Kazuo Ishiguro on his best books: 'I want to create stories that linger'
Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro is known for creating fictional characters and settings that linger — and, often, haunt — long after turning the final page. Here, the author, 66, reflects on four of his most resonant works, including his latest, Klara and the Sun.
A Pale View of Hills, 1982
"Obviously the first novel is a huge thing, because before that I didn't even think of myself as a writer," says Ishiguro of his debut, that features a mother reflecting back on her life and her decision to move her family from Japan to England. "Even while I was writing it, I wasn't sure this was ever going to get published." Pale View is a bit of a ghost story, as it were, and was the first in several of Ishiguro's books that employ the practice of ominous late-book reveals. He says that the publication of his debut didn't so much change his career as it did his own relationship to his career: "It's the rather frightening idea that actually there are people out there who are going to read what you write."
An Artist of the Floating World, 1986
Most readers consider 1989's The Remains of the Day to be Kazuo Ishiguro's breakthrough, but the author's sophomore novel, which centers on a Japanese artist as he reflects back on World War II, was most pivotal to his early career. After noting his tendency to write in a script-like fashion (linear, lots of dialogue), he made an about-face to focus on writing through memory, following a narrator's drifting thoughts. "I wasn't interested in what really happened in the story but [rather] what the narrator told himself might have happened," says Ishiguro. "[After publication] I turned from someone knocking on doors in the industry to somebody who actually had to turn people down. And in a way, I've stuck with that [writing] style ever since."
The Remains of the Day, 1989
After publishing two works set in Japan, Ishiguro (who was born in Nagasaki but has lived in England for more than 50 years) found himself classified as a Japanese writer. His third novel, in which a butler grapples with the repercussions of his decades-long post at an English manor, came from a conscious decision to challenge that typecasting: "I thought, if I write the same story as the last book but do it in this world, they'll see that I'm talking about universal themes." Remains' message, about the fear of dedicating your life to the wrong thing, resonated: It won the Booker Prize and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. "It was very satisfying," he says. "But a part of me will always think the book was kind of engineered."
The Unconsoled, 1995
Ishiguro describes his intention in writing his fourth novel as a conscious attempt to do something different than his previous books that relied heavily on a narrator putting the story together through memories. The Unconsoled used a sort of dream logic and stream of consciousness to describe a pianist preparing for a concert. "This book communicated with the least number of people — it's kind of strange, and some call it an experimental book," says the author. "However, there is a small, yet hardcore, group of readers who still want to talk about the book all the time. They write to me, and when I do a book event I know there will always be a couple of people who ask about The Unconsoled." While Ishiguro is very measured in his belief that his books don't have to be well-received by everyone, he says he didn't expect the mixed reactions. "I thought we all shared a dream language," he says of the novel's unique format. "And I intended it to be very funny in a surrealist way. I know that many people think it's completely without any humor, but a lot of what I wrote is there just for a laugh."
Never Let Me Go, 2005
It was Ishiguro's blockbuster about teenagers cloned for organ harvesting that propelled him to worldwide fame. He conceived the book's boarding school — where the three protagonists are raised before beginning their "donations" — as a metaphor for his own childhood: "It's the stage when adults drop little bits of information about the world, leaving you to speculate what might be happening 'on the outside.'" The author's wife, Lorna MacDougall, thinks Never Let Me Go resonates particularly with younger readers because of millennials' feelings of abandonment and emphasis on friends over family. Ishiguro says, "I inadvertently created something that was an echo for a generation."
Klara and the Sun 2021
The titular narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend, an AI machine built to keep watch over (mostly upperclass) children. She begins as a tabula rasa, picking up impressions and learning about society, her sophisticated knowledge contrasting with a toddler-like view of the world. Much like cloning, AI is a topic Ishiguro doesn't write about lightly: "I feel I have a duty to ask questions about where [AI] will take us, and what are the big decisions we have to make?" His latest novel is a response to Never Let Me Go — as he looks back at the 2005 text, he believes it presented a sadder vision of life than was necessary; Klara is more optimistic. "In a way, I've cheered up in the intervening years," he says.