Last night I had the pleasure of seeing two literary greats talk about their interests, inspirations and writing. So often when authors participate in events like this there is an intellectual chair who has read all of their work in great detail and proceeds to ask what they think are probing questions about themes, issues, and characterisation. But as Mitchell said himself last night, those questions have all been asked before. A applaud Ted Hodgkinson, Southbank Centre’s programmer for their Literature and Spoken Word programme, for having the confidence to simply leave the authors to it.
The evening began with a short montage of clips from the numerous books of both authors that have been made into film. I must admit I was taken aback by just how many of them have made the jump to screen.
In the early stages of their careers both authors experimented with writing ghost stories. It was interesting to hear them talk about this and the different viewpoints they take. Mitchell is clearly interested in the gore of ghost stories, the tales of what these ghouls may do to you and shared a story with the audience about his brother telling him a ghost story when he was four years old which was built around the fear of a dead grandfather coming back to take your liver! Ishiguro’s fear is more closely aligned to my own which is of the supernatural being itself rather than what they may do to you. The gory elements are things we could fear from a human, the madman who breaks into a home in the middle of night is very real and scary but the incomprehensible phantom that we see when waking from sleep in the middle of night is haunting.
I was really intrigued to hear Ishiguro speak of that feeling of being haunted. Whilst he has left ghost stories behind him, I think he still writes haunting tales, echoes of his characters and stories stay with the reader long after you have put the book down. His characters are also haunted within the books. Take his most recent The Buried Giant, Axl and Beatrice are clearly haunted by the memories of old taken from them in the mist. And in one of his more famous novels The Remains of the Day Mr Stevens is consumed with the people and events of his past.
I think for most people the word haunting immediately conjures images of ghosts, eerie dark houses and things that go bump in the night. Yet as an adjective it is simply defined as remaining in the consciousness; not quickly forgotten. A haunting tale does not have to be scary or gory it simply needs to endure, a quality Kazuo Ishiguro captures beautifully in his books.
From haunting the conversation moved on to fight scenes with a cut away to a clip from a Japanese samurai film which Ishiguro used to demonstrate how a real sword fight should take place. The two proceeded to talk about the difference between writing a great fight scene and filming one. It was something I’d never thought about, but then other than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy I don’t think I’ve read many books with large scale battle scenes. Both writers were in agreement that in books it is more important to get the build up to the battle right, conveying the tension, the anxiety, the aggression then leads the reader to feel that within the battle scene whereas in a film all of that can be conveyed through the battle itself. Mitchell talked about a book by Rosemary Sutcliff that he had read as a child in which the battle scene had been superbly described. In his memory that part of the story was 20 pages long with so much detail and information. Re-reading the book as an adult he realised it was in fact a page and a half, but within there so much had been captured.
Another important factor when writing fight scenes highlighted by Ishiguro was perspective and height. Having re-read War and Peace recently it had struck him how important it is to have someone high up observing the fall out, through that character you can provide a micro and macro account of the fight. Naivety on my part but I had never given much thought to how you describe and create a fast paced battle with words that will only be consumed as quickly as your reader can process them. I have a new found respect for authors that include huge battles, well those who do it well.
The evening moved quickly with both authors taking turns to move away from the planned topic, heading off on a tangent with a tale or a question for the other. Did Mitchell play imaginary games when he was little? Why is Ishiguro so obsessed with the county of Worcestershire? One of the most interesting bits of the conversation I felt was when they spoke about areas they do not feel knowledgeable or authentic enough to write about. With success and age both authors admit to becoming more reserved with their writing and less likely to take risks. Mitchell confessed that he would not write an American narrator again feeling he would be a minor tone out but that being enough to make the whole thing sound wrong. Ishiguro spoke of shying away from areas that he feels are still to present, for example avoiding an original idea to set The Buried Giant during the Bosnian war for fear of not knowing enough to be true to it. Mitchell’s solution is to take side steps, don’t use an American narrator use an Englishman who has lived in America for many years, or maybe a Canadian (said with a wink and a smile).
Time for questions from the audience. I won’t go through them all but wanted to pick up on one of them. A lady asked about how the endings are created, her assumption from reading being that Mitchell very much knows his ending at the start whereas Ishiguro finds his way there organically. Having only read Cloud Atlas by Mitchell I could understand where the assumption comes from, to create a book like that one presumes that the ending must be known to create the loop. How wrong both I and the questioner were. Much to the amusement of the audience both authors were quick to respond – Mitchell “I never know my ending” and Ishiguro “that is where I start”. It was also interesting to see how each other’s method amused and possibly baffled the other. What they both agreed on is that sometimes you have an action, an image, a moment that comes to you that you know must be woven into the book. Mitchell described it as being a point C, knowing what F is going to be and using D and E as the vehicles to get you there.
Although possibly a little awkward to start once Mitchell and Ishiguro found their stride I think both could have continued well into the night. It was a relaxed and fascinating evening and a format I hope more authors participate in. Following the event the authors were doing a signing but sadly we had a train to catch the queue was already a hundred plus long by the time we got down to the ballroom. Maybe next time.