Kazuo Ishiguro
Photo by Jeff Cottenden

Kazuo Ishiguro: “I’ll take as long as I need”

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Short Profile

Name: Kazuo Ishiguro
DOB: 8 November 1954
Place of birth: Nagasaki, Kyushu, Japan
Occupation: Author

Mr. Ishiguro, have you ever found one of your books at a secondhand bookstore?

Yes. That kind of thing is difficult. When I go into a secondhand bookshop in the countryside in England or something like this, if they’ve got my book there, I think, “Well, this is an insult! Somebody didn’t want to keep my book!” (Laughs) But if it’s not there, I feel it’s an insult too. I think, “Why aren’t people exchanging my book? Why isn’t it in this store?”

Does being a writer require a thick skin?

Yes, for example, my wife can be very harsh. I began working on my latest book, The Buried Giant, in 2004 but I stopped after I showed my wife a little section. She thought it was rubbish. (Laughs) The problem is that when she was first my girlfriend, I wasn’t a writer. It was before I’d even started to write at all. So when she reads my writing, she still thinks of me as this post-graduate student who thinks he’s one day going to be a writer.

I wouldn’t ever compromise on the essential, on the essence of a project.

Even after you won a Booker Prize?

She’s not intimidated at all and she criticizes me in exactly the same way that she did when I was first unpublished and I was starting. She needs to be very strict. We’ve argued about my books, other people’s books, about the movies we go to, the plays we go to since 1980 – for 35 years! There are some things that I agree with her and some where I always disagree. So there are some things that she says that I don’t take so seriously, but there are other things that I know I should take seriously. She has certain areas where she’s very strong.

But you would never compromise on your vision.

No, I wouldn’t ever compromise on the essential, on the essence of a project, the ideas or the themes. This isn’t really what my wife is trying to criticize me about. It’s always about execution. She says, “You haven’t done that correctly. I know what you’re trying to do, but you haven’t succeeded.” I don’t think she’s ever said to me, “The actual vision of your book is wrong.”

So why did you put the The Buried Giant aside for so long? Apparently you started working on it over 10 years ago.

I’ve often stopped books and left them for a few years. Never Let Me Go, my previous novel, I had three attempts! I’m used to this idea that things I write, I can put to one side, and maybe two years later, three years later, if I come back to them… They will have changed. Usually my imagination has moved on and I can think of different contexts or a different way to do it. It might look similar, it might look quite similar, but it takes on a very different significance. It’s happened to me before, so I don’t panic when someone says, “Just put it to the side.” Because I know from my personal experience that that works out quite well.

What does it feel like when you finally finish a book?

It’s funny you say that because I never have this moment when I feel, “Ah, I’ve finished!” I watch footballers at the end of the match, you know, the whistle goes and they’ve won or lost. Until then they’ve been giving everything and at that moment they know it’s over. It’s funny for an author. There’s never a finishing whistle. It’s not very spectacular.

Why not?

Well, even after the book’s publication, things keep changing. Since my British hardcover came out, for example, various translators have raised queries — they’re very sharp at picking up little details. I listen to all their comments and then I change it a little bit more. It’s only when the paperback comes out that it feels to me like that it’s the final edition, and I can stop… Because it’s too late, that’s the final whistle. There’s no real triumphant moment.

I never have this moment when I feel, “Ah, I’ve finished!” There’s never a finishing whistle. It’s not very spectacular.

Do you ever feel pressure to write more? You’ve published only eight books over the course of your 35-year career.

I made this decision at the beginning of my career that there is no problem about the number of books in the world. I had this discussion with my editor at Faber & Faber, Robert McCrum, the man who discovered me. After my first novel, I said to him, “How long should it be until I publish my second book?” And he said, “Well, really for your career you should publish a book every two years.” I always remind him of this because we’re still very good friends, and he always says that was a stupid piece of advice! But I remember thinking then, “That’s impossible for me.”

Usually creativity can’t be rushed.

I decided right then that I wasn’t trying to contribute numerically to literature; what I had to do was to try and create books that are a little bit different to the books that are there already. What’s the point in adding to this huge mountain of books unless there’s something new or slightly different? Stanley Kubrick was a kind of model for me. He can spend a long time thinking about a project and each movie could be completely different. I thought, “I’ve got to be like Kubrick. I’ll take as long as I need.” That would allow me to build a new world each time.

What do you create first, the story or the world?

I choose the setting according to the needs of the story. And in fact, this often leads me into quite difficult situations. I often have a story but I haven’t decided where it should take place, in which time period it should take place… I feel like I’m location scouting, like on a film, driving around the countryside. The setting, and that includes the time and where it is geographically, that is one of my main tools in telling my story. So, I’ve become quite interested in creating this little world. But music is also very important for my kind of storytelling.

How so?

It’s hard to explain how. In music, particularly if you immerse yourself in the particular song, even if it has no words, you become deeply acquainted with a certain kind of emotion that is in the song. And when I’m writing, what I’m trying to do is convey a particular kind of emotion or a particular kind of mood. So often I find myself thinking about the atmosphere of a particular song I like that is quite close to the emotion that I want to capture.

If you immerse yourself in the particular song, even if it has no words, you become deeply acquainted with a certain kind of emotion that is in it.

What kind of things can you communicate without words?

I’ve been travelling just in the last few days and for some reason I was thinking about a favorite track by Keith Jarrett the pianist that I feel captures something about an older person looking back to their youth. It’s an instrumental, no words, so I was thinking I’d like to capture that story in the novel I’m thinking about writing next. I need something of that kind of atmosphere: a mixture of regret and pride. But you can only get that feeling through listening to a piece of music…

How do you translate an emotion from a piece of music into words on the page?

The problem for novelists is that because we use words as tools, and the words are often used in essays or argument, the temptation is to think that you have to always think in terms of logical intellectual patterns. And of course, that’s an important aspect of writing a novel but it’s also important, I think, for a novelist to use the imagination like a musician, a composer or a painter would, in a kind of non-logical way. I think it’s very important for me to not just become a kind of intellectual writer.