Texture of memory
Ishiguro finds in the fog of recollection a device to craft novels

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kazuo Ishiguro's career is enviable: He landed a book contract in his 20s and won the Booker Prize for "The Remains of the Day," which was adapted for the screen starring two Oscar winners, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

But don't be jealous: Ishiguro really wanted to be a songwriter. Luckily, he failed miserably.

Ishiguro visits the New York State Writers Institute on Thursday to read from his new novel, "Never Let Me Go" (Knopf; 320 pages; $24), a book that's as elegantly written as "The Remains of the Day."

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Great Britain six years later. He is the author of six novels, beginning with 1982's "Pale View of Hills," in which a Japanese woman recalls the destruction and resurrection of Nagasaki. His second novel, 1986's "An Artist of the Floating World," focused on a former artist who recalls his life as a soldier; it received the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

The title of "Never Let Me Go" comes from a treacly lyric from a song the main character, Kathy, plays over and over. In his latest book, Ishiguro again uses memory as a device to drive the plot, which revolves around the science of genetic engineering. He places his characters in a secluded, seemingly idyllic English school. From early on, there's an unsettling aura surrounding its students, but to reveal much more runs the risk of cheating the reader.

Ishiguro spoke about the process of publicizing a book and the crafts of book-writing and songwriting in a recent phone interview -- presented in edited form -- from his home in London:

Q: What's it like right before your book is released and you begin a tour?

A: It's a bit odd. I mean, you spend all this time kind of writing the book by yourself in a room alone, then suddenly it becomes very public. I turn into kind of a salesman. Over the years, I've gotten used to it, this rhythm. It's almost like a second job -- the more public side of publishing.

Q: Does it take a while before you can get back to writing?

A: In the past, it's often taken the best part of two years. It's very difficult to settle down to a new project when you know you have a trip ahead of you. In the past, my rhythm has been almost three years writing (followed) by two years promoting. I guess because I'm getting older, I can't afford to do this anymore. This time, I'm publishing in the United States and Canada at the same time as Great Britain. It gets very intense, (but) I can do all the publishing in one season. I can be back at work at something new in a fairly substantial way at the beginning of the year.

Q: The reviews of "Never Let Me Go" are coming out, and they've been pretty good. Do you read them at all?

A: I read all the reviews. The ones that have appeared here (in London) have been really good.

Q: Your book is a hard book to review, because writers don't want to give away too much.

A: My publicist in America feels very strongly that reviewers and profile writers shouldn't give away too much. Over here, they've adopted a very different attitude. Everything starts with that. I'm not quite sure how important it is, because I'm on the inside of this. I certainly didn't plan the book to revolve around it.

I'm often touched and slightly amused at how people have to tie themselves in knots trying not to reveal things and trying not to spoil things for the reader. But I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Q: One of the devices you use in this and your other books is memory.

A: I like memory, at various different levels. At a purely technical level, I like it as a method of telling a story -- it gives me plenty of freedom. Compositionally, I can put a scene from 30 years ago right next to a scene from two days ago. Whereas if I'm telling this scene chronologically in kind of an unfolding plot, I'm locked in to telling the story in a particular order.

But I like being able to place scenes from quite different time zones right next to each other, because then you start asking, "Why has the writer done this?" And I just like the texture of memory as well.

I like that the scenes are necessarily foggy around the edges, because they're remembered scenes and they're open to manipulation and they're open to self-deception and embroidery. And they're often tinged with nostalgia, some kind of strong emotion. I like all these layers that come with a scene.

Thematically, I have been interested in memory itself. In a book like "Remains of the Day," memory is the place Stevens goes to figure out how where his life has gone wrong. It's a bit of a dangerous territory for him. He wants to search, but on the other hand he doesn't want to search. He's kind of looking through his fingers at what's around, and he's flinching away from some things. Then something else tells him he's got to look at it now. He's got to face it.

Q: Who are your favorite writers?

A: Very big question there. If you can, you ask me that broken down a bit, like "all dead ones?"

Q: How about a few dead ones?

A: I like Dostoevski and Chekhov and Tolstoy, and Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. I like ancient Greeks as well. I hesitate to say this because it makes me sound the very scholarly type, but I'm not. I was very badly read as a young person.

Q: Did you not like to read?

A: I was really into songs when I was young, and that was my passion. And I wrote songs and all my friends wrote songs, and we argued about how to write songs. And we listened to the singer-songwriters of that time, in the '70s and '80s -- Dylan, Joni Mitchell. And I guess I wanted to be somebody like that.

And I wrote an awful lot of songs. I did study literature and philosophy, so I necessarily had to read some books.

Q: They do require that.

A: Unfortunately, that seems to be the requirement. For somebody who's majoring in literature, I did read very little. I tried to make one book go a long, long way. I realized if I read "Middlemarch" by George Eliot, that would do for Victorian, English realism and the comparative course on Russian and English literature. On the other hand, I think I read the right books. This wasn't part of my plan, to become a writer.

Q: You were going to become a songwriter?

A: Yes. (Laughing)

Q: Have you ever had a song recorded?

A: No, no, no -- a complete failure. I did make all these demo tapes. I have sung in bizarre places. A lot people feel I had this easy ride as a writer. I really only started to write seriously because I was accepted in a creative writing course at a university when I was 24. ... People think, "So he didn't struggle at all. He didn't send his manuscript and get it turned down at all. He had a publisher give him a contract just because he started a book."

But I really served my dues singing to drunks in hockey clubs. I remember my friend and I once sung in a music hall in Paris. ... I remember coming on stage and immediately all these Parisian music hall artistes, they actually physically turned their chairs around into a little circle so they could chat among themselves.

Q: That really did a lot for the ego.

A: We didn't care in those days. It was very romantic. The idea of playing in -- "This was Isadora Duncan's sister-in-law's music hall!" So we thought, great. ... On a serious side, I think I learned a lot about writing by writing songs. In some ways, I served my apprenticeship as a writer by writing songs.

By the time I started writing fiction, I was quite far on in the game. I didn't write the typical first novel, I wrote the typical first songs.

Q: How old are you?

A: Fifty. Since you can't see me, you can't say, "Oh you don't look 50."

Q: I'm looking at the picture on the 1989 "The Remains of the Day." You look very young. What is it like turning 50? Was it a big deal?

A: I didn't find it so. In terms of writing, I am more conscious. I expect to be alive for a lot longer, but how much longer am I going to have my kind of powers as a writer? That becomes a much keener question. You look at anybody's best work. They were published when they were in their 30s or 40s.

Authors become very venerated and honored in their senior years. But they're being celebrated for works they did much earlier -- particularly your American writers. From that point of view, reaching 50, if I'm going to write that great novel, I've got to really hurry. The odds are increasing against me.

Q: It's kind of funny that you say, "I'm going to write that great novel." "Remains of the Day" won the Booker Prize; some people might argue that you've already done that and more.

A: I guess you always think the great novel is ahead of you. I feel there is something I haven't said, that I haven't quite completed. This isn't necessary false modesty, that there is something I've still got to do. It's unusual for people to do it in their 50s; they tend to do it in their 30s. But I can always buck the trend.

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer from Delmar.

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