Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘I have to be careful to guard against genius syndrome’

Nobel laureate on writing his new novel in lockdown and his admiration for Irish culture

British author Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘I am not really that interested in what happened, I’m much more interested in what the narrator thinks happened’. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty

British author Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘I am not really that interested in what happened, I’m much more interested in what the narrator thinks happened’. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty

 

As the only living British winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, you might expect Kazuo Ishiguro to have, shall we say, notions about himself. But no: on our Zoom call he is happy to speak for longer than many writers, asks after Irish Times colleagues, and is addressed not as Kazuo – or indeed Sir Kazuo – but informally as Ish. (He does, admittedly, dress all in black, but there is not a turtleneck to be seen.)

This unassuming air extends to his location: English interviewers always comment on his living in London’s Golders Green, as a source of wonder. Why? “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe they expect me to be living in Notting Hill.” Has the lockdown been hard? “I’m kind of guilty about the fact that it hasn’t been troublesome personally for me. In some ways it’s suited me; it’s validated the way I normally exist.”

Part of lockdown he spent finishing his new novel, Klara and the Sun, which is a strong addition to a body of work that appears well-behaved on the surface, but swells with emotions that threaten to saturate the page. It’s a book that’s hard to talk about without spoiling it: “The suspense in my books,” he says, “depends on the fact that some things are withheld, and what it does emotionally to the reader when that piece of information is eventually revealed.”

Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid

So as Never Let Me Go, perhaps Ishiguro’s best known work, is now the “novel about clones”, so details of Klara and the Sun will drip out. It’s enough to say that it’s set in the future, and the narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend, an AI device sold to provide company to children. The story, delivered in a light, open style, touches on artificial intelligence and human potential, but has a pessimistic vision at its heart, reflecting comments Ishiguro made in his Nobel Prize lecture in 2017.

“Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits,” he said then, “but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites.” Being replaced by robots, in other words. (What, even interviewers? Oh sorry, you said elites.)

“I do worry about it,” he says now, “because it’s on us already.” Take the Crispr gene-editing technique: “I can’t see how on earth you can control Crispr and confine it just to medicine and cure. So it’s obviously going to be used to make us not just better able to resist illness, it’ll be used to make us better in other respects, intellectually, whatever.”

These threats to society described in Klara and the Sun are at odds with Klara’s innocent, cheerful tone. “I wanted this to be a kind of sunnier book, to be a kind of reply to Never Let Me Go.” Even the title has simplicity that is unusual for him. “It’s a very rare instance of one where the title is the one I started out with. Usually you end up with a huge list. And you spend every day coming across potential titles, you see a road sign: ‘Steep Hill Ahead’ – ‘Yeah, what about that?’”

Kazuo Ishiguro, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature receives the award in 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
Kazuo Ishiguro, laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, receives the award in 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

He says his last novel, The Buried Giant, until the last minute was called Black Waterside, after the folk song, which reminds me that Ishiguro is – as he puts it – “a kind of failed musician”. He speaks enthusiastically about listening to “traditional Irish music” in St James’s Church in Dingle, and of his admiration for Andy Irvine, Planxty and Paul Brady. “I find that aspect of Irish culture really appealing – the way that music is so important in a way it isn’t in England.”

He’s also an admirer of Irish playwrights from JM Synge (“one of my big influences – that sense of the bleak loneliness of human existence”) and Conor McPherson (“though,” he laughs, “I kind of wish he’d get back to the hardcore stuff with alcoholic ghosts”).

But back to books: Ishiguro says the plainness of the title Klara and the Sun connects to his being “influenced by the idea of children’s stories. I had that atmosphere in my head of a young children’s tale with these bright illustrations. I’ve always been fascinated by the world of these children’s books because they’re very poignant, and they seem to have a special licence to bend normal rules.”

What’s normal is always subjective in Ishiguro’s books, which is a function of how he’s “not really that interested in what happened, I’m much more interested in what the narrator thinks happened. That battle people have with themselves about what they think they did or who they think they are.”

Like all his novels, Klara reads as though meticulously ordered and designed; does he plan a lot? “I often don’t know what to do in terms of plot but I know where I want to end up emotionally. I’ve talked to other writers who say they’d get very bored if they knew where it was going to go. I was on stage with David Mitchell and I was genuinely astonished when he said he never knew the endings of his books, and he in turn was absolutely astonished [that I did].”

All my writing life, people have given me prizes. I’m not saying it’s not a big deal; I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly honoured. But it feels like something that’s happening in a parallel universe

So he’s never, as some authors claim, experienced the characters “taking control” of the story? “I think people like to say this perhaps more than it is true,” Ishiguro says. “I’ve often heard authors say, ‘I always intended Mildred to become a scientist and chess player, but she wouldn’t let me.’ And I think, come on!”

Klara and the Sun is dedicated to the memory of Ishiguro’s mother, who died in 2019, aged 92. “The book is much closer to my mother than another book might have been,” Ishiguro says. “I had more or less finished the book, I was actually sitting at her bedside, in the small hours of the morning, and I was making some notes, some ways to do the final bits of the book. So I associate it in that sense. But my wife says maybe there’s a lot more of my mother in Klara than I think, because there’s a big parental thing about Klara. She’s ultimately been programmed to look after a child. So I thought it was a bit of a no-brainer.”

How about genre, I ask. There was much debate about whether The Buried Giant was “really” a fantasy novel; similarly for Never Let Me Go and science fiction. Does it frustrate him when people get hung up on whether his book fits a particular genre?

“I would prefer it if people said, ‘this is science fiction’, ‘this is fantasy’, rather than that it only applies to the time and place in which it’s set. My first two novels were set in Japan and people were recommending me because I’ll give an ‘insight into the Japanese mind’. With The Remains of the Day, I made a very conscious decision. I thought, I’ll write the same book I wrote set in Japan. I’ll set it in England this time, and maybe people will think it applies to them!

“I mind far less [being categorised as genre] – in fact if it’s sci-fi I positively welcome it.” His affection for the field is reciprocated, SF novelist Adam Roberts tweeted recently: “I remember being impressed that when Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke award he turned up to the ceremony in person, and chatted with all the people there, some dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers.”

Speaking of awards, has the Nobel changed things for him? He can’t be sure, as he was already “deep into Klara and the Sun when the Nobel happened. It might be that next time I try to start a novel I’ll be somewhere else. But I don’t think so. I mean this feels very arrogant but I’ve got quite used to winning prizes.

“All my writing life, people have given me prizes. I’m not saying it’s not a big deal; I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly honoured. But it feels like something that’s happening in a parallel universe. So maybe this Golders Green thing is very important! It’s not a place full of writers. I sit in my study and it doesn’t have anything to do with that world.”

“But,” he adds, “there is this thing called genius syndrome. You win the Nobel and you think you’re a genius at everything. And so suddenly your career goes really haywire.” He laughs. “So I have to be careful to guard against genius syndrome.”

On the evidence of our conversation today, he doesn’t have much to worry about.

Klara and the Sun is published by Faber & Faber on March 2nd. Kazuo Ishiguro appears at ILFDublin on Friday, March 12th

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