Novelist Ruth Ozeki lives in many worlds. She is Canadian, American and Japanese. She splits her life between two very different islands: Cortez in British Columbia and Manhattan in New York.
By most accounts, Ozeki has had a successful career as a writer and filmmaker. Her previous books, All Over Creation and My Year of Meats, won a number of awards. Her most recent novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
But the process of writing A Tale for the Time Being was especially challenging for her.
Half of the book — the story of Nao — came with relative ease. The first words she wrote became the opening lines of the novel: “Hi! My name is Nao and I’m a time being. Do you want to know what a time being is?”
Nao is a Japanese teenager who wrote a diary detailing her experiences being bullied and her relationship with her 104-year-old grandmother. As Nao’s narrative rapidly came to life, a hole appeared: Who was Nao writing to?
As Ozeki explained to Think Out Loud’s Dave Miller, “It was very clear to me at the very beginning, when Nao started to speak, she wasn’t speaking — she was writing in a diary. Yet at the same time, even though it was a diary, she had a very clear sense that she was writing to somebody.” It took Ozeki five years to find out exactly who was reading it.
Below, Ozeki discusses a possible character she wrote 100 pages for and the process of creating a fictional character.
In 2011, Ozeki had finished the first draft of the novel. But just before she submitted the manuscript to her editor, the major earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.
“It was one of those catastrophic moments that sort of stops time,” said Ozeki. “It was very clear to me that I had written a pre-earthquake, pre-tsunami, pre-Fukushima book. Now we were living in a post world, the book was no longer relevant.”
It took this event, and a suggestion from her husband, for Ozeki to discover that she was the character reading Nao’s diary.
The “reader” became a woman named Ruth, a writer living on a rural island in British Columbia, who finds Nao’s diary tangled in debris washed ashore from the tsunami that hit Japan.
Life and fiction collide throughout the novel. They are both magnified by the fact that Ozeki was grieving the death of her father and caring for her mother who was struggling with Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Below Ozeki talks about how dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s influenced the novel and her own perspective on time.
In the mid-’90s when Ozeki’s father’s health started to decline, she began practicing Buddhism. “Buddhism is very good at dealing with sickness, old age and death,” said Ozeki. She has since become an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. Her spirituality is woven through the novel, as well as her lifelong pursuit of writing.
“Both meditation and writing are contemplative practices. Both require you to be very much present in the moment,” said Ozeki. “The main difference, when you’re sitting in meditation, a thought emerges and you become aware of it, you relax and allow the thought to go; you don’t hold onto it. Whereas in the writing process, a thought emerges and you hold onto it, you follow after it.”
To hear Ruth Ozeki’s full interview on Think Out Loud, click on the audio player at the top of the page.