Interviews May 2005

Myths and Metaphors

Kazuo Ishiguro on Jane Austen, adapting his work for film, and his latest novel, Never Let Me Go
book cover

Never Let Me Go
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Kazuo Ishiguro
304 pages

In an era of exuberantly descriptive novelists like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, there is something eerily spare about Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction. The sentences are so uncluttered, the emotions so understated, the physical details so sparse that one might be tempted to compare his prose to a Zen garden. But this surface tranquility is deceptive. Instead of inspiring transcendence, the empty spaces in his novels function as echo chambers, amplifying his frequently disturbing themes.

Such is the case with Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's newest book. As with his 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, the story takes place in a pastoral English setting. This time, the central characters are not butlers and maids but young people enjoying a peaceful childhood at a boarding school called Hailsham. That these children happen to be clones, and that they were brought into existence solely for the purpose of donating their internal organs, seems at first to be almost beside the point. The narrator, Kathy H., tells her tale without any trace of bitterness or rage. Instead, the story unfolds gently: girlhood crushes, afternoon meetings by the pond, leisurely drives down pleasant English roads. The reader must consciously take a step backward to realize why these events are accompanied by a vague sense of horror.

Ishiguro's penchant for playing with settings makes his stories all the more unsettling. When he writes about his native Nagasaki, as he did in his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, one has the feeling that the story is taking place in a kind of "alternative" Japan, one that never really existed despite any number of historically accurate details. The same is true of the English settings in Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a Booker Prize-winning book that gave rise to a Merchant Ivory film. The characters and the landscape in both books are recognizably British, but in each case, there are elements that don't quite add up, a peculiar blend of fantasy and realism that leaves the reader wondering how much of the strangeness is in his or her own mind.

It's easy to attribute at least some of this otherworldliness to Ishiguro's background. Born in Japan in 1954, he arrived in England at the age of six and spent the rest of his childhood in the town of Guildford. His father, an oceanographer, always intended to move the family back home, but it never quite happened. As a result, Ishiguro grew up English almost by accident. The various places he and his family have lived—Nagasaki, Shanghai, the English countryside—make frequent appearances in his fiction, but always with a sense of distance, as though they were metaphors instead of physical locations.

In Never Let Me Go, that symbolism is more overt than usual. The quiet seaside county of Norfolk becomes a magical place where every lost object will one day be found. The quintessentially English boarding school, with its wide green lawns and matronly "guardians," later disappears into an Avalon-like mist, never to be located again. Even when the children are at their happiest and most innocent, there are always subtle reminders that nothing in their world can be taken at face value.

One pivotal scene presents Kathy H. as an eleven-year-old girl listening to her favorite song: a fictional tune from 1956 called "Never Let Me Go." Dancing around the room, holding a pillow to her chest, she looks up to find that a mysterious European woman whom she knows only as Madame is standing in the doorway watching her:

She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was that she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.... She was the adult, and she should have said or done something, even if it was just to tell me off. Then I'd have known how to behave. But she just went on standing out there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps. Except that this time there was something else, something extra in her look that I couldn't fathom.

Ishiguro's writing voice has been described as "studiedly anonymous," as though he has made a special point of telling stories in a quizzically detached way. In conversation, however, he is cheerful and engaging, happy to share personal reflections on everything from his Japanese childhood to his newfound admiration for Jane Austen. He spoke to me on March 24 from his home in North London.

Jennie Rothenberg

Author photo
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Kazuo Ishiguro


You just returned yesterday from New York, where you were working on a film project. Can you tell me a bit about it?

The film is called The White Countess. It's directed by James Ivory and stars Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, and many other members of the Redgrave family—Natasha Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her aunt, Lynne Redgrave, are also in it. It was shot entirely on location in Shanghai. I think it's looking terrific, like a kind of epic.

You wrote this story specifically for the screen, is that correct?

That's right. It's an original screenplay, one that James Ivory and I developed over a number of years. When we started it, seven or eight years ago, we didn't see it as a film set in China at all. But at a certain stage I wanted to abandon the thing we were working on, and I proposed that we focus on a story only faintly related to the one we'd started off with, one I could see in my head—set in Shanghai in the 1930s.

Shanghai in the 1930s was also the setting of your last book, When We Were Orphans. Why is that particular time and place so vivid for you?

Well, I'm not obsessed with that period. What happened is that I'd researched Shanghai of that time quite thoroughly for When We Were Orphans, and I had a lot of leftover material. This film particularly concerns the White Russian refugees who escaped from the Russian Revolution and settled in Shanghai, living in great poverty. You had all these Russian aristocrats working as prostitutes or bouncers in nightclubs, because they had no citizenship status in China. I wanted to write a story about them.

I should also say that my father was born in Shanghai in 1920, and he grew up there. My grandfather was the head of Toyota for Shanghai, which was then a textiles company. I've always been fascinated with that city as it was when my family lived there—what you would call the Old Shanghai, which disappeared forever once the Second World War and then the Communist Revolution came. It was a very cosmopolitan, decadent city, a kind of prototype for the international cities we have now like New York or London.

How was this process different from that for The Remains of the Day—a story that you wrote as a novel and then saw being made into a film?

I had no direct involvement in the making of Remains of the Day and I didn't write the screenplay, although I did get to know the filmmakers. It was just an experience of writing a novel and then seeing it one day as a film. It was an interesting experience in itself—for me, a very happy one, I have to say. I know a lot of novelists have a very unhappy time when they go along to the screening and see the results. But I had a very positive experience with the whole thing.

There are many, many differences between writing for the page and writing for the screen. But the huge difference, of course, is that everything has to work visually. You tell the story through images, not through words. There's dialogue in the film, but it's almost a supplement, if you like, to the images. So when you conceive of a story for the screen, you have to think of something that will work when it's told predominantly through images.

Do you find that writing screenplays influences your fiction, attuning you more to physical detail?

The influence it has is almost a negative one in that I've become very conscious of the difference between screenwriting and writing fiction. And I'm very keen to write fiction that only works on the page. I made this decision quite early on. I felt that film and television were such a powerful force in our society that if a novel was to keep its own territory, it had to offer something completely different from the experience one could have going to the cinema. I became very dissatisfied when I read novels that told a perfectly decent story but, at the end, felt very much like a decent episode of a TV series.

That's not to say that, in a rather perverse and paradoxical way, when I finish a novel I'm not interested in the idea of selling the film rights. But when I'm writing it, I want it to be unfilmable. I want the two art forms to be very different.

It's true that Never Let Me Go has very little visual imagery. I can't even remember your describing anything about the way the characters looked, such as whether they had short hair or blue eyes.

If I'm erring on one side or the other, I tend to err on the side of not describing very much. Readers these days, unlike readers, say, of Dickens, have a lot of stock footage in their heads put there by advertising, magazines, and TV. The novelist doesn't have to describe from scratch the way Victorian novelists often found themselves doing. All we have to do is just put in a few references, and immediately the readers start to draw on this vast storehouse of images.

It's the same with locations. I prefer not to describe too much. The key is to try and pick the one or two really pertinent details that make a room or a place come alive. Then you can leave all the others. I think a novel can work like that these days. But two hundred years ago, when you were addressing readers who had barely stepped outside of their houses, you did have to describe things very, very thoroughly.

All of that changes, though, once a book has been made into a film. I'm sure that when anyone reads The Remains of the Day now, Stevens the butler comes to mind in the form of Anthony Hopkins.

Film is a less democratic art form. You are basically saying, This is how everything looks. There's nothing I can do about that, I suppose. My hope would be that most people could make the switch.

That said, I don't mind people seeing Stevens as Anthony Hopkins, because I think he was an appropriate choice. But there are other instances where the filmmakers change the book substantially, even when they still make a very good film. Typically, an English setting is changed into an American setting.

High Fidelity, for example, where John Cusack moved Nick Hornby's story from London to Chicago.

Yes, it's instances like that where you're going to come across more problems. But I do think readers are more and more sophisticated these days, because this is such a common phenomenon now. I think when they're reading the book, people are able to enter that world. I find I do this. I reread all of Jane Austen last year. Of course, this isn't a huge task because there are only six novels! But there are so many Jane Austen movies and TV adaptations that have appeared since I last read these books as a university student. So I thought, This is going to be different. I'm going to be seeing Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet...

...and Colin Firth.

And Colin Firth, yes, all these people. But actually, fairly rapidly, these people faded away. I created my own images for the book version. This is a reality of the modern age—books and films have to coexist side by side. There's nothing the author can do other than hope that the book continues to be its own world when the reader opens it up.

Speaking of Jane Austen, I was just reading a review of Never Let Me Go in The New Yorker. It mentioned that you're often compared with Austen—and that you don't particularly like her writing.

I haven't actually seen that review yet. When you're in an editing room, working ten hours a day, you're completely sealed off. But this is very interesting, because for some years I've been going around saying, "Look, what is this comparison with Jane Austen? I never got on with her at university, and I haven't even read all her novels." As a young man of twenty-two or twenty-three, she was too girly for me. I hadn't developed a sufficiently mature sensibility to appreciate that she's a really great writer. I probably wasn't a very good reader of books when I was young. But after reading all of her books back to back last year, I've since become her greatest fan. So if people are still writing that I don't enjoy her work, I'm going to have to do something about it!

The article went on to compare you instead with surrealist writers like Kafka and Beckett. Do you think there's anything to that?

From the time I was pretty young, I've admired the work of Kafka and Beckett, although I found a lot of Beckett's writing quite baffling.

I've long been fascinated by how a writer could veer away from realism. Certainly in the English and American tradition of fiction, the mainstream work has been realist, even when we use interesting techniques of narrating or multiple viewpoints. I have always been straining at the lead, probably, in writing within a realist tradition. I've always wanted my books to take place in a slightly different world. Even a book like The Remains of the Day, which people think was a quintessentially realist novel, I saw as being in a slightly alternative world. It was almost the world of P. J. Wodehouse, intended to be a lot more cartoon-like than most people receive it.

Would it be correct to come away from Never Let Me Go with actual real-life lessons about the dangers of biotechnology, or is that beside the point?

This seems to be the discussion that has been provoked by the book—if a discussion has indeed been provoked by it. I would be disappointed if people only read it as a warning about biotechnology, because I don't think it's a particularly articulate warning. You can read far more authoritative scholarly accounts—and thorough journalistic accounts—about what's happening in biotechnology. And the various ethical arguments in these accounts are very finely tuned. What becomes possible if you do that kind of research? If you take one more step, what do you open yourself up to, both good and bad? These are very complicated areas that I don't even really enter into.

I think it might be more pertinent to see the book as a general warning about science—if you move away from the details and say, Were we to find ourselves in a situation where science can offer great benefits, like finding a cure for cancer, would society be prepared to become very cruel and coldhearted in order to take advantage of these possibilities?

You spend a lot of time dwelling on the students' "donations"—we see them in recovery centers between operations, getting weaker and weaker as the book goes on. But we never see the recipients of these donations. Presumably, some lucky person's life is saved each time one of the students gives up an organ. Why did you choose to leave that element out altogether?

There are many things I've intentionally left out. I don't know how it came over to you, but for me I wrote this book primarily as a metaphor for the conditions under which we all live. We all have a limited lifespan, and we all have to accept at some point the fact that our bodies will fall apart and we'll die. We live with this knowledge that we peak and then we deteriorate. This is something we prefer not to look at. But we have a sense for the appropriate timing of certain things. We look at each other and say, "You're however many years old—why haven't you done this yet?" We're very, very conscious of time moving on. But we try not to think about the limitations.

By condensing the lifespan from seventy, eighty, ninety years to, say, thirty for these young people, I could really sharpen the perspective on these questions of what you do while you're here. What are the most important things? How do you make a decent life? They entertain this myth about love, that if you can find true love you'll somehow be exempt from the harsher rules of the system that you have to live under. These are the things I thought I could focus on if I created this slightly strange situation.

I didn't think the metaphor would work if I started to bring in things that were peculiar to this cloning situation. Because then it wouldn't resonate with our lives—we get old and we get weak and we die, but there isn't some recipient of that strength that we lost. You get this difficulty in any kind of fiction when you try to write on a metaphorical level. You have to carefully remove things from the story.

Another odd thing in the book is that the students seem totally unconcerned by their future. Even though they all know what's going to happen to them, we never see them trying to escape—even later on, when they're in their twenties, living in cottages and driving around freely in cars.

Yes, that's the other big thing I left out very deliberately. Because in most clone stories I've come across, the clones are used as a metaphor for slavery or an underclass that has been exploited. Usually that exploited class rebels, and depending on whether it's a happy story or an unhappy one, they're either successful or not successful. I realized as soon as I started to use cloning as a metaphor that this familiar, obvious use of the metaphor might get in the way.

I didn't want this to be a story about slavery or exploitation. So I created a world in which, peculiarly, nobody expects them to rebel. They actually feel a sense of dignity in carrying out their duties well. It's important to Kathy that she's a good caretaker. It's important to Tommy that he's a good donor. I find that more interesting and more sad. And I think that's more like what we are.

The kids in this book build up a myth around Norfolk. They make up a story that it's a place where everything they've lost—like Kathy's favorite cassette tape—can be found again. Does the Norfolk myth play the role of religion in their world?

Not really, no. I just thought of that more or less at face value. I guess you could think of it like heaven, that people that you've lost to death, you'll see again up there. But it's not religion in the sense that it doesn't have an ethical dimension to it. It's not a place you'll get back to if you behave well or live according to certain rules. It's just something that's there in their lives. They created it as a kind of joke in their school, and it continues to reverberate.

I'm not a religious person myself, so I find it very difficult to understand what people feel about heaven. I guess for me it's closest to things like memory. When you lose things, you still have the memory of those things as a consolation. Maybe Norfolk is closest to that.

I think the only outright reference to an afterlife comes when the hippie character, Rodney, explores the idea of reincarnation. Did you intend to open up future incarnations as a possibility for the clones?

I don't think there was any meaning behind it. I was just trying to pinpoint a certain time, because this was set in an alternative version of an England that really existed. It's not set on a planet far, far away.

The other reference to kind of an afterlife is at the end, I would say, when they talk about the possibility that there's some life beyond the final donation, and that somehow their consciousness will survive to witness the further things that are happening to their bodies.

That's a pretty disturbing vision.

Yes, it's a very negative, very dark fear. I guess it just reflects my belief about these things. I don't bank on an afterlife, and it's not there in their world.

The novel isn't set in a galaxy far, far away, but you do make a point of setting it in the late 1990s. It's pretty common for a novel to take place in a far-removed era, like the eighteenth century or in some futuristic age. But this book is set almost in the present but not quite. I'm curious as to why you chose to do that.

Well, when I started to write the thing, it was the late 1990s! But the main thing is, I didn't want the confusion that this was set in the future. Because of this cloning element, the tendency will be to think it's set in the future. That raises a whole set of issues. What does the sidewalk look like? What do cars look like? What do cup holders look like? You know, some people are really into this. They do this with relish, imagining what a café would look like in a hundred years' time and so on. But I don't have the energy or the interest to map out futuristic landscapes.

So I went for the alternative-history model rather than the futuristic, sci-fi model. It's more along the lines of Philip Roth's recent novel, The Plot Against America—these novels that ask what if. What if the Nazis had won the Second World War? In my mind, the "what if" was, What if the scientific breakthroughs hadn't been on the nuclear physics front after the Second World War, so we never got ourselves into the crazy, unbelievable situation where we had all these nuclear weapons pointed at each other with little red buttons someone could press at any moment—enough weapons to destroy the earth many, many times over? What if the breakthroughs had been on the biotechnology front after the war so we got ourselves into a different kind of crazy situation? So Sony Walkmans appear around the time they really did appear. The world is more or less the way it really is with just this one change.

When it comes to the science angle in your book, of course it's very tempting to connect the dots and take into account that you were born in Nagasaki just a few years after the atomic bombing. Does your own background play a role in this story?

It's not conscious. I went to do an interview for BBC radio recently, and the presenter had this theory. He wanted to make it a centerpiece of the whole discussion—he thought the Nagasaki thing was behind not just this book but many of the things I've written. I didn't want to say flatly, "No, you're wrong." But I had to struggle to accommodate this idea. Afterwards, I did think to myself, How important is Nagasaki in all this?

You have to remember that for me, Nagasaki is first and foremost my hometown. It's a place I associate with my childhood. When you say Nagasaki, I imagine my grandparents. I imagine a tranquil house.

You don't imagine a mushroom cloud.

No, I don't. It's actually a very physically beautiful town. Japanese people go there as tourists just to see the mountains and the sea. There's a whole atmosphere I remember in Nagasaki, and it's very, very far away from images of destruction. Those images are something I had to bolt onto my Nagasaki as I got older.

I was very much affected by my mother's accounts of the war, but not specifically by accounts of the atomic bombing. Her stories related more to just being a civilian under bombardment and being a refugee. I did know, when I was very young, that there was this genshi bakudan—that's the Japanese word for the atom bomb. People would often mention quite casually, "That bridge used to be there before the atomic bomb." Or, "That was somebody who we saw a lot before the atomic bomb"—meaning the person had died. But it was referred to like a natural disaster. I didn't really understand its meaning until much later in life.

Because of the age I am, I probably missed the first real tensions over the Cold War, in the late fifties, early sixties. The second time people thought there might really be a nuclear holocaust was the late seventies and early eighties. It was during this second round of tension—"Are we going to have a complete shoot out? Should we be digging fallout shelters for ourselves?"— that Nagasaki came to be a kind of emblem, along with Hiroshima, for what might happen to us, not just what had happened in the past. These names got used, and quite rightly I think, as a symbol of what human beings might be capable of in the future. It was very much at that time that Nagasaki came to be more and more the place of the mushroom cloud for me, by which time I was in my twenties.

You've written about places your family has been, but you've never actually created any characters whose life stories resemble yours. It's a real contrast from those writers whose novels are based on thinly veiled autobiographical elements—like F. Scott Fitzgerald when he wrote about disenchanted flappers on the Riviera, or V. S. Naipaul when he wrote about Indian Brahmans living in the Caribbean.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of fiction writers. You can go through the history of fiction writing, and you'll probably be able to see novelists dividing into one camp or another. When a lot of people sit down and write a novel, the first thing that seems to enter their minds is, "How can I make the raw material of my own life into a novel?" It's probably a stronger tradition in America. But then there are many people in whose work it's very hard to find anything autobiographical. It's very difficult, for instance, to find a Shakespeare play in which the main character seems to be a thinly disguised version of Shakespeare.

I remember that was something Keats wrote about. He always cited Shakespeare as the ultimate example of a writer who had "negative capability," meaning he could take himself out of the picture altogether and become wholly absorbed in his subject.

Yes, but in some way I guess his consciousness pervades the entire play. I feel that I am in all these novels, but not in the sense that there's a character who is me. Not only haven't I put myself in, I don't think I've ever consciously taken someone I know in real life, changed their name and a few details, and put them in a book.

I think my relationship to my material is entirely different. I tend to start with an emotion or impulse that I notice in myself but that isn't perhaps the most noticeable trait. Then I look at it in other people and create a character based around that trait or tendency. Stevens, for instance—I don't know anybody like that, and I'm not like that myself. He's a character built almost entirely out of one or two traits that have been exaggerated to the point of being almost grotesque. But it's something I've identified as a trait that I think everyone has to a certain extent, the tendency to want to please an employer or master.

That's how I've always worked—I've started with themes and relationships. Things like where the novel is set or what period it's set in come very, very late. So I feel, when I look back over my books, that they do reflect who I was when I wrote them, but not perhaps in any obvious kind of way.

I think people are surprised, sometimes, that you don't write like other English novelists who have origins in other countries: Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith. I wonder if it's partly because you didn't grow up in one of those large immigrant communities that England has.

I think there is that difference between somebody in my situation and somebody who belongs to what you might call a minority community within a larger community. If someone belongs to, say, a Muslim community in a country that isn't predominantly Muslim—or a Chinese community in America—inevitably there's a conflict between the smaller community you belong to and the wider community.

It's something I'm very aware of, particularly living in London where there are just so many different communities. I live in Golder's Green, a part of London that's predominately Jewish, and a lot of my daughter's friends are very observant. When they come round, we can't give them just anything to eat. There are a lot of things they can't do between Friday and Saturday evening, and so on. These kids sometimes have to decide whether they're going to abandon some of their parents' rules so they can do things with their friends on a particular day.

I never had any of that, whether for good or bad, because I was the only Japanese kid I knew as I was growing up. Had our family turned up in Britain in 1985 rather than 1960, perhaps my parents would have joined a larger Japanese community. There are a lot of Japanese people in this country now, although they tend to be temporary—they're either diplomats or business people. We would have socialized with lots of other Japanese expats, and I might well have had that conflict: "Do I hang out with these Japanese kids, or do I prefer to hang out with the English kids?" But that never became an issue.

The other thing is that there's a very complicated relationship between Britain and its old colonies—India, the Caribbean, Nigeria, and so on. And the educated elite in those countries have been taught in very English schools. They've grown up aspiring to a certain English model of life, and yet they resent the colonial relationship. So for novelists like Naipaul or Rushdie, that pervades the very way they use the English language as well as what they write about. Once again, that doesn't apply to me, because there's never been any link in that sense between Japan and Britain.

For those two big reasons, although I have a mixed cultural background, a lot of the characteristics you see in these other writers don't come into my own writing. I might have more in common with these kind of "one-off" people like Michael Ondaatje. They've moved, but they've done it in a more solitary way. Also, when you're not part of a big wave, you don't have the authority to write about that phenomenon either.

So you have no desire to write about The Japanese Experience in England?

No, or indeed about immigration in general. I think it's one of the huge themes of modern times, the fact that whole groups of people move around the world, and they have to integrate and sort out all their values. But I have no inside knowledge the way people do growing up Indian in London or Chinese in San Francisco. Sometimes in the past I've felt I should address these things because people seem to expect me to be able to. But I feel that I can't because I don't know very much about them. I can only talk about my own isolated experience.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor of Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel, where she remains a contributing editor.

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