More than four years after she wrote the first paragraph in late 2006, Ruth Ozeki was preparing to submit the manuscript for what would be her third novel. The story had two protagonists: a Japanese girl who was keeping a diary, and a stranger who was reading it.
Then in March, 2011, a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami hit Japan.
"I realized that the book that I'd just written was now irrelevant. I'd written a pre-earthquake book and suddenly we were living in a postearthquake world," says Ozeki, who divides her time between New York and remote Cortes Island, B.C.
She threw out two-thirds of her novel and then began to write with a new force and inspiration, responding in a direct way to the terrible events in Japan. Moving the results of all those years of work over to a file she called "dump" cleared a path for what would become a literary feat. A Tale for the Time Being is on the short list for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded in London this week. Canadian-born novelist Eleanor Catton, who lives in New Zealand, is among the five other shortlisted authors for her novel The Luminaries.
In writing the novel, Ozeki always had her 16-year-old diarist Nao down; it was the voice of the bullied girl from the dysfunctional home that had first come to Ozeki. But the novelist struggled with her other protagonist. Who was reading this diary that had washed up onto a beach inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox? Over the years, Ozeki auditioned a handful of characters for the role, writing as many as 100 pages each time before realizing it wasn't working.
"The character would start to read the diary and start to interact with it and stuff would start to happen and I'd be writing this and the fictional world would start to grow … and then one morning I would wake up and suddenly discover that the thing had gone flat, like a deflated balloon. And then I'd realize, okay, so this isn't the right character, and I would usher that character to the door and invite a new character in, and we'd start the whole process again."
She finally created a nameless, genderless, ageless diary reader who, as a result of extreme loneliness, never had to use a personal pronoun other than "I."
"It was honestly just ridiculous,"says Ozeki. "It was an experiment. It was not a good experiment."
It was this version of the book she was about to submit, when everything changed.
In addition to writing fiction (she published My Year of Meats in 1998 and All Over Creation in 2003), Ozeki, 57, is a filmmaker who spent years living and working in Japan. After the earthquake struck, she spent weeks trying to track down family and friends, obsessively watching the terrible footage coming out of Japan and reading widely and deeply about the catastrophe.
She also, eventually, had to figure out how to proceed with her book, in light of the catastrophe.
"I was thinking that this is a dilemma, because how, as a fiction writer, does one respond to something like this? It's so real. And all I have are the tools of fiction. And I was talking about this with my husband Oliver, who's a visual artist, and he … suggested that the only way to do it, the only way to address this and to respond to this, would be to break the fiction, break the fictional container and to step in as a character into the fictional world and to respond in a more direct way, and literally kind of put myself on the line."
Ozeki had her second character: a writer named Ruth who lives on a remote island in B.C. with her husband, a visual artist named Oliver, and obsessively reads up on the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. With this semi-fictionalized version of herself, she wrote the next draft of her novel at lightning speed.
"I have to say that it was one of the most triumphant days of my life when I unzipped that manuscript and threw more than half of it away," says Ozeki, who spent about an hour deleting the nameless protagonist it had taken her years to create. "I felt fantastic."
Ozeki, who was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 2010, had incorporated aspects of the religion in the book; Nao's 104-year-old grandmother is a Zen Buddhist nun. The book is also informed by quantum physics, Proust, and other historical events – recent and less recent. Both September 11, 2001 and the Second World War figure into the book, fuelled by the comparisons Ozeki had witnessed post-9/11, between the al-Qaeda suicide bombers and the Japanese Kamikaze pilots.
Much less overt, but integral to the story, was the political aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Nao is the victim of horrific bullying. After 9/11, Ozeki says she felt embarrassed to be an American primarily because of the response by the U.S. government, led by then-president George W. Bush.
"There was a kind of a bully tone in his voice every time he spoke," she says. "My interest in bullying was really exacerbated by being an American living in Canada and being aware of the bullying tone of the American government at the time."
This became a key motivating factor in Ozeki's decision to seek Canadian citizenship. When she travelled to London for the Man Booker festivities, she did so as a dual citizen.
The Man Booker Prize will be awarded in London on Oct. 15.