The author, most recently, of "The Buried Giant" was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes as a child. "I'd go to school and say things like: 'Pray, be seated' or 'That is most singular.' People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese."
What books are currently on your night stand?
As I keep explaining to my wife, every book on my side of the bed is part of some essential project, and there's no case whatsoever for tidying them away. For instance, there's my Homer project: Stephen Mitchell's new translations of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." I've finished the former, but it has to stay right where it is until I complete the latter. These versions are uncluttered, less lyrical than the great Fagles translations, but the big emotions loom powerfully in understatement. Beneath them is "The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters," by Adam Nicolson, which I may or may not read afterwards. Then I have my Southern Gothic project: Carson McCullers's "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," Flannery O'Connor's "Wise Blood," neither of which I've read before. On top, though, is "Joni Mitchell in Her Own Words: Conversations With Malka Marom." Curiously, I find I admire Mitchell more and more as I get older (the opposite of my experience with most of her fellow '70s singer-songwriters). Albums like "Hejira" and "Blue" now sound undeniably like great art, and don't lean one bit on nostalgia to do so. But she's always been an enigma to me, and I'm hoping this book will be full of quiet revelations.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Charlotte Brontë's recently edged out Dostoyevsky. As I reread in maturity, I'm less patient with Dostoyevsky's sentimentality, and those long improvised meanderings that should have been edited out. But his take on insanity is so wide-ranging and profound, one begins to suspect it's a universal condition. As for Brontë, well, I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to "Jane Eyre" and "Villette."
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a section devoted to westerns. Given the centrality of the frontier myth in America's collective memory, I've long been puzzled by the reluctance of the U.S. literary community to embrace this genre more wholeheartedly. I sense nervousness, evasion and self-consciousness whenever the topic comes up in polite circles. Is it just that the western seems to be owned so much by the cinema? Or is there a deeper unease about the territory it inevitably occupies? On my shelf I can see "True Grit"; "The Ox-Bow Incident"; "Blood Meridian" (masterpiece); "Lonesome Dove" (probably ditto); "Deadwood"; "Butcher's Crossing"; "St. Agnes' Stand"; "Riders of the Purple Sage"; and others. All really fine novels. But don't tell me about "The Virginian." Strong first two chapters, but then it's really quite poor.
In addition to your fiction, you have also written jazz songs. How would you compare writing fiction versus writing jazz? And do you have a favorite novel about jazz?
These days I write only the lyrics. Saxophonist Jim Tomlinson composes and arranges, and we create songs together for sublime jazz singer Stacey Kent. But I've been writing songs since age 15, and for me there's always been a big overlap between fiction and song. My style as a novelist comes substantially from what I learnt writing songs. The intimate, first-person quality of a singer performing to an audience, for instance, carried over for me into novels. As did the need to approach meaning subtly, sometimes by nudging it into the spaces between the lines. You have to do that all the time when writing lyrics for someone to sing.
I've never read a good novel about jazz. Kerouac's experiments in this direction were woeful. But something like Murakami's "South of the Border, West of the Sun" seems to embody the jazz spirit; reading it comes close to listening to a sad late-night jazz ballad. There are three outstanding movies about jazz: Tavernier's "Round Midnight," Eastwood's "Bird" and Cassavetes's extremely underrated "Too Late Blues," about pathetically failed musicians in late-'50s California.
What's the last book you read that made you laugh?
Nancy Mitford's "Love in a Cold Climate." Funny indeed, but also surprisingly dark.
What's the last book you read that made you cry?
Terence Rattigan's plays, in particular "The Browning Version," "After the Dance," "Flare Path" and "The Winslow Boy." There's at least one hugely moving moment in each of them, and the emotion's always entirely earned. They never fail to bring tears to my eyes, whether I'm reading or watching onstage.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?
Like many young boys I hardly read anything - until, that is, I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories in the local library. I was around 9 or 10, and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I'd go to school and say things like: "Pray, be seated" or "That is most singular." People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.
"The Hound of the Baskervilles" was, and remains, my favorite Holmes story. It was scary and gave me sleepless nights, but I suspect I was drawn to Conan Doyle's world because, paradoxically, it was so very cozy.
What's it like seeing your books turned into films? If you got to choose one of your other books for adaptation, which would it be?
It's hugely satisfying to witness a talented and dedicated team adapting what once tumbled messily out of your imagination into a finely finished film. The movies of "The Remains of the Day" and "Never Let Me Go" were both entirely positive experiences, and I learnt all kinds of things I didn't know about the characters - especially from the actors' interpretations. I did sometimes have irrational objections when a particular image didn't match the one in my head: "Come on, you've got that room completely the wrong way round! How could you ever imagine the door was on that side?" But I never thought of these films as translations of my work, in the way, say, I did the French editions. I could see they were works independent of mine - relations, cousins even, but separate.
Of my unfilmed books, I'd most like to see my latest, "The Buried Giant," up on the screen. It could be a kind of English samurai-movie-cum-love-story. Film producer extraordinaire Scott Rudin now has the rights, so I've reason to be optimistic.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Don't wish to name any titles. But there are too many books going around with rave endorsements from the authors' friends, colleagues or former professors. We need to call a halt to the personally solicited quote. It's plain corruption and nepotism. It cheats the reader, and stops the right books rising to the surface.
If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be?
I'd offer the British P.M. "Red or Dead," David Peace's demented novel about real-life soccer coach Bill Shankly. (The "Red" refers not to Communism, but to the colors of Liverpool Football Club.) The novel is barking mad, but quite brilliant, and is a monument to a kind of magnificent decency once at the core of British life, but now rapidly fading.
What book hasn't been written that you'd like to read?
Jane Austen's seventh novel, written in maturity, examining what happens to love beyond courtship and the wedding day.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I tend not to reread whole books over and over, even my big favorites. But I do keep returning to certain short stories, the way I might to favorite pieces of music. Richard Ford's "Rock Springs" (the actual story); Chekhov's "Ionych"; V. S Naipaul's "Tell Me Who to Kill"; Raymond Carver's collection "Fires"; P. G. Wodehouse's "The Clicking of Cuthbert"; Conan Doyle's "Silver Blaze." And John Millington Synge's play "In the Shadow of the Glen."
What books are you embarrassed not to have read?
The list's too long to be meaningful. A fresh candidate for Most Embarrassing Unread Book emerges every few days, depending on what's being talked about in front of me. This week: "Catch-22."
What do you plan to read next?
My wife has been relentlessly telling me to read a new British debut thriller called "The Girl in the Red Coat," by Kate Hamer. (Not to be confused with several other recent "Girl ..." titles.) While she was reading it I did notice she wasn't quite herself. She kept saying it was so disturbing she wanted to stop, but then it was impossible to stop. I now have to find out if she was being hysterical.
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