Transcript from an interview with Kazuo Ishiguro

Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro on 6 December 2017 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

What does the Nobel Prize mean to you?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Until October it was something that very great people, and in my imagination I always thought older people, won. It was not anything I would win. I am going to say this when I deliver my banquet speech later. But I first heard about the Nobel Prize when I was a small child in Japan and I remember still my mother explaining it to me, I am looking at, and it must have been some sort of educational book telling the readers about the history of the Nobel Prize. So for me it has been embedded in my imagination all through my life. It is probably the greatest prize that a person can win in the world.

How do you feel about being a role model?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I think it is better not be too self-conscious about being a role model. Ever since I became a published writer and became well-known I think you have that sense anyway. That you have to be responsible to some extent but also to try to inspire younger people and your fellow writers. Becoming a Nobel Laureate has made me more conscious of this role. I think this has put me on a different level in terms of being a role model and my responsibility as a public figure so that is something I am going to have to think about and get used to. I am no longer just a writer of interest to people who are interested in writers. I am occupying some other special position as a Nobel Laureate. So it is something I have not quite worked out yet.

But I think I have to be very careful because I notice already in the two months since the announcement I have been asked to do all kinds of things, sign petitions, support all kinds of campaigns, take part in discussion programmes I have no qualification to take part in. Many invitations that have come in that I would not have received before October. I have had this advice from past Nobel Prize winners I have met to be careful. I must not put myself on a platform for which I am not qualified. I think that is a very important piece of advice not just for me, but for the world. We do not want people who are not experts talking as though they are. This is one of the problems in the world today. So that is something I am going to be quite disciplined about. I am only going to talk about things I know about.

What is the importance of the Nobel Prize?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The importance of any prize, there are many prizes in the world. The importance of any prize, how seriously we take the prize, for me it depends on the integrity of the people who give the prize and also on the history of past winners. I think those are the two important things because prizes themselves are used as a tool all around the world now to promote things. Most often to promote a company or to promote something, but sometimes they are used to promote political ideas and sometimes quite subtly and sometimes less so. There have been prizes that I have turned down because I thought, you know, they were not hideously bad prizes, but I thought I don’t necessarily wish to be helping to promote something.

I think we have to be aware that prizes are a technique, they are sometimes propaganda, they are sometimes promotional tools for organisations, corporations, institutions. So I always ask myself this question about any prize, whether somebody else is getting it or whether I am being offered it. Who is giving it? Do I respect the values that lie behind the prize and the people who are giving it and do I respect the previous winners and I think this is the first thing I said quite spontaneously when I received the call from the Swedish Academy. I said, I feel emotionally truly honoured by the Nobel because I can absolutely honestly say the Nobel is an institution that I deeply respect, and I deeply deeply respect the past winners in literature that have received it since 1901. I mean a lot of my greatest heroes are there on that list.

The Nobel is a prize that has managed to capture the imagination of the world. Not as a promotional tool but as something that exemplifies an ideal about humanity and what we strive for and that is quite a rare thing. I think there are many great prizes, but I think the Nobel sets a very high standard because it is not just about the specialist area that we may or may not excel in. There is a higher idea I think about peace, cooperation between people, the striving of human beings to improve our civilisation and I think these are very very high ideals.

Memory, guilt and delusion are recurring themes in your work – why?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I think earlier in my career I was always very interested in looking at individuals who struggled with their past and their memories. So typically I would look at a character in late middle age or old age. Someone who had been quite proud of himself or herself, but then quite late in life gains a perspective about his life. Let us just say his life. And he starts to think Oh actually, I had all my values wrong, I backed the wrong things, I backed the wrong causes. Does that mean my life has been wasted? I lived my life by the wrong values even though for most of my life I thought I was living by the right values. That was a typical situation I became fascinated in. I wrote at least three or four novels around these kinds of ideas.

As I got older as a writer I became interested in that same question but applied to societies and nations. That is something that I am still trying to figure out, how best to express that question? How would a nation or a country struggle with the nation’s dark or shameful memories? When is it better to just leave these things buried and move on. Because we can see all around the world now and, in history, cases where conflict just goes on and on and on. You just cannot stop it, stop the cycle because people will not forget atrocities from the past. Sometimes people, generations, are fighting over something that happened centuries ago and hatred has developed. So sometimes it is not good to remember.

But particularly in Europe I think, and America too, Japan we have problems of memories that have been suppressed and the society is not at peace with itself about say racism or what happened in the Second World War. There is a sense that issues have not been addressed and this leads to all kinds of tension. At the moment America is in a terrible turmoil because there is a feeling that certain things about its past, about African-Americans particularly have not been addressed properly. I think Europe has been in the state of tension ever since the Second World War. So this question about personal memory and national memory I think is something that interests me very much.

What has influenced your writing style and for whom are you writing?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I never really think much about genre. Often I am drawn to a particular project which I have chosen quite carefully because I do not have many ideas. I have one good idea every five years or something so it is not as though I have a big choice. I don’t sit there thinking now I’ll write a thriller or now I’ll write a love story or a period thing. I have an idea and it is usually an idea that doesn’t yet have a setting. I don’t really have a time and place geographically or in time where I am going to put this story down. I just think wouldn’t it be interesting to write a story about a person who has this particularly issue and then this happens to them emotionally? It is something quite abstract so I find myself almost like, you know, the way movie people go location hunting when they have got a script, where would be a good place to film this? I find myself looking through history or looking through different genres to try and figure out what is the best way to express this story.

I am never particularly … I never start off by saying I might do something that is a bit like a science fiction book or something like a detective story. I become desperate and I use whatever I can to express the particular idea and it is only when I finish that somebody might look at what I have written from the outside and say, oh that looks like a piece of fantasy or that looks like science fiction. For me I have not looked at it from the outside and I am like a crazy person trying to build a flying machine in my garage or in my back garden and I am just putting anything on that will make this thing fly. You know, I might steal something from next door or borrow things. Anything that could make this thing go up in the air and fly. It is only when it is flying that people look at it and say that looks like a period of a love story or something like this.

When did you decide to become a writer?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I never really had a big ambition to be a writer and until I was in my, almost in my mid-twenties. From the time I was around fifteen years old my big ambition was to be a songwriter and I spent a lot of time writing songs in my bedroom with a guitar. I think I was very much inspired by the man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, in 2016, Bob Dylan. I remember buying an album of his when I was thirteen years old. And I still remember the album, ‘John Wesley Harding’. I think that was when I first became very excited about the idea that you could use words in a very mysterious way and create entire worlds just with a few words. Of course the music and the singing and all these things were very important to me, it is that whole combination. But the excitement about words, I think, and the fact that you can use them in this way. I mean that really happened to me when I first listened to my very first Bob Dylan album, when I was thirteen years old.

And then I became interested in all these singer-songwriters who are at what you might call the literary end of the 1970s boom. Leonard Cohen was very important to me, Joni Mitchell. I learnt to play all their song myself. I knew all their lyrics off by heart and I tried, I wrote over a hundred songs myself in my bedroom and I played them with my friends. And in a way I feel that was my apprenticeship for becoming a writer of fiction. Somewhere in my twenties I made, to me a transition that did not seem like a very big one between writing songs and writing short stories. It was only over a period of about a year when I was writing songs at the beginning of this year towards the end of that year that energy had gone into writing short stories.

And after years of getting nowhere, professionally, as a singer-songwriter around the age of twenty-four, when I was twenty-four, twenty-five as soon as I started to write short stories they were being accepted and published by magazines. I was actually spotted by the publishing house that is still my publishing house in London, Faber and Faber. A company that’s published many many Nobel Prize winners actually. And I wrote my first novel under a contract with them. It’s like many things in life, I was knocking on one door for a long time and then another one opened. From then on I mean fiction has been my focus, but somewhere at the back of my mind I am still a singer-songwriter.

I still write, I write song lyrics for the American jazz singer Stacey Kent and in fact an album of hers came out in October, I think, and two of the tracks have my lyrics on. I still work as a song lyricist and for me it is quite an important part of my writing life. It is another kind of outlet and I feel it is quite important for me to have that, this other writing life, where I think in a very different kind of way. I am forced to think in a very different kind of way because I am collaborating, and I think that is always a healthy thing to have collaborators. One of the disadvantages of being a novelist as opposed to being … a lot of these scientists working in big teams and if you work in the theatre or films you work with teams of people. The danger for novelists I think, we work in isolation and so there is a problem. You may not grow and develop in the same way. It is easier to become ossified. I think for me it’s quite important to collaborate with people in other fields, like music or film. I find it very stimulating and I learn many things from what I am obliged to do in collaboration.

Which writers do you look up to?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I have spoken about my early influences from the world of music, singer-songwriter music. But if we are talking about actually literary influences, oddly, people never seem to say this when they are looking at my work. But I know that the novelist that has influenced me the most is Charlotte Brontë, the nineteenth-century British novelist, and particularly two books Jane Eyre and Villette.

And I reread Jane Eyre and Villette about five years ago and I was quite embarrassed. It was full of things that I could recognise I had stolen from those books. But I read those books at a particularly crucial point in my writing life, I think. Before I actually started to write fiction, but when I was starting to think about writing fiction. And so particularly the use of first person, the first person technique. What the narrator hides from the reader and hides from herself in the Charlotte Brontë books became the foundation for me. And so Charlotte Brontë remains a big influence.

There are other writers that are great favourite writers of mine and possibly Dostoevsky is my favourite novelist but probably he hasn’t influenced my style very much. He writes in a very, very different way. However I think influence is a very interesting and subtle thing. Sometimes somebody who is very different to me in temperament, actually I think because of that difference it is almost like it is a, it creates a tension, a natural tension. I think that is very good. Something is pulling me away from my comfort zone and I think Oh yes I had to do that. What would Dostoevsky do with this? and of course I could never write like Dostoevsky but I think a little bit of Dostoevsky would help here.

Marcel Proust was very important to me. More technically, how to tell a story not necessarily through the plot or through chronology of how the events unfold in your story but the great freedom I see in Proust’s work of just following the drifting memories or the thought associations of the narrator. So you can have an episode from yesterday and it goes right into a memory from thirty years ago. This much more abstract way of ordering your canvas as a writer. I learnt an enormous amount from Proust. But everybody – Kafka is another writer who is very important to me. Kafka and Samuel Beckett and actually Harold Pinter another … I think Kafka isn’t, but the other two are Nobel Prize winners. People who give me guidance and inspiration about how to deviate from realism, from doing something to distort the familiar reality that we see around us. Once you move away from orthodox realism, the question becomes so what do you do, what are your new laws? In fact this is a Bob Dylan line isn’t it? “To live outside the law you have to be honest.” But I think that is very true when you deviate from realism. The great writers like Kafka, Beckett, Pinter, they are models for me. For how you deviate from conventional realism.

How has your wife supported your work?

Kazuo Ishiguro: I’ve had many people who have been important editors and advisors in my writing over the years I mean, many of them are professional people, my editors at the publishing house. So my first agent Deborah Rogers who has passed away now, and my first editor Robert McCrum were very important influences. But the person who has a very deep influence on what I write at all kinds of levels is my wife Lorna. And I think part of it is because she is my wife and she tends to boss me around in many aspects of my life and so my work is not excluded. However the key thing here is that, we were together, we were a couple at a time, before I started to write fiction, so somewhere in her mind she doesn’t think that I am this kind of famous author and that she is criticising the work of a famous author. She still thinks I am this postgraduate student who has got this crazy idea that he can write fiction. She still thinks a bit like that.

So she looks at it and says What is this? That has never changed, because she was there looking at the very first things I wrote in a little room we shared together when we were both postgraduate students. I don’t think the relationship has changed very much. And the problem is that once you start to become well-known, well-established … For me I won the Booker Prize in Britain when I was thirty-four years old. The trouble with that is, there are many great things about becoming respected young, but a lot of people stop criticising you. They are afraid to criticise you or professional publishers think you will move to different publishing house if they speak frankly. So I need somebody like my wife who thinks of me as an upstart who has all these ideas above my station about writing and she can be quite brutal. I have sometimes abandoned whole projects because she has taken one glance, usually when she seems perhaps not in a very good mood and says This won’t do. Do something else!

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A lot of people ask me Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or young writers? These days, I don’t know how it is in Sweden but certainly in the English-speaking world every university seems to have a creative writing course. There are private creative writing programmes everywhere. Everyone is very keen to be a writer these days. That wasn’t the case when I was young. Nobody was interested in literature. It is very difficult for me to come out with any kind of useful advice about how you write. Everybody must do it in their own way but there is one fundamental thing I would say to young people at the early stages or people who have these ambitions. I would say particularly in the world as it is today, you have to ask yourself Do you really want to write or do you want to be a writer?

Because I think many people have this ambition to be a writer. They want the status, the position of being a writer. But actually they may find that they don’t particularly want to write and I think to be a successful writer and I mean successful not just commercially but to be a writer who achieves something worthwhile regardless of whether it is published or sold. You have to have a special relationship with writing. And I think part of the difficulty at the moment is that it is quite difficult for people to find out themselves which it is they really want. Because being a writer has become such a coveted position now and a lot of people dream of being a writer but sometimes perhaps that is not the right thing because you know writing is not for you and that is alright. Something else may be for you. So I would say, get that very clear. Try and find out, do you really want to write? That is the important thing!

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