Unlike many future writers, Ishiguro did not spend his teenage years breathing in the canon. He spent it listening to music and making music himself. In 1968 he bought his first Bob Dylan album “John Wesley Harding” and worked backwards from there. He and his friends sat around for hours and nodded at Dylan’s obscure texts as if they understood every word. It was like a microcosm of youth, he told me, pretending to know without knowing anything. Ishiguro wasn’t just bluffing, however. From Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, he learned about the possibilities of the first person: How a character can be brought to life with just a few words.
Ishiguro’s daughter Naomi, who is about to publish her first novel “Common Ground”, told me that she does not recognize her father in any of his characters. Then she corrected herself: Ono’s mischievous grandson in An Artist of the Floating World, whose obsession with Popeye and The Lone Ranger is an index of emerging American cultural hegemony, was likely a version of Ishiguro of the same age. Here, however, the similarities stopped. “Some people have their art mixer set very low so you can see where it all came from and some people have set it very high so you have no idea,” Naomi said, borrowing a concept from singer-songwriter Amanda from Palmer. Ishiguro’s Art Mixer is set to 10. Like Colson Whitehead or Hilary Mantel, he found it easier to reveal people who are not similar to themselves.
Still, it’s tempting to make a connection between Ishiguro’s piecemeal experience of immigration as a child and the outsider narrators he would later dream of. Stevens is the consummate English butler in “The Remains of the Day,” but as his new American boss points out, he’s confined himself to stately homes for so long that he barely had a chance to really see England. On the road trip that he undertakes through the West Country at the suggestion of his employer, he is like an unhappy foreign tourist who gets lost, runs out of gas and no longer understands the natives. In fact, it is not so much the English who baffle Stevens as the people in general. He watches the sunset from a pier by the sea at the end of the book and watches with interest a group of people who have gathered nearby:
At first, of course, I assumed they were a group of friends out for the evening. But when I listened to their exchange, it turned out that they were strangers who had just bumped into each other at this point behind me. Obviously they’d all stopped for a moment to light the lights and then got into a conversation. As I watch them now, they laugh happily together. It’s strange how people can build up so much heat among themselves so quickly.
Like Klara, who looks out of the shop window at the crowd, Stevens could watch the aurora borealis, so amazed is he at the sight of this everyday occurrence.
Before studying English and Philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro hitchhiked America and worked at home in a number of jobs, including as a capercaillie for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle, Scotland. About a mile past the trenches or butts where the Queen Mother and her guests waited with their weapons, the thugs trudged through the moor heather and drove the birds forward into the shooting range. At the end of the season there was a drinks party for the thugs hosted by Her Majesty. Ishiguro was impressed with her kindness, especially the way she let her know it was time to go: despite the late hour, she didn’t turn the light on. “Oh, it’s getting very dark,” she muttered as the sun set before inviting her guests to inspect a series of paintings that happened to line the corridor leading to the exit.
If the experience gave him a useful behind-the-scenes look at a grand old country house, the post-graduate job he took with an organization in West London that helped homeless people find accommodation taught him something about life on the other end of the city social environment at Spektrum. While working there, he met Lorna MacDougall, a Glasgow social worker whom he would later marry. MacDougall is Ishiguro’s first and foremost reader, and her comments can be ruthless. After reading the first 80 pages of his previous novel, The Buried Giant (2015), a historical fantasy set in the British Middle Ages, she told him that the artful dialogue just didn’t work and that he had to start over. Ishiguro did what she suggested.
He was always open to feedback. In 1979, Ishiguro applied and was admitted to the University of East Anglia to study creative writing. One of his oldest friends, Jim Green, who was doing a Masters in Literature, recalls Ishiguro’s response to the weekly reading for a seminar on the 19th century novel. “What impressed me was the way he talked about Stendhal or Dickens or Eliot or Balzac like they were fellow craftsmen,” said Green. “There was no hint of hubris or grandiosity, but he treated her like his colleagues in the creative writing class showing him their work. It was, ‘Ah, OK, that’s why this happened, that’s how it’s done. Hmm, not sure if the bit works. ‘”