Recent Online Literary Events with George Saunders and Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.

George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter

(5×15 event)

Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.

The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.

Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).

The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.

An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro

(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)

Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.

In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).

In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.

Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.

Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)

Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.

Have you attended any online literary events recently?

25 responses

  1. These both sound like brilliant events about two books I’m very keen to read (I’ve just ordered the Ishiguro!) Funnily enough, I’m reading Naomi Ishiguro’s first novel, Common Ground, right now, though I’m afraid it’s not really working for me so far.

    I liked When We Were Orphans a lot but (to my great dismay) couldn’t get through The Buried Giant. Similarly, The Unconsoled is the only K Ishiguro that I’ve skipped.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have N. Ishiguro’s story collection out from the library to try soon. It would be interesting to consider alongside Klara and the Sun if I get on with it. I know they have done an event together recently. I found a free copy of The Buried Giant last summer, which is probably the only reason I’m willing to give it a try, but I worry about my chances of success as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought about purchasing that Saunders book, because I’m always looking for the next good fiction craft book–but I too don’t have enough of a handle on (or a big interest, really) in the Russian stories. I read Crime and Punishment ages ago and that was enough. If Nabokov was on that list, it’d be different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tried Crime and Punishment last year but couldn’t get through it, alas. My reading of the Russians has only been around the fringes. I loved Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, for instance.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, good to know–thank you for that recommendation!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    It’s interesting the way Kazuo Ishiguro’s style seems to have changed over the years, as I find his earlier, more introspective fiction more appealing than the later offerings. The Saunders book sounds interesting from the point of view of textual analysis of short stories, though like you, I am not particularly well versed on Russian literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t particularly enjoy Ishiguro’s first two novels. Funnily enough, my favorite book of his so far has been Nocturnes, his collection of short stories with musical themes. I guess his passion for music really shone through.

      If I were a writer of short stories, I’m sure I would find the Saunders invaluable.

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  4. I was watching both of these too. I’ve got the Saunders book – we’ll see on that! I gaily forgot I’d ordered a signed copy with the event ticket for ‘Ish’, and bought the indie bookshops signed edition too – which has a different colourway. I’ve not read The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, but have read and loved everything else of his. I’d love to know what you think of The Buried Giant in particular. I’ve got various other webcasts booked – there’s a good 5×15 one with ‘John Preston, Michael Rosen, Monique Roffey and more’ soon, which I’ll be watching.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Two signed copies! Will you keep both? I hope we enjoy it. I expressed interest in reading The Buried Giant for book club and one member said she couldn’t finish it.

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      1. I’ll keep one and flog the other in due course – but can’t decide which yet. I loved The Buried Giant, it’s a very me-type book, I can see lots of people not getting on with it.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Not to spend too much energy convincing you to read a book you don’t care about, but I do just want to say that I think When We Were Orphans is a much better book than people generally give it credit for. Not my favorite of his but it’s actually toward the top of the pack. The Buried Giant, on the other hand… not a fan. And yeah, good intuition on The Unconsoled. It’s an interesting thought experiment but if it doesn’t appeal to you there is NO reason to put yourself through that.

    Anyway these both sound really interesting, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The fact that you and Laura can both vouch for When We Were Orphans makes me more interested. I know you’re an Ishiguro fan, more so than I could claim to be even though I’ve read five of his books so far.

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  6. I am reading Klara and the Sun at the moment and so far I am really enjoying it. Thanks for your report from the online event with Ishiguro. I actually meant to sign up for it, but forgot all about it. Interesting that he wanted to be a songwriter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was the start of a virtual book tour of sorts, so you may be able to catch up with him another time. It explained for me why his story collection Nocturnes was all about music.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This year I discovered online literary events … and I’m in love! I attended events with Elif Shafak, Margaret Atwood, Maaza Mengiste, and Kassia St Clair.
    This evening I’ll be attending the most anticipated one, with Yaa Gyasi – the launch of Transcendent Kingdom. Can’t wait!

    How do you find out about these events? Do you have a specific place, or it’s just discovering one by one?
    I found that many events are also on Eventbrite, so from time to time I check the updates there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those all sound wonderful! I was tempted by the Gyasi event tonight, but it clashes with my Zoom book club meeting, alas.

      A lot of them I get e-mailed about from being on publishers’ and festivals’ mailing lists, but others I see on Twitter.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m late to Ishiguro and only came to him via The Buried Giant (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-giant) because of its Arthurian themes; though it wasn’t what I expected I find it still haunts me (in a nice way!). Recently I enjoyed Nocturnes and intend to go on to Never Let Me Go soon.

    I read his interview in the Guardian Review and Klara with its pared-back writing shorn of expendable adjectives and adverbs definitely worked for me.

    As for Russian short stories, I’ve only read a Chekhov collection but there is a lot to be said in favour of the form — and especially in the art of what gets selected and how they’re presented.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My first Ishiguro was The Remains of the Day in c. 2008. My copy of Klara will arrive tomorrow and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in!

      Anyone with a particular interest in short stories would get a lot out of Saunders’s book, I expect.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. These are both authors I have not read but want to. I own Tenth of December and two if Ishiguro’s. I’m not much interested in reading Saunders book about writing, but it does make me yearn to take a course like that as long as I don’t have to worry about my mark. Which I wouldn’t! I would like to read Ishiguro’s new book, though. Having AI to keep one company sounds entirely plausible. I actually saw part of a show with my son last week about a woman who replaced her dead husband with a life-like robot (really life-like), and it was so interesting.

    I haven’t been taking in many of the virtual events, but my oldest daughter has been to several and she’s lovjng it. She’s also preordered signed books that come with tickets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tenth of December has some really interesting stories, although overall I preferred Lincoln in the Bardo.

      I’m going to start Klara and the Sun later today. I’ll let you know if I think it would be a good one of his to start with. The Remains of the Day is his most famous one and I’d like to reread it.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve just signed up for an online event with Ishiguro and am really looking forward to it! He’s one of my favourite authors and I’m already really enjoying Klara and the Sun. It is interesting how his books seem to group together. So far Klara has a lot that reminds me of both Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and […]

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  12. Well…I attended the event with Elizabeth Kolbert and David Wallace-Wells, which you were kind enough to tell me about! *ahem* Thanks for that. Did you feel like the conversation with Ishiguro was actually overlong as in dull, or was it technically overlong because it went past the scheduled time? I’ve read two or three of his and two of Saunders; i’d enjoy seeing either in interview, I’m sure, and, yet, I haven’t made a point of it (but I’ve heard audio podcasts of course, several with them over the years).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Ishiguro event was billed as 1 hr 15 minutes and lasted more than an hour and a half, so … both! I think an hour is an appropriate maximum time. Neither is a favourite author of mine by any means, but I enjoyed seeing them ‘in person’ all the same.

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  13. […] have been rereading Everything, Everything. In fact, when I saw Ishiguro introduce the novel at a Guardian/Faber launch event, he revealed that it arose from a story he wrote for children. The further I got, the more I was […]

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