“From about when I was about 15 to when I was about 22, 23, I was very, very focused on wanting to become a singer-songwriter,” says Kazuo Ishiguro. “This was in the 1970s, when singer-songwriters were the thing. This was the great era of the singer-songwriter.” So what happened when he cut his demo and began shopping it around to record labels? “Complete failure,” says the 60-year-old, matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t very good.” Once it dawned on him that he’d never be the next Bob Dylan, Ishiguro decided to try his hand at fiction. “When I started to write stories, lots of doors opened for me. That’s what I was allowed to do.”
Today, with seven novels and one story collection under his belt, the Japanese-born British writer is about as far from failure as one can be in the literary world. His 1989 novel The Remains of the Day, which depicts the tragicomic life of a quintessentially English butler during World War II, won the Man Booker Prize, England’s most prestigious literary award, and was adapted into a critically acclaimed film. 2005’s Never Let Me Go, a dystopian tale about three friends who discover the horrifying truth behind their seemingly idyllic life at an English boarding school, formed the basis of another movie.
Ishiguro has many gifts as a novelist, but what really sets him apart from his contemporaries is his ability to transport his readers to worlds that seem both unreal and strangely familiar. Whether depicting postwar Japan, where he lived until he was five (A Pale View of the Hills) or some mysterious unnamed Central European city (The Unconsoled), Ishiguro always manages to imbue his work with a certain dream-like quality.
This is especially true of his long-awaited new novel The Buried Giant, which hits bookstores this month. Set in fifth-century England, it tells the story of two elderly Britons—indigenous Celtic-speaking inhabitants—making their way across the island amid the Anglo-Saxon invasion. “The setting is kind of weird,” Ishiguro confesses. But while the book takes place in the early Middle Ages, its themes—war, genocide, shared memory, and kinship—bring to mind other tragic episodes in human history, not to mention present-day realities. “This is an invitation for you to apply [a setting] metaphorically to the world you live in, to the world other people have lived in,” he says. “I’m not trying to write a piece of history in fictional form. I’m trying to write something universal and eternal about people, their relationships, and so on.”
Ishiguro comes to Houston this month as part of Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, one stop on his first book tour in a decade. The London-based author professes to be “intrinsically interested in” the Bayou City, saying he’s been reading up on it recently. “I have been to Houston twice before, and I’m really looking forward to going back there. It does have a very distinct atmosphere, I have to say, Texas. It doesn’t quite feel like the rest of the United States to me. It has a very strong flavor.” We’ll take that as a compliment.
Kazuo Ishiguro March 23 at 7:30. $5. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-521-2026. inprinthouston.org