I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1996 to write my first novel. My husband is Canadian, and so we settled in Vancouver. I’d never lived on this coast before, but the book I was working on, My Year of Meats, was set in New York and Tokyo, and I felt I could write it here, halfway in between.
From the start, I liked the Pacific Rim landscape and culture, with its proximity to Asia. I liked food. I liked the quality of Pacific Northwest light, low and slant and brooding. I liked the rain that gave me an excuse to stay indoors and hunker. Over the years, I’ve been happy writing here, and while I’ve written three novels, only the third, A Tale for the Time Being, is set in this landscape that I’ve grown to love so much.
Novels come to me as voices. In December of 2006, sitting in a little cabin in the rain forest, on a remote island in Desolation Sound, I first heard the voice of a young girl, introducing herself to me. “Hi,” she said. “My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.”
When a character is this direct and demanding, it’s a novelist’s job to pay attention. Certain things about the girl were clear. I knew she was a teenager, about fifteen or sixteen years old. I knew she was in trouble, but I didn’t know why. I knew she was sitting in a Maid Café in Tokyo, writing a diary, and that the diary was somehow key to her survival. I knew that although she was Japanese, for some reason she was writing in English, so that was a bit of a mystery. And finally, I knew that she was writing to someone who would find her diary and read it. The problem was that Nao didn’t know who her reader was, and so neither did I.
I spent the next four years, searching. It was like being a casting director, looking for the right actor to play a part. A character would come to mind. I would arrange for him to discover the diary. He would read it and start to react, and I would start to write. Word by word, a fictional world would start to grow, until one day, maybe fifty or a hundred pages in, I’d turn on the computer and find that the world had gone flat, like a punctured balloon. And so I’d usher the character to the door, and invite the next one in, and we’d start the whole process over again. I did this four or five times, until finally, in early 2011, I completed a draft, which I sent into my agent.
A short while later, on March 11th, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck the coast of Japan. Along with the rest of the world, I spent the following days and weeks, glued to my computer screen, watching the horrifying images of the wave obliterating towns and villages and washing them out to sea.
I have friends and family in Tokyo and in Sendai, and so my first worry was for them, but when the meltdowns at the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor occurred, my worry turned global. As I watched the reactors explode and the disaster unfold on the Internet and in the global media, it reminded me of how I’d felt during 9/11, watching the Twin Towers fall.
Wars, acts of terrorism, natural and man-made disasters—we watch these global events play out on small glowing screens in the private spaces of our living rooms or on our laptops in bed, and they feel at once intimate and remote. For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest in the wake of 3/11, the ocean that connects us to Japan seemed suddenly much smaller. The disaster felt even closer and more personal, and yet we felt helpless and powerless to do anything.
One thing was apparent to me, though: The novel I’d written was no longer relevant. I’d written a pre-earthquake, pre-tsunami, pre-Fukushima book. We were now living in a post-earthquake, post-tsunami, post-Fukushima world.
How to respond? This was the question I kept coming back to. How do I, as a fiction writer, using the tools of fiction, respond to a catastrophe that’s so real? And not only so real, but so immediate and persistent. The disaster was unfolding in the present, and I knew it would continue into the future; the effects of Fukushima would not be going away anytime soon.
I withdrew the manuscript from submission and put the project on hold, but I kept thinking about it, wondering if there was any way it could be saved. Finally, my husband, Oliver, came up with an idea. He suggested that maybe I needed to let reality intrude into the fictional world. Maybe I needed to break the fictional container of the novel and step into the story “myself,” as a semi-fictional character, who could respond to the emerging reality in a more direct and immediate way. I liked the idea, although I did point out that if I were going to be in the novel, Oliver would need to be, too. Luckily, he agreed. So in May of 2011, I unzipped the manuscript and threw half of it away and began to rewrite.
In the finished novel, Nao’s diary is carried across the Pacific and washes up on the shore of a remote island in Desolation Sound, British Columbia. There it is discovered by a novelist named Ruth, who becomes obsessed with the diary and the girl’s fate in post-tsunami Japan. The novel is about the relationship between Nao and Ruth, two people connected by a book, and, by extension, the relationship between all writers and readers, about co-creative engagement we undertake when we sit down to write or read. But it’s also a novel about the larger things that connect us: the great oceanic gyres that connect us geographically, the temporal gyres that connect us through history, and the global gyre of the Internet that connects us with networked information.
You could say that all novels are ultimately about relationship or connection, the profound interconnectedness that defines reality—fictional or otherwise. My novels are born the connections I find between things—the East and the West, the personal and the political, the powerful and powerless. The stories I like are the ones that emerge from the edges, the rich and fecund areas where things meet.
The Pacific Northwest, set on the edge of a continent, an ocean, and an ecosystem, is just such a place. Here, ideas and cultures meet and intermingle, and in that regard, I like to think of A Tale for the Time Being as being a particularly Pacific Northwest kind of book. I could never have written it without knowing this place as I do, as a writer does, and now it makes me happy to think of the book moving out from this place, into other worlds, finding readers near and far and making new connections.
For more from PNBA Book Award winner Ruth Ozeki, click here.