I found myself walking forever around twisting, badly lit streets hemmed in on both sides by the little stone cottages characteristic of the area. The streets often became so narrow I could make no progress without my bag or my elbow scraping one rough wall or another. I persevered nevertheless, stumbling around in the darkness in the hope of coming upon the village square—where I could at least orient myself—or else of encountering one of the villagers. When after a while I had done neither, a weariness came over me, and I decided my best course was just to choose a cottage at random, knock on the door, and hope it would be opened by someone who remembered me.
Hello, I am Zin! In one of the offices I visit on Zoetrope (the online writing workshop I use), we have been looking at stories from various online sources until the New Year when we start BASS 2011 (by the way, Zoetrope is free and open to all, if you are a writer or just want to read great stories with some other people who like stories!).
Last week, the story was “A Village After Dark” by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is part of The New Yorker podcast series, so you can find it there both as a recording (read by Ben Marcus!) and as text (though I understand the text is just for a limited time)! I hope you will read or listen, because it is a good story and description can not convey how effective it is!
My immediate reaction to this story was: wow, this is just like The Unconsoled! I read that novel – a long novel! – a few years ago and loved it, it is the only Ishiguro I have read. As I understand it, his other fiction does not use this sense of unreality. But he is very good at it!
In the course of our discussion on Zoetrope, someone else told me he had written the story as practice for the novel! Well, that was interesting! She was not sure of the source of that info but thought it might be his Paris Review interview (“The Art of Fiction” #196).
While that article did not contain the quote about the similarity (I did find it, that is later), it did contain something very special about how he incorporated “dreamlike” aspects into The Unconsoled (and I would imagine into “A Village after Dark”):
I started to ask myself, What is the grammar of dreams? Just now, the two of us are having this conversation in this room with nobody else in the house. A third person is introduced into this scene. In a conventional work, there would be a knock on the door and somebody would come in, and we would say hello. The dreaming mind is very impatient with this kind of thing. Typically what happens is we’ll be sitting here alone in this room, and suddenly we’ll become aware that a third person has been here all the time at my elbow. There might be a sense of mild surprise that we hadn’t been aware of this person up until this point, but we would just go straight into whatever point the person is raising. I thought this was quite interesting. And I started to see parallels between memory and dream, the way you manipulate both according to your emotional needs at the time. The language of dreams would also allow me to write a story that people would read as a metaphorical tale as opposed to a comment on a particular society. Over some months I built up a folder full of notes, and eventually I felt ready to write a novel.
I find this an important new (to me) research technique: To make a list of the ways something can be done! Then there is a whole repertoire to pick and choose from when writing! And in the One Story interview with Seth Fried about his “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” which I found in Pushcart 2011 he talks about carrying a notebook as an undergrad when he was first working on the story, and it had a list of “Massacre” ideas – hot-air balloons, snakes in porta-potties, gorillas. The fun part of his story is that he then lost the notebook: “I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.” It is the same idea, make a list of ways you could accomplish a story element, not just researching the weather in your location or historical events, and that seems to me to be something important and something I never thought of before!
The Ishiguro interview also had some very interesting biographical info – he spent time in Montana “riding the rails” – and he likes Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but admits, “Part of the appeal of Dylan and Cohen was that you didn’t know what the songs were about.” That makes me feel good: if he does not know what “Quinn the Eskimo” or “Suzanne” are about, it is not so bad that I do not! And the first story he ever wrote, when he was a kid, was about two cross-eyed lovers! This is amazing stuff! It does not sound like the stuffy British Japanese writer you would expect, does it? But it is!
But I still had to hunt for the source of the original info, that “A Village After Dark” was practice for The Unconsoled. And thanks to some determined googling, I found it! It is in a book by Sean Matthews and Sebastian Groes, Kazuo Ishiguro: Contemporary Critical Perspectives and parts are available on GoogleBooks:
…. Ishiguro’s fourth story, “A Village After Dark,” was never intended by the author to be an autonomous story. Rather, as Ishiguro explained in personal communication with me, it was written as an experiment geared towards working out certain narrative techniques he was exploring while writing The Unconsoled. Indeed, it is impossible to not to think of Ryder, the protagonist of that novel, when encountering Fletcher, the protagonist of “A Village After Dark,” who arrives in a generic English village to accomplish an unspecific but urgent and important task, and whose controversial (and perhaps guilty) past life in the village he (and we) can only vaguely infer and never clearly recall.
This is also a new idea to me, too, to use a short story as a way of testing out a structural or linguistic idea for a novel – and maybe only Ishiguro could write something as an exercise and have it appear in The New Yorker!
So thank you to the wonderful office at Zoetrope! I learn so much about stories and about writing this way! And it was a wonderful story!