Web of relationships is novel's appealing focus

Felicia R. Lee / New York Times News Service /

Published Mar 17, 2013 at 05:00AM

Nao was easy. The voice of the quirky, troubled 16-year-old Japanese schoolgirl whose words begin “A Tale for the Time Being,” Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, came to the author as she was immersed in a Buddhist teaching. But it took five frustrating years for Ozeki to round out the story.

For one thing, she was caught in “a bit of a grief fog” after her mother’s death from cancer, she said. And she had a devil of a time conjuring the character who would find Nao’s diary washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox on an island off British Columbia.

“Time Being,” Ozeki’s third novel, alternates between Nao’s purple squiggles and the story of Ruth, who finds the journal and sets out to discover its writer’s fate. Along the way the novel considers Buddhism, the writer-reader relationship and the nature of time.

The book Ozeki began in 2006 was not cooked to her satisfaction when she handed it over to her editor in early 2011, already a long time after her last novel, “All Over Creation,” came out in 2003.

“Then the earthquake and tsunami hit,” said Ozeki, a thin, intense 57-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and a disarmingly direct gaze. “Japan was changed. And I realized that the book I had just written was irrelevant. It no longer made any sense at all.

“I just threw away half the book,” she went on during an interview in the Manhattan office of her publisher, Viking. “It felt like such a relief.”

The tsunami worked its way in, as did the character who shares more than the novelist’s name: She’s a blocked writer who lives on Cortes Island, British Columbia, with her husband, Oliver, and their cat. (Only the cat’s name is changed.)

In the novel, Ruth translates and footnotes the diary she discovers. Nao writes about being bullied in school in Tokyo, her father’s lingering despair after being booted from his Silicon Valley job, and her efforts to write a memoir of her 104-year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun.

Ruth, also struggling to write a memoir, asks: Is Nao real? Did she survive the tsunami? How old is she now? Did she commit suicide as she threatened in her diary?

Ozeki’s first novel, “My Year of Meats” (1998), about two very different women, the news media and the politics of the meat industry, made a splash. “All Over Creation” was about farm life and environmental activists in Idaho.

“Readers got distracted by the themes in the first two novels,” Ozeki said. “I became seen as a political activist.”

The new novel is less directly political, and what was loosely autobiographical in “My Year of Meats” becomes overtly self-referential here.

“My husband said, ‘You HAVE to be in the novel,’” Ozeki recalled. Inserting herself into her own novel, he said, would be in line with her interest in multiple worlds, autobiography, biographical narratives and i-novels, the Japanese literary genre in which incidents in a story match those in the writer’s life.

Ozeki, a Canadian and U.S. citizen, and her husband, Oliver Kellhammer, an artist, live in a house built mostly from cedar and fir trees. She was in New York (where she still has a small East Village apartment) to complete a laundry list of writerly tasks before her book tour: setting up a trailer and a new Facebook author page, working with a Web developer to update her site, preparing for an onstage interview at the Women of the World Festival in London and creating a class on “Living More Consciously” at Alain de Botton’s School of Life.

Early reviews of Ozeki’s new book, released on Tuesday, describe it as challenging but satisfying. “From the first page of ‘A Tale for the Time Being,’ Ozeki plunges us into a tantalizing narration that brandishes mysteries to be solved and ideas to be explored,” said a review by Wendy Smith in The Washington Post.

The novelist Barbara Kingsolver counts herself a fan. “Ruth doesn’t look away from our problems, but through them to the other side,” she said in an interview.

Ozeki is the only child of a Japanese mother and a white American father. Both were linguists; he was also an anthropologist and taught in that department at Yale while she became a stay-at-home mother. Their daughter grew up mostly in New Haven, Conn., but also lived in Japan and worked as a documentary filmmaker for a Japanese film company. Later she made her own films, including the autobiographical “Halving the Bones” (1995), about her maternal grandmother’s remains.

She began studying seriously with a Zen teacher in 2001 and was ordained in 2010. “Buddhist practice was a way of working with time and understanding time and getting some insight into time,” she said of its influence on the new book.

It also influenced her insights about the web of relationships: between Ruth and Nao; between the characters and readers; and between reader and writer.

“The relationship between reader and writer is reciprocal in a way,” Ozeki said. “We co-create each other. We are constantly emerging out of the relationship we have with others.”