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Nine things we learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker-winning author of Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go and past graduate of UEA’s creative writing Masters degree, returned to UEA in November to deliver a public lecture. The following morning he gave a truly masterful masterclass to current MA students on technicalities of writing. Here Paula Cocozza and Sarah Young summarise nine insightful and useful things they learned.

1. Relationships are more important than characters

“I’ve found it easier not to think about characters per se, but about relationships,” Ishiguro said. “Some years ago it occurred to me that if I concentrated on the relationships with characters, and what is an interesting relationship, the characters become themselves anyway. Relationships are characters in action.”

2. Consider keeping a Relationships Notebook

Ishiguro does. Lots of categories of relationship are listed inside – mother/brother, father/son, and so on. Every time he sees an interesting relationship in action – on TV, in film or in life, he notes it in his book.

3. Know your narrator

“The emotional positioning of the narrator to the story is crucial. Why are they saying what they’re saying? What is their attitude to it? Who are they talking to?” According to Ishiguro, you should know your narrator “so well that when you’re wandering around the house you can chat in their voice.” Does he really walk around his house talking in his narrator’s voice? Apparently not – but he insists he could if he wanted to.

4. If you follow point 3, your narrator’s voice will come naturally

“I don’t think about how the narrator should speak in a linguistic way,” Ishiguro said. “It takes care of itself – the bigger schemes and the way a story is narrated determine what makes that voice interesting.”

5. Plan

Or, if you don’t want to plan, at least make the decision not to plan. Start writing a novel only after you have made one of these two decisions. Ishiguro plans his novels on paper, in the form of a flowchart.

6. And then be prepared to deviate from the plan

“Go the route that strikes you as the most interesting and rich, particularly at an early stage in your writing life. Having a map that you can deviate from is one of the best ways to find the unique territory that’s yours,” he said. “Sometimes you have to be in a less interesting project to find what is really interesting to you.”

7. Be ruthless between the drafts

“I draft very quickly and roughly in a new project. I don’t worry about nice prose, I just get it out,” he said. He claimed not to be a great writer of lines but said he was good “between the drafts”. His advice: “be very selective and brave. Throw out what’s not good. You have got to go for the thing you really want to do. It’s hard enough to find something unique, and you’re more likely to do it if you follow the thing you have found.”

8. Be cautious when writing about current events

Writers who use current events to “jazz up” their story so it will be taken more seriously take a great risk. “We have to be responsible about how we use very important events, big issues and the big questions of the day,” Ishiguro said. “We shouldn’t use them just to dress up our stories. That’s a pornography of seriousness.”

9. Some meanings are not hidden

Ishiguro talked compellingly about ‘double crossed metaphor’ – which “pretends to be a metaphor for something else but is actually the thing you’re discussing”. As an example he cited Murakami’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About Running “Many people think [it’s] about life…I think it’s about running. Ditto Moby Dick,” Ishiguro said, “which really is about whaling”.

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