Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being violates one of the cardinal rules you'll find in fiction-writing guides: She pulls herself into the book. The novel is split into two rotating narratives: One is the story of Nao, a bullied teenager in Tokyo with a suicidal father, and the second is the story of Ruth, a woman who finds Nao's journal in a lunch box on the coast of British Columbia. Like Ozeki, Ruth is a novelist who spends much of the year living in British Columbia with her husband, Oliver. Like Ozeki, she's of mixed American and Japanese heritage. And like Ozeki, Ruth becomes swept up in Nao's story as the book nears its conclusion. Looking at it one way, Time Being is the story of the writing of Time Being, and looking at it another way, it somehow includes the story of reading Time Being as well. The book seems to absorb whatever circumstance is thrown at it.
Time Being had a difficult path to publication. Ozeki started struggling with the story of Nao's depression and alienation in 2006. By 2011, Ozeki confirms in a phone interview, the novel she had written, a "light and surrealistic romp," just "wasn't a very good book." In March of that year, Japan was hit by a magnitude 9 earthquake and a series of tsunamis, which caused three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down. Ozeki felt compelled to write the disaster into her draft: "It was such a world-changing event," she says. "A moment that kind of stopped time."
Ozeki wanted to show how the events of Fukushima spread to the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world, but she wasn't sure how to go about that. Her husband suggested that she put a version of herself into the book to demonstrate the disaster's larger effects. Ozeki says in retrospect the idea was obvious: "It was a meta-fictional device, but it was a meta-fictional device that had a reason." Putting herself in the fiction felt like a natural response to the disasters in Japan: "In a way, the world had intruded," she says, into her fictional world, and the rift caused by that intrusion had opened to include her.
Ozeki took up residence at Hedgebrook, the women's writing retreat on Whidbey Island, and suddenly the book that had taken six years to write was finished in just six months. She credits Hedgebrook for "giving my mind back, or at least my fiction writer's mind back," and says that this confidence helped her realize that putting herself in the book was obviously "the right thing to do—I don't think I've ever had a writing experience that was so intense and so fast."
The decision paid off. A Tale for the Time Being was roundly praised, culminating in places on both the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist and the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Now, a year later, Ozeki is out on a long tour for the book's paperback release. Given that Time Being's conflict hinges on the years of difference between Nao writing in her journal and Ruth finding the journal on a beach, half a world away, does Ozeki feel an extra layer of conflict developing from the year between her and the Ozeki who wrote the book? She does feel that Time Being "is no longer mine. The book is kind of out in the world. It has a life now. I feel like this [reading tour] is sort of the last bit of letting go."
Do fans treat Ozeki differently, now that she's become a character in her own fiction? She says people have always assumed her stories were autobiographical. "That's the thing about writing about characters who share your ethnic and cultural similarities," she says. "If you're a Caucasian middle-class guy writing about Caucasian middle-class guys, people wouldn't think about you as writing yourself as a character unless there were specific factors" besides race and class involved. She's always been aware of this, and she's tried to upend those expectations in her previous novels: "In the first book, I made the character very, very tall and gave her green hair. In the second book, I made the mixed-race character kind of unreliable." But in Time Being, "I kind of threw my hands up in the air and gave up."
And now that Ozeki has written extensively about Ruth, does she anticipate more starring roles in future books? After all, once a writer opens the door to meta-fiction—Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, and Haruki Murakami come immediately to mind—it seems to become hard to contain themselves to traditional narratives. Ozeki sounds concerned: "I hadn't actually thought about that, but you're right." But, she says, "My temptation is to slam that door and find another. I can't imagine writing another book with this particular Ruth and this particular Oliver in it. That does not seem like something that I'll do." Then she second-guesses herself: "But having said that, I'll probably turn right around and do that."