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Journalism students explore themes with Go Big Read author

October 30, 2013

Photo: Ruth Ozeki meeting with journalism students

Writer Ruth Ozeki, author of “A Tale for the Time Being,” responds to interview questions from journalism students during an intermediate reporting class held in Vilas Hall Tuesday.


A group of inquisitive UW–Madison journalism students got an inside look at the process of writing this year’s Go Big Read selection Tuesday as they interviewed author Ruth Ozeki about her book, “A Tale For the Time Being.”

“The book took me 10 years to write,” said Ozeki, who was on campus to deliver a speech about her book Monday and visit classes and other groups throughout the week. “I had multiple drafts that I continually changed until I finally got the story that was in my head.”

Go Big Read is UW–Madison’s common reading program, now in its fifth year. “A Tale for the Time Being” tells the story of a novelist on a Canadian island who finds the diary of a Tokyo teenager after the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

In a wide-ranging conversation with the students, Ozeki talked about finding themes in time and history; connections to Japan in the story; religion; her ideas about family; and the writing process that contributed to creating a story that was a decade in the making.

Time and history

Time, which plays an important part in the novel, was a central theme of Tuesday’s discussion.

Ozeki spoke to the significance of her character Nao’s name as well as the idea of the time being and juxtaposed time. In the novel, Nao is writing in her present, about her past — a reason why her name also reads as “now,” Ozeki said.

However, when Ruth is reading Nao’s diary in Ruth’s present, it’s Nao’s future. Ozeki said this is true of all writings. Documents live on in their current state as their writers continue on into the future.

Writing is powerful in that it can allow people rewrite history, including family history, she said. “You can make time move backward. You can rectify the past.”

Family history and people’s ancestors were a part of past time that is often important to people living in the present, Ozeki said.

She also talked about how long it took to write her book and how the time spent writing, influenced the idea of time in her story. “Anything that is worthwhile takes time,” Ozeki said. “Writing is an exercise of faith.”

—Grey Satterfield and Jack Casey

The writing process

In the years she spent writing the novel, Ozeki tried abandoning it many times, but she said the book “refused to be left behind.”

She always knew the book would be about someone reading Nao’s diary, but she struggled to find the right character. She “auditioned” a few characters for the role, developing a plot line and scrapping the idea when it felt flat.

In early 2011, she was finally ready to submit the novel to her editor, but then watched the March 2011 earthquake devastate Japan and kill thousands of people. The book she was ready to submit, she said, was a “pre-earthquake book” that was no longer relevant.

After she took out about two-thirds of the novel, her husband encouraged her to break the “fictional container” and insert herself in the story as the character reading Nao’s diary. That character ended up being based largely on Ozeki, giving her a way to express her feelings about the earthquake.

“You want to respond because you feel so powerless, so this was a way of being able to discuss and talk about these feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and confusion,” she said.

—Devon Waugh, Polo Rocha and Jesse Pollans

The Japanese connection

Ozeki challenges the traditional Japanese family structure by including the story of Nao’s father’s emotional troubles as the sole reason for Nao’s mother’s taking on the breadwinning role for the family.

“I had been researching the connection between bullying and suicide in Japan and also suicide in general,” Ozeki said.” One of the other demographic groups that frequently commit suicide are middle-aged men. Nao’s father presents as this kind of character.”

Though “A Tale for the Time Being” contains a non-traditional Japanese family structure, Ozeki said her work has received an “overwhelmingly positive” response from Japanese readers who have read the novel in English, adding that themes such as teen bullying and suicide would adapt well to the Japanese readership. Ozeki said publishers are currently translating the book into Japanese.

“I will be working fairly closely with the translator because the book is written for a western readership,” Ozeki said. “That’s going to actually have to be changed and I look forward to doing it.”

—Taryn Grisham, Carley Eisenberg and Julia Skulstad

Family ties

Ozeki, who, in addition to her Japanese heritage also has ties to Wisconsin on her father’s side, said she noticed a trend of multiple narrators in her books, and credited this to her mixed-race background.

Her ability to write from several points of view is reflective of who she is, Ozeki said. Because her prose style in “Tale for the Time Being” alternates between two narrators, she finds it can be therapeutic.

“When one starts to exhaust, I can switch to the other,” she said. The transition between these two worlds keeps her writing honest — something she acknowledges to also be a part of her identity.

When asked about where she considers her homeland to be, Ozeki paused before stating that she strongly dislikes the concept of a homeland. To her, the idea of a homeland comes across as propaganda — an idea created by the government to instill a sense of nationalism.

While she doesn’t believe in the idea of a homeland, Ozeki explained, she feels that she has many homes.

—Ann Marie Steib, Meredith Smalley and Allison Johnson


Ozeki’s focus on time in the book draws on her beliefs as a Zen Buddhist priest. While Buddhism teaches its followers to be aware and awake in the present, Ozeki says time exists on a continuum, so that the present is also the future and the past.

The book itself acts as a bridge across time, as does the connection between the characters in the story: Ruth is reading into an uncertain past while Nao is reaching out to a reader in the future.

The term “time being” came out of Ozeki’s study of an essay by a 13th century Zen master. Reading a rough translation, she took “time being” to be a person or entity that exists in the present, as well as the future and the past. Later, the voice of Nao describing herself as such came through.

Ozeki encourages readers to become better “time beings” by knowing where they came from, studying the past and practicing patience to live for now. 

—Jane Roberts and Lee Gordon