kazuo ishiguro and david mitchell: among giants and ghosts

Hello, readers.

IMG_7198

Last Wednessay, as part of a week-long cavalcade of birthday wonderfulness, EG took me to see Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall, part of the sprawling Southbank Centre located here in London along the Thames.

They sat across from each other, angled toward us, and spoke at length, and in glorious loops, about, among other things, stolen livers, almost beautiful Japanese ghosts, swordplay, film vs. writing, fear and courage, dungeons and dragons, the recklessness of youth, and the one thing Kazuo Ishiguro learned from War & Peace1.

They divided their conversation, for the most part otherwise improvised, among three topics, each introduced by a film clip2

I particularly enjoyed the way that Ishiguro ignored, throughout the evening, all of those beautifully appropriate hints for segues delivered by David Mitchell.

Here is a picture of some of my notes from the evening:

dave&katz_notes

And here are some selections of those notes typed out such that they might appear somewhat more legible-like. (note: the quotes below should be read as a doubtful combination of scribbled notes, memory, and imagination).

ghosts3

different qualities of fear

The evening began with David Mitchell telling a story first told to him by his brother, of a boy named Dave who stole his dead uncle’s liver to sell to the butcher for money with which to buy sweets. In the end, the dead uncle creeps into the house, and up the stairs, and steals Dave’s liver and replaces it with sweets.

Kazuo Ishiguro responded that it was a really good story until it became horror.

KI: Horror. That’s valid and everything. But there is a different quality of fear with the supernatural. The story worked best at that moment of the voice calling out from the stairwell, “Dave. Dave.”

DM: When the ghost loses its ectoplasmic liminality, something more rational kicks in. Writing a ghost story is a high wire act.

He spoke, then, Ishiguro did, of the psychic experience you don’t want. Of how little he feared his liver being torn out, of whatever the ghost might do to you, and how much he feared reality’s distortion, of the loss of trust in, and control of, his senses.

KI: I don’t mind the horrible stuff. I’m afraid of waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the apparition. There’s an energy in ghost stories. Even in a crude form they can produce a strange reaction in people. People are haunted by them whether they want to be or not. I still aspire to that effect. I want people to be haunted.

japanese and western ghosts

KI: Japanese ghosts are really scary. Western ghosts not so much. Transparent people with chains.

DM: Scooby-doo ghosts.

KI:Japanese ghosts represent emotions so powerful that the normal physical laws don’t apply to them.

DI: They’re implacable. Like a sadistic mother. You’re constantly having to guess the rules. In folk tales, you have to ask the right god in the right way to get what you want, and then you must say thank you.

earliest stories

Also. It turns out that, for both writers, their earliest stories were ghost stories. The first four of Ishiguro’s published stories, in fact.

dungeons & dragons

Just so you know, David Mitchell divides writers into ex-D&D players and non-ex-D&D players. Kazuo Ishiguro didn’t know what the hell it was. David Mitchell said to ask Michael Chabon, a former dungeon master.

action on the page 4

before we begin

I should point out there are few things more magnificent than listening to Kazuo Ishiguro refer to western-style sword-fighting as clinky, clonky affairs in which one has long conversations.

do you feel we are second best to cinema

After showing us a very brief, and very tense, Japanese sword-down, and asking David Mitchell the above question, Mitchell responded that really it depended on what result you desired.

DM: Once the gun goes off, the tension’s gone.

KI: Perhaps it’s psychological build-up, that’s where we have an advantage. Like in that moment where Kurosawa’s characters are staring at each other. You have to film an actor from the outside. Unless you do something very weird.

DM: Action’s actually kind of dull on the page. Rosemary Sutcliffe. I loved her fights. I remembered them as 20 pages long, but, when I looked back, whole battles, on which rested the fate of the world, lasted less than a page-and-a-half.

peculiarly fearlessness

KI: You are peculiarly fearless. Do you have an idea that this setting or genre is so alien to my experience, that you don’t carry on?

DM: There’s a subdivision between genre and material. I’m attracted to genres that I’m not familiar with. As for material, you can always do it. But you have to do it sideways. Now, I wouldn’t do an American voice. A Brit who lived in the U.S. a long time, perhaps. Or a Canadian. a micro-note off is worse than being a whole octave off

KI: Would you write an African-american character?

DM: I’ve read too much Ta-Nehisi Coates to attempt that.

notebooks

Kazuo Ishiguro has been keeping a notebook since 1981 in which he writes down all his ideas. 1981 is the year I was born. That means I am as old as Kazuo Ishiguro’s ideas.

buried giants, lost settings

KI: I backed off setting the book, Buried Giant, in Bosnia.

DM: I wouldn’t call that a cop-out. Just very sideways.

the doubtfulness of reality 5

DM: Why are so many of your characters not sure if they can trust their minds?

I don’t remember exactly how Kazuo Ishiguro answered this question, and my notes, such as they are, transition into WHAT AN AMAZING VERB REALIZED IS.

KI: And I realized. It’s a great verb to expedite things. You can use it in strange and promiscuous ways.

DM:To realize something includes an act of erasure. Cool verb. I’ve underrated it all my life.

questions and answers

DM: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to sign?

KI: Nothing particularly strange. Why? Have you?

DM: A midriff. Don’t tell my wife. Later she got a tattoo. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

KI: I have been asked some pretty strange questions. Once, a woman stood up and told me, at extreme length, the situation at her office, and then she asked if I thought she should resign.

In a remarkable display of unconscious gender bias, all questions asked by the audience came from people identifying as female.

Here are the five questions asked and their respective answers.

  1. If you looked behind you right now and saw a ghost, what would it look like?

    KI: A sneaky way to ask a very personal question.

    DM: Myself, aged 80.

    KI: (incredulous)That’s not very scary. Oh, look. That’s just me. I guess that’s slightly disconcerting.

    Ishiguro then considered his own answer.

    KI: Ghosts of children. Or. One of those almost beautiful women ghosts, but they’re not. They’re very scary.

  2. Could you talk about how you come to your endings? Because, Mr. Mitchell, it seems as though your books are so beautifully constructed, and Mr. Ishiguro, it seems the endings for your books grow organically from the story as it unfolds.

    KI: I always have the endings before I start. I know absolutely the emotion I want to end on.

    DM: I never know. A novel for me is like a road journey through the alphabet. I like X, Y, and Z to be murky. I want my endings to have a retrospective logic.

    KI: How far do you go before you know the ending? Quite near the end?

    DM: It has happened, yes. The writing of the book tells me how it will end.

    It gives me great comfort, as a writer and a reader, to know that the woman who asked this question experienced, from reading these two author’s books, the exact opposite sensation of the two writers writing their books. As much as we may think we know, we don’t.

    Then Ishiguro and Mitchell discussed whether or not Ishiguro was cheating when he wrote.

    KI: I do the same thing in miniature. Often, an image, scene, or moment, drops in my head. Is it okay to work backward?

    DM: I’m going to conjure the spirit of Ian McKellan here and say, “My dear boy, that’s all writing is.” I often see an F that is radioactive with rightness, and I try to figure out what D and E will get me to F?

  3. What do you do when you need to take a break from writing?

    DM: I go for walks. I speak dialogue aloud. In the small village where I live, people probably see me as the town kook.

    KI: I escape into music, the non-verbal world. When I watch a movie, I’m still thinking with my writing brain. Oh, that’s a false enemy.

  4. Who would else would you care to do an evening like this with?

    DM: Joseph Conrad

    KI: Dostoevsky. He’d be a lot of fun.

  5. Do you believe that success, or popularity, makes it harder for you to be authentic?

    Here, in this answer, we saw something we saw throughout the night, namely, Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic deftness at redirecting questions at David Mitchell while simultaneously transforming them into compliments.

    KI: David, this is what I was getting at before. In Number9Dream, you used the English vernacular so freely while writing from the point-of-view of a Japanese boy. It’s not subtitled English. I don’t think I’ve seen since or before a writer dive write in to a foreign consciousness, so fully realized. So fully characterized.

    DM: I was my own translator in that book.

    KI: How do you hint at a second language behind the 1st? You do it so well, or maybe so recklessly.

    DM: I am a first-person present tense junkie. You can only have subtitles in past tense. I followed my instinct. You start to question that instinct as you age

    KI: Yes. More cowardly.

fear and courage

KI: There’s a theme to this evening, I think. Fear and courage. Issues in writing. You have to be daring. Is fear too big a word?

DM: We live in a tiny world of calculated risks. You have to decide where courage will turn into hubris and get as close to that line as possible. Then write down descriptions of what seems so hard. Often you’ll find solutions in the description of what seems impossible.

And that, was the end, of that.

Thanks for reading.

Happy whatever day this is where you are, readers.

 

ttfn.

 

 

  1. Ishiguro said one thing he learned from this was that before a great battle it serves one well to send a character up to a high place and have them look down at the battlefield. He said he saw the same thing in Number9Dream. ↩︎
  2. Perhaps in response to, or as planned, the evening’s use of film clips to introduce the two writers, and their topics, led to a fascinating discussion of what advantages and disadvantages each art form—film and writing—has in respect to the other. ↩︎
  3. clips shown: The Sixth Sense & The Innocence ↩︎
  4. final stand-off from Kurosawa film, possibly Yojimbo ↩︎
  5. clip from Forest of the Dead, that one episode of Doctor Who where Donna is saved by a computer and life is but a dream ↩︎

star wars day

Hello, readers.

This past Saturday, Star Wars Day happened at the BFI at London’s southbank. Here’s a picture of that.

IMG_0417

From 11 in the morning until 8:20 in the evening, me and a shiny, fairly new friend watched the original trilogy flicker past. There was that fantastic opening shot that framed the scale of the struggle; that tiny rebel ship pursued by a rumbling, neverending star destroyer. There was Luke being all dramatic, looking off into the horizon at the twin suns setting, longing for adventure, for anywhere but here. That shot stays with me as much, or more, than most others. Simple. Beautiful. And that score by John Williams welling up in the background.

When Greedo shot first, people in the audience booed. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. There were a few boo’s to go along with the cheers. These were the special editions being screened. I don’t remember now if I was one of those, a long time ago, who felt so cheated by Lucas for tinkering with our childhood. Older, now, different, I don’t care. The movies I watched as a child only exist in my mind anyway, and it’s in my mind that I watch them now, seeing not just the films themselves, understanding again how beautiful they are, how superbly edited, how perfectly orchestrated (such a soundscape!), but seeing more–seeing how they sit in culture, in terms of feminism, in terms of people of color, in terms of the dawning age of computers and automation, the eternal struggle between human and machine, and not just machine in terms of electronics, but machines in terms of our own emotions, our bodies sometimes acting like mechanisms of hate and lust and love and fear. The lessons of Star Wars, of Yoda, as simple as they are, as mythic and profound they seemed to me as a child, still matter. I still watch Yoda lift that X-wing out of the swamp and hear Luke say, “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda say, “That is why you fail,” and I know that those are words worth remembering.

There was, before Empire Strikes Back, an introduction from Billy Dee Williams, clearly speaking about the presence of race in Star Wars, of how for some, the first Star Wars existed as a white-washed future in which the only person of color was Darth Vader, and he, just a fashion and a voice, at that. Also, evil. Williams spoke about Lucas wanting to answer those critics, to include a different perspective. And, what was wild and sad and confusing, was how Williams seemed to be avoiding words like race or black in his introduction. I don’t know why. He said he was a person of the world. Which he is. I was sad when some parts of reality were upset that the first face in the The Force Awakens trailer belonged to John Boyega, a person of color.

I hope that in forty years, we remember his face, and these new stories, as fondly as we remembered those first three. I hope, and this is a lot of hope, is that somehow these new films touch on the old new myth of Star Wars, mixing together fairy tales and science fiction in a way that open up a new chapter in the neverending struggle between humans and the mechanisms they design: philosophies, religions, governments, beliefs. I want a new myth from an old story. It’s what I always want, really. I want a new way to see.

When the evening ended, and there was Luke fighting Vader, and Vader as a ghost (and more boo’s) and there was my friend experiencing ridiculous amounts of joy at the Ewoks, I was left feeling as much like myself as I could feel. Which is a strange thing to say, because, how do people ever not feel like themselves, but they do, and there’s not much you can do about it. It happens with time and space. And, if you’re lucky, there are people and stories that remind you who you were at the same time they let you grow. Every time I see Star Wars, I am older than I was, and different, and the same boy who stared at the setting suns and wanted more. Much as the films themselves.

They’re just stories, of course. But so is everything.

Happy Monday, readers.

ttfn.

orgcon2014

Hello, readers.

On Saturday, ORGCon2014 happened at Kings College in Southbank. It’s an event organized by the Open Rights Group, a UK-based group tasked with campaigning for the rights of individuals on “…issues ranging from mass surveillance, to copyright, censorship, data protection and open data and privacy.” Among other things, it’s patroned by Neil Gaiman.

Here’s a link to the ORGCON2014 brochure in case you’re the sort of person interested in brochures.

Cory Doctorow did the keynote and expounded on his three laws.1

Panels occurred on ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ (fascinating word bombs dropped by nomadic hacker, artist, and designer Eleanor Saitta; on what big tech companies are doing in the age of mass surveilance (here’s an example of them going the extra mile in doing their own surveillance); on the state of NSA surveillance; on social data; on ISP tracking; on drone strikes (brilliant visualization here, accompanied by a brilliant talk by–we kill people based on meta-dataJennifer Gibson, human rights lawyer with Reprievehere’s a great report on not-great killer robots); on DRM; on the whole world, really, of data–its creation and its control.

There’s a lot that could be said, and may be said in the coming weeks, as EG and I absorbed all that to which we listened and which inspired. Right now, what seems most prudent is to be conscious of our digital consumption and our idenity, to, if nothing else, take stock of two basic things.

1) All the data we create, who’s collecting it, and the where’s and what for’s.
2) How much of the stuff we buy is, for lack of a better term, ‘closed’ data? How much art we buy comes equipped with DRM? How much do we spend on Netflix and other such big-data companies that happily share with us content, but work very hard to control the ways in which we are allowed to consume that content?

To address (1), we decided to make a list of the all the ways in which our data may be collected (either in the background or by active choice)–e.g., our internet service provider, the apps we use, the websites we frequently visit, and then figure out what data’s being collected, how it’s being used, and to what degree we would prefer our data not to be collected, or used.

To address (2), Doctorow suggested taking stock of everything you give to the big companies that work so hard to track you, or lock down things you buy with DRM, and give some percentage of that, each year, to organizations like the EFF or ORG, who are working to make sure that, over time, everything we are isn’t tracked, owned, and sold. Or. Heck. Just give money to the artists directly. In the end, that’s the business model we want. The one that puts a large amount of value in the baskets of the people who create the things we value.

Doctorow said something very smart at the end of his talk.

There are a lot of issues more important than a free and fair internet. Refugee rights. Police shootings. Black sites. Torture.

All of those fights, though, he said, will happen on the internet.

Happy Tuesday, readers. Keep your eyes peeled for those data brokers. They certainly have their eye on you.

ttfn.


  1. Doctorow’s three laws being, as follows:
    (1) Anytime someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, then the lock isn’t there for your benefit.
    (2) Fame won’t make you rich, but you’ll have a hard time making money if no one’s heard of you.
    (3) Information doesn’t want to be free. People do.