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Arts & Entertainment
03/28/04

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
An Interview with Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki, the successful novelist of “All Over Creation” (2003) and “My Year of Meats” (1998) may have never published a book if she had not first become a filmmaker.

“In high school and college I was doing a lot of writing,” said Ozeki in a recent phone interview from her home in British Columbia, “but I had a hard time moving a story along quickly through time.  It was from learning how to edit film that I learned how to make transitions work in fiction.”

Both of her novels have the feel of a film with their many shifting points of view, and Ozeki even admits that when she writes she feels like a virtual camera moving into a location, panning around, choosing a frame, and then starting to record.”

“Maybe because I’m half-Japanese and half-American, but I’ve never been comfortable with a single point of view,” she said.  “Most films have multiple points of views, and it’s natural for me to do that in my writing.”

Ozeki was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, by an American father and a Japanese mother.  She studied English and Asian studies at Smith College and after graduation she traveled extensively throughout Asia and taught for a while in the English department at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan.

In 1985 she began her film career as an art director designing sets and props for such low budget horror movies as “Robot Holocaust,” “Mutant Hunt,” “Breeders” and “Necropolis.”  The VHS movies were made with the intention of sending them direct to video.  “They were horrible,” laughs Ozeki.  “They were even worse than any of the Ed Wood directed films, but this work with film enabled me to switch to television production work and then finally to documentary films.”

Ozeki has now made two documentaries “Body of Correspondence” (1994), which was shown on PBS, and “Halving the Bones” (1995), which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Halving the Bones tells the story of how I brought back my grandmother’s remains from Japan,” said Ozeki.  “It’s partly factual and partly made up.  It was a film that brought my mother and me together.  Before this film I had been living away for quite a few years, but this work forced us together where we really got to know each other.”

“Halving the Bones” was screened last Friday at Page Hall at the University at Albany’s downtown campus.  On Thursday Ruth Ozeki will conduct a public reading at 8 p.m. at the University at Albany’s uptown campus in the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center.  Earlier that day she will present an informal seminar at 4:15 at the Assembly Hall in the university’s Campus Center.  Both talks are being presented by the New York State Writers Institute.

“I’m currently working on a new novel about World War 11,” said Ozeki, “but I’d like to make another film in the future.  I love working with images and sound.  It’s so incredibly sensuous.  I can’t get that same feeling on the page.”

She also admits that as a writer she can be more complex with her ideas.  “Complexity doesn’t work well in a film,” said Ozeki.  “In film you need to grab your audience and only include what’s absolutely essential.”

She wrote the screenplay for her first novel, but has no intention of ever making either of her books into a film.  “I’ll let someone else do that if they want,” said Ozeki.  “I like to make films that are offbeat and that mix fiction and non-fiction.  I really liked the inventiveness of the  movie ‘American Splendor.’”

Ozeki also misses the collaboration of filmmaking.  “It’s bloody lonely to be a writer,” she said, “but when I’m making a film I’m always with people from pre-production all the way to the completion of the film.”

Her novels have a recurring theme about the hypocracy found in modern life.  In her first book she writes about the hypocracy in the meat industry, and in her second book it’s evident in the agribusiness corporations.  Both books are also critical of the media conglomerates.  “Again, probably because I’ve been raised bi-culturally, I see a multiplicity of truths in the world,” said Ozeki.  “Everyone has their own version of the truth.  What’s true of one character is not true of another.  What I get frustrated by is large companies determining what truths are valid.  I feel obligated as a writer and filmmaker to poke holes in that belief, which is why I loved making so much fun of them in my novels.”

Although she writes about such serious issues, her books are fun to read and at times hilarious.  “The humor in my writing just naturally happens,” said Ozeki.  “I tend to see the world as a comic place.  Things can be so difficult in this world, and I can’t think of anything more important than having the ability to laugh at its absurdities.”

A writer she finds herself continuing to go back and re-read is Kurt Vonnegut.  “I love his humor and his underlying political stance,” said Ozeki.  “I also enjoy his shifting points of view.  You never know what to expect in a Vonnegut story.”

Her advice for a beginning filmmaker or writer is to just get out there and start creating something.  “Don’t wait for the right time to come,” she said.  “You don’t need permission to write.  If you want to be a filmmaker get a super eight camera and start shooting something.  That’s how you learn to be an artist.”

Ruth Ozeki believes that becoming a writer or a filmmaker should be the most frightening thing you’ll ever do.   “To be a really creative artist one has to dig deep and not be afraid to show the world who you really are.  You have to make yourself vulnerable because that’s when the really good stuff comes out.”

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