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‘I apologize to Margaret Atwood’: Kazuo Ishiguro on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro, seen in 2015, is best known for his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

ANDREW TESTA/NEW YORK TIMES

Kazuo Ishiguro was not expecting to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He didn't even know that it was being awarded Thursday – until he started hearing rumours, he calls them, through various channels that he might have won. If anything, he had thought the award might have gone to a Canadian this year.

"I apologize to Margaret Atwood that it's not her getting this prize. I genuinely thought she would win it very soon. I never for a moment thought I would. I always thought it would be Margaret Atwood very soon; and I still think that, I still hope that," Ishiguro told The Globe and Mail Thursday, a few hours after learning he had won the Nobel.

Ishiguro, 62, is probably best known for his novels The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. His most recent book, The Buried Giant, was published in 2015. He has won a long list of awards including the Booker Prize, but called the Nobel a "ridiculously prestigious honour" in a call with the Swedish Academy today.

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"I was very proud to go in the footsteps of Alice Munro," he told The Globe in his only Canadian interview on Thursday.

He cited another Canadian as a major influence on his writing. "The Canadian that influenced me perhaps the most in my writing is probably Leonard Cohen, his songs, yeah. He had a profound influence on my growing up and my turning to writing," he says. "For me it was an incredibly sad day when I heard that he died. Leonard Cohen along with Bob Dylan were great influences on me and had a lot to do with my wanting to be a writer." Dylan, of course, won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. It's safe to say Ishiguro was a more conventional choice.

Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro moved to England with his family when he was a child. The Swedish Academy cited him as an author "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Speaking from London, Ishiguro explained that he had been invited to attend opening night of Yukio Ninagawa's acclaimed production of Macbeth Thursday night, but decided not to go; he did not want to take the spotlight away from the work of the legendary Japanese director, who died last year.

"We just had to cancel that because there will be Japanese press there and we just thought it might pull focus," he says. "I thought it wouldn't be right if people were trying to interview me about the Nobel Prize when they should be remembering the great Ninagawa."

Ishiguro was in the middle of writing an e-mail to a friend in China when he first heard that he might have won the Nobel Prize for literature. "I think [the e-mail] actually tapers off 'sorry I've got to go; I seem to have won the Nobel Prize," he says. (The friend phoned an hour later to congratulate him.)

He assumed, he says, that the winner of the prize would hear first from the Swedish Academy, but news trickled in from other sources. Then the BBC called, and assured him that his win had been confirmed.

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"And then it started to occur to me this might not be a joke," he told The Globe.

(He said to the BBC producer who asked for his reaction: "My reaction was: do you have any evidence that this is true?")

Before he knew it, there was a line-up of people up the hill outside his house in quiet suburban London "with cameras and things," he says.

He had been unaware that the prize was even being awarded Thursday. "Otherwise I'd have washed my hair," he jokes, comparing his current hairstyle to the look of the fictional homicide detective Columbo (Peter Falk); he and his wife, Lorna MacDougall, had been watching reruns of the old TV show the previous night.

Thursday was in fact supposed to be a big day in the household, he explains – for MacDougall.

"This is the irony; she's been working up to today for about two months, because she's been debating whether to change her hair colour. And this is her big moment. She went in to change her hair colour from this kind of dark red to something like blonde and they were just about to apply the thing when I phoned and I said 'there seems to be a rumour that I've won a Nobel Prize, but we're not quite sure, we're waiting for confirmation.' And so she said to the hairdresser 'look, can you stop because I think my husband might have won the Nobel Prize.' And then she came back to help me."

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He says it's all been very surreal – but maybe not as wild a story as the one William Golding had to tell after winning the prize in 1983. Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, was driving – speeding – through Cornwall, in western England.

"He got pulled over by the cops," Ishiguro explains. "And he said to them 'I'm very sorry officer. I didn't see how fast I was going because I've just won the Nobel Prize for literature.' And I don't think the police believed him; they thought he was some kind of completely delusional man making up the most unlikely excuse. So [my story] wasn't quite as crazy as that."

The awards ceremony will be held in December.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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