There’s very little that need be said about Kazuo Ishiguro that hasn’t already been said: He’s one of the great novelists of our time, and that fact was confirmed this week when the Nobel Prize committee decided to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s an honor that caps a career in which he’s won a slew of major writing awards and drawn millions of readers around the world to his work.
Ishiguro has given a series of interviews over the years about his writing process. In each one, he’s refreshingly honest about what it takes to do the work, how hard it can be, and the odd habits he uses to make it all happen. In light of his winning the Nobel, we combed through a selection of these interviews to pull a handful of lessons that any of us—aspiring Laureate or not—can use to improve our work:
Ishiguro isn’t shy about genre-hopping. In 2015, after 10 years of work, he published The Buried Giant. It was a tale set immediately after Arthurian Britain, and it featured dragons and orcs and a legendary knight. It was a fantasy novel, and Ishiguro himself wasn’t sure if his readers would go along with it: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” It took some courage for the novelist to jump out the genres he was accustomed to and into something completely different—but it’s valuable for all of us to remember that variety is a virtue, that you shouldn’t be fearful trying out new and different types of writing.
Ishiguro writes his first drafts with pen and paper. He writes illegibly on purpose, and he explained why to the Paris Review:
“I have two desks. One has a writing slope and the other has a computer on it. The computer dates from 1996. It’s not connected to the Internet. I prefer to work by pen on my writing slope for the initial drafts. I want it to be more or less illegible to anyone apart from myself. The rough draft is a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck by a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going. This time round, I write much more carefully.”
It’s tempting to think that someone as talented, versatile, and transparently brilliant as Ishiguro sits down at the page and watches as the Muse takes his genius and translates it into gorgeous prose. Not so.
Even someone who has written best-selling novels that have won the coveted Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize, and now the Nobel Prize, doesn’t always find writing to be an entirely pleasurable experience. Ishiguro was a talk at Oxford when he was asked about how he finds the work of writing. He responded in a way that should give comfort to anyone who has struggled with the craft: “It’s not a pleasure, but I’ve done it for so long now… I don’t write every day.”
As soon as it was announced that Ishiguro had won the prize, an old Guardian article popped back up on social media and started making the rounds. In it, he details the unconventional process that took him from no words on paper to a completed draft of his brilliant novel, The Remains of the Day, in four weeks. You didn’t misread that: the first draft of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction-winning Remains of the Day was written in a four-week sprint. Ishiguro described the process that he and his wife created to help him complete the first effort:
“So Lorna and I came up with a plan. I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash”. During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitatively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.”
Before “the Crash,” though, Ishiguro believed what many believe: that he had a certain amount of output available in a day and that he ought to conserve what he had for the following day. Given that he produced two great novels with that strategy, it’s one worth considering:
“I don’t write every day; it depends on where I am in the project. For the rough draft it’s counterproductive if I do it for too long; if I write more than 5-6 pages a day my work afterwards is substandard, and it gets confusing if I don’t bottle up; the standard has to be kept at a certain level. It’s like a jazz musician who gets the best music out and then pulls out. There’s always something else productive or administrative to be done.”
Ishiguro’s literary career began, in a way, with a rejection that became an acceptance. It’s the kind of endearing story that can give any of us hope:
“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…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…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.” (Paris Review)
Ishiguro’s writing began in the form of songs—writing his own, and being a devoted listener of them. As the Telegraph put it in their profile of him in September 2017, “He got his ‘adolescent angst phase’ and his ‘Joycean stream of consciousness stuff’ out of his system, and by the end, when he recorded ‘quite a bad demo’ in a bedroom, understatement was his style.”
As he told The Paris Review, “I liked the idea that a musician could be utterly self-sufficient. You write the songs yourself, sing them yourself, orchestrate them yourself. I found this appealing, and I began to write songs.”
Songwriting gave him models: “The Canadian that influenced me perhaps the most in my writing is probably Leonard Cohen, his songs…He had a profound influence on my growing up and my turning to writing. For me it was an incredibly sad day when I heard that he died. Leonard Cohen along with Bob Dylan were great influences on me and had a lot to do with my wanting to be a writer.”
Here’s the origin story of the Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day:
“It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel. And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler? We thought this was a very amusing idea. From then on I became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor.” (Paris review)
That’s right: a joke about pretending to be a butler become one of Ishiguro’s greatest works. IT can come from anywhere.