Naomi Ishiguro: ‘Short stories are like songs – I think of an anthology like an album’

The writer talks about her debut short story collection, Escape Routes, why she loves Doctor Who – and the day her dad won the Nobel prize

Naomi Ishiguro worked as a bookseller in Bath before studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first collection of short stories, Escape Routes, draws on the world of fairytales to bring the reader a woman who forges an intimate alliance with a stuffed bear, a young boy in search of a wizard and a rat catcher caught in a royal crisis.

What attracted you to writing short stories?
I’ve always liked short stories, because I’ve always liked fairytales and folk tales, and Angela Carter has been a huge thing for me. I’m always influenced by kids’ stuff as well – it’s a refusal to grow up properly! Also I love music, and short stories are like songs – so I think of an anthology like an album.

Have you always been intrigued by the surreal, rather than writing in a realistic mode?
I like a mix of both. I’ve been obsessed with Doctor Who for a long time, when Russell T Davies was writing especially – it got almost too fairytale for me [during] the Steven Moffat era. I think it rebooted when I was about 13 into its new shiny format and in the early Davies days, there was a really nice blend of the everyday, with Billie Piper and her family – her mum and her boyfriend – but then this crazy guy with the Tardis turns up and takes us to alien worlds. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of total mundanity, and the struggles and the happinesses of ordinary life, and then contrasting it with something a bit strange; the possibility of magic in the everyday.

Did you always want to do something creative?
I used to act at school. And I was a terrible folk musician in Bath for a bit, which was fun. I wrote plays and screenplays at a certain point and I wanted to be a dancer for a bit. My parents were like, “Don’t do that.”

You grew up with a writer in the family – your father, Kazuo Ishiguro. How did it feel when your dad won a Nobel prize?
It was odd! It happened [in 2017] when I was at UEA. It was really odd for the university as well, because of course tons of people suddenly descended on it because he’s an alumnus and people love stories about the development of the writer and where the crucial experiences happened.

I could barely get to speak to him on the phone because there were all these journalists outside the house. It was weird. I think he said he was typing an email to a friend in China – one of those long, catch-up emails – and he’d just had breakfast and hadn’t done the washing-up or anything, and then it was just like, oh, I’ve got to go now because I just heard that I’ve won the Nobel prize.

Nobel aside, does it make it easier having a writer-parent because writing seems more ordinary, or did it make you wary?
I think it makes it feel possible; it doesn’t feel completely mystical. You think: “I can make this happen if I want to, it’s just that I’ve got to work hard” – as with anything else.

Your father has said that when he was first writing The Buried Giant, his most recent novel, your mother, Lorna, made him start completely from scratch. Do they read your work?
I’ve always shown them my stuff as I was growing up. And, yes, it’d always be, Nah, throw it away. It seems very harsh, but it’s because they’re treating it seriously. My mum is very Scottish, so she’s more direct. My dad would be much more Guildford about it, and go round the houses!

Now they very much want me to stand on my own two feet, and I do too, so it’s lovely to be able to talk about the process and have a family that understands, but they wouldn’t really get involved in the actual manuscript. It’s better to hear things from an official editor or supervisor than a family member.

I remember my dad trying to teach me guitar when I was about five. I had a guitar teacher and loved the lessons and would do everything the teacher said. Then when my dad tried to teach me, I was like, “Noooo! I won’t do that!”

Were you a voracious reader as a child?
Yes, I’ve always read a lot. I read young adult books for a very long time; you can probably tell from my writing. I love the Philip Pullman books, and Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book and Coraline. I like David Mitchell’s writing; in The Bone Clocks there’s a Doctor Who-ish element. I love the idea of something essential over time that connects all these characters. The sections are a bit like short stories structurally but they link together into something bigger and there’s a kind of exuberance in the awareness of pop culture.

What are you reading at the moment?
While I was at UEA I read mainly literary fiction, George Saunders and Donald Barthelme and stuff like that, people who are kind of wacky. I just read Tenth of December by George Saunders again; I read it every so often.

I’m also reading the third in the Wayfarers trilogy by Becky Chambers. She’s brilliant. They look all spacey-wacey, and they sort of are, but it’s space anthropology; imagining living in a multi-species kind of world, it’s all about social norms and social dynamics.

What’s next in terms of writing?
There’s a novel coming out next year. It’s set in 2003 and it’s more in the vein of other things I love, like Colin Barrett’s Young Skins and Ken Loach’s movies.

• Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro is published by Tinder Press (£14.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Alex Clark

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro | Book review
Ishiguro moves from farce to melancholy but still delivers a harmonious debut collection of short stories, says Tom Fleming

Tom Fleming

07, Mar, 2010 @12:05 AM

Article image
Elizabeth McCracken: ‘Creative writing is not like making a souffle’
The US author on being funny and serious at the same time, delusions of grandeur and her love of candlepin bowling

Anita Sethi

09, Mar, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
John Lanchester: 'We should treat reading more like sex and drugs'
The bestselling author on his new short stories, catching Covid-19 and why children ought to read Tintin

Alex Preston

10, Oct, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Daniel Mason: ‘I really don't want to write about my patients’
The US novelist and professor of psychiatry on how writing and medicine inform each other and why reading is good for mental health

Rachel Cooke

16, May, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Nicole Krauss: 'The idea of manhood is so beleaguered'
The novelist on writing in the voices of men, the benefits of having a dual identity, and lockdown jogging alongside New York’s mayor

Alex Preston

24, Oct, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
George Saunders: 'These trenches we're in are so deep'
The Booker-winning author on what Russian short stories can teach us, late-life realisations and why he doesn’t like social media

Killian Fox

02, Jan, 2021 @6:00 PM

Article image
Etgar Keret: ‘For the past year I haven’t read any books’
The Israeli writer on the car accident that inspired his new story collection and why he isn’t always honest in interviews

Alex Clark

24, Aug, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Lydia Davis: ‘I write it the way I want to write it’
The author on flash fiction, translation as a route to creativity, and why we need to prioritise the climate crisis over ‘business as usual with writing’

Anthony Cummins

27, Nov, 2021 @6:00 PM

Article image
Chris Power: 'You burn reality to fuel the fiction'
The critic and author on writing about writers, and the political manoeuvres of the Putin era

Anthony Cummins

03, Apr, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro review – another masterpiece
The Booker winner’s brilliant eighth novel expands on his theme of what it means to be not-quite-human, exploring love and loyalty through the eyes of an android

Alex Preston

01, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM