The secret to Kazuo Ishiguro’s success? Ditching housework, thanks to his wife

Writers need time to concentrate on their work.
Writers need time to concentrate on their work.
Image: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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Even under the best of circumstances, writing is a difficult task. It requires a great deal of concentration, as well as plenty of time for daydreaming, experimenting, and chasing potential dead ends. So when the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature today, found himself stalled on a book, he and his wife developed a plan. He would set aside four weeks to devote himself exclusively to writing. And his wife, Lorna? She would take care of everything else.

In an article written for The Guardian back in 2014, Ishiguro explains that this division of household labor was essential in the creation of his Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day:

I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash.” During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

Happily, the plan paid off—and no wonder. The everyday business of cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, running errands and the like is incredibly time consuming, and inevitably distracts from our other priorities in life. That’s why rich people hire domestic workers, and why Silicon Valley peddles convenience in the form of Seamless and TaskRabbit. And it’s why male writers in particular have a long history of relying on women to make the rest of their lives function so they can focus on their work.

Consider Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. As journalist Katrine Marçal explains in her book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics, Smith’s understanding of capitalism was founded on the idea that the free market, left to its own devices, would supply everyone with whatever they needed. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote. But as Marçal points out, this theory completely ignores the unpaid labor of women performing domestic work—including Smith’s own mother, who cooked his dinner and took care of other household chores while he concentrated on spinning out his ideas.

Then there’s Leo Tolstoy, whose wife, Sofia, transcribed all of his books by hand and copy edited them while raising their 13 children and running the household as well as its finances. In one diary entry, she complains, “His vegetarian diet means the complication of preparing two dinners, which means twice the expense and twice the work.”

Tolstoy was famously cruel to his wife, but even happy literary partnerships have often involved women handling the practical matters while their husbands devote themselves to the life of the mind. Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, Véra, prepared his meals, drove him around, and opened and answered his mail. She was “his first reader, his agent, his typist, his archivist, his translator, his dresser, his money manager, his mouthpiece, his muse, his teaching assistant, his driver, his bodyguard (she carried a pistol in her handbag), the mother of his child, and, after he died, the implacable guardian of his legacy,” Judith Thurman writes in The New Yorker. John Stuart Mill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many other authors have also benefited from the support of their wives and female relations, as Camilla Nelson explains in The Conversation.

None of this is meant to criticize Ishiguro’s (notably temporary!) set up, or any couple that reaches a mutual decision about the best way to support one another’s pursuits. But as Gemma Hartley argues in a recent barn burner of an essay for Harper’s Bazaar, the division of household labor remains uneven throughout much of American society. This fact has major consequences not just for women’s emotional states and exhaustion levels, but for their ability to pour their energy into their work and creative pursuits.

As Ishiguro’s example shows, in order for writers and other creative types to get good work done, they sometimes need to be able to forget about the laundry and leave dirty dishes in the sink. (J.K. Rowling has memorably said that she only found the time to write Harry Potter as a single mom because she gave up on housework entirely.) There’s no problem with women picking up the slack for their husbands for a spell when they’ve got a big project in the works—so long as their husbands offer to turn right around and do the same.

This article originally said that Ishiguro was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Remains of the Day. It has been corrected to reflect that the award was the Man Booker Prize.