11 Things You Should Know About Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro was 27 years old when he published his first novel, 1982’s A Pale View of Hills. Since then, he has left an indelible mark on literature through works that the Nobel Prize committee described as “novels of great emotional force.” Not bad for a person who never intended to become a writer in the first place. Here’s what you need to know about Ishiguro.
1. Kazuo Ishiguro grew up writing.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, on November 8, 1954. When he was 5 years old, Ishiguro and his family moved from Japan to the United Kingdom so that his father, an oceanographer, could work with the British National Institute of Oceanography. They settled in Guildford, England, located about 30 miles southwest of London. (Despite the fact that his first two novels are set in Japan, Ishiguro himself didn’t go back until 1989.)
Ishiguro went to a primary school that, instead of defined lessons, allowed its students to choose activities, among them using a manual calculating machine, making a cow using clay, or writing stories that the students would then bind and decorate like books and read aloud. He chose stories, creating a spy he called Mr. Senior. “It was good fun, and it made me think of stories as effortless things. I think that stayed with me,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “I’ve never been intimidated by the idea of having to make up a story. It’s always been a relatively easy thing that people did in a relaxed environment.”
2. He was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.
As a kid, Ishiguro’s Sherlock Holmes obsession ran deep. “I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular,’” the author told the Times. “People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.” The Hound of the Baskervilles remains his favorite Holmes story: “It was scary and gave me sleepless nights, but I suspect I was drawn to Conan Doyle’s world because, paradoxically, it was so very cozy.”
As an adult, Ishiguro counts Charlotte Brontë and Fyodor Dostoevsky as his favorite novelists—and ranks Brontë above Dostoevsky. “I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to Jane Eyre and Villette,” he said.
3. Ishiguro worked for royalty ...
After university in the late 1970s, Ishiguro worked at a resettlement center—where he met his future wife, Lorna MacDougall—and as a grouse beater (driving the birds toward hunters) for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother at the royal family’s Balmoral estate. “I just did it as a very interesting experience for four weeks in the summer,” he told NPR in 2022. “And it introduced me to, I suppose, a kind of a world I wouldn’t normally see.”
4. … And tried to make it as a musician.
Ishiguro plays piano, which he began at age 5, and guitar, which he picked up at 14 or 15—around the same age he began writing songs. (He counts Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among his musical heroes.) At one point, he even tried to pursue a career as a musician. “I’d had lots of appointments with A&R people,” he recalled to The Paris Review. “After two seconds, they’d say, ‘It’s not going to happen, man.’” He also went to America and, for awhile, hitchhiked around with his guitar, hoping to be discovered. (“It’s a really clumsy thing to carry around with you,” Ishiguro said of his guitar, which ended up getting stolen not long into his journey.)
When the music thing didn’t pan out, Ishiguro turned to writing, where his musical background turned out to be quite useful: “Many of the things I do, still to this day as a writer, as a novelist, I think it has its foundations in what I discovered and the kind of place that I arrived at as a writer of songs,” he told NPR. And he hasn’t left music completely behind, either; in fact, he still sometimes writes lyrics for other musicians.
5. He sent a radio play to the BBC that was rejected.
It was called Potatoes and Lovers, and Ishiguro misspelled potatoes as “potatos” throughout. In the half-hour-long play, two young people who work at the same fish and chip shop, and both happen to be cross-eyed, fall in love; they opt not to get married when the narrator has a dream about a family in which every member is cross-eyed—even the dog.
The BBC rejected the play, “but I got an encouraging response,” Ishiguro said. “It was kind of in bad taste, but it’s the first piece of juvenilia I wouldn’t mind other people seeing.” Then he got accepted to a creative writing MA course (which he had applied to after seeing an ad for it “almost by accident”), and the rest, as they say, is history: He began publishing stories in literary magazines and had three accepted for a volume published by Faber and Faber; the company also gave him the advance that led to his first novel.
6. He listens to music while he writes.
“When I’m writing, the actual voice of the narrator is very important, and I find I take enormous inspiration ... from listening to singing voices,” he told NPR. “I’ll think, it’s that feeling she gets there, that’s what I want in this passage, and I can bypass the intellectualizing of it or the articulating it in words. I can just try and go for that kind of feeling.” Among the singers he listens to are Stacey Kent (for whom he has written lyrics) and Nina Simone.
7. His wife, Lorna MacDougall, reads everything he writes.
Ishiguro shows MacDougall what he writes before anyone else, and she doesn’t hold back when telling him what she thinks. When she read the first batch of pages Ishiguro had written of his 2015 novel The Buried Giant—which he had by that point been working on for about two years—she told him, “This will not do and you will have to start all over again.” He took her advice, which meant The Buried Giant took around 10 years to finish as opposed to his normal three to five years.
8. He has won a lot of awards.
Over the course of his career, Ishiguro has received a number of awards and honors, including the Booker Prize, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It feels to me like that happens somewhere outside out there on a different planet, almost in a parallel universe, and the person who receives these things is some sort of avatar,” he told NPR. “I’m really proud and grateful to get these honors, because many, many writers who are as good as me or better don’t get these honors. … However, when I’m writing in my disheveled, untidy study, it’s got nothing to do with what I’m doing.”
9. His portrait once hung at 10 Downing Street.
Ishiguro was knighted in 2018 for his services to literature, and declared himself “deeply touched to receive this honor from the nation that welcomed me as a small foreign boy.” For a bit, his portrait—painted by artist Peter Edwards for the British National Portrait Gallery—even hung in 10 Downing Street when Tony Blair was prime minister.
10. He has written several screenplays—and was nominated for an Oscar.
Two of Ishiguro’s novels, Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, have been adapted into films. The author, a cinephile, didn’t write the scripts for either of those movies, but he has written a number of screenplays himself, including those for 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World and 2005’s The White Countess. Most recently, he wrote the script for the movie Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru that was his idea. The script was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
11. His nightstand probably looks like yours.
Based on his 2015 interview with The New York Times, Ishiguro’s bedside table is similar to every other bibliophile’s: Piled high with books. “As I keep explaining to my wife,” he said, “every book on my side of the bed is part of some essential project, and there’s no case whatsoever for tidying them away.” He had three books on his nightstand related to his “Homer project,” including new translations of The Illiad and The Odyssey; books by Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers for his “Southern Gothic project”; and, on top of it all, Joni Mitchell in Her Own Words: Conversations With Malka Marom.