In Ruth Ozeki’s astonishing A Tale for the Time Being, a bullied girl contemplates suicide, while half a world away, her story finds its way into the hands of a struggling writer
Ruth Ozeki blends philosophy, Zen Buddhism and feminism with a dash of manga and WWII battles for a tour-de-force storytelling book-within-a-book. She talks about how influences combine in strange and often unforeseen ways and how the world and all the people within it are connected — even if they don't realize it.
What was the inspiration behind A Tale for the Time Being?
A Tale for the Time Being was inspired by so many things, but I’ll start with Zen master Dōgen. He was a 13th century Zen master, who wrote some interesting essays about time. I happened to be studying these when my husband sent me a link to an article about Japanese maid cafés. I followed the link and soon was immersed in the world of Tokyo cosplay, manga, animé and pop culture. From there I became interested in Japanese youth culture and the problems of compensated dating, bullying and teen suicide. At the same time, I was reading about kamikaze fighters during World War II, thinking about 9/11, watching the U.S. war on Iraq unfold and living my life on a remote island in B.C. with my husband and my cat. And cooking lots of soup. Somehow all these factors, and many more, converged and the novel was born. Inspiration is a happy convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky, you notice and then can use. And it helps if you have a husband who sends you interesting links!
How would you describe the novel yourself?
A Tale for the Time Being is a story about a novelist named Ruth, living on a remote island in B.C., who stumbles across a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach one day. The lunchbox contains a pack of old Japanese letters, an antique watch, and the secret diary of a 16-year-old teenager named Nao Yasutani, hidden inside the covers of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Nao, who is being terribly bullied in school, has decided to end her life and drop out of time, but before she does, she wants to accomplish one last act of redemption: she wants to write the life story of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, an anarchist, feminist Zen Buddhist nun, in the pages of her diary. Ruth, who suspects the lunchbox is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, starts to read the diary and becomes obsessed with discovering Nao’s fate. The novel is about the relationship between a writer (Nao) and a reader (Ruth). It’s also about the way that a story calls a writer into being.
The concept of “time being” is fascinating. What are the thoughts and meaning behind the title?
On one level, the title, A Tale for the Time Being, simply means a timely tale, a tale for now, for this present moment in time. But of course, there are multiple wordplays going on here, too. A tale for now suggests a tale for Nao, the main character in the novel, so you can think of the novel as a tale written for her, which indeed it is. And, finally, there is the sense of the time being as a literal being, like a human being, in which case the title takes on a slightly different meaning: it’s a tale for beings who live in time, which, as Nao herself says, “means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”
As an aside/complement to that, have you read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being? If so, was it an influence/what do you think of it?
I did read it when it first came out, and it’s wonderful. I can’t say it was a direct influence, but then again, maybe it was. Dillard is one of my favorite writers. I admire the way she combines seemingly disparate elements into a rich, coherent narrative. She is a master of juxtaposition, and while each element she chooses to write about is exquisite, her whole is even greater than its parts.
There is so much about your studies as a Zen Buddhist priest in the novel — from Nao’s name to what she learns from her grandmother. Why was it important to you to incorporate those things? What did you want to convey? What do you hope readers take away from that element of the book?
This is a kind of chicken-and-egg situation. My Zen practice was there, and the novel grew from it. I didn’t have the intention to convey anything in particular about Zen when I was writing it. But of course, Buddhist philosophy permeates the book, and particularly the notion of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing” — that we are all inextricably connected with each other. In our globalized world, this has never been clearer. “Local” is as wide as the ocean and vast as the sky.
I would be happy if the book conveys the ways in which we and the world are intimately interconnected in time and space. I would be happy if readers came away feeling grateful for the precious and fleeting moments we have here on earth. And I would be overjoyed if readers felt an appreciation of the earth, itself, and resolved to treat it more kindly. The earth is a time being, too.
Why did you decide to become a Zen Buddhist priest?
I reached a point as a novelist where I could no longer trust my voice in the world. My writer’s voice felt wobbly, unreliable and untrustworthy. I suppose it was a crisis of faith. Zen practice provided a philosophical and ethical ground, a trustworthy foundation, for my writing practice. Or to put it another way, it helped me grow a backbone. I decided to ordain because I love Zen practice and trust it, and I wanted to be a part of the Zen lineage and to participate from the inside in the formation of Zen in the west.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I think I started writing for real in 2006, but I can trace bits of it back to 1999, 2000, and 2001.
Given that the earthquake and tsunami only struck Japan in March, 2011, did you incorporate that into the book later on? Did it change the direction of the story?
I’d written Nao’s story in the years prior to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I knew that Nao needed a Reader, someone she would call into being to find and read her diary. I “auditioned” four or five characters to play the role of Nao’s Reader, which meant I’d written four or five discrete versions of the book, each with a different secondary protagonist and story arc. Finally I finished a draft that I was reasonably happy with, and I was about to submit it to my editor when, on March 11, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit. Suddenly Japan was a different place, and the world was different, too, rendering half of the book irrelevant. Nao’s story was fine as it was. It was pre-2011. But the reader’s story had to acknowledge the horrors of the earthquake and the tsunami — it had to be post-Fukushima — so I unzipped the manuscript, threw half of it away, stepped into the role of the Reader myself and started again from the beginning.
The structure of the novel felt very much like waves of thought, alternating between the two characters. How did you plan the structure as you began the novel especially given the timing and the themes? Are you the sort of writer who structures everything in advance or someone who works more organically as you go?
Oh, I like that! Waves of thought. That’s a lovely image, especially in relation to the themes of this book.
The structure of the novel was there from the start. I knew it would be a dialogue between two characters who don’t know each other and who never meet. However since the second character kept changing, this dialogue kept changing, too. Once I realized that I was the second character, the writing went very, very fast. I was finally writing the book I’d wanted to write all along, but hadn’t known how.
I wish I could structure everything in advance! I imagine I’d be a much faster and more prolific writer if I could do that. But unfortunately, it appears that I am a very slow writer who has to wait until all the elements in the universe are in the correct alignment before I can complete a sentence. I wouldn’t call it “organic.” I would call it cumbersome, but over the years I’ve become resigned and very patient.
Other than the obvious sharing of your name, the character of Ruth also has lived in Manhattan and on an island in British Columbia. Why did you choose to create a character with such obvious similarities to you? What is the relevance of the I-novel concept to this book, if any? Did you want readers to make assumptions about similarities between you and your character? If so, why?
Honestly, I thought I should be in the book from the very beginning, only at first I was afraid. The conceit felt too awkward and self-conscious. Too metafictional. But when the earthquake and tsunami hit, I realized that the only answer was to put myself on the line. My husband helped me over this hurdle. Oliver is an artist, and in the world of visual and performance art, artists appearing in their own work all the time. Nobody thinks anything of it. He pointed this out, and also noted that when I was making films, I’d never felt squeamish about putting myself into my documentaries. “You need to be in your book,” he said. And I said, “OK, but you realize that if I’m in the book, you need to be in it, too.” Thankfully he agreed.
Thematically, it makes sense. So much of the novel is about the fluid and ever-changing nature of identity, from of the discussion of the Japanese I-novel, to the instability of Internet identity, to the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. The book also plays with historical reality and revisionism — what is fact and what is fiction? — so having a character named Ruth, who is like me, raises interesting questions about what is real.
What other similarities between you and your character Ruth might there be that aren’t immediately obvious? And in the same way, in what ways are you and the character dissimilar?
I would call Ruth semi-fictional (although if pressed, I would have to call myself semi-fictional, too). Character Ruth and author Ruth have much in common — a husband named Oliver, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a house on an island in Desolation Sound — but character Ruth has a more limited perspective and a different set of experiences. For example, character Ruth learns about Zen meditation from Nao, whereas author Ruth has been meditating for a long time. Stuff like that.
I like to think of the novel as playing out a series of “what if...?” propositions, and then following them through to their logical conclusions. What if I had never started practicing Zen? What if I stumbled across a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach and found a diary? What kind of Ruth would I be? I also like to think of it in terms of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics (something that fiction writers can’t seem to get enough of!), which would posit that character Ruth and author Ruth (and many other Ruths as well) all do exist, only in different quantum realities. The antithesis of ruthlessness!
In many ways, everything about life now is about what other people will think when they read your thoughts — an explosion of revelations on social media and interpretation and editing. Nao’s thoughts on her life are written with the idea that they will be read by someone else, Ruth’s notations on Nao’s writings include footnotes, Haruki #1 lives publicly on one level and privately in another in his secret letters to his mother, etc. Would you say that all moments are lived with the idea of being preserved for the observation of others? And how does that affect how we live or act from moment to moment?
We live in a paradoxical age of public self-scrutiny and opaque transparency. And with the Internet, our semi-public, semi-private lives seem more fictional than ever! It’s mind-boggling, really.
Buddhist theory posits that what we experience as self is a construct or a delusion. There is no fixed and unchanging entity called “self,” nor is there any real separation between “self” and what we call “other.” Think of the analogy of the self as a wave in the sea. Is the wave separate from the sea? Is it separate from other waves? Yes, and no. The wave relies on the ocean for its existence. But the wave is a time being, whose existence is a temporal matter. In the short term, the wave is there, and then it’s not. In the short term, we experience a great sense of separation.
It’s also a matter of perception or view. You could say that wave relies on us — surfers or beachcombers, fishes or gulls — to see it and appreciate it as a wave. We rely on others to verify us, too. It’s sweet and sad, really. We are so temporary, and our sense of self is so ephemeral, but we are so determined to hang on and to see ourselves as separate and unique. And of course we are separate and unique, and we also need others nearby to make us who we are. We co-create each other. It’s all about relationship. About connection. So it would be nice if we could remember this and live and act accordingly!
There are questions of faith and ethics here, of doing the right thing by others and by oneself. Nao and her father, Jiko and Haruki #1 and others all struggle with those questions at one time or another or in an ongoing way. What do you find fascinating about that as an author, as a human being and in terms of your readers?
Issues of faith and ethics are at the heart of all my books. They are at the heart of my life, too, as a novelist, as a priest, as a human being — and I suspect I am not the only one! How do we live meaningful lives? How do we keep going in the face of all the terrible things going on in the world? How do we know what is right? How do we make ethical choices? How should we love? How should we die? These questions are at the heart of all of our lives, and as a novelist I can’t avoid them. Literature is the record of writers’ attempts to find answers.
What are some subjects you’d like to explore in your books in future?
Space. I’ve worked with time in this book, and now I’m interested in investigating space and emptiness. I’m not sure exactly how this will play out, however, and probably it’s just an idea that I’ll discard along the way.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a new novel, but it’s nascent, and so I don’t know much about it yet, except that it’s probably set in a library. The problem with being a writer is that one’s range of direct experience tends to narrow until the only thing one really knows about is writing books, which is why, eventually, many writers end up writing books about writers and books. So setting a story in a library is kind of inevitable. But I hope it will be a very exciting library.
What are some of your favourite books and authors and why?
• Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (forthcoming in May) for its subtlety and heartbreaking sense of humor.
• David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, for the unbridled range of his imagination.
• Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being and Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for the pacing and the audacity of his narrative voice.
• Anything by Jane Austen, for the confidence of her wit and opinions.
• Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, especially Never Let Me Go, for the delicate sensibilities of his unreliable narrators.
• Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, for its serious magic.
• Many of Haruki Murakami’s novels, especially Kafka on the Shore, for their loose-limbed structures and fantastical worlds.
• Kurt Vonnegut, for his deadpan humor, stubborn innocence, and enormous broken heart.
• Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones for its labyrinthine formality.
• Margaret Atwood’s nonfiction (although I love her fiction, too), especially Negotiating with the Dead, because she is so wise about writing.
• Oh, this is impossible. I could go on and on...but I’ll stop.