Award-winning writer, professor, and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. The two talk about capturing the imagination of children’s books for adults, how social norms in every culture determine where the line is drawn between creativity and mental illness, and why Ruth sees books as living things.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ruth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Book of Form and Emptiness.

Ruth Ozeki: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to be here.

Zibby: What a powerful, amazing read this was. Oh, my gosh, so cool on so many different levels, so meta. It was awesome. Tell listeners what your book is about. Then I’ll dive into my random questions.

Ruth: It tells the story of young boy named Benny Oh. When Benny is twelve years old, his father dies in a tragic and really avoidable and stupid automobile accident. He’s actually run over by a truck. Benny witnesses this, witnesses his father’s death, and is really quite traumatized by it. During the funeral, he hears his father’s voice calling his name. Then subsequently for about the year afterwards, he occasionally hears his dad’s voice. The story really picks up after that when he starts to hear not just his father’s voice, but he starts to hear the voices of things in his house, objects, speaking not necessarily to him, but expressing themselves. These are random objects like a sneaker or a pencil or a Christmas ornament or a piece of wilted lettuce in the refrigerator. Sometimes he doesn’t understand what they’re saying, but he understands a kind of feeling tone that the objects seem to have.

Needless to say, this is troublesome to him, and particularly when the voices follow him out of the house and all the way to school. He ends up getting in trouble at school because of this. He gets sent to the school nurse who then refers him to a child psychologist. He’s diagnosed with a mental illness and is medicated. This starts a whole story about the way that children’s mental illnesses are treated. Benny, in any case, decides on his own that school is no longer an option, and so he runs away to the local public library and meets a whole cast of characters there who, in various ways, help him. One of them is a homeless Slovenian poet philosopher named the bottle man. Another is a young, beautiful performance artist who he falls in love with, of course. Another character is the character of the book itself, his book. His book starts to talk to him and starts to tell his life story. The narrator of The Book of Form and Emptiness is The Book of Form and Emptiness. I think that’s probably what you meant when you talked about a kind of meta.

Zibby: That’s exactly what I meant.

Ruth: These characters help Benny find his own voice, ultimately, and learn to live with all of the voices that he hears.

Zibby: I wanted to read two passages with the importance of books and why the book is actually talking and all of that, which I found so fascinating. So neat to be the reader then. Now all of a sudden, the reader is a character in the book as well.

Ruth: That was the fun part of writing this. Of course, a book is also a talking thing. A book is a talking object. If you’re reading a book, you are listening to an object speak to you. Yes, exactly, the reader becomes a character and sort of is brought into the world of the book.

Zibby: Which was so neat and so original, which I just love. Let’s see. Which one? Let me read this part. “The first words of a book are of utmost importance. The moment of encounter when a reader turns to that first page and reads those opening words, it’s like locking eyes or touching someone’s hand for the first time, and we feel it too. Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it, and this is what happened when Annabelle opened Tidy Magic. When she read the first sentence, a shiver ran down both their spines.” That is awesome. I loved that so much.

Ruth: It’s nice that books have spines.

Zibby: Right? That was just so, so good. Then I thought there was something else. Oh, “Has it ever occurred to you that books having feelings too? As you listen to this romantic tale of two ill-fated lovers, do you ever stop to wonder about what it feels like for us? Because in truth, if skin marks the border where an I ends and a you begins, then in these moments of impassioned boundary-crossing called love, we envy you. It’s that simple. We envy you your bodies. How can we not? Books have bodies too, but ours lack the organs needed to experience the world. The skin that covers our boards and encloses our words is different from yours. Our skin, whether made from paper or parchment or cloth or, these days, some combination of plastic, glass, and metal, fulfills a similar function of marking our perimeters, but even the most haptic and capacitive of our skins cannot experience pleasure the way yours can. We cannot feel the ecstasy of the merging of self and other.” It’s just the coolest. What made you think about it in this way? I spend a lot of time thinking about books, so I think this is why this is so interesting to me. Have you read Elephant & Piggie, these children’s books?

Ruth: I haven’t, no.

Zibby: This is such a random thing, but there’s one called We Are in a Book! The characters are like, we’re in a book? Wait, the book ends? They’re like, we’re on page eighty-seven. Oh, no, now we’re on page ninety-two. It’s going too fast. It’s like you’re aware of it.

Ruth: I love that. Yes, exactly. Anybody who reads books and loves books knows that feeling of being in a book, being in a book so thoroughly and completely that — with a physical book, you’re turning the pages, and you know you’re getting closer to the end. There’s that feeling of panic. Do I read faster, or do I slow down? That kind of boundary-crossing is something I think that all readers understand, what happens when you just fall into, in my case, the fictional world of a book. Do you remember a children’s book called, it was Harold and the Purple Crayon?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I read that all the time. Not as much anymore, but that was my fourth kid’s, one of his favorite books. Yes.

Ruth: That’s what it reminded me, too, when I was writing this book, the idea that Harold is literally drawing his world as he walks into it, as he steps into it. That’s what’s happening with this book too. The book is telling the story as we are and readers are experiencing it. It’s this idea of the book telling Benny’s story and telling itself into being, but also telling Benny into being as well. You have to ask the question then, which comes first, the book or the boy? Who’s telling whom? Just playing little games like that amuses me when I’m writing. I think that my inspiration comes from exactly books that I read in childhood because children’s books are filled with animated things. Objects are always speaking in children’s books. They’re always behaving and doing things. The world of animated objects, it’s part of the magic of childhood. I wanted to try to capture that in an adult format in this book.

Zibby: It’s true. Who’s to say that that’s so crazy? All of a sudden, it becomes crazy. I feel like one of the conclusions — maybe I misread. I felt like one of the conclusions was, this is just a part of Benny’s life. This doesn’t necessarily have to be so terrible. He can learn to live with it. It’s okay. It’s interesting. It’s just one part of him. That doesn’t mean he has to be a societal outcast.

Ruth: Exactly. If there’s one thing that I was really hoping in this — you read it exactly the way I’d hoped. This idea of really expanding what we consider normal to be — the idea of normal is a social construct. It’s completely dependent on the culture that we happen to live in. If we live in a culture where voice-hearing is considered to be a symptom of a psychosis, then that’s the way we’re going to think of it, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. In fact, there are far more people who hear voices than is popularly reported, and hear voices without any problem at all. Joan of Arc, her voices were divine and were her guides in life. Even the so-called fathers of psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, also reported hearing voices. The idea that hearing voices signals some kind of abnormality I think is a problem. In Benny’s case, certainly, he just needed to learn how to negotiate and navigate the voices that he hears.

I think too, as an artist, as a writer, I hear voices all the time. That’s where books come from. That’s where characters come from. In fact, the idea for the book came to me after a reading. I was at a public library in Michigan, I think it was. I was talking to the audience about how characters come to me as voices. It’s like I hear, not outside my body, but I kind of hear in my mind, the voice of a character speaking to me. Then I write it down. I listen. I follow that voice where it leads me. Afterwards during the Q&A, a man raised his hand and asked me, “When you talk about hearing voices, are you talking about hearing the voices outside you, or is this more an internal process?” I explained. He told me at that point that his son heard voices as though they were outside his head. His son found this to be very distressing, which I think sometimes happens as well. That really got me thinking about the spectrum that exists between what we call creativity and what we call madness. I think it’s a spectrum. It’s interesting to look at it that way.

Zibby: Wow, that’s really interesting. Obviously, the two dovetail in so many instances in all arts, not just literature. It’s the pervasive myth, the stereotype of the crazy, mad —

Ruth: — That’s right, absolutely. I think that’s really important, too, to recognize. One of the things I’m grateful for is that I live in a culture that prizes fiction, that actually looks at fiction as something that is valuable rather than a pathology. I could imagine living in a culture where making things up that aren’t real could be looked at as a pathological condition that needs to be cured or locked up. Thank goodness we live in a society where making things up is looked at as a positive thing. I actually get paid to do it too. Isn’t that wonderful? Lucky me.

Zibby: You’re right. The circumstances where it’s okay are very clearly delineated. I don’t really write fiction. I like to write nonfiction and essays and first-person stuff, but I did experiment with writing fiction a few times. I did find I felt like I was sounding crazy about it. I had this long flight where I was writing. My husband, we didn’t even talk because I was like, “I can’t. I’m so in this.” Then I was explaining it to him when I got off the flight and telling him what happened. He’s like, “What’s going to happen next?” I was like, “I don’t know what they’re going to do. I don’t even know. I’m so excited to see.” He’s like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “I don’t know. It sort of has taken on a life of its own.”

Ruth: I hate to break it to you, but it sounds to me like you’re a fiction writer. You might want to explore that, or not, but you really are sounding an awful lot like a fiction writer right now. That’s exactly the experience. I don’t know where the stories are going to go. I’m just writing into the void and following the story where it goes and hoping that it’ll take me someplace. It’s kind of like an act of faith too.

Zibby: A long time ago, I interviewed somebody. I took this almost offensively. I asked about where her ideas came from. She said something like, “That’s just such a bad question because where do dreams come from? They just come.” I was like, all right, sorry. I had done two podcasts or something. I don’t know. I was just wondering, was there anything?

Ruth: I think it’s a great question. It’s a question I ask myself all the time. I’m always asking myself, where are these ideas coming from? It’s true. I think they are like dreams. I think they come from the unconscious. Really, the way to access them is to tap into the unconscious, relax the controlling editorial mind and let the unconscious, the playful part of the mind, have control, have free reign. We started by talking about children’s books and animation. I think it’s the part of our mind that we lose as we get older, that playful part that makes stuff up, that’s not afraid of the unknown. Everything’s unknown when you’re a child, so you just stumble forward into it and keep your eyes open and hope that what you see is wonderful.

Zibby: Was part of this some sort of referendum on medication for kids?

Ruth: It’s something that I think a lot about. When I was a child, when I was fourteen, I was struggling with mental health issues myself. I was diagnosed and medicated. That really shaped my life for a while. This was many, many years ago. Psychopharmaceuticals were sort of blunt instruments back then. I don’t have an opinion about medication. I think it can be absolutely very, very helpful to many people. It’s not like I’m anti-pharmaceutical at all. I think that to think that that’s the only way of treating different psychic states, psychic states that we look at as being outside of the norm, it shows a certain kind of lack of imagination. There’s so many wonderful programs now that are really treating psychological challenges in different ways. There’s a book that I’ve been reading now for a while called The Body Keeps the Score.

Zibby: You’re the fifth person who’s told me about this book in the last week. I have to go buy this book.

Ruth: It’s amazing. I started reading it in 2007 when it came out. I wasn’t really able to get into it. To be honest, I think the pandemic and just everything that’s happening in the world has created a kind of social trauma that has made this book very, very relevant. In fact, it’s right up there on The New York Times best-seller list again many years after its publication.

Zibby: I saw that.

Ruth: Bessel van der Kolk, the writer, talks about some wonderful therapies that would be considered alternative in the sense that they are not psychopharmaceutical. He has very strong opinions about psychiatric diagnoses. He’s very, very critical of that. I think I’m kind of influenced by him right at this point too. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a really wonderful book.

Zibby: All right, it’s on my list.

Ruth: Good.

Zibby: When I have time. What is the book you’re working on now?

Ruth: I just have started it, so I’m a little bit loathe to talk about it. Let me just say that it’s another international book about a grandmother and her granddaughter who are thrown together during the lockdown. I think that it might be called something like Conversations We Will Never Have, but I’m not sure. It’s still early.

Zibby: You reserve the right to change it. I won’t hold you to it.

Ruth: That’s right. I always change my mind a million times.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Ruth: Wow. I would make the distinction between an author and a writer, first of all. You can’t be an author until you’re a writer. My first advice is to aspire to write. I really do think that the author is very different than the writer. The author’s job is to go out and represent the book. The writer’s job is to literally pull the book out of nothingness and put it onto the page. As you have described so beautifully, it’s a compelling and exciting but also a little bit frightening thing. If that frightens you, then I think the trick then is to figure out ways to get over that fear, to work with that fear, and to turn that fear into energy of some kind. People have so many different strategies for doing that. Some friends of mine always write in groups. It’s sort of like bicycle racing. You can kind of draft along with the other writers. It holds you accountable. I think that’s one of the hardest things for aspiring writers, is being held accountable and feeling that somebody’s waiting. Somebody’s waiting for your words. They really want to read them. I would also suggest a writers’ group of some kind. It can be anything, but just somebody who you trade pages with and talk about the process. That, I think is really helpful. Then the other thing I do is, because sometimes it’s hard to find that person, I keep a process journal. My process journal is like my imaginary friend. The process journal is unfailingly patient with me, is interested in everything that I think, all my ideas, very interested in those, always asks me questions about what it is that I’m writing. When the journal asks me questions, of course, I answer. Just the process of answering the questions helps me move along. I can complain to my process journal. I can brag. I can boast. The journal is never critical of me. It’s a relationship that I’ve developed. I’ve been keeping a process journal since the mid-nineties, so we have a long friendship at this point.

Zibby: Perhaps it’s become this book.

Ruth: I know. That’s right. Exactly.

Zibby: Ruth, thank you so much. This was so fun. I really, really enjoyed this book and the innovation and creativity. Wherever the voices led you, for this reader at least, was very enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Ruth: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Zibby. I look forward to reading your novel at some point too.

Zibby: Okay. All right, thank you. Have a great day.

Ruth: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Ruth: Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts