Interviews

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Art of Fiction No. 196

Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell

The man who wrote The Remains of the Day in the pitch-perfect voice of an English butler is himself very polite. After greeting me at the door of his home in London’s Golders Green, he immediately offered to make me tea, though to judge from his lack of assurance over the choice in his cupboard he is not a regular four P.M. Assam drinker. When I arrived for our second visit, the tea things were already laid out in the informal den. He patiently began recounting the details of his life, always with an amused tolerance for his younger self, especially the guitar-playing hippie who wrote his college essays using disembodied phrases separated by full stops. “This was encouraged by professors,” he recalled. “Apart from one very conservative lecturer from Africa. But he was very polite. He would say, Mr. Ishiguro, there is a problem about your style. If you reproduced this on the examination, I would have to give you a less-than-satisfactory grade.”

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved with his family to the small town of Guildford, in southern England, when he was five. He didn’t return to Japan for twenty-nine years. (His Japanese, he says, is “awful.”) At twenty-seven he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), set largely in Nagasaki, to near unanimous praise. His second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), won Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award. And his third, The Remains of the Day (1989), sealed his international fame. It sold more than a million copies in English, won the Booker Prize, and was made into a Merchant Ivory movie starring Anthony Hopkins, with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. (An earlier script by Harold Pinter, Ishiguro recalls, featured “a lot of game being chopped up on kitchen boards.”) Ishiguro was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and, for a while, his portrait hung at 10 Downing Street. Defying consecration, he surprised readers with his next novel, The Unconsoled (1995), more than five hundred pages of what appeared to be stream-of-consciousness. Some baffled critics savaged it; James Wood wrote that “it invents its own category of badness.” But others came passionately to its defense, including Anita Brookner, who overcame her initial doubts to call it “almost certainly a masterpiece.” The author of two more acclaimed novels—When We Were Orphans (2000) and Never Let Me Go (2005)—Ishiguro has also written screenplays and teleplays, and he composes lyrics, most recently for the jazz chanteuse Stacey Kent. Their collaborative CD, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, was a best-selling jazz album in France.

In the pleasant white stucco house where Ishiguro lives with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Naomi, and his wife, Lorna, a former social worker, there are three gleaming electric guitars and a state-of-the-art stereo system. The small office upstairs where Ishiguro writes is custom designed in floor-to-ceiling blond wood with rows of color-coded binders neatly stacked in cubbyholes. Copies of his novels in Polish, Italian, Malaysian, and other languages line one wall. On the other are books for research—for example, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt and Managing Hotels Effectively by Eddystone C. 
Nebel III.   

 

INTERVIEWER

You had success with your fiction right from the start—but was there any writing from your youth that never got published?

KAZUO ISHIGURO

After university, when I was working with homeless people in west London, I wrote a half-hour radio play and sent it to the BBC. It was rejected but I got an encouraging response. It was kind of in bad taste, but it’s the first piece of juvenilia I wouldn’t mind other people seeing. It was called “Potatoes and Lovers.” When I submitted the manuscript, I spelled potatoes incorrectly, so it said potatos. It was about two young people who work in a fish-and-chips café. They are both severely cross-eyed, and they fall in love with each other, but they never acknowledge the fact that they’re cross-eyed. It’s the unspoken thing between them. At the end of the story they decide not to marry, after the narrator has a strange dream where he sees a family coming toward him on the seaside pier. The parents are cross-eyed, the children are cross-eyed, the dog is cross-eyed, and he says, All right, we’re not going to marry.

INTERVIEWER

What possessed you to write that story?

ISHIGURO

This was a time when I was starting to think about what my career was going to be. I’d failed to make it as a musician. I’d had lots of appointments with A&R people. After two seconds, they’d say, It’s not going to happen, man. So I thought I’d have a go at a radio play. 

Then, almost by accident, I came across a little advertisement for a creative-writing M.A. taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Today it’s a famous course, but in those days it was a laughable idea, alarmingly American. I discovered subsequently that it hadn’t run the previous year because not enough people had applied. Somebody told me Ian McEwan had done it a decade before. I thought he was the most exciting young writer around at that point. But the primary attraction was that I could go back to university for a year, fully funded by the government, and at the end I would only have to submit a thirty-page work of fiction. I sent the radio play to Malcolm Bradbury along with my application. 

I was slightly taken aback when I was accepted, because it suddenly became real. I thought, these writers are going to scrutinize my work and it’s going to be humiliating. Somebody told me about a cottage for rent in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall that had previously been used as a rehabilitation place for drug addicts. I called up and said, I need a place for one month because I’ve got to teach myself to write. And that’s what I did that summer of 1979. It was the first time I really thought about the structure of a short story. I spent ages figuring out things like viewpoint, how you tell the story, and so on. At the end I had two stories to show, so I felt more secure.

INTERVIEWER

Was it during that year at East Anglia that you first wrote about Japan?

ISHIGURO

Yes. I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me. When I tried to start a story: “I came out of Camden Town tube station and went into McDonald’s and there was my friend Harry from university,” I couldn’t think of what to write next. Whereas when I wrote about Japan, something unlocked. One of the stories I showed the class was set in Nagasaki at the time the bomb dropped, and it was told from the point of view of a young woman. I got a tremendous boost to my confidence from my fellow students. They all said, This Japanese stuff is really very exciting, and you’re going places. Then I got a letter from Faber accepting three stories for their Introduction series, which had an excellent track record. I knew that Tom Stoppard and Ted Hughes had been discovered like this.  

INTERVIEWER

Is that when you began writing A Pale View of Hills

ISHIGURO

Yes, and Robert McCrum at Faber gave me my first advance so that I could finish it. I had started a story set in a Cornish town about a young woman with a disturbed child, who had a murky background. I had it in my mind that this woman would alternate between saying, I’m going to devote myself to the child, and, I’ve fallen in love with this man and this child is a nuisance. I’d met many people like this when I was working with the homeless. But when I got this tremendous response to the Japanese short story from my classmates, I went back and looked at the story set in Cornwall. I realized that if I told this story in terms of Japan, everything that looked parochial and small would reverberate.

INTERVIEWER

You hadn’t been back to Japan since you were five, but how typically Japanese were your parents?

ISHIGURO

My mother’s very much a Japanese lady of her generation. She has a certain kind of manners—prefeminist Japanese by today’s standards. When I see old Japanese movies, I recognize a lot of the women behaving and speaking exactly like my mother does. Japanese women traditionally used a slightly different formal language from men, and these days that’s gotten much more mixed up. When my mother visited Japan in the eighties, she said she was stunned that young girls were using male language. 

My mother was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped. She was in her late teens. Her house got kind of distorted, and only when it rained did they realize the extent of the damage. The roof started leaking all over the place, like a tornado had hit it. As it happened, my mother was the only one in her family—four siblings, two parents—who suffered an injury when the bomb dropped. A flying piece of debris hit her. She was at home recovering when the rest of her family went off to other parts of the city to help. But she says that when she thinks of the war, the atomic bomb wasn’t what frightened her most. She remembers being in an underground air-raid shelter in the factory where she worked. They were all lined up in the dark and the bombs were landing right on top of them. They thought they were going to die. 

My father wasn’t typically Japanese at all because he grew up in Shanghai. He had a Chinese characteristic, which was that when something bad happened, he smiled.

INTERVIEWER

Why did your family move to England? 

ISHIGURO

Initially it was only going to be a short trip. My father was an oceanographer, and the head of the British National Institute of Oceanography invited him over to pursue an invention of his, to do with storm-surge movements. I never quite discovered what it was. The National Institute of Oceanography was set up during the cold war, and there was an air of secrecy about it. My father went to this place in the middle of the woods. I only went to visit it once.

INTERVIEWER

How did you feel about the move?

ISHIGURO

I don’t think I understood the implication of it. My grandfather and I had been to a department store in Nagasaki to buy this great toy: there was a picture of a hen, and you had a gun, and you fired at the hen. If you hit the right part, an egg would drop out. But I wasn’t allowed to take the toy with me. That was the main thing I was disappointed about. The journey took three days on a BOAC jet. I remember trying to sleep on a chair and people bringing grapefruit around and waking me up every time the plane stopped for refueling. I was nineteen before I got on a plane again.

I don’t remember being unhappy at all in England, though. Had I been older, I think it would have been much more difficult. And I don’t remember struggling with the language either, although I never had lessons. I loved cowboy films and TV series, and I learned bits of English from them. My favorite was Laramie, with Robert Fuller and John Smith. I used to watch The Lone Ranger, which had been famous in Japan as well. I idolized these cowboys. They’d say sure instead of yes. And my teacher would say, Kazuo, what do you mean by sure? I had to figure out that the way the Lone Ranger spoke was different from the way the choirmaster spoke. 

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of Guildford?

ISHIGURO

We arrived at Easter time, and my mother was taken aback by what seemed to be gory, sadistic images of this man nailed to a cross, bleeding. And these images were being shown to children! If you look at it from a Japanese point of view, or even a Martian’s point of view, it looks almost savage. My parents were not Christians. They did not believe that Jesus Christ was a god. But they were very polite about it, of course, in much the same way you would respect the customs of a strange tribe if you were their guest. 

To me, Guildford looked completely different. It was rural and austere and quite monochrome—very green. And there were no toys. In Japan, everything’s dizzy with images, you know, wires everywhere. It was quiet in Guildford. I remember being taken by this nice English lady, Auntie Molly, to buy some ice cream in a shop. I’d never seen a shop quite like it. It was so blank, just one person behind a counter. And the double-decker buses. I remember going on one of those during the first few days. It was quite a thrill. When you ride in those buses in narrow streets, it feels like you’re riding up on the hedges. I remember associating this fact with hedgehogs. Do you know what a hedgehog is?

INTERVIEWER

The quintessential English rodent?

ISHIGURO

You’ll never see one these days, even in the country. I think they’ve become quite extinct. But they were everywhere where we lived. They look like porcupines, except they’re not vicious. They’re sweet little creatures. They would come out at night and typically they’d get run over. You’d see this little thing with prickles, and innards bubbling around the outside, neatly swept into the gutter at the side of the road. I remember being puzzled by this. I saw these flattened, dead things, and I associated them with the buses that ran so close to the pavement.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read much as a child? 

ISHIGURO

Just before I left Japan, this superhero called Gekko Kamen was very popular. I used to stand in bookshops and try to memorize images from his adventures in illustrated children’s books, and then I would go home and draw my own. I’d get my mother to stitch my pages together so they’d look like a proper book.

As a child in Guildford, though, probably the only English things I read were Look and Learn comics. They’re educational books for British children, dull articles about how you get electricity and so on. I didn’t like them. Compared to the stuff I was being sent from my grandfather in Japan, they were rather colorless. There’s a particular Japanese series that I think still exists, a much livelier version of Look and Learn. It’s a big digest, and some of it is just pure entertainment, comic strip and prose with colorful illustrations. All kinds of learning aids would fall out when you opened it. 

Through these books I became aware of characters who’d become famous in Japan after I left, like the Japanese version of James Bond. He was called James Bond but he had little resemblance to either Ian Fleming’s or Sean Connery’s James Bond. He was a manga character. I thought him quite interesting. In the respectable British middle classes, James Bond was seen as representing everything that was wrong about modern society. The movies were disgusting—foul language was used. Bond had no morals because he would beat up people in a way that wasn’t gentlemanly, and there were all these girls in bikinis with whom he was presumably having sex. To see the movies as a child, you had first to find an adult who didn’t think James Bond was corroding civilization. But in Japan he appeared in this educational, approved context, so that showed me that the attitudes were very different.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do any writing at school?

ISHIGURO

Yes. I went to the local state primary school where they were experimenting with modern teaching methods. It was the mid-sixties, and my school rather complacently had no defined lessons. You could muck about with manual calculating machines, or you could make a cow out of clay, or you could write stories. This was a favorite activity because it was sociable. You wrote a bit, then you read each other’s things, and you read out loud. 

I created a character called Mr. Senior, which was the name of my friend’s scoutmaster. I thought this was a really cool name for a spy. I got into Sherlock Holmes around then in a big way. I’d do a pastiche of a Victorian detective story that began with a client arriving and telling a long story. But a lot of the energy went into decorating our books to look exactly like the paperbacks we saw in the shops—drawing bullet holes on the front and putting quotations from newspapers on the back. “Brilliant, chilling tension.” —Daily Mirror.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the experience affected you as a writer?

ISHIGURO

It was good fun, and it made me think of stories as effortless things. I think that stayed with me. I’ve never been intimidated by the idea of having to make up a story. It’s always been a relatively easy thing that people did in a relaxed environment. 

INTERVIEWER

What was your next obsession, after detective stories?

ISHIGURO

Rock music. After Sherlock Holmes, I stopped reading until my early twenties. But I’d played the piano since I was five. I started playing the guitar when I was fifteen, and I started listening to pop records—pretty awful pop records—when I was about eleven. I thought they were wonderful. The first record that I really liked was Tom Jones singing “The Green, Green Grass of Home.” Tom Jones is a Welshman, but “The Green, Green Grass of Home” is a cowboy song. He was singing songs about the cowboy world I knew from TV. 

I had a miniature Sony reel-to-reel that my father brought me from Japan, and I would tape directly from the speaker of the radio, an early form of downloading music. I would try to work out the words from this very bad recording with buzzes. Then when I was thirteen, I bought John Wesley Harding, which was my first Dylan album, right when it came out. 

INTERVIEWER

What did you like about it?

ISHIGURO

The words. Bob Dylan was a great lyricist, I knew that straightaway. Two things that I was always confident about, even in those days, were what was a good lyric and what was a good cowboy film. With Dylan, I suppose it was my first contact with stream-of-consciousness or surreal lyrics. And I discovered Leonard Cohen, who had a literary approach to lyrics. He had published two novels and a few volumes of poetry. For a Jewish guy, his imagery was very Catholic. Lot of saints and Madonnas. He was like a French chanteur. I liked the idea that a musician could be utterly self-sufficient. You write the songs yourself, sing them yourself, orchestrate them yourself. I found this appealing, and I began to write songs.

INTERVIEWER

What was your first song?

ISHIGURO

It was like a Leonard Cohen song. I think the opening line was, “Will your eyes never reopen, on the shore where we once lived and played.” 

INTERVIEWER

Was it a love song?

ISHIGURO

Part of the appeal of Dylan and Cohen was that you didn’t know what the songs were about. You’re struggling to express yourself, but you’re always being confronted with things you don’t fully understand and you have to pretend to understand them. That’s what life is like a lot of the time when you’re young, and you’re ashamed to admit it. Somehow, their lyrics seem to embody this state. 

INTERVIEWER

When you finally got on a plane again, at age nineteen, where did you go?

ISHIGURO

I went to America. That was my ambition from quite early on. I was obsessed with American culture. I saved up money working at a baby products company. I packed baby food and checked 8mm films with names like “Quads Are Born” and “Caesarean” for damages. In April of 1974, I got on a Canadian plane, which was the cheapest way to get over there. I landed in Vancouver and crossed the border by Greyhound in the middle of the night. I was in the United States for three months, traveling on a dollar a day. At that time, everyone had a romantic attitude toward these things. You had to figure out where you were going to sleep, or “crash,” each night. There was a whole network of young people hitchhiking along the West Coast. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you a hippie?

ISHIGURO

I suppose I was, at least superficially. Long hair, mustache, guitar, rucksack. Ironically, we all thought we were very individual. I hitchhiked up the Pacific Coast Highway, through Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all over northern California. 

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of the whole experience? 

ISHIGURO

It more than fulfilled my expectations. Some of it was nerve-racking. I rode a freight train from Washington state across Idaho to Montana. I was with a guy from Minnesota, and we’d spent the night in a mission. It was a pretty sleazy place. You had to strip at the door and enter a shower with all these winos. You tiptoed your way through black puddles, and at the other end they gave you laundered nightclothes and you slept in bunks. The next morning, we went to the freight yard with these old-fashioned hobo types. They had nothing to do with the hitchhiking culture, which mostly consisted of middle-class student types and runaways. These guys traveled by freight, and they went from skid row to skid row in different cities. They lived by donating blood. They were alcoholics. They were poor and sick, and they looked awful. There was nothing romantic about them at all. But they gave us a lot of good advice. They told us, Don’t try to jump the train when it’s moving, because you’ll die. If anyone tries to get on your boxcar, just throw them off. It doesn’t matter if you think it might kill them. They’ll want to steal something and you’re stuck with them until the train stops. If you go to sleep, you’ll be flung out just because you’ve got fifty dollars. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever write about this trip? 

ISHIGURO

I was keeping a diary, in this kind of pastiche Kerouac prose. Every day I would write what happened: Day 36. Met so-and-so. We did this. When I got home, I took these thick diaries and sat down and wrote out two of the episodes, in depth, using a first-person narrator. One was about the time my guitar was stolen in San Francisco. That’s the first time I started thinking of a structure. But I’d adopted this strange transatlantic twang in my prose, and because I’m not American, it sounded phony. 

INTERVIEWER

Like your cowboy phase?

ISHIGURO

There was an echo of that. There was something cool to me about the American accent. And words like freeway instead of motorway. I loved to be able to say with impunity, How far is it to the freeway? 

INTERVIEWER

It seems as if there was this pattern throughout your youth: you idolize something and then you mimic it. First with Sherlock Holmes, then Leonard Cohen, and then Kerouac.

ISHIGURO

When you’re an adolescent, that’s how you learn. Songwriting was actually one area where I appreciated that I had to do more than imitate. If my friends and I walked past somebody who was playing the guitar and sounding like Bob Dylan, we had utter contempt for him. It was all about finding your own voice. My friends and I were very conscious of the fact that we were British, and we couldn’t authentically write American-type songs. When you said “on the road,” you imagined Highway 61, not the M6. The challenge was to get an equivalent sound that felt authentically English. Being stuck on some lonely road in the drizzle, but by some gray roundabout on the Scottish border with the fog coming in, rather than in a Cadillac on a legendary freeway in America. 

INTERVIEWER

It says in your biographies that you were a grouse beater. Please explain.

ISHIGURO

My first summer after leaving school I worked for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle, where the royal family spend their summer holidays. In those days they used to recruit local students to be grouse beaters. The royal family would invite people to shoot on their estate. The Queen Mother and her guests would get into Land Rovers with shotguns and whiskey and drive over bits of the moor from shooting butt to shooting butt. That’s where they would aim and shoot. Fifteen of us would walk in formation across the moor, spaced about a hundred yards apart in the heather. The grouse live in the heather, and they hear us coming, and they hop. By the time we arrive at the butts, all of the grouse in the vicinity have accumulated and the Queen Mum and her friends are waiting with shotguns. Around the butts there’s no heather, so the grouse have got no choice but to fly up. Then the shooting starts. And then we walk to the next butt. It’s a bit like golf.

INTERVIEWER

Did you meet the Queen Mother?

ISHIGURO

Yes, quite regularly. Once she came round to our quarters, frighteningly, when there was only me and this other girl there. We didn’t know what on earth to do. We had a little chat, and she drove off again. But it was very informal. You’d often see her on the moors, though she herself didn’t shoot. I think there was a lot of alcohol consumed and it was all very chummy. 

INTERVIEWER

Was that the first time you were in a world like that?

ISHIGURO

It was the last time I was in a world like that.

INTERVIEWER

What did you make of it?

ISHIGURO

I thought it was interesting. But more fascinating was the world of the people who ran those estates, the gillies. They spoke in a Scottish dialect that none of us—including the Scottish students—could understand. They knew the moors very, very well. They were tough characters. And they were deferential toward us because we were students—until the actual grouse-shoot started. It was their job to keep us in absolute formation. If any of us went out of line, there was a chance that the grouse would escape. So they’d turn into these mad sergeant majors. They’d stand up on the cliff and curse at us in this strange Scottish, just absolutely scream their heads off—You bloody bastard! Then they’d come down off the cliff and be utterly polite and deferential again. 

INTERVIEWER

What were your university years like?

ISHIGURO

I studied English and philosophy at the University of Kent. But I found university dull compared to the year that had taken me from the royal family to freight trains via baby-product packaging. After a year, I decided to take another year out. I went to a place called Renfrew, near Glasgow, for six months to volunteer as a community worker on a housing estate. I was completely at sea when I first arrived. I’d grown up in a very middle-class environment in southern England, and this was the industrial Scottish heartland at a time of declining manufacturing. Typically these little housing estates, which were really no more than two streets, divided themselves into enemy factions that hated each other. There was a tension between the third-generation people who’d been living in the area and the families who’d suddenly arrive having been evicted from some other estate. Politics was very much alive there, but it was real politics. It was a different planet from student politics, which tended to be about whether or not you were going to protest the latest NATO move. 

INTERVIEWER

What impact did this experience have on you?

ISHIGURO

I grew up a lot. I stopped being this person who whizzed around at a hundred miles an hour saying that everything was “far out.” When I was traveling around America, the third question, after “What bands are you into?” and “Where are you from?” was “What do you think is the meaning of life?” Then you’d exchange views and weird quasi-Buddhist meditation techniques. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was being passed around. No one really read it, but it was a cool name. When I came back from Scotland, I’d grown out of that. I’d seen a world where that kind of thing meant nothing. These were people who were struggling. There was a lot of drink and drugs. Some people were going about things with real courage, but it was quite easy just to give up. 

INTERVIEWER

What was going on with your writing then?

ISHIGURO

At the time, people weren’t talking about books. They were talking about TV plays, fringe theater, cinema, rock music. Then I read Jerusalem the Golden by Margaret Drabble. By this time I’d begun reading the big nineteenth-century novels, so it came as an absolute revelation to me that the same techniques could be applied to tell a story of modern life. You didn’t have to write about Raskolnikov murdering an old lady, or the Napoleonic Wars. You could just write a novel about hanging around. I attempted to write a novel at that time, but I didn’t get far. It was pretty bad. I have it upstairs. It was about these young students drifting around England one summer. Conversations in pubs, girlfriends and boyfriends. 

INTERVIEWER

That is one of the striking things about your work—you never did what is so common now, which is to fictionalize your own story: life in contemporary London, or growing up in a Japanese home in England.

ISHIGURO

That’s what I’m telling you—I did do it. But it was half-hearted, because my main thing still was trying to write songs that went over the same territory. 

INTERVIEWER

Looking back at your first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, what do you think of it now?

ISHIGURO

I’m very fond of it, but I do think it’s too baffling. The ending is almost like a puzzle. I see nothing artistically to be gained by puzzling people to that extent. That was just inexperience—misjudging what is too obvious and what is subtle. Even at the time the ending felt unsatisfactory. 

INTERVIEWER

What were you trying to accomplish? 

ISHIGURO

Let’s say somebody is talking about a mutual friend, and he’s getting angry about this friend’s indecisiveness about a relationship he’s in. He’s getting absolutely furious. Then you realize that he’s appropriating the friend’s situation to talk about himself. I thought this was an interesting way to narrate a novel: to have somebody who finds it too painful or awkward to talk about his own life appropriate someone else’s story to tell his own. I’d spent a lot of time working with homeless people, listening to people’s stories about how they’d got to this place, and I’d gotten very sensitive to the fact that they weren’t telling those stories in a straightforward way. 

In A Pale View of Hills, the narrator is a late-middle-aged woman, and her grown-up daughter has committed suicide. This is announced at the beginning of the book. But instead of explaining what led up to that, she starts to remember a friendship she had back in Nagasaki, just after the end of the Second World War. I thought the reader would think, Why the hell are we hearing about this other thing? What does she feel about her daughter’s suicide? Why did the daughter commit suicide? I hoped readers would start to realize that her story is being told through the story of her friend. But because I didn’t know how to create the texture of memory, I had to resort to something quite gimmicky at the end, where a scene back in Japan blurs into a scene that obviously took place much more recently. Even now, when I do an event to talk about my latest book, somebody asks, Were those two women the same woman? What happens at the end on the bridge when “you” switches to “we”?

INTERVIEWER

Would you say the writing program helped make you a writer? 

ISHIGURO

The way I see it, I tried to be a songwriter, but the door never opened. I went to East Anglia, everyone encouraged me, and within months I’d published stories in magazines and gotten a publishing contract for my first novel. And it helped me technically as a writer. I’ve never felt that I have a particular facility at writing interesting prose. I write quite mundane prose. I think where I’m good is between the drafts. I can look at one draft, and I have lots of good ideas for what to do with the next one. 

After Malcolm Bradbury, my other important mentor was Angela Carter, who taught me a lot about the business of writing. She introduced me to Deborah Rogers, who’s still my agent today. And Angela sent my stuff to Bill Buford at Granta without telling me. There was a pay phone in the kitchen in the flat I was renting in Cardiff. One day it rang, and I thought, This is odd, the pay phone is ringing, and there was this man Bill Buford at the other end. 

INTERVIEWER

What inspired your second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, about a painter whose pro-militarist stance during the war comes back to haunt him?

ISHIGURO

There was a subplot in A Pale View of Hills about an old teacher who has to rethink the values on which he’s built his life. I said to myself, I would like to write a full-blown novel about a man in this situation—in this case, an artist whose career becomes contaminated because he happens to live at a certain time. 

Then The Remains of the Day was set in motion by that novel. I looked at An Artist of the Floating World and thought, This is quite satisfactory in terms of exploring this theme about the wasted life in terms of career, but what about in your personal life? When you’re young, you think everything is to do with your career. Eventually you realize that your career is only a part of it. And I was feeling that. I wanted to write the whole thing again. How do you waste your life careerwise, and how do you waste your life in the personal arena?

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide that Japan was no longer the appropriate setting for that story?

ISHIGURO

By the time I started The Remains of the Day, I realized that the essence of what I wanted to write was moveable. 

INTERVIEWER

I think that’s very particular to you. It shows a certain chameleon-like ability.

ISHIGURO

I don’t think it is that chameleon-like. What I’m saying is I’ve written the same book three times. I just somehow got away with it.

INTERVIEWER

You think you have, but everyone who read your first novels and then read The Remains of the Day had a psychedelic moment—they were transported from this convincing Japanese setting to Lord Darlington’s estate.

ISHIGURO

That’s because people see the last thing first. For me, the essence doesn’t lie in the setting. I know that it does in some cases. In Primo Levi, take away the setting and you’ve taken away the book. But I went to a great performance of The Tempest recently, set in the Arctic. Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that. For example, I’ve arrived at an odd setting for the novel I’m writing at the moment. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s it about?

ISHIGURO

I won’t talk too much about it, but let me use its early stages as an example. I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the Star Wars strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” Never Let Me Go went in that direction, and that has its own challenges. So for a long time, I had this problem.

INTERVIEWER

What did you decide?

ISHIGURO

A possible solution was to set the novel in Britain in 450 A.D. when the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons took over, which led to the annihilation of the Celts. Nobody knows what the hell happened to the Celts. They just disappeared. It was either genocide or assimilation. I figured that the further you go back in time, the more likely the story would be read metaphorically. People see Gladiator and interpret it as a modern parable.

INTERVIEWER

How did the English setting come about for The Remains of the Day

ISHIGURO

It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel. And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler? We thought this was a very amusing idea. From then on I became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor.

INTERVIEWER

As a metaphor for what?

ISHIGURO

Two things. One is a certain kind of emotional frostiness. The English butler has to be terribly reserved and not have any personal reaction to anything that happens around him. It seemed to be a good way of getting into not just Englishness but the universal part of us that is afraid of getting involved emotionally. The other is the butler as an emblem of someone who leaves the big political decisions to somebody else. He says, I’m just going to do my best to serve this person, and by proxy I’ll be contributing to society, but I myself will not make the big decisions. Many of us are in that position, whether we live in democracies or not. Most of us aren’t where the big decisions are made. We do our jobs, and we take pride in them, and we hope that our little contribution is going to be used well. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you a fan of Jeeves?

ISHIGURO

Jeeves was a big influence. Not just Jeeves, but all butler figures that walked on in the backgrounds of films. They were amusing in a subtle way. It wasn’t slapstick humor. There was some pathos in the way they would come out with a dry line for something that would normally require a more frantic expression. And Jeeves is the pinnacle of that.

By then I was very consciously trying to write for an international audience. It was a reaction, I think, against a perceived parochialism in British fiction of the generation that preceded mine. Looking back now I don’t know if that was a just charge or not. But there was a conscious feeling among my peers that we had to address an international audience and not just a British one. One of the ways I thought I could do this was to take a myth of England that was known internationally—in this case, the English butler.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do a lot of research?

ISHIGURO

Yes, but I was surprised to find how little there was about servants written by servants, given that a sizable proportion of people in this country were employed in service right up until the Second World War. It was amazing that so few of them had thought their lives worth writing about. So most of the stuff in The Remains of the Day about the rituals of being a servant was made up. When Stevens talks of the “staff plan,” that’s made up. 

INTERVIEWER

In that book, and in so many of your novels, the main character seems tragically to miss his or her chance at love by seconds. 

ISHIGURO

I don’t know if they miss it by seconds. In a way they’ve missed it by miles. They might look back and think, There was this moment when it could have all been different. It’s tempting for them to think, Oh, it was just a little twist of fate. But in fact, there are colossal things that make them miss not just love but something essential in life. 

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think you have these characters, one after another, do this?

ISHIGURO

Without psychoanalyzing myself, I can’t say why. You should never believe an author if he tells you why he has certain recurring themes. 

INTERVIEWER

The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize. Did success change anything for you?

ISHIGURO

When I published An Artist of the Floating World, I was still living the life of the obscure author. That all changed overnight, about six months after it was published, when it was nominated for the Booker, and it won the Whitbread award. That was when we decided to buy an answering machine. Suddenly, people I barely knew were asking us to dinner. It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to say yes to everything. Otherwise you lose control over your life. By the time I won the Booker Prize three years later, I’d learned how to politely turn people down. 

INTERVIEWER

Does the publicity side of a writer’s life—book tours, interviews—end up affecting your writing? 

ISHIGURO

It affects your writing in two obvious ways. One is that it takes up a third of your working life. The other is that you spend a lot of your time being quizzed by often very insightful people. Why is there always a three-legged cat in your stuff, or what’s this obsession with pigeon pie? A lot of what goes into your work can be unconscious, or at least the emotional reverberations from these images might have been unanalyzed. It’s difficult for these things to remain that way when you do a book tour. In the past, I used to think it was nicer to be as honest and open as possible, but I’ve seen the damage that this does. Some writers get quite screwed up. They end up feeling resentful and violated. And it’s got to have some effect on how you write. You sit down to write and you think, I am a realist and I suppose I am a kind of absurdist as well. You start to become much more self-conscious. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you actively think of problems translators might have when you’re writing? 

ISHIGURO

When you find yourself in different parts of the world, you become embarrassingly aware of the things that culturally just don’t translate. Sometimes you spend four days at a time explaining a book to Danes. I don’t particularly like, for example, to use brand names and other cultural reference points, not just because they don’t transfer geographically. They don’t transfer very well in time either. In thirty years’ time, they won’t mean anything. You’re not just writing for people in different countries. You’re writing for different eras. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing routine?

ISHIGURO

I usually write from ten o’clock in the morning until about six o’clock. I try not to attend to e-mails or telephone calls until about four o’clock. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you work on a computer?

ISHIGURO

I have two desks. One has a writing slope and the other has a computer on it. The computer dates from 1996. It’s not connected to the Internet. I prefer to work by pen on my writing slope for the initial drafts. I want it to be more or less illegible to anyone apart from myself. The rough draft is a big mess. I pay no attention to anything to do with style or coherence. I just need to get everything down on paper. If I’m suddenly struck by a new idea that doesn’t fit with what’s gone before, I’ll still put it in. I just make a note to go back and sort it all out later. Then I plan the whole thing out from that. I number sections and move them around. By the time I write my next draft, I have a clearer idea of where I’m going. This time round, I write much more carefully.

INTERVIEWER

How many drafts do you typically write?

ISHIGURO

I rarely go beyond the third draft. Having said that, there are individual passages that I’ve had to write over and over again.

INTERVIEWER

Very few writers have had such positive reviews as you did for your first three books. And then The Unconsoled came out. Although some critics now consider it your finest work, others said it was the worst thing they’d ever read. How did you feel about that? 

ISHIGURO

I think I was almost urging myself to enter more controversial territory. If there was a criticism of my work during the first three books, perhaps it was that it wasn’t brave enough. I did feel that there was some echo of truth about that. There was a review of The Remains of the Day in The New Yorker that appeared to be a glowing review right up until the end. Then it said: the trouble with this is that everything works like clockwork.

INTERVIEWER

It’s too perfect.

ISHIGURO

Yes. It doesn’t have a messiness, a daringness on my part. Everything is so controlled. Other people might not think much of being criticized for being too perfect. Wow, such criticism! But in this case it echoed with something I was feeling. I was refining and refining the same novel. So I felt quite hungry at that point to do things I wasn’t so sure of.

Shortly after the publication of The Remains of the Day, my wife and I were sitting in a greasy spoon, having a discussion about how to write novels for an international audience and trying to come up with universal themes. My wife pointed out that the language of dreams is a universal language. Everyone identifies with it, whichever culture they come from. In the weeks that followed, I started to ask myself, What is the grammar of dreams? Just now, the two of us are having this conversation in this room with nobody else in the house. A third person is introduced into this scene. In a conventional work, there would be a knock on the door and somebody would come in, and we would say hello. The dreaming mind is very impatient with this kind of thing. Typically what happens is we’ll be sitting here alone in this room, and suddenly we’ll become aware that a third person has been here all the time at my elbow. There might be a sense of mild surprise that we hadn’t been aware of this person up until this point, but we would just go straight into whatever point the person is raising. I thought this was quite interesting. And I started to see parallels between memory and dream, the way you manipulate both according to your emotional needs at the time. The language of dreams would also allow me to write a story that people would read as a metaphorical tale as opposed to a comment on a particular society. Over some months I built up a folder full of notes, and eventually I felt ready to write a novel.

INTERVIEWER

When you were writing it, did you have a conception of a plot? 

ISHIGURO

There are two plots. There’s the story of Ryder, a man who has grown up with unhappy parents on the verge of divorce. He thinks the only way they can be reconciled is if he fulfills their expectations. As a result, he ends up as this fantastic pianist. He thinks that if he gives this crucial concert, it will heal everything. Of course, by then, it’s too late. Whatever has happened with his parents has happened long ago. And there’s the story of Brodsky, an old man who is trying, as a last act, to make good on a relationship that he’s completely messed up. He thinks that if he can bring it off as a conductor, he’ll be able to win back the love of his life. Those two stories take place in a society that believes all its ills are the result of having chosen the wrong musical values.

INTERVIEWER

How did you react to your baffled critics?

ISHIGURO

It’s never my intention to be willfully obscure. The novel was as clear as I could make it at the time, given that it was meant to follow dream logic. In a dream, one character often will be portrayed by different people. I used that technique and I think that led to some confusion. But I wouldn’t change a word of The Unconsoled. That’s who I was at the time. I think it has found its place over the years. I get asked about it more than anything else. When I’m touring with a book, I know that a section of the evening has to be devoted to The Unconsoled, particularly on America’s West Coast. Academics write about it more than any of my other novels. 

INTERVIEWER

Next came When We Were Orphans, about an English detective, Christopher Banks, who tries to unravel the mystery of his parents’ disappearance in Shanghai. 

ISHIGURO

When We Were Orphans is one of the few examples in my career when I did want to write something that was set in a particular time and place. I had a fascination with Shanghai in the thirties. It was a prototype for the cosmopolitan city of today, with all these racial groups in their little sectors. My grandfather had worked there and my father was born there. In the eighties, my father brought back photograph albums from the time my grandfather was there. There were a lot of company photographs: people in white suits sitting in offices with ceiling fans. It was a different world. He told me various stories—for example, my grandfather packing a gun to take my father to say good-bye to their manservant, who was dying of cancer in a restricted Chinese area. All these things are evocative. 

And I had wanted to write a detective story. The figure of the English detective—Sherlock Holmes—has a lot of similarities with the English butler. Cerebral rather than devoted to duty, but locked into a professional persona. Emotionally distant. Like the musician in The Unconsoled, there’s something in his personal world that is broken. There’s a peculiar elision in Christopher Banks’s mind between solving the mystery of his parents and stopping the Second World War. That’s the odd logic that I wanted to have at the heart of When We Were Orphans. It was an attempt to write about that part of ourselves that always sees things as we did as children. But the novel didn’t really work the way I wanted it to. My original concept was that there would be a genre novel within the novel. I wanted Banks to be solving another proper mystery in the Agatha Christie way. But I ended up throwing out almost a year’s work, a hundred and nine pages. When We Were Orphans gave me more trouble than any other book.

INTERVIEWER

I understand there were also a few aborted versions of Never Let Me Go

ISHIGURO

Yes. The original idea was to write a story about students, young people who are going to go through a human life span in thirty years instead of eighty. I thought that they were going to come across nuclear weapons that were being moved around at night in huge lorries and be doomed in some way. It finally fell in place when I decided to make the students clones. Then I had a sci-fi reason for why their life spans are limited. One of the attractions about using clones is that it makes people ask immediately, What does it mean to be a human being? It’s a secular route to the Dostoyevskian question, What is a soul? 

INTERVIEWER

Were you particularly interested in the boarding-school setting?

ISHIGURO

It’s a nice metaphor for childhood. It’s a situation where the people in charge can, to a large extent, control what the kids know and don’t know. This seems to me not so different from what we do with our children in real life. In many ways, children grow up in a bubble. We try to maintain that bubble—quite properly, I think. We shield them from unpleasant news. We do this so thoroughly that if you walk around with a small child, strangers you meet enter into the conspiracy. If they’re having a row, they’ll stop. They don’t want to give the kid the bad news that adults have rows, let alone torture each other. A boarding school is a physical embodiment of that phenomenon. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you see the novel, as many critics have, as very dark?

ISHIGURO

Actually, I always thought of Never Let Me Go as my cheerful novel. In the past, I had written about characters’ failings. They were warnings to myself, or how-not-to-lead-your-life books.

With Never Let Me Go I felt that for the first time I had given myself permission to focus on the positive aspects of human beings. OK, they might be flawed. They might be prone to the usual human emotions like jealousy and pettiness and so on. But I wanted to show three people who were essentially decent. When they finally realize that their time is limited, I wanted them not to be preoccupied with their status or their material possessions. I wanted them to care most about each other and setting things right. So for me, it was saying positive things about human beings against the rather bleak fact of our mortality.  

INTERVIEWER

How do you choose your titles?

ISHIGURO

It’s a bit like naming a child. A lot of debate goes on. Some of them I didn’t invent—The Remains of the Day, for example. I was at a writers’ festival in Australia, sitting on a beach with Michael Ondaatje, Victoria Glendinning, Robert McCrum, and a Dutch writer named Judith Hertzberg. We were playing a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel. Michael Ondaatje suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale. It was on that level. I kept explaining that it had to do with this butler. Then Judith Hertzberg mentioned a phrase of Freud’s, Tagesreste, which he used to refer to dreams, which is something like “debris of the day.” When she translated it off the top of her head, it came out as “remains of the day.” It seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere. 

With the next novel, it was a choice between The Unconsoled and Piano Dreams. A friend had persuaded me and my wife to choose the right name for our daughter, Naomi. We’d been torn between Asami and Naomi, and he had said, Asami sounds like a cross between Saddam and Assad—who was then the dictator of Syria. Well, this same guy said, Dostoyevsky might have chosen the title The Unconsoled, Elton John might have chosen Piano Dreams. So I went for The Unconsoled

INTERVIEWER

You are, in fact, a fan of Dostoyevsky. 

ISHIGURO

Yes. And of Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins—that full-blooded nineteenth-century fiction I first read in university. 

INTERVIEWER

What do you like about it?

ISHIGURO

It’s realist in the sense that the world created in the fiction is more or less akin to the world we live in. Also, it’s work you can get lost in. There’s a confidence in narrative, which uses the traditional tools of plot and structure and character. Because I hadn’t read a lot as a child, I needed a firm foundation. Charlotte Brontë of Villette and Jane Eyre; Dostoyevsky of those four big novels; Chekhov’s short stories; Tolstoy of War and Peace. Bleak House. And at least five of the six Jane Austen novels. If you have read those, you have a very solid foundation. And I like Plato.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

ISHIGURO

In most of his Socratic dialogues, what happens is, some guy is walking along the street who thinks he knows it all, and Socrates sits down with him and demolishes him. This might seem destructive, but the idea is that the nature of what is good is elusive. Sometimes people base their whole lives on a sincerely held belief that could be wrong. That’s what my early books are about: people who think they know. But there is no Socrates figure. They are their own Socrates. 

There’s a passage in one of Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates says that idealistic people often become misanthropic when they are let down two or three times. Plato suggests it can be like that with the search for the meaning of the good. You shouldn’t get disillusioned when you get knocked back. All you’ve discovered is that the search is difficult, and you still have a duty to keep on searching.