The disaster that inspired a literary masterpiece

It was March 2011, just days before a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan

Cortes Island author Ruth Ozeki is up for the prestigious Booker Prize.

With the manuscript finally completed, Cortes Island author Ruth Ozeki was in New York City, ready to deliver it to the publisher.

Still, after five years of work, something wasn’t right with the book. Ozeki knew it and suspected her editor knew it as well.

It was March 2011, just days before a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated Japan. The disaster shocked the world and shook Ozeki to the core.

“I suddenly realized that an event of such magnitude…my book was no longer relevant,” says Ozeki, who immediately scoured the internet to check on her family and friends living there.

Fortunately, they were okay, but the disaster also erased any thought of turning in the manuscript. In Ozeki’s mind, there’s Japan before the earthquake and Japan after the earthquake.

Her book, revolving around a Japanese girl, was written in the “before” stage so she returned to the “mothership,” the home she shares with husband Oliver Kellhammer on Cortes, to begin the rewrite.

The result, released in March, is “A Tale for the Time Being,” a literary achievement now nominated for the international Booker Prize.

“Long-form fiction is all about patience – in 2011, I knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t ready,” she says during a phone interview from her Cortes home.

Ozeki was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, to an American father and Japanese mother. She has strong ties to Japan, and as a student, Ozeki studied, worked and travelled extensively throughout Asia.

In 1985, she returned to New York to begin a career in film and television production. Ten years later, she produced “Halving the Bones,” an award-winning autobiographical film, that tells the story of Ozeki’s journey to bring her grandmother’s remains home from Japan.

Her first book, “My Year of Meats,” published in 1998, also received awards and accolades from critics. Her second book “All Over Creation” did even better, capturing the 2004 American Book Award as well as the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction.

When Ozeki wasn’t writing, splitting time between homes in New York and Cortes, flying off to speaking engagements, and regularly practicing Zen Buddhism – she was ordained as a Soto Zen priest in 2010 – Ozeki started thinking about her third book.

It would focus on the life of a Japanese schoolgirl, but five years later, the manuscript wasn’t nearly what Ozeki had imagined. Perhaps, she thought, her editor could help provide guidance or insight.

Instead, the forces of nature took over, causing disaster on one side of the planet and, in a way, creating inspiration for a writer on the other side.

Back on Cortes, Ozeki embarked on the re-write and was also inspired by her hubby who suggested the book be semi-autobiographical.

“I needed to respond to the events in a more direct way, that was not entirely fictional,” she says. “My husband Oliver suggested I put myself in as a semi-fictional character…it was the way.”

A Tale for the Time Being tells the story of a woman living on a small West Coast island who finds a package washed up on the beach. Among the items is a diary written by a Japanese teenager 10 years earlier.

The story then weaves back and forth between North America and Japan. A Toronto Star critic describes the story as one, “that dances in all worlds at once.”

And now, it’s one of 13 books vying for the prestigious Booker Prize. Ozeki feels honoured by the recognition, but she’s quick to credit the publishing team at Viking Penguin.

“On the publishing side, they work so hard – my editor, the art director, sales – this is an occasion for gratitude,” she says.

 

Quick notes

 

  • Ozeki and her husband split their time between New York City and Cortes Island where they bought a home in 1997. “I’m happily ensconced in Whaletown writing. This is as good as it gets,” she says.
  • The author is a big fan of Words on the Water, the annual writer’s festival in Campbell River. “It’s one of the nicest writers’ festivals. They do a great job,” says Ozeki.
  • Ozeki’s new book is earning international praise and she’s travelling the globe to promote the book. Earlier this month she was in Scotland, in September she flies to Australia for two writers’ festivals, returns to the U.S. that month for a reading series in New Jersey, then flies to another festival in Indonesia, and comes back to the States in October for another speaking engagement at the University of Wisconsin…phew!