The way children see the world is magic, that was the fundamental inspiration for Ruth Ozeki’s novel The Book of Form and Emptiness, which was awarded The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 on Wednesday. ‘The reality still hasn’t really penetrated,’ Ozeki tells Grazia of her win. ‘I’m just in a state of confusion and disbelief.’
With her fourth book, which follows thirteen-year-old Benny Oh as he begins to hear voices of ornaments, scissors, books and pieces of lettuce after his father unexpectedly dies, Ozeki pipped the likes of Elif Shfak, Maggie Shipstead, Meg Mason, and Louise Erdrich to the esteemed accolade.
Detailing her inspiration for the magic realist plot, she says: ‘When we’re children we have that relationship with objects. That’s where cartoons come from. When they play…they always give objects voices. They make things come alive. As fiction writers, you take a character, and you make them come alive…Having a boy who speaks to [and] can hear the voices of objects speaking…it was almost a way of reinventing the material world around me.’
A self-confessed slow writer, it took Ozeki eight years to write The Book of Form and Emptiness: ‘During that long time, I think I went through every emotion,’ she says. ‘Extreme grief, rage, sorrow, heartbreak, ecstasy, catharsis—just about everything. Boredom, there were certainly elements of boredom. But once I’ve engaged with a fictional world, I can’t seem to walk away from it. The characters become so real to me, I live half the time in their world and the rest of the time, I’m out here in the so-called real world…I have to keep going back until I’ve figured out what happens.’
Ozeki, who is also a Zen Buddhist priest, has always found books to be a balm from turmoil, a trait she shares with her protagonist who finds a community to help navigate his grief in his local library: ‘Libraries have always been my safe space,’ Ozeki tells Grazia. ‘Being amongst all the books is thrilling to me. [There’s a kind of relaxation that happens in a library that I never really feel anyplace else…You come in from the outside…and it’s almost like going into a church.’
Inspired stylistically by Gabriella Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Form and Emptiness demonstrates the importance of processing loss. ‘We are really afraid of grief,’ Ozeki says. ‘It’s not a pleasant feeling. But it’s also inevitable – there’s no way to live a human life and not have moments of grief…Unequivocally, when you run away from it, it’s worse. So, the idea of confronting grief…helps you work with this difficult emotion and that’s what Benny and his mom do in the course of this book.
‘It’s something that, as a writer, has been a real revelation to me,’ she adds. ‘If you’re a writer, you’re able to write down your feelings and the experience isn’t wasted. You can use it—give those feelings to your characters and help really invest your fictional world with these strong feelings. The most difficult experiences of my life were never wasted. I was able to make something from them…to transform them.
‘Part of my job as a writer is to try to reinvent the world,’ she adds. ‘That’s, I think, what fiction writers do… [And] every reader brings his or her lived experience to the fictional world, and we collaborate over time to create this story together. And that, to me, really is magic.’