Friday, 26 March 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro: Setting and Authenticity

To Canterbury on Wednesday evening to see Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation with Andrew McGuinness at Christ Church University’s impressive new library. For some inexplicable reason, I was expecting something low-key and intimate. In fact, Ishiguro filled the very large St Augustine’s Hall with an audience of well over a thousand people. Nevertheless, an interesting evening. I was particularly struck by what Ishiguro had to say about setting.

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, but he was brought to England when he was five years old. Although his parents always planned to return to Japan in due course, they never did. So Ishiguro was brought up in England, received an English education and ended up, in some ways, more English than Japanese. But he says he retained strong memories of Japan. He grew up wanting to be, not a writer, but a musician. He developed his trademark sparse style, he says, through writing song lyrics. He also has a film buff’s interest in cinema (according to a recent profile of him in the Guardian, he has his own private screening room at his home in Golders Green). Perhaps it is this interest in film that makes him tend to talk about ‘location’ rather than ‘setting’ for his novels.

‘Some writers have an idea for a novel they want to write about nineteenth century France or pre-Revolutionary Russia,’ he said on Wednesday. ‘But I think more in terms of finding a story and then finding a location, both time and place, in which that story could best be told.’ McGuinness suggested that, in that sense, he was more like a film director searching out the best location for each scene he was shooting, an analogy Ishiguro did not dispute.

Ishiguro said his turning point, in terms of his development as a writer, came when he decided to write a story set in Japan. At the time he was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Raymond Bradbury and Angela Carter. ‘The Japan I wrote about was the one I remembered from my childhood,’ he said. ‘I didn’t go back there, or carry out any research. I set the story in the version of Japan I had in my head. My own personal Japan.’ Both A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World are set in this half-real, half-imagined version of Japan that English readers find completely authentic. Haruki Murakami, though, has said it is a Japan that is ‘slightly different’ from reality.

Similarly, many readers consider Ishiguro’s Booker-wining The Remains of the Day to be a quintessentially ‘English’ novel set, as it is, in between-the-wars country-house England. But Ishiguro finds such talk amusing and mildly embarrassing. It is a Jeeves-and-Wooster England that he thought would make a good setting for the story he wanted to tell. There was no meticulous research, and he said he would hate to think of people holding up the novel as an authentic example of what life was really like.

Does that matter? It probably does to some readers. In the current issue of Prospect magazine, for example, Sam Leith makes some less-than-flattering comments on the setting of Tom Ford’s film A Single Man. Comparing the movie to ‘a two-hour perfume ad’, he goes on to say ‘it resembles no school, … no California, no Earth that any of us would recognise’. He defends Ford by suggesting ‘this is no doubt how the world looks to him’. But isn’t that what art is all about – seeing things through the eyes of the artist? Look at van Gogh. Look at Hammershoi. It is their distinctive depiction of the everyday that makes their work unique.

Okay, I’ve taken Leith’s comments out of context – he’s actually attacking what he sees as a general move towards style over content, towards what he calls ‘costume drama’. But it is Ishiguro’s deliberate use of his own personal ‘costume drama’ to tell a universal story that makes his writing so special (in my humble opinion). To quote Murakami again, taken from the Guardian profile I mentioned earlier, 'the place could be anywhere, the character could be anybody and the time could be any time. Everything supposed to be real could be unreal, and vice versa. It is a sensation I love and I only receive it when I read his books.'

Andrew McGuinness and Kazuo Ishiguro (courtesy KCC Libraries)

UPDATE: Andrew McGuinness plans to write more about his meeting with Kazuo Ishiguro here on his blog.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Short Stories: The UK Magazine Market

I was chatting to a fellow writer at the weekend about the paucity of magazines in the UK that currently publish short stories. Since then, I've done a bit of proper research and found there are nearly 80 mags that publish short fiction. Eighty! That's a lot more than I thought. Of course, it's a mixed bag. Some editors won't accept unsolicited manuscripts, publishing commissioned stories only. Some magazines pay authors very little, if anything. But in between, there are a number of editors who will pay half-decent rates for your work. As ever, it's wise to read a few editions of any magazine before you send in your submission.

Anyway, here's the list:




Black Static





Countryside Tales


Day by Day

Dream Catcher

Edinburgh Review


Faeries and Enchantment Magazine

Farthing Magazine

Glimmer Train

Gold Dust

Good Housekeeping


Inside Out


London Magazine

London Review of Books


Mud Luscious

My Weekly

New Books Mag

New Internationalist

New Welsh Review


Our Time

Parameter Magazine

People's Friend


Positive Space


Quarterly Women's Fiction

Random Acts of Writing


Scots Magazine

Scottish Book Collector

Scribble Quarterly

Senior Moments


Ski and Board

Skyline Literary Magazine



Stand Magazine


Succour Magazine

Take a Break


That's Life

The Edge

The Field

The Lady

The Liberal Magazine

The New Writer

The Third Alternative

Time Out





Weekly News

White Chimney Magazine

WI Home and Country


Woman and Home

Woman's Weekly

Writers' Forum

Writers' News and Writing Magazine

Young Writer

Your Cat Magazine

Your Dog Magazine


Do please let me know if you spot any I've missed.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

What's your favourite book of the last decade?

Notice I'm not asking about your 'best' book of the last decade - see Eryl's comment on my last post, below. Recently, at my MA class, I said I thought Cormac McCarthy's The Road was 'probably' my favourite book of the last ten years. I still think that, and I'm in good company. Joshua (Then We Came to the End) Ferris and Simon (Relentless) Kernick think so, too. How do I know this? Well, the Sky Book Show has asked a number of authors to name their favourite book of the last ten years, and The Road was nominated by both Ferris and Kernick. Just for the record, here's the full list of authors and their favourites.

Simon Armitage: Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate

John Boyne: The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Alastair Campbell: Saturday by Ian McEwan

Monty Don: Woodlands by Oliver Rackham

Roddy Doyle: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Joshua Ferris: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Antonia Fraser: Berlin: The Downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor

Joanne Harris: Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez

Nicky Haslam: A Strange Eden by Tony Duquette

Simon Kernick: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Marina Lewycka: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Andrea Levy: English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Ian McEwan: Le Bal by Irène Némirovsky

Neel Mukherjee: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

David Nicholls: Under the Skin Michel Faber

George Pelecanos: Northline by Willy Vlautin

Terry Pratchett: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Philip Pullman: The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh Vincent Van Gogh by Arnold Pomerans

Lionel Shriver: As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Rose Tremain: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Joanna Trollope: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Natasha Walter: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Shirley Williams: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

So - what's yours?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

100 Best Crime Books Ever Written?

I am very busily avoiding a piece of work I don't want to do by making one of my all-too-rare-these-days visits to blogland. I do so at the behest of Celina Jacobson, a fellow blogger from across the pond, where she posts articles on a site devoted to helping young Americans looking for a career in court reporting. I have to say I found the site difficult to navigate, but somewhere in there you'll find a blog post in which Celina lists the '100 Best Crime Books Ever Written'. I'm not sure what her criteria for selection were, but any 'best ever written' list that includes Dan Brown's appallingly badly written Da Vinci Code doesn't deserve to be taken too seriously. But then, how many of us (apart from a few Nick Hornby characters) take these lists seriously anyway?