‘I think this is what interests me about human beings. We’re not content just to feed ourselves, reproduce and then die. We’ve got to keep asking ourselves, “Have I made a contribution?”‘ Author Kazuo Ishiguro talks with Mary Laura Philpott about his new book Klara and the Sun on NPT’s A Word on Words.
In 2017, Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize in Literature, honored for uncovering “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world” in his novels and short stories, not to mention his writing for stage, screen and song. His books have been nominated for the Booker Prize four times; The Remains of the Day won it in 1989. TIME Magazine named Never Let Me Go the best novel of 2005 and one of the 100 best novels in the English language. Ishiguro’s other honors include lifetime achievement awards from literary organizations around the world, as well as a Knighthood from the United Kingdom and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, from Japan. What does a writer who has reached these heights do next? This year we received an answer. Klara and the Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel, and he discussed it over Zoom with A Word on Words host Mary Laura Philpott.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hello!
Kazuo Ishiguro: Hi. It’s very nice to be here.
Philpott: It’s lovely to have you, and I have to say upfront what an honor this is. I should probably keep some professional cool here, but I really can’t have this conversation without disclosing that your books have changed how I think about reading and writing and life itself. So I thank you, from my heart, for taking the time to be here.
Ishiguro: Well, thank you for saying such a generous thing. Actually, I have to say that that introduction you gave me, it made me feel rather intimidated. I’m just a regular normal guy. I should make that clear.
Philpott: Okay. [laughs]
Ishiguro: As for that Nobel citation, three and a half years later, I’m still trying to work out what it means about uncovering the abyss of something. It was a fantastic honor to get the Nobel Prize, but I’m not quite sure why exactly I won it, because I can’t quite decipher that actual statement about why they gave it to me.
Philpott: What has this season been like for you, being on virtual book tour from home?
Ishiguro: Well, there are pros and cons. I do miss actually going out there and meeting people. I’d got into this rhythm of every few years actually being able to travel around the world. Not just my readers, but all the other people you meet when you travel like that, the people that drive you around. They’re kind of interesting people you just come up across when you’re waiting to get on a plane or something like this. I’ve got into the habit of just getting a sense of what’s happening in the world through these little excursions out into it, so I do miss that.
The virtual thing has been good in many ways. It’s enabled people like me to reach people in parts of the world where they couldn’t easily get to — writer events and things like this. I think people have been able to come together across distance to form a little community to make an event work. I think it’s been quite moving and touching how people have actually gone out of their way to create these connections and try and keep in touch with each other about things like books, so that we can still talk about books — my book and other people’s books and why we read books and all of that stuff.
Philpott: I agree. It’s been nice to be able to keep that little bit of normalcy. Speaking of public life and private life, how do you protect the privacy of your creative world when you are so constantly asked to speak about what you’re doing?
Ishiguro: That’s quite a clever question to ask at this point. I don’t actually tell you everything. I don’t tell people everything. I have to keep myself interested when I’m talking about work and books. There is a whole area that I find myself actually getting into while I’m in this process week-by-week. I find myself digging deeper and deeper into certain questions that keep getting thrown at me, so it’s kind of a discovery for me. I always feel it’s quite important to keep a certain part of my creative life completely secret. I don’t tend to tell people some things about how I go about my writing or what I’m thinking of writing next. A lot of that I have to keep very, very private, but I’m very happy to talk about a lot of other stuff about process and methods and what it feels like, and all my failures. I’m all too happy to share that.
Actually, one of the interesting things is that I’ve been able to talk to a lot of other writers on these kinds of virtual tours. I’ve been in one-to-one conversations with a lot of very interesting, exciting writers, and we’ve been able to have a genuine two-way dialogue. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. A lot of interesting questions have come up at this moment, in this particular context of these times, but also just general questions. When you trade ideas and questions with other authors, interesting things come up.
Philpott: I want to talk about this new book. For those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, would you give us the brief overview? Who is Klara, and what is this novel about?
Ishiguro: Klara is a little robot AI girl created to prevent teenagers from becoming lonely. This is a story of how she tries to save the family of humans she lives with from heartbreak and how she tries to enlist the help of the sun up in the sky to do this.
Philpott: Witnessing the unfolding of the story from Klara’s perspective felt a little bit like seeing the world through the eyes of a child. One of the childlike things that Klara does is she anthropomorphizes things. She assigns motives and personalities to objects, including the sun itself, as you mentioned. Would you tell us a little bit about Klara’s understanding of the sun and how she thinks it works?
Ishiguro: Well, as you point out there, she starts off almost like a child. In fact, in some ways she’s emptier than a child when she starts off. She has very little in terms of memory or history, but she’s learning very, very fast. So there’s something very childlike about her. But she’s solar-powered. So although she has very few other prejudices or knowledge, the fact that she’s solar-powered has this big influence on her — she thinks everything good comes from the sun. That’s where she gets her nourishment. That’s where the fellow artificial friends that are waiting to be bought in the store at the beginning, that’s where they get their nourishment.
When she looks out of the window, she assumes that all the human beings she can see out in the street are in the same position; they’re getting their nourishment from the sun. And so she very logically comes to the conclusion that the sun is the source of everything that is good and that it watches over people and that it’s powerful. She develops a sense of trust, that there is something powerful and good watching over her and everybody else to whom she can appeal when things are getting tough.
It’s kind of a religious thing, but I wanted to write about that instinct without any of the baggage of organized religion, without any of the centuries of power, politics, and tribalism, and wars that have occurred around organized religion. I just wanted to examine this one-to-one relationship. I had a very pure instinct of this creature and the need she has to believe in something that is good and powerful and something that would be looking after her and the people she loves.
It was a big question for me; is she allowed to hold on to that faith, or would I shatter it for her? That was one of the big questions for me from the beginning.
Philpott: That juxtaposition of technology and living beings — having this machine who is trying to build an accurate understanding of the natural world and of human society — must have been such a ripe situation for storytelling. Had the advances in AI [artificial intelligence] been on your mind in recent years for some time? And is technology something that you fear or celebrate — or both?
Ishiguro: Yeah, both. Both, I think. I had been quite immersed in reading and actually talking about things like AI and also gene technology. I was very interested in these areas for a number of years, without really thinking I’d write a book about it or that it would actually turn up in any form in any of my novels. I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to various seminars and meetings by leading scientists. I got to know one of the very leading pioneers of AI in the present day. He took me to the headquarters of his building. I had a series of lunches and coffees with him to discuss various things. I think he was kind of picking my mind as well for some reason of his own. I was picking his mind and I became fascinated by AI.
I do have fears about it, but I think what marvelous and wonderful breakthroughs for us. Same with gene editing around CRISPR, for instance. I think it does open up amazing things for us, particularly in terms of healthcare. Of course there are enormous dangers, and so as a society we have to actually reorganize ourselves so that we can benefit from these things and not have these things destroy our civilization.
Ishiguro: In Klara and the Sun, the society that’s portrayed there isn’t exactly dystopian, but it could get that way. I wanted to show a society that could go either way, and hadn’t quite figured out how to reconfigure itself because the breakthroughs have been so fast and the changes had come so quickly. That’s the kind of feeling I wanted to get. But Klara herself, I didn’t want her to be like an anti-AI figure at all. She’s not menacing. I wanted her to present something very pure, not just about AI, but about human nature. I wanted her to reflect something very pure and generous about human beings.
Philpott: Yeah. That’s one of the things I loved about her character.
Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite book of all time, which most people would say is an impossible thing to do, I always say it’s Never Let Me Go. I don’t think a day has gone by since 2005 that I haven’t thought about it. That book was so much on my mind — really, several of your previous books were on my mind as I read Klara and the Sun. It struck me that the deep need to prove our right to exist, to prove that we deserve to occupy whatever space we occupy, that our existence has had a purpose and has not been wasted, seems to be at the heart of so much of your writing. I thought about the butler in Remains of the Day. I thought about the clones in Never Let Me Go; the artificial friend, Klara. Why do you think you’ve returned so often to that idea? Or I guess I should first ask, do you think you’re returning again and again to that idea?
Ishiguro: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. I think I do. I come back to it from perhaps different angles. I think this is what interests me about human beings. It’s not just what interests me about human beings; it’s what I admire about them even when they go wrong. It’s what I love about human beings. We’re not like cows or sheep or whatever. We’re not content just to feed ourselves and reproduce and then die. We’ve got to keep asking ourselves, “Have I made a contribution? Have I been a good… whatever.” Even if I’m a criminal, I’d ask myself, “Have I been a good criminal? Have I been loyal to my gang members?”
Philpott: “Have I been a good robber?”
Ishiguro: Paradoxically, yeah, there’s a very strong kind of code of honor. It’s just hardwired into human beings. We want to say that we did it well, not just in terms of career, but in terms of being a parent or being a sibling or being a friend or being a spouse. It disturbs us deeply to think that we have screwed up in these areas.
And why does it matter so much? I don’t think other creatures mind nearly as much. This is what makes us really fascinating as human beings. I find people very poignant, very moving, deeply admirable, and sometimes really sad when they struggle with this, trying to make themselves have decent lives, something that they can say, “Yeah, I had a good go, a decent life.”
Philpott: “I mattered.”
Ishiguro: Yeah. All my books at some level ask that question. I guess in a book like Never Let Me Go… Two people who love each other, they ask this question, “If we really, really love each other, will that actually count for something? Can we get some sort of special treatment from fate? Surely people can recognize this love that we have for each other and that surely counts for something.” Yeah, often these kinds of things are in my work. That’s true. That’s what interests me about people.
Philpott: You mentioned parenthood just a moment ago. Parenthood is one of the central relationships in Klara and the Sun. One of the things the parents have to decide here is whether or not to have their children genetically modified, or “lifted” as you put it, to give them a better chance at professional and academic success. But there are downsides to that treatment, too, it doesn’t always go well. I kept thinking about difficult parental choices in our world, things that we do ostensibly to help our children, but that don’t always help our children — sometimes they harm them. How has fatherhood shaped you as a writer in general, but also specifically as you were imagining the family in this book?
Ishiguro: I can’t imagine what kind of person or what kind of writer I’d be if I hadn’t experienced parenthood. It’s not just the actual hardcore experiences that you have, worrying about your child’s exams and stuff like that. Your perspective shifts. Many, many people will tell you this. Your perspective shifts. Emotionally, intellectually, you look at the world differently. I think your perspective becomes longer as well. You’re not just looking at things in your own lifetime. You see things in terms of your child’s lifetime, your grandchildren’s lifetime, your great grandchildren’s lifetime. The way you look at life, our existence, everything seems to change. And it changes at that kind of empathetic, emotional level.
Occasionally I come across writers who say if you have children it messes up your career. I think this is a profound mistake, unless you think a writing career is just about sitting down and producing a certain quantity of writing.
Philpott: They do get in the way of your office hours sometimes.
Ishiguro: [laughs] Artistic endeavor is about trying to experience life and reflect life. I’m not saying that writers who don’t have children don’t write profound books. We have many, many examples of this. I don’t think it’s something a writer should try and avoid because they think it’s not good for their career.
It’s interesting that you asked this question. In my personal case, I think a lot of my books do reflect parenthood in some kind of way. I know that Klara is a little kind of robot machine. She starts off like a baby, as we said, and very rapidly, in a few weeks, she’s more or less like a teenager because she’s learning very, very fast. I think fairly soon she becomes something like a parent. Her relationship to the teenager she’s looking after becomes like a parental one. She asks herself this question, “What is the best thing for Josie?” Everything she does, everything she encounters, that question lies behind all her decisions. In that sense, she reminds me of a lot of parents. It reminds me of my own mother.
Philpott: I noticed you dedicated the book to your mom.
Ishiguro: Yeah, I did. I did. It’s only with hindsight I thought actually she probably had a lot more to do with it than I realized. She passed away as I was writing it. That’s one of the reasons I dedicated it to her. Like a lot of mothers, she was almost like a program machine. She had this kind of relentless determination, almost like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator creatures: I’ve got to do the best for my child. Klara has something of that.
I think that’s one of the interesting things about having a main character who’s officially non-human. Paradoxically, what you can do is you can really, really highlight some aspects of human nature. You can exaggerate and really pinpoint and focus on certain aspects of human nature when you take non-human characters.
Incidentally, talking about the Terminator movies — the second Terminator movie, Terminator 2, I think is one of the great movies about parenting.
Philpott: Ha! I love that. I’m going to tell my husband and kids that, because they’ve been re-watching some old movies recently.
In your Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2017, you spoke of the prize as an indication that one has “made a significant contribution to our common human endeavor.” What is that endeavor?
Ishiguro: Well, this is something that I guess the people who give the prize say. Since being given this huge honor — some people think this is the ultimate honor across all the fields of endeavor — I’ve been trying to figure out whether not just I, but whether the activity of literature is worthy of this kind of honor alongside medicine, physics, chemistry, and of course, peace. There’s an economics prize now as well that’s been added in modern times.
I want to say, of course literature is just as important, but this is something in the dead of night I kind of worry about. Why? You take away medicine, we’ve got real problems. You take away the sciences, you take away peace… Literature, does it deserve to be up there? Do I deserve to represent it? I’ve been saying for years, if you take away reading, take away literature, you take away something very, very important in the way we human beings communicate with each other. It’s not enough just to have knowledge of facts. We’ve got to somehow be able to communicate our feelings and our emotions. We’ve got to be able to tell each other what it feels like to be in different kinds of situations. Otherwise, we don’t know what to do with our knowledge.
That’s been my position for a long, long time, but I must confess, it’s harder to justify, because I can see that nations that had terrible things come out of it — let’s say like Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union — they had the greatest literature and the greatest music just before all this happened. I’m not quite sure if it actually stops society going in terrible ways, but I have to carry on believing that there’s something very, very important contained in not just books, but in stories. When we create stories for movies or just stories that we tell each other when we meet, this is something very, very fundamental. Take that away, some bad things are going to happen. We’re just going to end up profoundly lonely and not be able to function as a civilization. I kind of believe that, but sometimes I have wobbly moments.
Philpott: Well, I hope you keep believing it, so you’ll keep doing what you do. You mentioned these thoughts keeping you awake at night. When you wake up in the morning and you feel the first spark of motivation to start your day, what is it that’s motivating you? What goal are you pursuing when you get up in the morning?
Ishiguro: Well, it depends, day by day. They’re all the usual things. Like everybody, I’ve been missing company because of the pandemic and so on. Often I would have been getting up looking forward to some event, I’d be seeing somebody I want to see. I love conversations with strangers, with old friends, with members of my family. A conversation is something that always excites me because it’s always going to open up something new.
Maybe because I’ve been locked down and I’ve been very limited to who I can see, I’ve been getting up kind of eager about what I might read. When I look forward to what I might read, I’m not just talking about big thick books but magazines, articles. What I’m looking for is, I suppose, I’m looking for new things. I want doors to open into exciting areas of knowledge.
We have had a lot to think about recently, not just about the pandemic, but about where we’re going as a society in the Western world. We’ve had many, many challenging things, and some of that you might think is depressing, but I hate to say this, it feels in rather bad taste, but that’s kind of what gets me up in the morning. I think, “I’m going to find out more about this. I’m reading this, and this book is fascinating, and these ideas here are fascinating.” Some awful things have happened in the last year or so, and people have lost a lot of loved ones, but these are not uninteresting times.
Philpott: Right. And even when awful things are happening and sad things are happening, there’s a certain optimism to the fact that we keep going and we keep trying to surmount these things that happen and find a way forward.
You answered my last question, which was going to be about what your reading life is like these days, so thank you for that. I want to be mindful of your time. This has been a joy and an honor, and I’m so grateful for your time. I really enjoyed it.
Ishiguro: Well, thank you. It’s been terrific. It’s really nice to meet you, Mary Laura.
Philpott: It’s wonderful to meet you too.
Ishiguro: As I say, I love conversation. I hope we get to have a real conversation over coffee somewhere.
Philpott: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
Kazuo Ishiguro Recommends
The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.g. Farrell
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff