When Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale For The Time Being hit bookshelves last March it had been a decade since her last work, 2003’s All Over Creation, was published. She’d undergone several transformations in that time—both of her parents passed away after long illnesses, she found herself enamored of Zen Buddhism and, eventually, she became an ordained priest in 2010.
Themes of time and communication are central to the novel’s plot, a book that began, she says, after her main character, a young girl named Nao, spoke directly to her.
“One day as I was sitting down at my computer I heard the voice of this young girl introducing herself to me,” the Connecticut-born writer recalls. “She said, ‘Hi, my name is Nao. I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment I’ll tell you."
Ozeki immediately typed the words into her computer and, before long, knew a great deal about this young girl who only moments before didn’t exist.
The story concerns itself with the diary of a young Japanese girl named Nao and a novelist in British Columbia named Ruth who discovers the diary inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washes up on a beach there. More than anything Ruth wants to know how the story—which began in Nao’s diary—ends.
“I could see that she was a young girl,” Ozeki says. “She had a sense of humor, she had an attitude. I knew that she was Japanese for some reason. And I had a sense of her as being a school girl. Once you have that tone of voice in your mind, then the writer’s job is to follow that and to just ask questions. So, I just paid attention to that and just kind of asked questions and continued to let her speak. It was like making a new friend.”
Ozeki had one main objective while writing the book—to stay out of the way of the voice that had presented itself.
“That’s really the trick of it. If you can stay in touch with that more dreamlike part of your mind, for long enough, then the book will get written,” she notes. “If you start judging and criticizing and editing and jumping in with the rational brain too quickly, then you cut yourself off.”
A Tale For The Time Being is a novel filled with humor as well as powerful musings on interconnectedness and the passage of time itself. The book received wide critical acclaim upon its 2013 release.
Ozeki says she could not have prepared herself for such a reception. She thinks that most writers go through periods of believing they’re on to something special to believing that their present work may not even be worth finishing.
“We go through periods of crazy self-aggrandizement where we are convinced that this is the most brilliant piece of literature that’s ever been written before in the English language,” she says. “And, when we’re not thinking that, we’re thinking, ‘This is the worst piece of whatever that any writer has ever conceived of.’ As a result you simply don’t know. I finished the process thinking, ‘Probably it falls somewhere in that spectrum."
In the end, she says, she owes herself one small favor: to forget about any success that she’s had so that they can make the path clear for her next work, saying, “However it’s received in the world the most important thing for a writer to do is to forget about it as quickly as possible.”
Ozeki rarely reads reviews of work as she wants to avoid other voices interfering with her creativity—either, she adds, those that praise the work or those that condemn it. She’s always eager to move on to her next project, adding that each new book presents her with the option of reinventing herself.
“Everything I knew about writing may or may not pertain to the next book,” she offers. “And very often it takes some time. It takes time to allow previous work to fully leave.”
Ruth Ozeki reads from A Tale For The Time Being tonight at Watermark Books.