Kazuo Ishiguro’s art of fiction | Daily News

Kazuo Ishiguro’s art of fiction

The man who wrote The Remains of the Day in the pitch-perfect voice of an English butler is himself very polite. After greeting me at the door of his home in London’s Golders Green, he immediately offered to make me tea, though to judge from his lack of assurance over the choice in his cupboard he is not a regular four P.M. Assam drinker. When I arrived for our second visit, the tea things were already laid out in the informal den. He patiently began recounting the details of his life, always with an amused tolerance for his younger self, especially the guitar-playing hippie who wrote his college essays using disembodied phrases separated by full stops. “This was encouraged by professors,” he recalled. “Apart from one very conservative lecturer from Africa. But he was very polite. He would say, Mr. Ishiguro, there is a problem about your style. If you reproduced this on the examination, I would have to give you a less-than-satisfactory grade.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved with his family to the small town of Guildford, in southern England, when he was five. He didn’t return to Japan for twenty-nine years. (His Japanese, he says, is “awful.”) At twenty-seven he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), set largely in Nagasaki, to near unanimous praise. His second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), won Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award. And his third, The Remains of the Day (1989), sealed his international fame. It sold more than a million copies in English, won the Booker Prize, and was made into a Merchant Ivory movie starring Anthony Hopkins, with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. (An earlier script by Harold Pinter, Ishiguro recalls, featured “a lot of game being chopped up on kitchen boards.”) Ishiguro was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and, for a while, his portrait hung at 10 Downing Street. Defying consecration, he surprised readers with his next novel, The Unconsoled (1995), more than five hundred pages of what appeared to be stream-of-consciousness. Some baffled critics savaged it; James Wood wrote that “it invents its own category of badness.” But others came passionately to its defense, including Anita Brookner, who overcame her initial doubts to call it “almost certainly a masterpiece.” The author of two more acclaimed novels—When We Were Orphans (2000) and Never Let Me Go (2005)—Ishiguro has also written screenplays and teleplays, and he composes lyrics, most recently for the jazz chanteuse Stacey Kent. Their collaborative CD, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, was a best-selling jazz album in France.

In the pleasant white stucco house where Ishiguro lives with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Naomi, and his wife, Lorna, a former social worker, there are three gleaming electric guitars and a state-of-the-art stereo system. The small office upstairs where Ishiguro writes is custom designed in floor-to-ceiling blond wood with rows of color-coded binders neatly stacked in cubbyholes. Copies of his novels in Polish, Italian, Malaysian, and other languages line one wall. On the other are books for research—for example, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt and Managing Hotels Effectively by Eddystone C. 
Nebel III.


You had success with your fiction right from the start—but was there any writing from your youth that never got published?


After university, when I was working with homeless people in west London, I wrote a half-hour radio play and sent it to the BBC. It was rejected but I got an encouraging response. It was kind of in bad taste, but it’s the first piece of juvenilia I wouldn’t mind other people seeing. It was called “Potatoes and Lovers.” When I submitted the manuscript, I spelled potatoes incorrectly, so it said potatos. It was about two young people who work in a fish-and-chips café. They are both severely cross-eyed, and they fall in love with each other, but they never acknowledge the fact that they’re cross-eyed. It’s the unspoken thing between them. At the end of the story they decide not to marry, after the narrator has a strange dream where he sees a family coming toward him on the seaside pier. The parents are cross-eyed, the children are cross-eyed, the dog is cross-eyed, and he says, All right, we’re not going to marry.


What possessed you to write that story?


This was a time when I was starting to think about what my career was going to be. I’d failed to make it as a musician. I’d had lots of appointments with A&R people. After two seconds, they’d say, It’s not going to happen, man. So I thought I’d have a go at a radio play.

Then, almost by accident, I came across a little advertisement for a creative-writing M.A. taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Today it’s a famous course, but in those days it was a laughable idea, alarmingly American. I discovered subsequently that it hadn’t run the previous year because not enough people had applied. Somebody told me Ian McEwan had done it a decade before. I thought he was the most exciting young writer around at that point. But the primary attraction was that I could go back to university for a year, fully funded by the government, and at the end I would only have to submit a thirty-page work of fiction. I sent the radio play to Malcolm Bradbury along with my application.

I was slightly taken aback when I was accepted, because it suddenly became real. I thought, these writers are going to scrutinize my work and it’s going to be humiliating. Somebody told me about a cottage for rent in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall that had previously been used as a rehabilitation place for drug addicts. I called up and said, I need a place for one month because I’ve got to teach myself to write. And that’s what I did that summer of 1979. It was the first time I really thought about the structure of a short story. I spent ages figuring out things like viewpoint, how you tell the story, and so on. At the end I had two stories to show, so I felt more secure.


Was it during that year at East Anglia that you first wrote about Japan?


Yes. I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me. When I tried to start a story: “I came out of Camden Town tube station and went into McDonald’s and there was my friend Harry from university,” I couldn’t think of what to write next. Whereas when I wrote about Japan, something unlocked. One of the stories I showed the class was set in Nagasaki at the time the bomb dropped, and it was told from the point of view of a young woman. I got a tremendous boost to my confidence from my fellow students. They all said, This Japanese stuff is really very exciting, and you’re going places. Then I got a letter from Faber accepting three stories for their Introduction series, which had an excellent track record. I knew that Tom Stoppard and Ted Hughes had been discovered like this. 


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