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In the land of memory

Kazuo Ishiguro remembers when

Kazuo Ishiguro has already won one Booker Prize for "Remains of the Day." He's nominated again this year for "When We Were Orphans"  

In this story:

Viewing the world with blinders on

Mixed feelings about the Booker Prize

Regular hours


NEW YORK (CNN) -- Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker-prizewinning author of "The Remains of the Day," is a man on a tight schedule. He's smack in the middle of a grueling international tour for his fifth novel, "When We Were Orphans" -- itself a nominee for this year's Booker -- that has taken him from Germany to California to Minnesota, all in 48 hours.

He's not sure exactly why he's doing it -- "Orphans" is safely ensconced on several bestseller lists -- but he figures he may as well enjoy it.

Review: 'When We Were Orphans
Excerpt: 'When We Were Orphans'

"This (tour) an interesting case," he says over a scratchy long-distance connection from Minneapolis. "The book was at a reasonably high position on the New York Times (bestseller list) before I was in the country. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if my presence here would push it up or down.

"So far it seems to be having a negative effect," he adds jokingly.

Probably not. "When We Were Orphans" is that rare case, a book both popularly and critically well received.

As with Ishiguro's previous novels, "Orphans" involves the nostalgic recollections of backward-looking narrator whose obfuscative memory has passed from the selective to the repressive. Its protagonist, a private detective named Christopher Banks, was orphaned and plucked from his home in the International Settlement in Shanghai and sent to England. He remembers an easy blending into English life, but the truth is he's a misfit caught between two worlds whose endless search for his missing parents parallels his own inability to become one.

Ishiguro dabs on the irony with a deft brush, as his pathetic, insufferably stiff-upper-lipped narrator cannot help but harping on his past cases -- none of which is ever truly solved.


Viewing the world with blinders on

Memory is an important theme in Ishiguro's writing. His characters, such as the butler in "The Remains of the Day," view their worlds with blinders on, trying to forget the missed opportunities, the loss, of their pasts.

"Memory is quite central for me. Part of it is that I like the actual texture of writing through memory," Ishiguro says. "I like the atmospheres that result if episodes are narrated through the haze of memory. I like the fact that by mimicking the way memory works, a writer can actually write in a fluid way -- one solid scene doesn't have to fall on another solid scene, you can just have a fragment that then dovetails into another one that took place 30 years apart from it. It doesn't have to be fully realized, it can be a glancing, shadowy reference to something that you'll come back to later, and then it moves on. Moving from episode to episode through association and tangential meandering -- I like it as a style, it serves my purposes very well.

"More fundamentally, I'm interested in memory because it's a filter through which we see our lives, and because it's foggy and obscure, the opportunities for self-deception are there. In the end, as a writer, I'm more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened."

Mixed feelings about the Booker Prize

The Booker Prizes are scheduled to be announced November 7 in London. Ishiguro has already won once, for "The Remains of the Day." He has mixed feelings about the award.

"I think it's terrific in that it draws interest to quality writing. I think the judging process is full of integrity, compared to some other prizes around the world. The fact that they change the panel of judges every year keeps it from becoming corrupt. I think it's very difficult if you've got judges for life; obviously relationships are cultivated between judges and authors, and publishing houses," he says.

"The Remains of the Day" was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in 1993  

However, such a practice, he adds, is not entirely without pitfalls of its own. "This also means that people aren't quite sure what it means when a book is a Booker Prize winner," he says. "They're not quite sure what is being recommended, what literary values it stands for, because every year it stands for something different. ... You get a very traditional batch of judges one year, who don't like anything vaguely experimental. Then the next year you get the opposite, people who believe in almost evangelical way that writing has to veer away from realism. I think that's the slightly confusing thing, how it recommends books to the general public."

He also dislikes the effect the prize has on writers. "There's a very cruel side to it," he says. "I don't think it's any fun, even if you are one of the most respected authors in the world like Margaret Atwood, to keep being nominated and not win. I sincerely hope she gets it this time." (Atwood, author of "The Blind Assassin," is the bookmakers' favorite to win.)

He pauses. "But on the whole, it's a good thing."

Regular hours

Kazuo Ishiguro likes the writing life, though he runs that life just as if he were working in an office. "I work very regular hours, roughly 9 to 5:30," he says. "I think I have it much easier than a lot of parents. I just sit at home, I have a very flexible timetable, and I'm very fortunate in that I don't have money problems. I have lunch with my wife at home. I don't have to commute, so I have much more time with my family."

But he does have those book tours. "What is difficult is the promotion, balancing the public side of a writer's life with the writing. I think that's something a lot of writers are having to face. Writers have become much more public now. Just in Minneapolis today there are five authors reading. The world is crawling with authors touring now. They're like performance artists."

That wasn't the case when he was coming up, he observes. Authors like William Golding wrote and published; they didn't have to promote. A book tour may help keep a writer in touch with his or her audience, but at the risk of losing the thread that makes them distinctive.

"There's a practical problem about time and energy, and a more subtle problem of what it does to a writer's head, to continually analyze why they write, where it all comes from, where it's going to," Ishiguro says. "If you do this on a daily basis, often prompted by very insightful and intelligent critics and interviewers, sometimes you can do this nonstop for a year or two. I think this must do something to the way we write. The next time we're alone in our studies, we're not quite the same writer."

Booker Prize for Fiction
Knopf (Random House)

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