Posted by: holdenlee | February 18, 2014

Kazuo Ishiguro on Writing

This evening Richard Beard held a Masterclass in Creative Writing at Pembroke, and invited Kazuo Ishiguro to give a talk afterwards. Ishiguro shared his writing process.

Here’s some of the main points, paraphrased. (Again, any misrepresentations are entirely my fault.)

RB: Where do you come up with ideas?

KI: I’m not sure; the processes changes slightly every time. For me, the beginning of a project is very important. When should I start writing the actual words that will appear in the book? Some writers plunge right in; the words pour out; they rely on their improvisational powers. Others have to plan. I personally have to know a lot about the story before I write anything; it can be up to a year between when I decide to write a novel and when I start writing it. In that time I jot down notes, road-test various ideas, hold an “audition” for the narrator—having the right narrator is very important.

For me, ideas come out of themes and questions, not necessarily intellectual, and often emotional. I think about the premise of the story. For instance, what does it feel like if you reach a certain age and it dawns upon you that you’ve wasted much of your life? With experience, it becomes easier to recognize fruitful ideas.

I’ve found myself more drawn to certain topics—these topics have an unfathomed, rich feel that make me want to explore them more. I try to summarize them in one sentence, to pick out their essence.

I had to find where my territory is. When I was young I went through a “promiscuous” phase where I had a little go at writing many different things. After a while you feel a difference between the stories that you can happily write but that engage you only superficially, and those stories that are really deep and meaningful to you.

RB: Where does that richness come from? Is it the setting, the characters…

KI: I’m quite cavalier about the setting; when I started my first book I set it in Cornwall and midway through I moved it to Nagasaki after WW2. I feel there’s a story in the abstract that I want to tell, and its essence isn’t dependent on setting. Setting is a technical decision; I only go location hunting at a late stage, to find the setting that best brings out the story.

RB: Do you need a good group of characters for the story to progress?

KI: I used to think in terms of characters, how to develop their eccentricities and quirks. Then I realized that it’s better to focus on the relationships instead, and then the characters develop naturally.

Relationships have to be natural, to be authentic human drama. I’m a little suspicious of stories that have an intellectual theme bolted on, when the characters stop and debate before they carry on.

I ask myself: What is an interesting relationship? Is the relationship a journey? Is it standard, cliché, or something deeper, more subtle, more surprising? People talk about flat versus three-dimensional characters; you can talk about relationships the same way.

RB: What do you do when you think about your story?

KI: I sit in a stuffy room and fill notebooks with possible relationships and situations. In nonfiction, authors have to do a lot of research before they right. I do the equivalent, but my research is not in libraries, or by interviews. I research the world in my head, the people, relationships, and settings. Is it the real world, or is it a few stages removed; in what way?

RB: What’s your process of writing a draft?

KI: I write first in pen, deliberately illegibly. I pay no attention to style; my only objective is to let the ideas come out, to get past my own defenses. I write quickly and intensely. Ideas change; if I decide a character would be better this way, I make the change and carry on. I write 30-40 pages and stop. The first draft is a total mess.

Then I go through a process which my daughter calls “bottling up.” I look at the total mess, and divide it not into paragraphs but “ideas.” This is similar to a technique actors do when they rehearse plays; they break the play into “moments.”

I number all the ideas, say 1-23, and then write down a 1-sentence summary of what happens in each of them, try to produce a flow diagram.

I’m not a good writer of sentences. I think my strength is between drafts. I “pull out” of the story to see its overall shape, stare at the numbered points, shape the ideas, see what’s original and what’s not, consider the forks in the road in the story going forward. Then I write the draft again, and repeat the whole process 3-4 times, until I write 30 pages I’m happy with.

Then I move on to the next 30 pages. I write one section at a time, because the 2nd section has foundations in the first, if I roughed it all to the end I’m afraid there would be structural weaknesses. (But some projects seemed to require it, like Never Let Me Go.)

RB: What do you most enjoy about the process?

KI: The bottling up. You feel godlike, looking down at this cruddy writer from a great height… It gives me a sense of security, that I can put the essence of the story in ~20 lines, so I can more freely focus on the drafting.

RB: Do you need discipline? Do you have to force yourself to write, or is it a pleasure?

KI: It’s not a pleasure, but I’ve done it for so long now… 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.

I spend longer hours on later drafts, and it’s not so draining.

Everything is built on the early part of the process. It’s important to be careful about what projects you take on, in the same way that you should examine someone you want to get married to. It’s different for everyone: should it be based on your experience, or do you write better at greatest distance, do you write best in a genre? Don’t take on a creative project lightly.

Questions (Audience)

Q: What writers do you admire reading? Do you emulate their style, or do you enjoy them because they’re so different from what you write?

KI: The writers I learn a lot from aren’t necessarily the ones I particularly like. I learned from Proust that a story doesn’t have to unfold linearly, that you can delve into memory; the way one scene triggers another doesn’t have to be linked by mechanics of plot. It gave me the kind of freedom of an abstract painter. I learned from Hemingway to keep the meaning in between the lines. I’m a big Dostoyevsky fan but he hasn’t influenced me as much.

Q: Do you feel like you can write about history, that you have access to it?

KI: When I was younger I was more fearless; I thought with research I could get anywhere, I could write from any point of view. As I grew older I got more nervous, more aware that other people could stand up and say that I was being insulting, or I was just so wrong about something. There’s a point where novelistic license runs out, we have to respect history and current affairs. I don’t trust myself to be sincere because for me the novel is the highest priority.

It’s good to be careful; novels lacking in profundity might throw in a historical dimension, an atrocity, just to gain seriousness.

Q: What was your process for writing The Unconsoled?

KI: The setting there was not a particular time period, but in a dreamworld, so things had to work according to dream logic. I had to imagine the dreaming mind was an author, and I had to analyze the technique. What are the peculiarities? For example, exits and entries are different in dreams; if RB were to enter, it wouldn’t be through the door; I might be sitting here talking to someone and turn around and find RB had been sitting behind me all along. You don’t have to obey the rules of first person; you could follow a different person out and down the corridor, narrate as if you were a witness. I experimented with shorter things, and practiced the techniques until they were natural when I started writing the actual story.



  1. I read his “Never Let Me Go” before, really like his writing style.

  2. Really interesting!

    “It’s not a pleasure, but I’ve done it for so long now…”

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