Stuff like that intrigues me."
All Over Creation focuses on Yumi Fuller who ran away from her home in Power County, Idaho when she was a teenager. Now almost 40, Yumi returns to help her parents deal with the effect old age is having on their well-ordered lives. And, of course, in the process Yumi begins to resolve issues that have been unsettled for decades.
Yumi's story makes up All Over Creation's main thread, but a large cast of characters contribute to the novel's intricate plot. Yumi's parents, Lloyd and Momoko Fuller come -- in extreme old age -- to inadvertently lead an environmental movement, even though Lloyd spent his life as a model potato farmer, as firmly entrenched in new potato technologies as his neighbors.
A french-fry-grease-powered van full of radical environmentalists who call themselves the Seeds of Resistance come to Power County to find Lloyd and Momoko. In their travels, they've come across a catalog for the seed company the elderly couple have developed in their retirement. In the latest catalog, Lloyd has waxed poetic regarding genetic engineering: "Scientists now appear to understand the innermost workings of Life, itself," writes Lloyd. "But do they? Is this something mankind can ever know?"
"Our master. Our guru," says the head Seed when he reads the copy in the homespun catalog. "This is him. The one we've been waiting for! A humble seedsman, but a visionary. A born leader of men."
In short order the van is underway to Power County where the forces of modern agriculture -- genetic manipulation, corporate public relations, environmental depletion -- are about to conflict with a post-modern wave of political resistance. And though all of that may hint at a novel too activist to bother with, the story is central here, as well as Ozeki's beautifully rendered plot and characterizations.
Ozeki is a filmmaker whose 1994 Body of Correspondence won the New Visions Award at the San Francisco Film Festival and was aired on PBS. 1995's Halving the Bones was screened at Sundance, the MOMA, the Montreal World Film Festival as well as others. "I haven't made a film for almost seven years now and I don't plan to either," Ozeki says, adding that she wonders if -- under the circumstances -- she can still be called a filmmaker. She says that though she may someday get a burn to make another film, at the moment, "I'm really into writing. I always wanted to be a novelist and now I can be one and so that's really where my interest lies."
Now 47, Ozeki spends her time between her apartment in New York City and an island off the British Columbia coast where she shares her home with her husband, the artist Oliver Kellhammer.
Linda Richards: With All Over Creation you've really gone from meat to potatoes.
Ruth Ozeki: I know! It's a little predictable. When I finished with My Year of Meats I found that I'd learned so much about the way things work and the food system and I started getting really interested in agriculture issues and farming issues and all of this kind of stuff. I was on a roll and I thought: Why not just go a little bit further with this? What interests me about this is not so much the food activism angle. I'm obviously a promoter for food but what I really like is the way that agriculture is all about the sort of imposition of human will on the land; on nature. And that is a crucial issue in the world now. Stuff like that intrigues me.
All Over Creation was an extension of your research for My Year of Meats?
It was this idea of the way that we manipulate the world, we manipulate the environment, we manipulate nature. In particular this idea of pushing nature to produce more than... in the case of My Year of Meats there was a sort of subplot about a hormone called DES that was used to stimulate weight growth in cattle and was also given to women to prevent miscarriages with the side effect that the children of the women were born with predispositions towards cancers and deformed reproductive systems. This was something that I discovered while I was writing My Year of Meats. Then this book sort of grew out of that idea of the way we use technology to try to create a sort of super nature. And, in fact, it really is about hubris, too. And the way these things backfire.
I'm so impressed, Ruth. Because I loved [this book] for the sake of story, and the lovely writing. And I didn't at all get anything preachy or from the pulpit. It's an incredibly engaging tale. Not an activism book, at all.
Thank you. I'm so glad. It is really not an activism book. Although it gets tagged that way because apparently we're resistant to any type of complexity or political content in novels now. People are really allergic to that.
Yet it gets tagged that way?
It's very interesting. What happens is that reviewers will say, very often, that it's a diatribe against the such-and-such...
That's been said about this All Over Creation?
Yeah. And particularly about My Year of Meats. They said it's a diatribe against this. But, it's not. It's kind of this double-edged thing where they're so afraid that it's going to be that they have to say it is and then they come around and say: But actually it's not about that at all.
I do understand because didactic, polemical preaching is obnoxious. We don't like to be told what to think. I am very sensitive to that. But, in fact, this book is about the fact that there are many, many opinions around these very tricky issues.
And yet, is it? To me, it's very much the story of Yumi, the prodigal daughter and her wonderful kids and her complicated relationship with her parents. It's a very human story.
And it's about the conflicts. So many of the characters have very differing viewpoints. And what happens when these cultures and beliefs collide?
Do you have a science background?
No I don't. Not at all. My background is purely literary and the arts. But, having said that, I am the child of two linguists. My father did a lot of work with endangered languages. He was a linguistical anthropologist. Toward the end of his life he was in a position very much like Lloyd in the book where a lot of the knowledge he was carrying around was going to die with him because he hadn't been able to get it out into the world fast enough -- to publish it fast enough. There was just a lot that was going to go. The idea of the diversity of, in this case, language -- for my father, it was really about language -- the world's linguistic diversity is becoming attenuated and eroding. That was something that I used as sort of an impulse for the Seeds because, of course, there's the tie of semiotics and seminal: the idea of seed and language are related on an etymological level. So that was something that very much interested me.
Are you a gardener?
My husband is an avid gardener. So I think that my appreciation for gardening comes from him.
That's a good quality in a husband.
That's a very good quality in a husband. In fact, [Laughs] I highly recommend it.
You're also a filmmaker.
Well, I used to be. I haven't made a film for almost seven years now and I don't plan to either, immediately, so [I don't know if you can call me one anymore.] I might do something [at some point] but I'm really into writing. I always wanted to be a novelist and now I can be one and so that's really where my interest lies.
And the book thing is going really well, Ruth. Both of your novels have been really well received.
It's been really great. It's been really gratifying. It took me a long time to write my first book. I was 40 when it came out. I'd always wanted to be a novelist, but I think I just needed to do a lot of other kinds of things first before I had enough material and had the confidence to actually sit down and do it. A lot of it was about discipline too. Film making is really, really hard and compared to that writing seemed really easy. For the first little while, anyway. So that was an incentive, to avoid going back to work in film. [Laughs]
Let's talk a bit about process. You said writing was easy, compared to film making. How easy? What is writing like for you?
The architecture metaphor does come into it for me, quite a bit. For me, writing the first draft is like mixing cement: it's just about that interesting. It's grueling hard physical labor. You're laying the foundation and that's basically it. It's hard because you kind of have to live with yourself every day for a year, two years and the first draft always sucks, so you're thinking: God, I'm a lousy writer. That's what you have to confront, every day and still make it past that. And then it gets more exciting. Then, of course, there are minutes -- even during the first draft -- where you're sort of going through it and a turn of phrase happens or something jumps off the page and starts to sing and then you think: Oh, I'm a genius.
Your plots are very intricate. I can see where a lot of thought and planning would have to be involved at all stages.
There's a lot of working out of details so there's this kind if intermeshing thing that happens. And there's the sort of overall pace and speed and arc of the thing. And since, in this book, there's this huge cast of characters who all have to make it through their narrative chronologies in some way that's satisfying and feels right, there's a lot of juggling that goes on there. And it can be really discouraging. [Laughs] It's just really hard work.
Yumi Fuller, the heroine in All Over Creation is very flawed.
I have a very flawed heroine. I did that on purpose to write against the heroine of the first book who is also a flawed heroine but is more of a woman with a quest: on a mission. And the question of how much of this is biographical would come up quite a bit with the previous heroine because we did share the same job description.
And a similar pedigree.
Yes, though same with Yumi [in this book] being half Japanese. And I just thought: You know, I'm going to make the next heroine really flawed. Deeply flawed so no one would really dare ask me is this autobiographical. [Laughs]
Well now I have to!
Well, the standard answer to that question is that there's biographical elements in every single character, including Elliot [the villain]. I think the impulse that really brings that character to life is somewhere going to be found within you. That spark is there. So I think: Yes. I was a total rebel when I was a kid. But I certainly didn't have Yumi's particular issues: the abortion stuff, I never ran away from home. All of that stuff is fictional. And certainly the three kids. But that sort of rebellious impulse, that straining against convention, and that restlessness: all of that. She's actually not as biographical a character at all. I think that, for a lot of people anyway, the first book is based on so much of your own personal experience. And I just knew that [with my second book] I was going to have to break away from that and start writing a different kind of book. So this was it.
All Over Creation is ever so slightly a period piece. Why is that?
For a variety of reasons. Unless you're writing science fiction set in the future, if you want to write topically -- if you want to write about things that are actually happening in the world -- you almost have to put them in a period and set them in time. I started it and I knew I wanted to finish the story by the end of the millennium and I pretty much needed to put an arbitrary cap on it. Because there's a lot of topical stuff about genetically modified organisms and stuff like that in there and the science keeps changing and the news keeps changing and at some point you have to just kind of have to say: OK, well this is where I'm putting the outside limit and kind of stick to that. That's the problem with incorporating reality and factual material into a novel.
Especially technology, because it changes so fast. Which is funny because In My Year of Meats there's all these faxes that go back and forth. And I started writing and it was set in a pre-e-mail period. It was set in 1990.
Are you working on anything now?
I am, but I'm not sure what. I've got a couple of ideas that are sort of like cats in a sack right now and I just can't quite decide which one is going to win, you know? Which one is going to come out on top.
Appetizers or dessert?
Yeah. I know. Something kind of light and meringue-like. I recently contributed a short story for an anthology called Charlie Chan is Dead. It's an anthology of Asian-American short stories. This is my first short story. This was hard. Really hard. Boy: I really admire short story writers now. The brevity! It's so intense to have every word have resonance.
How many words is [this novel]?
I don't know how many words it is. I turned in an 800-page manuscript and they said: OK, good. Now let's take out 200 pages. They cut it a lot. It needed it. You kind of have to kill a lot of the things you really are fond of. But sometimes you have to sacrifice smaller things for the overall arc. And there was so much going on in the story and there were so many people involved that it really needed to be streamlined. So it got stronger as a result of doing it.
Is there anything you regret taking out?
Little tiny regrets. Stuff that will certainly find its way into print somewhere else. There were long digressions on the history of potatoes in South America, for example and my editor said: You know, Ruth, your readers probably wouldn't mind not knowing everything on potato breeding. [Laughs]
That would be really great stuff for your Web site.
Oh yeah! What a great idea. I hadn't thought about that. The potato material! I could definitely get that in there. And there was more about Luther Burbank [the founder of the modern American potato].
Do you write in longhand or on a computer?
On the computer. Though sometimes I do write in longhand. You know, when you get stuck it's nice to change your environment. It's nice to go out with a pad of paper and a pen and sit on a rock. Anything, actually, just to mix things up a little bit and bring new energy to it. I love writing by hand, but I just got so used to writing on the computer.
All Over Creation is your second book so, in some ways, the whole process is still somewhat new to you. You're developing your way of working.
It still feels pretty new, but I guess I've always written. When I was doing film work, I was writing scripts, it's just been part of my life for so long. Writing novels and publishing them feels like a new manifestation of a very old process.
What sent you there?
It's hard to say. As far back as I can remember, I've always loved to write. I think that it might have had to do with a pen fetish that started very early on. I had this British teacher named Violet Thomas-Allen. She was our elementary school teacher. She taught us how to write. And we learned how to write in italic script and, from the very beginning, we wrote this kind of upright italic form and, in the third grade we were allowed to get our first pens. They had italic nibs: the big broad nibs. They were fountain pens, calligraphic pens. They had different barrel colors and you could choose your barrel color. This was a big deal in school: you just couldn't wait to get into the third grade so you could start, because before that it was all pencils. I think that's probably where it started, with this very serious sort of pen fetish and then a stationery fetish. It was just always there.
When we were kids, everybody wanted to be a writer. That was the thing. That was what we wanted to be. There was no question about it. That or a ballerina. But the ballerina thing kind of went in and came out. The writer thing was pretty much there. | October 2003
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.