Ruth Ozeki on her Booker finalist A Tale for the Time Being

First aired on The Next Chapter (14/09/13)

Ruth Ozeki blurs the lines between fact and fiction in her third novel, A Tale for the Time Being, which is a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize. In the book, a novelist named Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of an island off the coast of British Columbia. Ruth believes it's debris from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Inside the lunchbox is the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao Yasutani.


"Books come to me in voices," Ozeki told host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter. She went on to say that Nao first popped into her head in the fall of 2006 with the words: "Hi, my name is Nao and I'm a time being. Do you know what a time being is?"

At that time, Ozeki had just been ordained as a Buddhist priest and had become particularly inspired by the writings of a 13th-century Zen master. This is where she got the term "time being." She explained that it refers to "anyone who is, or was, or ever has been." She added that the phrase stuck with her and "started morphing in various ways. And one of the ways it morphed was it literally turned into this girl's voice."

The story that Ozeki was writing changed as a result of the devastating tsunami of 2011, though the theme of bullying, which she had been researching for a long time, remained an important element.

Nao is a troubled 16-year-old schoolgirl. After growing up mostly in California, she and her family are uprooted and return to their home country Japan. Although she is of Japanese heritage, Nao lacks the cultural knowledge that would allow her to fit in. "In Japanese culture, hierarchical relationships are much more important," Ozeki explained, adding that Nao is right at the bottom of the pecking order. She's viciously bullied at school, and becomes suicidal. Writing in her diary is her only coping strategy.

Reading that diary makes the fictional Ruth want to find out what happened to the girl. She's worried that Nao has indeed committed suicide -- or that she may have perished in the tsunami. But with just the diary to go on she has difficulty.

When Ozeki was asked about the similarities between herself and the character Ruth in the novel, she acknowledged that they share many traits. "I've always played that edge of fact and fiction. I used to be a filmmaker and certainly in film that's a line that filmmakers cross more readily and more easily than novelists," she said.

Ozeki, like the novelist in her book, went through a long period of writer's block. But that's now behind her, and she's already thinking of her next story. She commented that some of the characters who popped into her mind for A Tale for the Time Being are still floating around in her head. "They've kind of taken up residence in an unused part of my mind," she said. Ozeki even hinted at the next book's setting: "it will be set in a library very much like the Vancouver Public Library."

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