Perhaps the last thing you would expect a newly minted winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature to say is, “I’m not particularly good at prose.”
But Kazuo Ishiguro, just a few days after winning the most prestigious prize available to a writer, came out with this line during his sell-out appearance at the University of East Anglia’s Autumn 2017 Literary Festival. It was just one of a number of self-deprecating statements from the 62-year-old.
“Lots of people in this room can write better prose than I can. I’m not particularly good at prose,” he said during his discussion with Professor Christopher Bigsby.
“I think I’m good between drafts … I’ve developed this ability to revise in quite a serious way. My drafts are not incrementally improved versions of the previous drafts. I take it apart. The things are completely different from one draft to the next.
“I do big, big things between the drafts. I always think that’s how I’ve got on. That’s my strength. That’s my secret weapon.
“I write the most awful stuff. I try not to be inhibited when I write the first draft. Just get all the ideas down because I can be quite strict in between the drafts.”
The Japanese-born writer was on familiar territory at the UEA, since he completed the university’s renowned creative writing MA course in 1980. Within a decade of graduating he had won a clutch of literary awards.
He was selected for the Nobel Prize thanks to a body of work that includes such celebrated novels as the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, which Time magazine named among the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
Despite reaching such stratospheric literary heights, Ishiguro feels there is often little to separate the most celebrated wordsmiths from those struggling to make it.
“It could’ve easily been my fate as a writer. The difference between someone who doesn’t quite get published, or does and doesn’t find a readership, or being a best-selling writer who gets awards … sometimes … there’s just one tiny corner they’ve got left to turn,” he said.
Another key theme Ishiguro talked about was music and the differences in the creative processes involved in crafting a song and writing a novel. It is a subject Ishiguro is well qualified to discuss, having co-written a number of songs for the American jazz singer Stacey Kent. Also, before his literary career, he had ambitions of becoming a singer-songwriter.
“If you’re working in song form, you work much more instinctively. In fiction, there’s a temptation to feel you always have to justify a creative decision,” he said.
“It’s dangerous to make your decisions having worked out an intelligent reason why you should make this decision or that decision.
“A part of you always has to be grounded by what you want to convey; what’s the most beautiful thing to convey.
“Staying close to artists who do that day in and day out … that’s very important. That’s one thing I value about working with musicians.”
In another example of genre-hopping, Ishiguro, a fan of Japanese manga comics, revealed that he is working on a graphic novel project. But fans of his novels need not worry: he has another book in the pipeline too.
Did you enjoy this article? We recommend reading our review of Ali Smith @ UEA’s spring literary festival next.