Listen Euan Kerr's interview with Ruth Ozeki
Listen A reading from 'A Tale for the Time Being'
Listen How Ozeki came to write the book
Listen The author talks about reaction to her novel
As Ruth Ozeki's critically acclaimed novel "A Tale for the Time Being" begins to unfold, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the beach of a remote island in the Pacific Northwest.
Inside is a diary that will launch a wide-ranging story exploring ideas of time, culture, and an individual's place in history.
"My name is Nao, and I am a time being," begins the young woman writing from Tokyo. "Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you."
Ozeki, who is in St. Paul to read from the novel tonight, began thinking about her novel years ago after reading the writings of a 13th-century Zen priest.
"One of Dogen Zenji's essays was an essay called 'Uji' which in English can be translated as 'Being time' or 'time being' or 'for the time being,'" she said. "Clearly that phrase stuck in my mind and before long it found itself being re-interpreted in the voice of this 16-year-old girl."
For Ozeki, the voice was compelling, in part because she began hearing it just after the beginning of the new millennium, and the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks, which prompted many to being thinking of time, and the end of time.
But turning such thoughts into a novel took years, and writing in the voice of a young woman in a Tokyo pick-up joint was a challenge.
"The problem was she didn't know who the reader was and so of course neither did I," Ozeki said. "So I then spent the next four years trying to figure out who that reader would be."
Ozeki approached the task as if she was a casting director, trying out different characters in the role of reader. She tried four or five, but none seemed quite right. Still, she finished the novel and was about to submit it to her editor when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japanese towns in March 2011. The natural disasters caused Ozeki to re-evaluate what she had written.
"It started to occur to me that this was one of these events that really splits time, into before and after," she said. "And I had written a pre-earthquake book, and now we were living in a post-earthquake world."
That led her to rework the manuscript, taking her husband's suggestion that she be the reader in the story.
Ozeki had rejected the idea early on, but admits it was kind of a relief to change her mind.
"Playing with these identity issues in fiction is something that I have always enjoyed, and I have a very loose notion of reality — I don't really believe in it," she said with a laugh. "Everything seems vaguely fictional to me, and fiction seems very real to me, so I have a hard time making these kinds of distinctions, so it felt very natural to step into the role and to write a semi-fictional version of myself."
So it is a writer called Ruth who finds Nao's diary in the Hellow Kitty lunchbox and becomes obsessed with the teenager's tale.
Ozeki said the final version of "A Tale for the Time Being" she'll read from tonight at Common Good Books in St Paul is very different from the earlier manuscript. The novel received great critical praise when it was published and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The story effortlessly weaves together issues of family and tradition, of bullying and suicide, of time and quantum physics. But Ozeki prefers a much simpler description.
"On one hand it would be very complicated to describe, on the other it's quite easy. It's a story about a writer and a reader," she said. "And so I suppose it's a love story."
That relationship evolves as readers discover the book, and bring their own ideas and interpretations to the tale. This delights Ozeki, who said it's been well worth the years of work.
"I think novels are time beings too, and there's the right time for a book to find its way into the world, and I just had to wait."
The book is being printed in dozens of languages. In March, Ozeki will complete a circle as she travels to Japan for the launch of the Japanese translation of "A Tale for the Time Being."