||Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro
by Kevin Chong
Although Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel, Never Let Me Go, has been touted as a science-fiction novel, this story of cloning and organ donation is a backdrop for some familiar themes in his writing: the slipperiness of memory, the helpless, half-comprehending state of childhood, the elusiveness of happiness.
Never Let Me Go is told by Kath H., a "carer" who watches over "donors" until they make their fourth donation and "complete." Kath tells us, with no resignation or uncertainty, that she'll eventually be a donor herself. It doesn't take long to brush past the cloak of euphemism: Kath is a clone whose organs will eventually be harvested. As her life approaches its predestined conclusion, Kath looks back at her childhood at Hailsham, a special school for these clones where students are encouraged to express themselves through art. It's at Hailsham that she meets Tommy, the boy she loves; and her best friend Ruth, who is also Tommy's girlfriend.
On the phone from a hotel in Toronto, Ishiguro spoke at length not only about his new novel, his writing process, but also about Gillian Welch, the blues, and his guitar collection. Music was Ishiguro's first passion and is obviously something he still loves.
Kevin Chong: Where did the the idea for this novel originate?
Kazuo Ishiguro: It's difficult for me to pinpoint it to one time, one place. I have a file at home marked as "Students' Novel", which goes back to 1990. I tried to write this book three times. There were two aborted attempts. Looking back at those early attempts-basically I had that section in the middle of Never Let Me Go, when these characters are in these wrecked farmhouses in England-
KC: The Cottages?
KI: Yeah, except in those days they weren't called the Cottages. These people were called "students", but I knew that they weren't university students. And I knew that some kind of strange fate hung over them, but I wasn't sure what. I grasped quite a lot about the relationships and what I wanted to say thematically, but I couldn't find a framework. I just gave up. I wrote another novel, The Unconsoled, and then I tried again. I did some other scribblings and then I abandoned it a second time to write yet another novel, When We Were Orphans.
It was only on the third attempt that I managed to move forward, when in England there was a lot in the media about cloning, bio-technology; we had the Dolly the Sheep business. And that was the first time it occurred to me that I could put that framework on my story. In the past I had played with stories to do with nuclear weapons-that the characters stumble across nuclear weapons being moved around the English countryside. Something like that. I couldn't get it to work.
KC: I read that you did some research on cloning and organ donation, yet none of this appears in Never Let Me Go. Was there ever any plan to write in detail about cloning?
KI: No. I decided quite early on this wasn't going to be one of these conventional sci-fi books that really carefully mapped out the science. I was imagining a pretty strange alternative historical scenario: there'd been a breakthrough in bio-technology sometime after the Second World War. What I did as a kind of trick for myself was that I tried to imagine what the world would be like if the breakthroughs that had occurred in the 1950s, had been in bio-technology rather than in physics and nuclear and weaponry.
I needed to satisfy in my own mind roughly how it would work. Some people ask me how it is that the characters do four donations. I knew the answer to that all along. I did do some research into the kind of living donor organ transplants currently being done. It's mainly the kidney when you're talking about a live donor. But actually there are some pretty well-established surgical procedures done by splitting organs.
KC: Like lungs?
KI: Yeah, you can split the lung. You can split the liver, in particular. But even parts of inner bowels-this is a weird conversation. (laughs)
I looked at that and thought the reader doesn't need all of it in the story. More importantly, by leaving out the details, the story could work as a metaphor for our condition as human beings: the fact that we have limited lifespans and at some stage we do lose various of our organs or our functions, unless something strikes us down in the meantime. And we're kind of aware of this. At some some point in our childhood we learn about our mortality. But in some sense, we end up fooling ourselves that we're not going to die in the end, because maybe otherwise we wouldn't have the same energy or incentive to learn and achieve, or the patience to work things out.
KC: The students in your story are taught to prize creative expression, and they create works of art that they trade and use to decorate their rooms. The students are taught that art is worthwhile, even though none of them is destined to be any more than an organ donor. I guess you can say that same futility-the functionlessness of art-is felt by all artists, in general.
KI: It would hold for any enterprise people do with passion, I guess. The students invent their own myth that the arts will make some difference to their fates. Just as they think love might. It seems to me that's what we all do. We like to think that love will conquer everything, or that art will make us somehow immortal. But even if this isn't true, without these things our lives would be somewhat impoverished.
KC: Your writing is very elliptical. Is it like that from the start, or is there much more exposition in earlier drafts that you pare away?
KI: Well, these days there's not much I pare away in that sense. I still pare away, but that's not why the writing is elliptical. I've been writing for a long time, so I structure my stories to be elliptical or oblique. I do plan quite a lot. Sometimes I can spend a year planning a book.
KC: Do you outline a plot then?
KI: I don't really go by plot. My books are not really plotty in a conventional sense. The books kind of progress from one situation to the next. To some extent, my stories can be told in a completely different order, because they tend to be told through people's memories. There's no chronological link between one episode and the next. You can move the episodes around. I put them in a certain order because that's what I need.
KC: Did you ever think to yourself that you were writing a science-fiction novel?
KI: It never really occurred to me that people would think of it as science fiction. People might say there is a science-fiction dimension to it. I don't think it fulfills a lot of the expectations of the genre. It's more like a dystopian novel, in the tradition of books like Brave New World.
KC: Or John Wyndham?
KI: I've never read John Wyndham. A number of people have mentioned him. I know what some of his books are about because of the movies, which I saw many years ago, like The Day of the Triffids. But I don't quite know what he's about. I know he sets his book in quite ordinary landscapes, apart from one big difference-the giant plants are taking over the world or something of that nature.
KC: In the past you've talked about how after writing two novels set in Japan, The Remains of the Day was an attempt to break out of a certain expectation of your being a "writer of Japan." And the novel after that, The Unconsoled, was an attempt to break out of a carefully controlled narrative style you perfected. Is Never Let Me Go an attempt to break out of anything-say, historical fiction? Do you still feel the need to defy expectations?
KI: I don't think so. I felt the need to defy expectations the most over the question of Japan. I felt like a charlatan because I had somehow set myself up as a kind of expert on Japanese history and culture, when I didn't think I was. I was uncomfortable about that. And I guess, as well, I felt that perhaps what I had achieved as a novelist wasn't being valued properly, because I was creating my own world, and meanwhile people thought I was just reporting in a journalistic sense what I knew about Japan. By moving away from Japan, I think it was much easier for people to identify what was more characteristically my fictional world.
KC: But then came The Unconsoled-
KI: I think The Remains of the Day was the first and last time I consciously had to get away from a certain thing. The writing of The Unconsoled wasn't really an attempt to get away from The Remains of the Day. That's just where I went. And from my viewpoint, it doesn't feel like such a huge change. That's what happens at the end of a number of years of trying to work on something. I don't know whether my latest book is such a big departure from the previous book-
KC: I think it's a departure from When We Were Orphans. I thought, in When We Were Orphans, the unreliability of the narrator was different from the earlier novels and Never Let Me Go. Never Let Me Go almost feels like a return to your previous style.
KI: Hm. If we're talking about the unreliability of the narrator, I think it's a much more straightforward narrative technique in Never Let Me Go. Kathy is not nearly as self-deceiving as a lot of my previous narrators, and certainly the universe doesn't seem to bend and twist to accommodate the narrator's more irrational desires or perspectives, which is what I think starts to happen in When We Were Orphans. But for Kathy, memory isn't such a treacherous thing as it is for some of the other narrators, who have something they want to get away from in their memories while wanting to explore them at the same time. They're playing a hide-and-seek game from things in their past they've kind of locked up.
Kathy has no nostalgia for the past. Her memories are a source of consolation when the people she loves start to disappear from her world. She has a more straightforward relationship with her memories than my other narrators, and maybe that accounts for the narrative being more direct in that sense. Each time I try to do what's right for the themes or the characters. I'm not wedded to a particular mode of narrating, just for the sake of it.
I think it often feels like one book is a departure from the previous because I tend to be quite an abstract writer, in that I start with abstract emotions that aren't necessarily bedded down on one place or setting. I'll say to myself: "I want to convey the sadness of how short life is." Or: "I want to convey how sad it is when someone has just wasted their life because they don't have enough perspective on themselves." I might start with something like that, rather than saying, "I'd love to write a book about Shanghai in a certain period, or the Russian Revolution, or Marlene Dietrich." I don't tend to start with a concrete subject, then look at it, then find what I want to say in it. I go the other way. I start with something, then go location-hunting for where I can set it down.
What I was explaining to you earlier about these students is a case in point. I didn't set it down in that sci-fi landscape until quite late. My very first novel, which is set in Japan, was initially set in what was then contemporary Britain. Then I stopped and thought it would work better if it were set in the past, in Nagasaki.
And sometimes the setting is not just the geography or the period, it's also the genre, if you like. I might want to write something that's very like a traditional detective novel or, as in this case, have it verge on sci-fi. It might be less realistic or much more realistic. But because I leave that decision until quite late, and I build up a lot of other things I want to do, and figure out the relationships between the characters and what I want to say first without having a concrete setting, that's the reason I end up with something that looks quite different from the previous book. And of course a reader coming to it fresh will notice the setting right away. That's the exterior of the house and they immediately think it's very different.
KC: It's funny to hear you say that you start from an abstract theme or emotion, because I think that's where songwriting begins. I've read that you were a musician. Do you still write music?
KI: No, I don't. I used to write songs, and that was my first passion and my first ambition. Between when I was fifteen and when I was twenty-two that's what I was doing all the time, and I used to hang out with other people who wrote songs quite seriously. I used to spend many hours arguing with them about what the song lyrics should and shouldn't do, what the relationship should be between the music and the lyrics, and how a song should be recorded and arranged. I did the whole thing of going around to record companies with demo tapes.
KC: Never Let Me Go's title comes from a song by a torch singer named Judy Bridgewater that Kath H. listens to repeatedly in Hailsham. I did a Google search and couldn't find Judy Bridgewater. Did you ever plan to use a real-life singer?
KI: Not really. I didn't see any point, because I thought that would just complicate things. People would know about the real singer and they might bring certain assumptions to the book because of that. I had vaguely in mind some kind of 1950s, jazzy, cocktail-lounge singer. Somebody like Julie London. There are at least two genuine songs I know called "Never Let Me Go", but this needn't necessarily be one of them. Dinah Washington does sing a version of "Never Let Me Go".
KC: Were you ever in a band?
KI: No. I always aspired to be a solo singer-songwriter. When I was young, it was the 1970s, the era of the singer-songwriter. Apart from Bob Dylan, who was probably the preeminent one, there would have been Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, James Taylor.
KC: Do you know of any other novelists who started out as musicians? I hear novelist and Booker-nominee Rohinton Mistry was a songwriter.
KI: Yeah, somebody told me that just now. They called him the "Bob Dylan of Bombay." I must try to make an effort to see him next time he comes to London. We must discuss having a session together.
KC: Do you feel any special affinity with Haruki Murakami? I've seen him quoted speaking appreciatively of your work, and it's funny to see how your styles both seemed to have gravitated in the other's directions. Murakami started out writing very contemporary fiction that tried to avoid being very Japan-oriented, whereas your fiction was set in Japan around the time of WWII.
KI: I'm a huge fan of Murakami's. I don't know if we're particularly similar writers. We're both interested in how you deviate from straight realism. There's a certain kind of bittersweet melancholy tone that he achieves-in a book like South of the Border, East of the Sun. I think it's really wonderful and might not be so far away from what I strive for, but his themes are very different from mine. I find him a very fascinating writer.
KC: I read somewhere that Albert Camus said the most neglected aspect of his writing was his humour. Do you think there's any part of your writing that's been overlooked by your readers?
KI: I don't find my current book very funny, but there are two books I wrote as comedies: The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled. The Unconsoled is funny to me, and some people find it funny, but then a lot of people don't get the humour in it. I guess my sense of humour goes toward the more surreal end.
I am a slightly more abstract writer than people think. Because I try to write in an accessible way, instead of a highly postmodernist way, perhaps there's a tendency to think of me as a traditional realist, much more than is warranted. When there's a little tension between me and my readers, it sometimes has to do with that-that I do something odd in their eyes, something that's not believable or realistic. It's almost always because my world is slightly distorted compared with the world we actually live in.
KC: Are you listening to anything interesting now?
KI: These days I tend to like blues music or, in the singer-songwriter vein, the person I like at the moment is Gillian Welch. I really like that almost-bluegrassy Americana stuff.
KC: I'm reminded of a literary festival I attended, when some writers actually had a saddest song contest. I'm not sure whether it was inspired by your film or not, but one of the songs someone sang was "Orphan Girl" by Gillian Welch.
KI: Yeah, "Orphan Girl" is a very sad song. She's often written in that gospel way, and I find a lot of gospel music quite sad. Perhaps because I'm not religious, and I don't believe in an afterlife. If you did, perhaps the songs wouldn't be sad and would work without irony.
KC: Now that I've mentioned it, what did you think of Guy Maddin's adaptation of your screenplay The Saddest Music in the World?
KI: I loved working with Guy Maddin. It was a terrific experience, and I would love to do it again. It was a screenplay I'd written many years earlier, and it did the rounds for many years. It was at Paramount for development; it was at MGM for a while. Atom Egoyan was looking for some project that would express the Armenian holocaust, and for a while he thought the saddest-music contest idea would somehow be a vehicle for that. He eventually went on to make Ararat. But because of this, it somehow ended up with Guy in Winnipeg. He'd been working on it for months before I even heard about him. He had no option or anything. By that time, he was absolutely passionate about it. He wrote me these very sweet letters, and then he came over to see me in London.
I have to tell you that when I first read his massive fifty-page treatment of The Saddest Music, I just thought the guy was from Mars. This is completely crazy stuff. A lot of it was shaped for the final film, but a lot of the amputees were already there. It was even crazier than what we finished with. My initial temptation was to say, "No, no, I want the film to be the way I saw it." But when I saw his films, I was absolutely sold. He is a visionary filmmaker. I could see how it could work. And, after that, I told Guy just to take it away.
KC: What would you say is the saddest music in the world?
KI: I've been looking for it for a long time. Of course, I can't definitively tell you what the saddest music in the world is, but I have a theory about what it might be like. A lot of the saddest music in the world is music that isn't necessarily trying to be sad. For me, personally, music that's trying to be happy but failing is very sad. I did do a lot of research. Apart from the famous sad music like the blues or flamenco or Irish music, you find that many communities around the world-small, minority communities-have very sad music traditions that reflect a very tragic, sad history. And so a lot of traditional wedding or festive music that grew up within tragedy-torn communities often tends to have that sadness. It's the sound of people trying to have that oasis of happiness in the midst of a very difficult, harsh life. They just want to forget themselves for a little while.
The old blues music was like that. That's perhaps the difference between the white blues and the traditional, Chicago/Delta blues. These were people who lived a hard life just trying for a Saturday night to forget their sorrows, but somehow it was still there in the music. Whereas the white blues was often about people trying to drive themselves into a state of melancholy. The music that tries to hold back sadness and fails often has for me a heartbreaking quality.