Ruth Ozeki's acclaimed debut novel, My Year of Meats, has probably converted more than a few readers to vegetarianism. Channeling an engaging mix of Upton Sinclair and Haruki Murakami, Ozeki tells the story of Jane Takagi-Little, a Japanese American filmmaker who lands a gig producing a Japanese TV show called My American Wife!This romanticization of Middle America-sponsored by U.S. beef exporters-leads Jane on a search for wholesome housewives and the perfect prime rib. Along the way she finds a recipe for beef fudge (!) and begins to discover the queasy reality of bovine growth hormones and force-fed antibiotics-not to mention the horrors of American slaughterhouses. The result is a unique tale of love, cultural identity, and beef.
Ozeki herself was a filmmaker before she became a novelist; after a stint art-directing lowbudget horror flicks like Robot Holocaust, she began making documentaries about American life for Japanese television, sponsored by the likes of Philip Morris. Her own award-winning documentaries, 1994's Body of Correspondence and 1995's Halving the Bones, have been shown at Sundance and on PBS.
The 46-year-old Ozeki's ambitious new novel, All Over Creation, moves from meat to potatoes with the story of Yumi Fuller, a rebellious daughter who returns to her family's Idaho potato farm-only to find herself at the center of a firestorm involving genetically engineered spuds, guerrilla environmentalism, and shady corporate PR.
Mother Jones spoke to Ozeki from her home in British Columbia about documentary film, genetic modification, and the tricks of mixing politics and fiction. -ANDI ZEISLER
MOTHER JONES: How did the switch from filmmaking to novels come about?
RUTH OZEKI: It was a financial thing, largely. I had finished a documentary-Halving the Bones-about my mother and grandmother, who came from Japan, and I was about $30,000 in credit-card debt. I got a grant to do another screenplay but I didn't have any money to produce it. So I ended up writing My Year of Meats instead. It was really a means-of-production problem. It costs so much to make films. With a novel, you can write the whole thing on a ream of paper from Staples for $4.
MJ: My Year of Meats exposes the way documentaries, like novels, are not always as real as they purport to be. Have you found the two forms to be similar in other ways?
RO: Even though I was making documentaries, my films had fictional elements to them. I think I like blurring those distinctions because so much ofwhat we see on television purports to be the truth, but it's often largely imaginary-or wishful thinking, or any number of less honorable things. [Laughs.]
MJ: When did you get interested in food production and genetic engineering?
RO: While I was writing My Year of Meats. When I started out, I was really writing about documentary filmmaking-about media and television. It was only by researching the novel that I started to become aware of the problems involved in our industrialized system of food production. That's what opened my eyes to it. And of course, once your eyes are opened, you really can't close them again.
MJ: One of your characters says something that I think cuts to the heart of what's troubling about genetic engineering. He says, "We're trying to force alien words into the plant's poem, but we got a problem. Genetic grammar's a mystery, and our engineers are just one click up the evolutionary ladder from a roomful of monkeys, typing random sonnets on a bank of typewriters."
RO: I approached this from a literary perspective. Not to say that there aren't political elements in it; of course there are. But the first time I became interested in this idea of what is natural versus what is artificial was reading Shakespeare-his metaphors of nature in opposition to man's will. When I started writing All Over Creation, that really was the driving metaphor. How much do we feel the need to tamper with nature? …