Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for February 2021

Learning from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Recently, I was fascinated to learn Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing process. He is a British novelist of Japanese heritage. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in December 2017 and is widely regarded as a master of his craft. His books include the fabulist, sci-fi British-boarding-school drama Never Let Me Go; and the yearning, melancholic butler of The Remains of the Day. These have also been adapted into movies starring Carey Mulligan and Anthony Hopkins, respectively.

I read this in-depth profile of Ishiguro in the New York Times. It is a detailed, moving, and very long piece: the audio recording of the article runs to 48 minutes. It contained many treasures. Not least a description of the writer’s approach.

“He is a planner, patient and meticulous”, Giles Harvey, the profiler, writes of his subject.

Ishiguro spends years thinking, and jotting down notes, for his books; basically talking to himself; conversating about where the book might go and what it might do.

He will then draw up “detailed blueprints for the entire novel” and only then will he actually begin writing. He will produce maps of his rough drafts, numbering the different sections, and make flow charts describing the progress of these draft chapters.

This process sounds very much like that of a crafter; someone who cares meticulously about the path his chapters take, and therefore wants to know exactly the bumps in the road of his entire story.

It was also interesting to note that this master-writer does not overly care about writing. He has written many fewer books than his contemporaries such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan. From other profiles I have read I know that Ishiguro is a cinephile and often watches movies at home. He is also a musician and music was his first passion. He spent his formative years listening to singer-songwriters rather than making his way through the literary canon.

I do wonder whether this slight coldness to writing; the fact that it does not possess him in the same way it obviously possesses someone like Martin Amis actually explains his greater greatness. Perhaps this distance-ness gives him an advantage.

I think there might be something in that.

Another takeaway is the patience and many-years-long germination process Ishiguro undertakes. And the meticulous thinking he does. I am certain that this slow understanding can make a better project. The map-like visual process he uses, and the different procedures he has (writing a quick draft in longhand without stopping, before doing a more laborious second draft; before finally typing it up), would surely help too. All these processes have enabled this man to make his work. But it does not mean I will use the same ones. Different strokes/different folks, etc.

Use whatever works for you, or, rather, whatever works better for you.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 27, 2021 at 4:43 pm