The premise is so deceptively simple, and Ruth Ozeki’s new novel is so enjoyable to read, it seems almost ridiculous that the 56-year-old Japanese-American author shakes her head when talk turns to how she wrote it. “I’d given up on this book I can’t tell you how many times,” she whispers conspiratorially in a busy London restaurant.
But, A Tale for the Time Being, her third book, which is sitting on the table in front of her, is by some distance the most well received. If there were difficulties in its gestation, they don’t make themselves apparent. For this is a novel that immediately captures the imagination: a blocked novelist comes across a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on a Canadian shoreline and finds inside it a bundle of letters in French, a watch and, most intriguingly, a diary from an unhappy Japanese teenager called Nao.
Coincidentally – or perhaps deliberately – the novelist also has Japanese roots. As she’s swept up in wondering whether Nao really will do as she threatens and end her turbulent life, so is the reader.
“Finding Nao was easy; she announced herself to me one day in 2006 and was immediately a character I felt like I knew,” says Ozeki. “She’s troubled but smart. She’s got a big attitude, but there’s a very soft heart under that. There’s a hard edge but she’s funny, too – and she’s obviously writing to someone in her diary, but she doesn’t know quite who.
“The thing is,” she laughs, “I didn’t know either.”
It transpires that Ozeki ended up writing “four or five” different versions of the book, the diary found and interpreted by people of completely different genders and ages. But none quite worked and by the time she needed to pass the manuscript to an editor, the character had turned “transparent, ghost-like”. Ozeki screws up her face. “The book in that form was OK – I suppose.”
And then the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 hit. Ozeki realised that if she wanted to confront the feelings it had evoked, there could be only one “reader” of Nao’s journal. So she set about rewriting it one last time, with a fictional version of herself finding the diary. She even called the character Ruth.
“As someone who has been going back and forth to Japan since the late 1970s, my husband told me that I needed to be in the book if I wanted to talk about these devastating events that were so important to me. And it was immediately so much fun, so satisfying. I could create this fictional world that was like a model of my mind and all the things I was thinking about at the time.”
Freshly liberated, Ozeki completed a book that had been in the planning since 2006 – “and thematically more than a decade” – in just six months. And Ozeki’s “mind” is a fascinating place to explore: the book takes in suicide, bullying, kamikaze pilots, ecological issues, illness, memory, quantum theory and depression. It’s also, as the title suggests, a meditation on the nature of time, a matter close to Ozeki’s heart as an ordained Buddhist priest.
“If there’s one thing the book is ‘about’, it’s the search for the present moment, which is what you do in meditation,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in Nao’s life and there’s very little going on in Ruth’s life. It’s like a Seinfeld episode – nothing happens to her! But they have in common a yearning for a life they had in the past and they both have to come around to the sense that the life they’re living now is actually OK.”
The really impressive achievement is that the book wears such big ideas so lightly. Ozeki never loses sight of the narrative intrigue surrounding Nao’s fate. Was her diary swept away in the tsunami? Can Ruth “save” her? Such questions swirl around like the gigantic churning mass of rubbish bound together by ocean currents often referred to in the book. Not that Ozeki was looking for easy answers.
“It’s not so much about making sense of things,” she admits. “I was more interested in looking at the swirling motion and confusion of the last decade or so and trying to evoke it on the page – give it some kind of shape.”
Even if the confusion almost stumped Ozeki herself.
“Maybe this novel’s time hadn’t come yet,” she says, philosophically. “You know, the whole time Nao was out there, tapping me on the shoulder. So maybe, the whole book is in fact a story of how a character can call an author into being – and how an author responds.”
A Tale for the Time Being, Canongate, is out now. Check out The National’s Review section on Saturday for a review of the book