‘Call Me Ish’: How Kazuo Ishiguro Earned His Nobel Prize
The 2017 winner of the literary world’s highest honor sat down with Nick Romeo in 2015. The indefatigable novelist was the very definition of reader-friendly.
I met Kazuo Ishiguro when he was already four weeks into an international book tour to launch his new novel, The Buried Giant. So I figured he might relate to something the American novelist William Gaddis once said: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around.” If anything could turn someone into a shambling dregs, surely it was a solid month of travel stuffed with readings, signings, receptions, and interviews.
But “Ish,” as he invites even strangers to call him, was feeling good. “For me it’s almost the other way ’round,” he said just after arriving at Denver’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. “When I’m writing I’m a complete shambles; I’m reclusive, I get up late, I’m just generally falling to pieces. But when I do this, I kind of get sharper and sharper. I turn into somebody who might be working for Morgan Stanley. In some weird parallel fantasy life I was probably going to be some high-flying executive barking things into a cellphone. I turn into that kind of creature on these tours.”
Wearing an understated black suit, sipping bottled water, Ishiguro could have easily passed for a sleek senior executive brokering some massive financial deal in a plush hotel conference room. But his visit to Denver was only partially a business trip. He was here to sign and sell books, of course, but he also felt glimmers of a loftier purpose.
“I try very hard to convince myself that what we’re doing isn’t only about marketing; it’s also a cultural event,” he said of the book signings and on-stage conversations that he’s done at bookstores and auditoriums across America, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Audience turnout at events for The Buried Giant has been stronger than for any previous book tour he’s done, and young fans in particular have come in overwhelming numbers. Ishiguro was pleased but also perplexed. “I’m not always sure quite what it is we’re offering audiences. When you go to see a concert or play, that’s the art form itself. But these author events are a bit like the DVD add-ons elevated to the main act.”
When Ishiguro first started doing book tours in the late ’80s, they were simply called “reading tours.” Authors would read aloud from their books for up to an hour, and interaction with audiences was minimal. Now fans are eager for personalized inscriptions and photos with Ish. They also ask more and better questions. “It’s been difficult for me just to go on automatic because the questions have been very interesting,” he said.
Certain authors respond to public curiosity about their private life and creative process by minimizing all contact with readers. Selfies with Salinger were not exactly common; a glimpse of Thomas Pynchon on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is cause for celebration; and an interview with Cormac McCarthy is a rare gift of fortune. Of course the reclusiveness of these authors is sometimes a marketing strategy more effective than any number of book tours. But such shrinking from attention also reflects the position that William Gaddis articulated: Everything important is on the page, and the artist is just a human shambles that shuffles sadly behind the work itself.
Ishiguro, however, shows a novelistic capacity to assume the perspective of his fans: Meeting him really matters to them. “I get a feeling that it’s important to them, the whole experience, they stand in line, they talk to each other, they crave a live event with the author.” Some people still seek more than he can offer. On a stop on a book tour in the ’90s, one woman stood up during the Q-and-A after his reading and began describing in intricate detail all of her problems at work. When she finally came to her question, it had nothing to do with literature or Ishiguro’s novels: She wanted to know if he thought she should resign.
Saul Bellow once dismissed the impulse of interviewers to inquire about the minutiae of a writer’s workspace; he thought there were more interesting things to discuss than the model of typewriter on which he wrote. I appreciate his point, but I’m not convinced that such details are always trivial: Objects reflect rituals and patterns, and they also do something deeply novelistic: Establish the specificity necessary to visualize a scene.
Ishiguro was happy to humor my curiosity. “It’s just a small study, where I write. We have four bedrooms in the house and it seemed odd that I should use anything but the smallest for my study. It’s a bit like I imagine the Orient Express is; I’ve never been on it, but people say it’s quite comfy. You reach right around you and there’s everything you need. So I have my coffee here, within reach, and then two desks. One with a computer and one with the writing slope. I do a lot of work at the writing slope with a pen, and the other desk is mostly clerical.”
He uses no mystic rituals to summon the muses, but he does follow one very particular practice when he writes. “This will probably seem nerdy and obsessive, but I have a little notepad with columns on it and I write down when I check in and when I check out of the study. Even if I only leave for a few minutes, to take a phone call or something, I write it down. Then I have a third column to keep track of the total time.” He grabbed a notepad and sketched with black pen a rough facsimile of his time ledger.
When he’s working on a first draft, he’ll average roughly three hours per day. If he writes any longer, the quality tends to decrease. During later drafts and revisions, he works for about six hours each day.
The Buried Giant is the most recent result of his labors. Set in a post-Arthurian Britain of mist and magic, the novel follows an elderly couple as they journey across a sinister and sometimes enchanted landscape in search of their son. Everyone in the story suffers from an amnesia caused by a memory-dissolving fog that swirls across the realm. And as critics have been alternately delighted and dismayed to report, the novel contains many supernatural elements familiar from the fantasy genre: ogres, pixies, a she-dragon, and various other monsters and apparitions.
He began writing the novel in 2004, but he set it aside for some time after a false start. His wife, Lorna, is also his first reader and one of a few trusted editors. After finishing a substantial portion of a first draft, he showed her the manuscript, hoping for encouragement. She gave a blunt assessment: He would need to start again. He asked her what in particular could be changed or refined, but she replied, simply, “No, this all has to go.” So he began again from scratch.
This experience contrasted sharply with the writing of The Remains of the Day. “Most of the important breakthroughs for that novel happened in about four weeks,” he told an audience of 500 later that night at a public conversation with novelist Erika Krouse sponsored by Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Group. “I still like to get all my ideas out in a very messy form, but now I’ll do that for 30 to 40 pages at a time and then go back and carefully consider how the choices I made will influence the remainder of the novel. I try to build a floor quite solidly before I put anything else on top.”
The Buried Giant is Ishiguro’s seventh novel, but in the slog of composition he sometimes doubted he would ever finish the book. “Even after all these years, I get desperate and think it must’ve been a fluke that I ever finished writing novels before.”
To underscore the difficulty of writing a novel, he compared the process to the making of a film. “You go to a set, and essentially what you see is a large company of highly skilled people—the set designer, director, various talented actors, makeup artists, etc., it’s a big job. A novelist has to do all this alone.”
A lover of jazz and film, Ish favors analogies between fiction and these art forms. “A lot of decisions I make as a novelist have to be made intuitively. If you ask a jazz musician why Take One of the tenor sax solo is better than Take Two or Three, they’ll say, ‘Well, it sounds better.’ Because novelists use words, and words are also used for polemic and arguments, there’s a temptation to think we need to be able to justify everything intellectually. But I often rely on an intuition close to one musicians, composers, and painters use. The honest answer to why I do things a certain way is sometimes just that it sounds better. It can’t necessarily be backed up intellectually.”
His two most recent novels, The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go, are more John Coltrane than Cole Porter, experiments in form and genre that are not easily categorized. He would not have considered writing such novels early in his career. He cited as a liberating influence in literary culture the work of younger authors like David Mitchell, whose books blur genre boundaries and erode traditional distinctions between popular and literary fiction. “Fifteen to 20 years ago I would’ve lacked the courage to write Never Let Me Go as a speculative sci-fi book. I would’ve still had an inherited prejudice that a literary author doesn’t do that.”
Though he wasn’t reluctant to use fantasy tropes in The Buried Giant, he did struggle with choosing the right setting. One of the novel’s central themes is how nations remember and forget traumatic episodes of past violence, so he initially considered different historical settings, such as France after the Nazi occupation. But he decided he wanted something more universal and metaphorical, hence the shift back to a remote, semi-mythological age of knights and dragons.
Setting and style are generally some of the last elements he considers. He usually begins a novel with a sense of a relationship between characters or a premise. “The setting, increasingly, is the piece that I just can’t get to fit. When I don’t have a setting, I spend a lot of time, idiotically, location hunting.” He also sees style as a function of the characters’ psychology, not an end in itself. “Often the words are what I’m left with after all these other artistic decisions are made. Things like point-of-view and character and relationships. I don’t often just write a line for the sake of style. It’s always secondary to emotion and character.”
After the event, while Ishiguro signed novels and posed for pictures with fans at a table in the lobby, I chatted with Lorna about everything from French cinema in the ’40s to the novels of Larry McMurtry (she likes both.) She and Ishiguro often focus on a particular director or time period and immerse themselves in dozens of films. They’ve recently done screwball comedies, John Ford, Billy Wilder, and the French director Jean-Pierre Melville. In a room of their London house where Ish stores his many guitars, they watch movies on a projection screen after drawing the blackout blinds to block any light.
As the lobby was emptying out, I glanced over to the table where Ishiguro was signing books and saw that he had accumulated a small collection of gifts from fans. One woman had given him a copy of a book she wrote, a man had given him a small Sherlock Holmes pin, and another man was holding a copy of Ishiguro’s 1995 novel, The Unconsoled, and saying that it was the last book his mother-in law read before she died. “She loved it,” the man said.
Many readers wanted to present him with something—an object, an anecdote about what his books meant to them, a nervous and infatuated smile—as if to reciprocate in some minor way an exchange that was usually one-sided. Just as striking as this impulse was the fact that Ishiguro, passing through the ninth of 12 cities on his book tour and separated by many hours from his last meal, fully engaged with each person he met. He was already running late for a VIP reception and dinner, but he wasn’t going to leave just yet. I remembered something he had said to an event organizer earlier that day: “Once I start signing, I won’t stop until I’ve gotten to every person. At a certain point the reception will have started, but I’ll probably still be signing. It always takes longer than you think, and I’m going to prioritize the people in line.”