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Eighteen years after his first book, A Pale View of Hills was published, Kazuo Ishiguro, thinks that he has his early success figured out. Ishiguro feels that in the early 1980s when he was arriving on the scene, publishers in Great Britain had, "a great hunger for this kind of new internationalism. After quite a long time of people being preoccupied with the English class system or the middle-class adultery novel or whatever, publishers in London and literary critics and journalists in London suddenly wanted to discover a new generation of writers who would be quite different from your typical older generation of English writer."
Born in Nagaski in 1954, Ishiguro's family moved to England in 1960 expecting to return to Japan in a year, although they remained in Britain. Ishiguro, whose friends, he says, call him "Ish," attended the University of Kent and the University of East Anglia. On the surface, Ishiguro has achieved the perfect balance of those who immigrate at a very young age. He is, of course, Japanese. But his speech and mannerisms are absolutely British and his accent and way of speaking give away his education and upbringing as well as anything could.
It was perhaps this cultural blend that so endeared him to British publishers early on. "That's how I kind of branded myself right from the start: as somebody who didn't know Japan deeply, writing in English whole books with only Japanese characters in. Trying to be part of the English literary scene like that."
This talk of branding and fashion trends in literary scenes would be easier to swallow if Ishiguro were a different kind of writer. The fact is, every one of his five carefully crafted novels has been published to international acclaim and recognition far beyond most writer's dreams. Four of his novels have been nominated for the Booker Award -- arguably English language literature's most coveted prize -- including his third novel, The Remains of the Day which was awarded the Booker in 1989 and was made into a successful film in 1993 and his most recent novel, When We Were Orphans.
When We Were Orphans is set mainly in Shanghai prior to World War II. The protagonist and narrator is Christopher Banks, a young man who was orphaned in Shanghai when he was a child and sent back to Britain to be raised by an aunt. As an adult in London, Christopher comes to prominence as a detective and realizes he must return to Shanghai to solve the mystery that has driven him throughout his career: the disappearance of his parents.
While it's possible to set any story into a nutshell in this way, readers familiar with Ishiguro's work will realize it doesn't begin to do justice to this postmodernist writer's work. The writer himself compares aspects of When We Were Orphans to expressionist art, "where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world. It's kind of like that. The whole world portrayed in that book starts to tilt and bend in an attempt to orchestrate an alternative kind of logic."
Kazuo Ishiguro lives in London with his wife Lorna and their 8-year-old daughter Naomi.
Linda Richards: I read somewhere that you're not a huge fan of book tours.
Kazuo Ishiguro: I wouldn't go that far. But any author that does a tour can spend a year to two years not writing because they're doing a promotion. When I'm on tour I do a lot of interviews, but when I'm home I do probably about an average of three or four interviews a week. So it's that process that obviously takes away quite a lot of your writing time. During a 10 year period when you might have written three books, you write two.
Also I think it does something to how you write, as well. Which is quite interesting, for better or worse. It makes you very self-conscious about your work. It's not so much that I dislike the actual interview, it's the whole process, like I'm doing now: traveling every day going from hotel to hotel and doing performances to quite large audiences every evening.
Congratulations on your nomination for the Booker Award [which was announced a few days before our meeting].
Thank you. I don't know a lot about some of the other authors nominated. I know a great deal about Margaret Atwood, of course. But, to be honest, I don't know very much about three of the other four [who are nominated]. Though I don't think that's unusual, three of them are virtually unknown. This is one of the interesting things about the Booker judges. They are supposed to read the books and they're not supposed to pay attention to reputations or publicity campaigns and they've really taken that to an extreme, I guess. I'm quite anxious to read these books. If these are good books, then these are really discoveries made by these Booker judges.
It makes it an interesting field, doesn't it?
It does, although I have to say that I think -- really -- Margaret Atwood has to be given it this time. I think it would be a great insult or something. This is her fourth [nomination]. And this is the third time for me on the same shortlist as Margaret Atwood. Glad as I am for these new authors, it would be a terrible insult if either one of these people with their first novels gets the Booker instead of her, or if it goes to me, who has already won one. I think [Margaret Atwood] turns 60 this year and she's one of the great writers of the world.
And you won the Booker for Remains of the Day? Which was your third novel?
The work you're nominated for this time, When We Were Orphans, is a startling book. Your narrator, Christopher Banks, is a fairly unreliable one. And interesting, because you don't really know what you're seeing through his eyes. Was that intentional?
Well, yes. In a way I've started to care less and less about what's happening out there [he makes an eloquent gesture indicating the world at large] in some kind of supposed real world. I've become more and more interested in what's happening inside somebody's head. So, although you call him an unreliable narrator... [shakes his head in mild disagreement]. The traditional unreliable narrator is that sort of narrator through whom you can almost measure the distance between their craziness and the proper world out there. That's partly how that technique works, I think. You have to know that distance quite clearly. He [Christopher Banks] is perhaps not quite that sort of conventional unreliable narrator in the sense that it's not very clear what's going on out there. It's more an attempt to paint a picture according to what the world would look like according to someone's crazy logic. So a lot of the time the world actually adopts the craziness of his logic. It's not full of people doing surprised double takes when he comes out with certain statements. On the contrary, they go along with it. They all seem to support these weird notions.
But it's from his perspective.
Yes. It's from his perspective, but I didn't want to write a realistic book with a crazy narrator. I wanted to actually have the world of the book distorted, adopting the logic of the narrator. In paintings you often see that. Expressionist art, or whatever, where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world. It's kind of like that. The whole world portrayed in that book starts to tilt and bend in an attempt to orchestrate an alternative kind of logic. It's not necessarily crazy logic. I don't know if that makes any sense to you, but it's partly that, over the years I've become less interested in -- well, it's not that I've become less interested in traditional narrative as such, because in some ways this book goes much more into picking up traditional devices, plots and twists and turns. Maybe overall as a writer I have become less interested in realism. Partly perhaps because things like cinema and television do that kind of thing so well. When I write a novel perhaps some part of me wants to offer in a book an experience that you can't get easily sitting in front of a cinema screen or a television screen. For that reason, one of the strengths of novels, I think, over camera-based storytelling is that you are able to get right inside people's heads. You're able to explore people's inner worlds much more thoroughly and with much more subtlety. That's not to say there aren't many great filmmakers who really get you into somebody's head. But the form is different. It's a third person exterior form.
The novel does, I think, demand more in the way of emotional participation than film does, in most cases anyway.
But even in terms of the images. Obviously, on the screen you show the image fully. You dress a set and every single detail has to be there. In the book it's almost the reverse. In a way, to make that projector come on inside a reader's head, you can't afford to have too much detail. You give just enough detail so that the reader brings all these other images that are floating around in his or her head to that book. So I think everyone must see different images when they read the same book. Particularly these days because people have seen so many images. Television, advertising, cinema.
You don't have to describe very much as a novelist. You can just, with a few little key words, evoke certain images. To a certain extent you can muck about with stereotypes and stereotypical images and you juxtapose them in unlikely ways. I think that's the big difference between writing now and writing in the 19th century where you probably had to spell out lots of things. If you're describing a journey up the Congo, or something you had to describe it very, very thoroughly because most people would have no visual images: perhaps they might have seen a few photographs of explorers.
But there wasn't a sort of common literary shorthand.
No. But now we've got an overabundance of them. And, of course, we're getting very postmodern now because we refer not only to the real travel footage that we see, but also have movies made of places like that.
When We Were Orphans is set in Shanghai at a certain time. I was very conscious that we're not just dealing with images from the real Shanghai at that time. You say "Shanghai" and people immediately conjure up a lot of images. There's a certain kind of branded, packaged atmosphere of Shanghai: this exotic, mysterious, decadent place. The same in Remains of the Day. It was a case of manipulating certain stereotypical images of a certain kind of classical England. Butlers and tea and scones: it's not really about describing a world that you know well and firsthand. It's about describing stereotypes that exist in people's heads all around the world and manipulating them engagingly.
Remains of the Day was made into a very successful movie. How did you feel about the film that resulted?
I felt very happy with the movie of Remains of the Day. Initially I had these classic misgivings of the author seeing his work being turned into film. In the rushes I'd think that a door in the room was in the wrong place. I'd say: No, you've got the whole room the wrong way around. Start again. [Laughs] It kind of underlines that a book must be different to everybody who reads it. Because, of course, I haven't described anything.
Like where the window might be.
Yeah. I have a very particular set of ideas about what's happening. Everybody else who has read the book must have a slightly different idea, because Jim Ivory [the director] making the film had another way he saw it. That was very interesting. But I rapidly got over that. Partly because it was a very authoritative film. I found when I watched the film as a whole it took me over pretty rapidly. I stopped doing this thing of: How are they going to do that scene? How are they going to do this scene? I actually started to get into the blood of the movie, almost to the extent that I forgot that I knew the story already.
Was that exciting for you?
I'd tried not to see too many rushes. I just saw a tiny little bit out of curiosity and then I stopped, because I wanted to see something that was more or less the finished thing, to be able to get the experience of it. I think it's a very good film. It's a different work from mine. It's James Ivory's Remains of the Day which is related to my Remains of the Day. Actually my literary agent in London said that she thought the main difference was -- and this was very perceptive. I would have never come up with anything as insightful as this -- she said: The movie is about emotional repression. But the book is about self-denial. And that's the crucial difference, she said. And I thought: yes, that's probably right. They are crucially different themes.
It sounds like it would have been a satisfying experience. To watch what had been your vision launch into someone else's vision.
A lot of authors find it a very painful experience. They feel as though they're losing something. They've lost their jurisdiction. It's almost sometimes a parental thing with some authors. They seem to be quite irrationally objecting to certain things and I can kind of understand that too. Sometimes the relationship between you and the book is very personal, or you and the characters you've created. And it is like someone is taking your children away and doing weird things with them. Just the fact that someone else is claiming ownership to certain characters and certain episodes can be a daunting experience. It's very hard to understand unless you've been in that position. And when it goes badly -- if you don't think the film is working or even sometimes if you do -- I can kind of understand some authors who get very, very upset about movies. I had a kind of advantage in that I had actually written some screenplays myself for television and I had also attempted to write a movie screenplay, which might still be made.
You knew the process.
Yes. I had been on the other side to some extent and thought quite a lot about the difference between writing for the screen and writing novels. I perhaps wasn't as naive as some authors are about the translation process into film. I knew that some things would have to happen.
Are you able to work at all while you're on tour?
Am I able to write? Are you kidding? I can't even eat. You obviously don't have a clear idea of what an author tour is. It's a strange existence. I don't think these things existed until about 15 years ago. Perhaps in America they started earlier than that. But I started to publish novels in 1982 and then it was a very different kind of literary world or book world.
The established authors of the day didn't tour. They might occasionally give a lecture at some august institution but they wouldn't go on these book tours. They were very private figures. The whole publishing world changed. Also the book selling world changed, I think. In many ways for the better. But, in some ways, for the worse with a heavy bottom line emphasis. Somewhere in the equation I think authors started to get used as the main marketing tool. We are by far the most often used marketing tool. To some extent we double now as book reps. We are the kind of personal touch between a publishing house on the east coast and some prized independent book store on the west coast. It can't all be done just on the Internet or fax. The relationship has to keep having that human touch and one of the ways in which this is done is that authors are sent to do events.
I think along with the explosion of creative writing classes around the world, the book tour is the other big new thing that's going to influence contemporary writing. I think these are the two big, big influences. I think these are much bigger than computer technology or anything like that. These are the things that actually affect the environment in which the writer thinks, creates, writes.
I'm not just talking about the busyness of the tour. It's a process by which, whether you like it or not, you're made very aware of why you write and how you write, who your influences are and where you fit in vis-a-vis other authors. How your personal life fits into what you write. That's a good thing in many ways. It's very good that you're sensitive to your audience. But nevertheless it has an effect and it probably does change the way you write. You become a much more self-conscious writer. The next time you go home and write in your study you can't forget all these questions, all these probings, all these suggestions about why you write, what you should be writing next, what you shouldn't have written before, how certain things link up.
Often people point out recurring things in your work that you didn't notice and so all innocence is lost. Sometimes some spontaneity is lost as well. Certainly, a lot of self-consciousness is brought on. There's hardly any author who is noted or read widely who doesn't tour a lot now. I think when people look back on this era and when they look at the literature produced in this era they'll have to look at the tour to understand why writing has gone in a certain direction.
Is it necessarily a negative thing for literature?
No. I don't think it's all bad. As I suggested, I think there's all kinds of things to it. I think it's quite good in the sense that writers are made very aware of their audience. So I wouldn't say it's negative, I'm just saying it's a big influence. In any age, in any era there's going to be big things that are going to influence the writing of that time. Usually it's assumed that these are things that affect society as a whole. Here I'm saying that something is specifically and directly affecting the author's world. But, in a way, it's not just happening in the world of books, it's part of the whole globalization thing.
Part of the reason it didn't happen before is that authors used to address a local audience. You know, somebody in Denmark would be quite happy if he became somebody widely read by Danes. And that was certainly the case in England. The great English authors of the 50s probably never looked beyond addressing an English audience. Today we're very conscious that we address an international audience. And particularly with English becoming so prevalent -- culturally and linguistically. All over Europe people read English and American books almost more than they read their own. So, it's this kind of more globalized international world that writers write for now. This does mean [that] instead of sitting at home doing perhaps, at most, a couple of interviews with your local press, you spend a lot more time rushing around the world trying to somehow put yourself in contact with this potential or actual world audience.
The positive side to this probably is that writers are encouraged to think widely and internationally. Not to get provincial and inward looking. And they are always made very sensitive of their readers and they're less likely to become self-indulgent.
The downside is like everything else to do with globalization. The downside is that a kind of grayness might sweep over literature too. That we'll all start writing in the same kind of way. I'm aware of this happening to me, too. There are a lot of things I don't write now. I stop myself writing certain things because I think, for instance, that it wouldn't work once it's translated out of English. You can think of a line that's brilliant in English -- with a pun or two, you know -- but of course it becomes nonsense once translated into a different language, so I don't use it.
Yes. For a long time now I never use things like puns. A person who was a kind of teacher of mine, Malcolm Bradbury, wrote a novel called Cuts. It starts off with this tour de force passage which plays on the word "cuts" about government funding cuts and people cutting each other up: people cutting into each other. The word "cut" occurs in every possible permutation about four or five times per line all through the first page. It's a brilliant piece of writing in English, but it only works in English. Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, I would never write a page like that. And it goes deeper than that. I mean, in terms of how I portray characters. I wouldn't portray them in terms of which restaurants they hang out at, because you wouldn't know what that means, let alone someone in Kuala Lumpur. To say this person hangs out in this club rather than another club. Or he wears clothes from this tailor rather than that tailor. And it goes right down to the themes. The very things that you think readers are touched by that they think important. So of course there might be things that you think are burning issues in your own country in your own time. But you think: Well, it wouldn't be very interesting to the Danes. So you don't write about those things. Now, I worry about that whole process, but it's something I do almost naturally. Unconsciously. Because I know that, at some point, I'm going to be out there facing these audiences and that's who I write for.
That's often the paradox, that things that seem to be very firmly rooted in one time and place -- a book about some farm in Russia or something -- books like that can often be really international, because they touch a nerve, a human nerve.
You said that you're very conscious of your international audience. I wonder if part of that might be that you have a more global or cosmopolitan view because of your own background. I know you were born in Nagasaki and that your family left Japan when you were six?
And your family never intended to stay in Britain, though they did stay there. I wonder if that would help to make your outlook more global?
I don't know if it would make it more global. Certainly dual. Japanese and British. I don't know if I was particularly global in my outlook as a child. But, as a writer, almost accidentally, because I started off writing about Japan -- and I had all kinds of personal reasons for doing that -- I think I kind of unnecessarily put myself in the position of being a kind of international, if you like, quote-unquote writer. That's how I kind of branded myself right from the start: as somebody who didn't know Japan deeply, writing in English, whole books with only Japanese characters in. Trying to be part of the English literary scene like that. Part of the reason that I was able to make my career as a novelist very rapidly in Britain in the 1980s was because there was -- just at that time when I started to write -- a great hunger for this kind of new internationalism. After quite a long time of people being preoccupied with the English class system or the middle-class adultery novel or whatever, publishers in London and literary critics and journalists in London suddenly wanted to discover a new generation of writers who would be quite different from your typical older generation of English writer. And they were damned sure that that writer was going to be somebody very international who could kind of blow British culture out of its inward-looking, postcolonial post-Empire phase. In the 1980s people who were keen on literature went around carrying people like [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez in their pockets: One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Milan Kundera. They became the suddenly fashionable writers, from being utterly obscure writers.
The people writing in English -- people like Salman Rushdie -- became the new heroes. And I think I was almost kind of allowed onto the literary scene because I seemed to be an international writer. I kind of thought that was the role I was supposed to play. That's why I was there. And so I think for that reason I perhaps am very conscious of the whole international thing. But I think most writers of my generation are.
If I can paraphrase -- and tell me if I got this right -- what I just heard you say is that some of your very early success was due almost to fashion, in a way.
Fashion is perhaps putting it too superficially, but yeah: a trend. I think it's more than a fashion because it was part of a serious shift in the way the British thought.
A literary movement?
More than a literary movement. It's to do with a big shift in the way the British thought of themselves. Because you have to remember, for a long, long time Britain thought of itself as the center of a huge empire. For a long time writers who wrote English literature felt they did not need to think consciously about whether they were international or not. They could write about the smallest details of English society and it was, by definition, of interest to people in the far corners of the world because English culture itself was something that was internationally important. So they never had to think about what if somebody in Shanghai wasn't interested in how English people went about having their dinner parties in London: Well, they damn well ought to be interested. That was the attitude because that was the dominant international culture. That was the culture that was being forced or pushed onto other cultures around the world. If you wanted to know about the world for quite a lot of the last two or three centuries, you had to know about British culture.
But that finished, you see. And I think it took a little while after the end of Second World War for the British to realize this. And then suddenly, around the time when I started to write, I think people came to this realization: We're not the center of the universe. We're just this little backwater in Europe. If we want to participate in the world, culturally speaking, we've got to find out what's happening in the rest of the world. Similarly with the literature. It's no good anymore just going on about the difference between an upper middle class Englishman and his lower middle class wife, you know. That's just purely parochialism. You've got to start looking outwards and wider and we want writers and artists who can tell us how we can fit into the rest of the world. We want news from abroad. I think it was that big shift, the basic realization that Britain wasn't the heart of an Empire, but just a little -- albeit a powerful one, still -- just a little country.
American writers now are in a not dissimilar situation to English writers of the last several hundred years. You can write the most inward-looking provincial kind of American novel, because American culture is so dominant around the world. They're writing stuff of world importance. It's easier to write things that everybody should be interested in just by describing your own knee if you're American, you can write something that's very important. The rest of us can't do that.
So I think it was something deeper than just a fashion. And I think it's reflected in many aspects of British life. Literature is just one, small bit of it. The whole attitude to what "English" means has undergone a huge change since I was a child in England. | October 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.