Yesterday evening I went in to London to see a conversation between Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell at the Southbank Centre. And very good it was, too.
(We shall draw a veil over the bloke sitting behind me who was loudly giving his companion the impression that he and “David” were best mates on the grounds, so far as I could tell, that they met at a do once. Look, mate, I knew Dave before he wrote a novel, my wife introduced us, and since I got him to write some reviews for Vector I possibly count as his first editor. So if you want to lock horns, I win!)
Anyway, last night was apparently the first time that Mitchell and Ishiguro have appeared on stage together, though they have known each other for a good few years and are clearly great admirers of each other’s work. There was one delicious moment when Mitchell was eagerly describing a small scene in one of Ishiguro’s novels, to be met by a blank stare from the author of that scene who had obviously forgotten some of the details. The discussion was free form, “improvised” they called it, without a moderator or interviewer, which was clearly a novelty for both of them. But it was a format that worked, far better than any moderator would have done, since the two of them got more directly and more thoroughly to the heart of what made them both writers than any interviewer, running through the same old questions, could possibly have done.
In truth, the conversation wasn’t exactly improvised. They had given very careful thought to the shape of the discussion, certain key themes had been prepared, each of which was introduced by brief film clips that one or other had chosen.
The first two clips were extracts from “The Sixth Sense” (chosen by Mitchell) and “The Innocents” chosen by Ishiguro. In retrospect, the differences were instructive: the first featured a young boy aware of a bloody and mutilated body that no one else can see; in the second we witness a vague female figure cross a corridor and disappear into a wall.
Ghosts are clearly important to both of them: Mitchell’s most recent novel, Slade House, is a sort of ghost story, and Ishiguro revealed that his first four published short stories were all ghost stories.
“Were you afraid of ghosts?” Ishiguro asked, getting straight to the point. “Very much,” Mitchell replied, then went on to recite a rather gruesome tale he had been told by his older brother when he was just four. It concerned a little boy called Dave who wanted more pocket money, so he went to the graveyard, dug up his grandfather’s corpse, cut out the liver and sold it to the local butcher. But that night he was awakened by his grandfather’s voice: “I’m in the kitchen, Dave. I’m climbing the stairs, Dave. I want my liver back, Dave.” And in the morning, Dave’s body was found with the liver horribly ripped from it.
It was the gore, the horror of what a ghost may do, that most disturbed Mitchell. Ishiguro, on the other hand, was completely unperturbed by this. What the ghost may do is simply material, any thug in the street may do the same. No, “I am much more scared by the idea of seeing a ghost.” It is, I suspect, the insubstantiality and, I think, the lack of control, that bothers him: he kept making much the same point throughout the rest of the discussion.
They decided that, for a writer, a ghost story is a sort of ready made: the affect, the emotional response, is something that is already keyed in to the reader, so part of the writer’s job is already done before they even set pen to paper. Though of course, they were quick to point out, it is never as simple as this: doing a ghost story well is actually a very tricky proposition. During this bit of the conversation, Mitchell observed that the ghost in an M.R. James story is “whatever the opposite of amnesia is” – an observation I shall need to ponder at length.
The European tradition of ghost story, as exemplified by M.R. James, is predicated on what the ghost does to the living. But, Ishiguro conceded, maybe the reason he is less concerned with what the ghost does than with its sheer existence, is because he was brought up on Japanese ghosts, which are “really scary.” Male or female, they always look like women (pale face, long black hair), they have no feet, and they always haunt toilets.
Their plan for the evening came apart almost from the beginning. One or other would keep trying to cue the next film clip, and the other would say, in best Columbo manner, one more thing, and the conversation would bounce off in a new direction. At this point they spent a lot of time talking about their childhoods. Mitchell seems to have been something of a solitary child, playing with various toys and constructing elaborate scenarios for them. Ishiguro seems to have had a more communal childhood, constructing elaborate scenarios in which he and others would play (war seems to have been a popular one), though he did concede that perhaps he had been the most persuasive in instigating and developing these scenarios.
Here Mitchell raised something he’d asked other writers. He said he tended to divide writers by whether or not they had played Dungeons and Dragons when they were young. Ishiguro hadn’t even heard of it. (Ishiguro is two years younger than me; in our childhood, Dungeons and Dragons did not exist.)
The next film clip was introduced by Ishiguro who talked about how sword fights in Western films tended to be an elaborate dance in which the object was less to skewer the opponent than to lure them over an edge. This, he said, is a real sword fight; and a scene from a Japanese movie came on (I didn’t catch the title; it wasn’t one I recognised, though it did star Toshiro Mifune) in which the two opponents stood face to face for what seemed an age, as in a sumo match, then suddenly the swords were drawn and one was dead. Ishiguro explained that he had to include a fight in The Buried Giant, and he didn’t know how to do it, it was something he’d always avoided in his previous books. (Mitchell disputed this: there were trials of strength in all the books, though they came to agree that these were psychological duels rather than actual fights.) On the other hand, Ishiguro continued, Mitchell’s books all featured fights, and they were so well done.
Going back to the film clip, their discussion eventually came round to the idea that one of the differences between film and page is that film looks at the outside, so the actual manoeuvres of a fight are what is of interest; whereas the novel looks at the inside, the interest is in the psychological build up to the fight, and, as Mitchell said, “the actual fight is boring.” Mitchell said that in his opinion one of the best battle scenes in any novel is in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. In his memory, the battle was epic, it went on for page after page, maybe 20 pages in all; but he has recently been reading the novel to his son, and the battle is actually over in less than a page and a half. But everything he remembered was in there, it was all because of the psychological build up.
“One of the things I learned from War and Peace,” Ishiguro said, “is when you have a battle, get your character into an elevated place.” You need that godlike perspective, looking down on the scene, so that your reader can make sense of all that is going on. Mitchell, he said, had done just this in number9dream, in which the narrator is on a bridge looking down on a gang fight. Mitchell deadpanned that of course Tolstoy was in his mind when he wrote that scene.
From here the conversation drifted onto topics like genre and setting. Ishiguro talked about how much he admired Mitchell’s bravery in tackling any genre and any setting. Mitchell insisted that he only felt liberated to do this because he was inspired by the shifts in Ishiguro’s work from The Remains of the Day to The Unconsoled to When We Were Orphans. He also said that genre was never anything he worried about, he always felt free to move from genre to genre in his work; but setting was more of a problem. Ishiguro said that he often gets ideas but is put off developing them because he is not sure if he is up to handling the particular setting or genre. Rather sadly this aspect of the conversation came round to the conclusion that they get more nervous about setting, in particular, as they get older and their readership gets wider. They are less bold about it, more worried about getting it wrong, or that small slips in detail will be picked up by their readers.
The final film clip was from Dr Who (as Ishiguro said, I knew there would have to be a Dr Who reference in there somewhere): it showed the Catherine Tate character in a rather creepy nursing home where moments of her life are being elided. Although Mitchell defended the scene, Ishiguro pointed out that it only worked on the screen because the script had Tate spelling out what was happening at several points. Such elisions are far easier and far more effective on the page.
Mitchell kept asking why so many of Ishiguro’s characters can’t trust what is going on in their own mind. Ishiguro responded by saying this is exactly what is going on in most of Mitchell’s novels. (I note that, throughout the evening, there were several questions that Ishiguro blatantly avoided answering; though it is also fair to say that when Ishiguro bounced them back at Mitchell, as here, Mitchell also avoided an answer.)
One of the things that this discussion of temporal or conceptual elisions threw up came when Ishiguro said that he had found the word “realise” was very useful for such time slips and shifts in consciousness. At which point, Mitchell suddenly noted that “realise” implies erasure, that what is believed before is wiped out by the realisation. This led the two of them to spend several entertaining minutes geeking out about how useful the word “realise” was.
By this point they were already butting up against the end of their scheduled time. A few desultory bits and pieces floated up as the conversation necessarily started to wind down. We learned, for instance, that Ishiguro puts Worcestershire into all of his novels (really? I hadn’t noticed; I must go and check). And then we found out that Ishiguro can’t start a novel until he knows the ending. This seems to be something that applies to individual scenes as well: all of his writing seems to be an act of backfilling to get to the predetermined end point. Mitchell, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: he never knows how a book is going to end before he starts it. Writing the book is the process of finding out how it ends. This is another of the acute differences between the two that kept emerging throughout the evening: different childhoods, different responses to ghosts, different approaches to fight scenes, to genre, and so on. By the end of the evening I was convinced that the reason they so patently like each other’s work is because they are the exact opposite of what they do themselves.