'In 2005 I was a cynical veteran, battling through my fourth Man Booker shortlisting – and still completely thrilled to be at the ceremony.'
Unfortunately, Kazuo Ishiguro wasn’t available to take part in our author interview after being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Klara and the Sun. Here, in this interview from 2012, Ishiguro spoke to us about the spirit of mutual affection at the prize dinner, his writing schedule and why he loves books written by authors whose surnames start with the letter ‘m’.
There was almost 20 years between you being shortlisted for An Artist of the Floating World and Never Let Me Go. When you were shortlisted in 2005, how different did it feel than in 1986?
In ‘86 I was a callow, bewildered novice, completely thrilled to be at the ceremony. In 2005 I was a cynical veteran, battling through my fourth Man Booker shortlisting – and still completely thrilled to be at the ceremony. To get on that shortlist is a serious compliment, and I don’t think an author should ever take it lightly. The truth about most book prizes, here and around the world, is that the judges are given a relatively small batch of books to choose from after some anonymous committee has whittled down the field. There’s something delightfully bonkers about the Man Booker asking its judges to read around 120 novels in two months, but this is what gives the prize its peculiar authority, and why it means something real to be on the shortlist.
I was shortlisted in 1986, 1989, 2000 and 2005, and I’d say the atmosphere around the prize has changed a lot over that time. People tend to behave better these days, especially at the prize-giving dinner. In the early years, there was open bitching between rival authors and publishers, people pulled disgusted faces at the announcement, and unsuccessful authors would sometimes drunkenly harangue the judges, saying things like: ‘I thought we were friends. I thought you had half a brain.’ Nowadays a more Olympian spirit prevails: lots of hugging in mutual affection and respect, that sort of thing.
What effect do you think it had on your international reputation?
It goes without saying winning the Man Booker hugely enhances an author’s status around the world. But looking beyond the obvious benefits, I’ve noticed Man Booker wins have complex and varying effects on different authors. It’s not just about how the outer world esteems a writer. It’s about the impact such an honour has on the way writers view themselves, their work and their audience. A Man Booker triumph may sometimes push a writer to greater artistic heights, or it may cause a kind of petrifying of the imagination, a sort of stage fright, if you like. Or sometimes a winner becomes delusional with self-importance. Living where I do, I’ve always found it interesting to ask what a Man Booker win does to a novelist internally and privately. Ultimately, what’s important is the writing. What did winning the Man Booker do to the author’s subsequent books? That’s a question worth asking, but it’s never easy to answer.
Both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day have been made into films, how involved were you in the transition from page to screen with both?
In both cases, I was a privileged spectator during the actual filming, though I had more to do with the earlier script discussions, and the publicity afterwards. I try to interfere as little as possible. In general, I find the less you comment, the more everyone involved is in awe of you. You drift about a busy set wondering, say, where the catering van’s parked, and everyone thinks you’re pondering deeply and on the brink of some definitive pronouncement on the whole enterprise.
Between Never Let Me Go being shortlisted and the film coming out, did you find both events introduced a new audience to your previous works?
For an author who has yet to find a wide audience, a shortlisting will have a big impact, both in the short and long term. This was true for me in ‘86. But for a book like Never Let Me Go, which had already had a lot of publicity and a stint in the bestsellers, the shortlist probably increased the audience numerically, but not in kind. The film adaptation, on the other hand, did introduce the novel to a genuinely new constituency. The tie-in paperback sits in all sorts of unfamiliar places with moody film stills on the jacket. You yourself appear on red carpets around the world, shuffling awkwardly behind glamorous film stars. Inevitably you end up reaching a different crowd. Let me say I’m all for this. There’s a lot of very talented, committed people working at every level in cinema, the equivalents of the people who write, publish and promote the kind of novels that end up on the Man Booker lists, and I’m a big believer in maintaining an alliance between these two cultures. When it works, it’s a powerful alliance, more than a match for social network sites and all the other things competing for our attention. If these two worlds continue to work well in tandem, we’ll preserve an important sanctuary for good story-telling amidst all these unsettling changes.
Ultimately, what’s important is the writing— Kazuo Ishiguro
You seem to release a novel every five years or so. What is your writing schedule like in the time it takes you to write a book?
Three years writing, two years promoting. Hence the five years. Is this a good way to organise a writer’s time? I don’t know, you tell me.
Are there any contemporary novelists at present that you enjoy reading?
I’ve worked out you can read some of the very best contemporary novels by sticking to authors whose surnames start with M. So: Marquez, Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel. You probably think I’m being facetious, but I’m really in awe of all these authors. Among recent newcomers, I found Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City and Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane both thrilling and memorable first novels. I don’t know either of these guys - these are honest recommendations.
If you were a Man Booker judge and you could give the prize to any novelist who would it be?
Ah ha, I think there’s something up with this question! One of the great virtues of the Man Booker over the years has been that its view of contesting novels has been by and large undistorted by the status of their authors. Perhaps I’m naive but I imagine a judge sitting down to read each book behind a veil of ignorance. There’s always been something refreshingly democratic about the long- and shortlists, often filled with little-known or first-time novelists while grand figures grumpily pick themselves up from the ditch. This isn’t France. Let’s not even start thinking about giving this prize to the novelist instead of to the novel.
Where do you do most of your writing? Have you always had an office or one room, or do you vary it?
I work in my study, ignore my e-mails and keep my back to the window.
When it comes to reading, do you prefer a book or an ereader?
I’m very fond of physical books, especially ones with good paper. I’m not against ereaders in principle, but we very urgently need to get the industry decently organised around it before it completely devastates our literary culture.
When you’ve submitted your novel to your publisher for the final time, how do you spend the time before it is released?
I try and catch up on all the reading I had to avoid while I was writing. And I listen to a lot of music.