Kazuo Ishiguro on Song Lyrics, Scones, and the Life He Could Have Had
The New Nobel Prize Winner in Conversation with John Freeman
Kazuo Ishiguro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The following 2005 profile was published in How to Read a Novelist (2012, FSG Originals), by John Freeman.
“Oh, you’re making quite a mess of it, aren’t you?” Kazuo Ishiguro studies my plate of scones with a raised eyebrow. It’s afternoon teatime at Café Richoux in Piccadilly, London, the winter of 2005, and my lesson in English manners and ritual is not going particularly well. Somehow I have managed to scatter crumbs onto his side of the table. With ironic irritation, Ishiguro has another go at instruction. “First spread the cream down, and then place the preserves on top like so,” he says, preparing a scone that a still life painter could use. “Just think of it like putting blood on fresh snow.” I take another swipe at it and build what looks like a bagel. Ishiguro frowns.
It’s hard to tell whether this display of fastidiousness is a performance, a gambit in Ishiguro’s strategy for our interview—the first, he later tells me, of up to 300 he might give around the world during the coming year while promoting his new novel Never Let Me Go.
If that is the case, it would be hard to blame him. Ishiguro turned 50 last November, and has come of age along with that promotional gulag known as the Author Tour. Most of his adult life has been spent writing novels (six, including this one), then talking about them publicly. Not surprisingly, he has become quite good at controlling an interview’s narrative. “You want to steer someone to a kind of revelation,” says Ishiguro, revealing his hand somewhat, or playing an even deeper game than I can fathom, “but it has to seem natural, almost like a discovery.”
Ishiguro’s statement could be applied directly to his novels, which have been publisher in 40 countries around the world, some of them making the bestseller lists. Best known for his Booker-Prize winner, Remains of the Day (1989)—the story of a repressed butler who realizes he has given his life to an antiquated idea of service, and of Empire—Ishiguro has become the most voluptuously deceptive storyteller writing in English today. He has taken what critic and novelist James Wood has called the “reliably unreliable” narrator to its artistic zenith, creative characters so good at disguising themselves that, even after we have heard and seen them through an entire novel, they remain somewhat mysterious.
But while his mastery brought him accolades, Ishiguro admits there is a danger of being too good at this delicate art. “There’s a certain way of telling a story,” he says, speaking quickly in what the British once called a BBC accent: proper, middle class. His eyes are kind but his tone is clipped. “There is a certain texture in your scenes that you become addicted to: the texture of memory. I have to become careful that I don’t continue to use the same devices as I did in the past.”
It is this texture, though, that has made his work from the beginning so assured, so potently inhabited. His first novel, A Pale View of the Hills, is told in the voice of a Japanese widow thinking back on her life and family, slowly coming to a realization about her daughter’s suicide. In his second book, An Artist of the Floating World, a Japanese man tries to arrange his daughter’s marriage as he struggles with the details of his earlier transgressions. Because both books are set in Japan, they were often viewed as veiled autobiography.
Ishiguro concedes there is a degree of accuracy to that perception. “To some extent, writing (A Pale View of the Hills) and An Artist of the Floating World was an act of preserving things that would have otherwise faded in my memory,” he says. But he doesn’t see the works as drawn predominantly from his life. And he’s uncomfortable about the assumptions that have been made about him and his writerly aims. “People kept asking me if I were trying to be a bridge between East and West in Japan. It was a real burden, and I also felt like a complete charlatan. I wasn’t in a position to be an expert.”
Read through some of the several dozen interviews he’s given over the past five years, and it’s easy to see why Ishiguro might feel this way. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, he left Japan at age five and wound up in Surrey, in the south of England, with his family. Ishiguro’s father, an oceanographer, was to be employed temporarily by the British government. Funding for his work was continually renewed, however, and they ended up staying. Ishiguro attended grammar school in Surrey, then went on to university at Kent, where he studied American literature and took degrees in English and philosophy.
After graduating in 1978, he was employed briefly as a social worker, before going back to school and getting an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, England’s equivalent of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His first published work appeared in a 1981 Faber anthology, which included three of his stories. One of those eventually became A Pale View of the Hills. Around this time he wrote to the Granta editor Bill Buford, who had recently relaunched the magazine. Ishiguro enclosed a pound note in hopes he could at least see a copy of Granta, which had no subscriptions and was rather hard to find. It was the beginning of a long working relationship.
In 1983, Granta agreed to publish a special issue organized around a list of young British writers that the British Council had selected. It featured what is now a murderer’s row of talent, from Julian Barnes and Pat Barker to Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Graham Swift, and Rose Tremain. Ishiguro made the list on the basis of his first novel, just published, A Pale View of the Hills. Three years later he married his Glaswegian wife, Lorna. And in 1992 they had a daughter, Naomi. It wasn’t until 1989 that Ishiguro returned to Japan for the first time, on a book tour.
As he told Maya Jaggi in the Guardian in 1995: “I had very strong emotional relationships in Japan that were severed at a formative age… I’ve only recently become aware that there’s this other life I might have had, a whole person I was supposed to become.”
That sense of loss delicately inflects Ishiguro’s new novel, Never Let Me Go, which is his most radical stylistic departure to date. All of his other books are set in a recognizable historical context, from the backdrop of a ravaged Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War in When We Were Orphans (2000) to the crumbling decline of Empire in The Remains of the Day to the post-World War II devastation of A Pale View of the Hills.
Never Let Me Go, however, steps outside of history, planting itself in a kind of alternative England in the 1990s. Whereas Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America used a slight alteration in American political history as its foundation, Never Let Me Go changes a major detail in the realm of science. It imagines a world in which genetic engineering—not nuclear technology—turned out to be the defining science of the 20th century.
To describe just what kind of book this creates is difficult. While the story has futuristic qualities, Never Let Me Go is free of gadgetry and technology salient in most science fiction. The novel exists in a parallel world whose contours we must infer, rather than witness, which gives it an ominous cast. At any reference to “sci-fi,” Ishiguro says, “When I am writing fiction I don’t think in terms of genre at all. I write a completely different way. It starts with ideas.”
Even though Never Let Me Go takes Ishiguro beyond his normal boundaries, the book circles the same thematic territory of memory as his other books. As the story unfolds, Ishiguro’s protagonist, Kathy H, thinks back on her childhood growing up in a rural English boarding school called Hailsham. Instead of hearing about students who have become famous politicians or society mavens, though, Kathy’s pantheon of alumni involves “carers” and “donors.”
It takes a while to work out just what this means, but one thing is clear: at the age of 31, Kathy does not have much time to live, and telling her story is a way to make sense of all the miniature crises and spectacles of her pre-shortened life. “I guess it was a useful kind of metaphor for how we all live,” Ishiguro says, calling to mind William Golding’s similarly otherworldly novel, Lord of the Flies. “I just concertinaed the time span through this device. A normal life span is between 60 to 85 years; these people in Never Let Me Go artificially have that period shortened. But they basically face the same questions we all face.”
The gap between the enormities of what Ishiguro’s characters have to forfeit as donors and carers and the relative shallowness of the day-to-day concerns that Kath describes as she looks back at her younger years gives Never Let Me Go an eerie poignancy. As Kath remembers it, her friends were hormone-crazy, keen on sex, and hell-bent on being cool. They listened to music on Walkmans and speculated about their teachers. They were typical teenagers. But all the while, their school kept them in the dark about what exactly awaited them in the world outside. Only Kathy, her friend Tommy, and Tommy’s girlfriend, Ruth, had the intellectual curiosity to figure out the parameters of their future. Never Let Me Go recounts the story of how their relationships came apart in the face of that realization.
The construct of Never Let Me Go allowed Ishiguro to explore a dark, basic question. “What really matters if you know that this is going to happen to you?” Ishiguro says of the death that awaits them. “What are the things you hold on to, what are the things you want to set right? What do you regret? What are the consolations? What are the things you feel you have to do before you go. And also the question is, what is all the education and culture for if you are going to check out?”
The novel’s title comes from a jazz standard by Jay Livingston that recurs throughout the book, as Kathy recalls her friendship and love for Tommy. Initially, Ishiguro began writing a novel set in 1950s America about lounge singers trying to make a go at Broadway. “The book would both be about that world and resemble its songs,” Ishiguro says, “but then a friend came over for dinner and he asked me what I was writing. And I didn’t want to tell him what I was writing, because I don’t like to do that. So I told him one of my other projects, just in two sentences: I said, maybe I’ll write this book about cloning.”
A year later Ishiguro had given up on his original Never Let Me Go and was polishing the book he’s just released.
The fact that Ishiguro has talked about it makes it seem unlikely he will go back to his jazz-themed book. In a way, he’s already lived it: lyrics were his first literary effort. When pressed for a description of his student days, wooing girls with guitar ballads, he steers the conversation back to writing. “You write about the things you’ve experienced. I basically did that with songwriting.” Ishiguro never hit the road with his act, but he did burn off much of his teenage angst. And he still plays the piano to relax today. But he has added another creative outlet to his fiction writing.
Ever since The Remains of the Day was made into a movie, with a screenplay by fellow Booker winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ishiguro has been increasingly involved in films. In 2003, his screenplay The Saddest Music in the World was filmed starring Isabella Rossellini. In 2005 The White Countess, with Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave, was released. There have since been others.
Judging by his interest in film (Ishiguro admits to having a home theatre and he has designs on building a film library), the coming years will bring more films, along with the fiction he has in the pipeline, including a book of stories and another novel, about all of which he is typically reticent. It’s a good life, of this he is aware, but the shadow of what would have happened had his family returned to Japan is ever present. Each day he lives his life, Ishiguro knows he’s forfeiting another one. It’s why he keeps writing, imagining people in worlds not quite his own, people who must make their separate peace with opportunities missed, and say their goodbyes to the past.