Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro

Posted by Goodreads on March 3, 2015
The books of Kazuo Ishiguro are each widely divergent in story and setting—from upper-crust England in The Remains of the Day to pre-World War II China in When We Were Orphans to the fraught dystopia of Never Let Me Go—but they all hew to the beloved and bestselling author's recurring concerns about the nature of memory and concealed truths. At first glance his latest novel, The Buried Giant, seems like his greatest stretch yet. Set in post-King Arthur England, it unfolds across a desolate and war-ravaged landscape populated by Christian Britons and pagan Saxons as well as ogres, knights, and a mist-breathing she-dragon called Querig, whose breath has enveloped the land in a fog of forgetting. But don't be fooled by the fantastical excursions into Tolkien territory: This is still very much a wise, and relevant, literary investigation of the wounds of war and national amnesia. The book's two aged protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, set off on an epic journey to reunite with their long-lost son, encountering along the way a dragon-slaying warrior fueled by visions of vengeance, his orphaned apprentice, and a doddering Sir Gawain. Anderson Tepper spoke to Ishiguro by phone in London about the dilemmas of shared memory, the long slog of love, and striking out for new artistic territories.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Goodreads: You've spoken about how you chose this ancient setting because it was a sort of blank historical space in which you could address universal questions of war and collective memory. But reading some of the early reviews, do you feel critics have been overly focused on the otherworldly elements instead of the underlying ideas?

Kazuo Ishiguro: My impression is that, by and large, people are getting the gist of what I wanted to deal with. But what I have noticed—and perhaps this is something I had not anticipated as much—is that it feels like I've stepped into a larger, ongoing debate about the role of fantasy tropes in what you might call "serious literature." It reminds me to some extent of what was happening with sci-fi a couple decades ago. Since then, sci-fi has come much more into the mainstream and no one thinks twice about dystopian settings. But I can sense a frustration among certain writers who feel they haven't been allowed to use fantastical elements like dragons and things, and that there's a community of writers and readers out there who feel marginalized.

Publishing this novel has given an opportunity for a lot of people to express their thoughts about whether there should or should not be a stigma about these settings. Some would say, you know, that dragons and Arthurian legend have become so contaminated by cliché and, say, Monty Python that you just cannot use it. And then other people—like Neil Gaiman, for example, who's reviewed The Buried Giant for the cover of the New York Times Book Review—would say that not using that inhibits the imaginary landscapes and comes down to a sort of unattractive conservatism or prejudice. I think it's a very interesting moment in this discussion, and I believe it may to some extent be generational. The younger generation seems much more open to this kind of thing.

GR: Your book certainly also evokes some of the ethnic and religious tensions around the world today. But its roots actually go back to what was happening in the early '90s in the Balkans and Rwanda, right?

KI: Yes, I'd say those things triggered my interest, though they weren't really my subject matter as such. I grew up very much in the shadow of the Cold War, and like most people living in Europe, I intermittently thought that some sort of nuclear attack was likely. So when the Cold War ended in 1989, I remember this huge feeling of relief and optimism. And I guess to some extent that has been borne out, but within just two or three years we saw the disintegration in Yugoslavia. Once the peace and unity imposed by Tito's Communist regime fell away, all these, I suppose, buried memories and past enmities came to the surface and erupted. Before we knew it, we were back with concentration camps in Europe, and the Srebrenica massacre looked like something out of the Second World War. Rwanda isn't as close, but that was another very shocking thing that happened at that time. And in both cases I guess the question that many of us posed was, How could these people who were living side by side suddenly burn and massacre each other? Obviously the schisms were always there to some extent, but what was so frightening was the way tribal memory was used to convince people that they had a personal need for vengeance against their neighbor. So that was, I suppose, a kind of trigger for me to start thinking about societal memory and how it related to the kinds of books I had been writing up until then about individuals struggling to come to terms with their own pasts.

GR: On another level this book is very much a love story, though perhaps not a traditional one.

KI: Yes, The Buried Giant is actually about what I think love is, essentially: a huge journey that people make through life together. Axl and Beatrice met and fell in love and came together a long, long time ago. So this is really about the long slog of years where you have to do battle to keep the flame alive. And because this is a novel about remembering and forgetting, the question becomes, What is the role of shared memories in a marriage like that? What happens if you start to remember things differently? And what do you do with the dark, uncomfortable memories? Just as with a nation, there are these aspects to a relationship that people perhaps prefer to keep buried in the past. But then you have the question, particularly when people are getting old: If you disinter these memories, will it destroy the love? On the other hand, if you don't look at them, is the love really genuine? And I think that is Axl and Beatrice's dilemma. They instinctively want to reclaim their memories, and they have a certain confidence that their love will be strong enough to withstand whatever they uncover. But as the book goes on, they start to have their doubts.

GR: Goodreads member Ali wonders about the variety of your material. "To me, your interests are so diverse that it makes it extremely difficult to predict the subject of your next do you decide on a specific subject to write about?"

KI: I would probably use the words "setting" or "genre" for what I think is being asked. My subject, on a deeper level, is something like memory or the dilemma between memory and forgetting. Certainly earlier in my career, it would have been things like well-intentioned people thinking they had wasted their talents and their efforts over the course of their lives. All those things are still there in The Buried Giant. I think Axl is a typical character of mine who thought he was going to change the world for the better and then at a certain point thinks, Well, I've just contributed to something bad and must blank it out. So when you dig deeper, there are these continuities. And I would say that is my essential subject, on a thematic and emotional level. My subject is never really what does the English landscape look like in the year 500 or something. For me the choice of setting falls into the same category as how to narrate the thing, who should be the narrator, where the viewpoints should go, all that kind of stuff. For me, the choice of setting, even genre—though I don't think consciously about genre—are all part of my attempt to get the story to come alive.

GR: Speaking of perspective, Goodreads member Don LePan is curious about your choice to abandon, for the most part, first-person point of view in The Buried Giant.

KI: There are two passages narrated by Gawain and one by the boatmen right at the end, but otherwise The Buried Giant is written in a third-person that tends to reflect the viewpoints of either Axl or Edwin, the boy. My decision to not use first-person extensively in this book had everything to do with my ambition to write a novel that was about societal memory, not individual memory. In books like, say, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the entire book's universe is inside one character's head. But in order to try and write about a nation and its collective memory, I felt I couldn't do that. From the start I felt I needed to come out of first-person in order to look at a wider field.

GR: Another Goodreads member, Grouchy Editor, wants to know what you thought of the film versions of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

KI: I was very pleased with both movies, actually. I find it deeply gratifying that a story I dream up in my study gets taken on by other talented people and that they try to make it into a work of their own. I quite like the idea that something I've put out there has begun to permeate and grow in the culture. That's a seriously flattering thing—to contribute in a little way to what's out there in the public imagination. Isn't that what we're creating stories to do, ultimately? What I ask from movie adaptations is that they be authentic expressions of the filmmakers' visions. I want the films to have their own artistic conviction. That is the most important thing to me rather than fidelity to my novel.

GR: Tell me about your writing process. Is there anything unique to your method or routine?

KI: Well, maybe I'm not so different from other writers, but I prefer to write in blocks rather than do a complete draft all the way through. There was one exception: Never Let Me Go. With that novel, for some reason, I got very nervous about stopping at any point and went all the way through to the end. But with the other books, I've written about 30 to 40 pages very carefully, revising drafts maybe four or five times, until I have it more or less pretty clean and convincing and then move on to the next section. That comes out of a feeling that I want to create solid foundations before I build the next block. I don't want to make artistic decisions arbitrarily that will have huge implications for the rest of the book.

Rate this book
Clear rating

Rate this book
Clear rating
GR: What books or writers had a major influence on you when you began to write?

KI: The two Charlotte Brontë novels Jane Eyre and Villette had a big impact on me, particularly with regard to the use of the first-person—a rather coy use of first-person, where the narrator seems to be confiding quite deep emotions and then you suddenly realize she has kept out some crucial things. Dostoyevsky was a writer I loved when I was in my teens, though I'm not quite in such awe of him anymore. And like a lot of people of my generation, Jack Kerouac's On the Road was an important bridge between rock music and books. Growing up here in Britain, my dream was to go to America and hitchhike across the country because I had listened to all these American rock songs. And I suppose the only kind of book that seemed to have that sort of spirit was Kerouac's On the Road. That was a little earlier, before I began to write, but it introduced me to the idea that books could be pretty cool.

Rate this book
Clear rating
GR: What are you reading now?

KI: I'm reading Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words. It's three long, confidential conversations with her friend Malka Marom, another Canadian singer of her generation. What happens with Joni Mitchell is that quite early in her career she becomes a commercially successful singer and then she has this urge to keep moving to more and more avant-garde territory. So as her music becomes far less mainstream, she starts to lose her mainstream audience. I find it interesting to hear her talk about her need to explore new territories while also dealing with the pain of losing an audience and being criticized.

GR: Is that something you're conscious of yourself as an author?

KI: Yeah, yeah [laughs]! That's why I find it so interesting! It always seems to me like a strange accident that I have the size of audience that I do. There's a certain element of luck—that what you write in a specific time and space reverberates. I've been very fortunate in that sense that I've had books that have appealed beyond what you'd normally call the literary market. The movies have helped, too. But I feel this is something that is always at the back of my mind: To what extent am I supposed to pay attention to the fact that I have a large readership? Do I bear them in mind, demographically, geographically, culturally? Or do I just get on with things and hope they follow me?

Interview by Anderson Tepper for Goodreads. Anderson is on the staff of Vanity Fair and has written on books and authors for a variety of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and The Paris Review Daily. He is also on advisory committees for both the Brooklyn Book Festival's international stage and PEN World Voices, where he has moderated conversations with the authors Nuruddin Farah, Ben Okri, Rian Malan, and José Eduardo Agualusa, among others.

Learn more about Anderson and follow what he's reading.

Would you like to contribute author interviews to Goodreads? Contact us.

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Hollis (new)

Hollis Williams Definitely want to read this, I've been waiting for a new book for Kazuo Ishiguro for what seems like eons.

message 2: by loretta (new)

loretta What a wonderful Interview! I have already purchased this book on kindle but had I not, I certainly would have after reading this interview. Mr. tepper's questions elicited the depth of thinking that went into this novel and just what it was that Mr. Ishiguro wants to accomplish. I can't wait to read it!

message 3: by Kelsey (new)

Kelsey Thank you for this interview! I really enjoyed getting to read a little bit about Ishiguro's experience as an author.

message 4: by Suchisagarwal (new)

Suchisagarwal I am feeling compelled to read this book... Haven't read any of Mr. Ishiguro's work though, but would like to explore now... with this memory of society and nation and the third person narration it should be interesting to read and come along with another set of thoughts and unfolding story!

message 5: by Shelly (new)

Shelly Really looking forward to reading this! What a great interview.

message 6: by Jane (new)

Jane Thorndale Very interesting and well written interview. I love Mr Ishiguro's work so this is going on my wish list. As a result I am also going to read Joni Mitchell's biography so well worth clicking on this link. Thank you for brightening my morning.

message 7: by Bernadette (new)

Bernadette Jansen op de Haar Lovely interview. I'm a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's work and The Buried Giant is on my to read list. I'm looking forward to reading it!

I also enjoyed Mark Lawson interviewing Kazuo Ishiguro for the BBC

message 8: by Steph (last edited Mar 05, 2015 06:23AM) (new)

Steph "Some would say, you know, that dragons and Arthurian legend have become so contaminated by cliché and, say, Monty Python that you just cannot use it. And then other people—like Neil Gaiman, for example, who's reviewed The Buried Giant for the cover of the New York Times Book Review—would say that not using that inhibits the imaginary landscapes and comes down to a sort of unattractive conservatism or prejudice."

All I can say is that Guy Gavriel Kay did in the Fionavar Tapestry and Jack Whyte in the Dream of Eagles and I cannot thank either of them enough for doing so - two of my absolute favourites.

message 9: by James (new)

James Spencer My question to him would have been something along the lines of this: one of the reasons for the success of The Remains of the Day was his juxtaposition of traditional Japanese societal mores with the English aristocracy; and does he feel that after living in England for so long he has lost any of his Japanese roots or essence? Would be fascinating to hear his thoughts.

message 10: by Alyson (new)

Alyson Great interview! I am currently reading The Buried Giant, and as a fantasy fan I can say it's like no other fantastical novel I've ever read. Since I am also an Ishiguro fan, I don't even think of it as a fantasy; I think of it as an Ishiguro novel, because nothing I've read by Ishiguro is like anything else I've ever read. He has such a distinctive style and an unwavering focus on the theme of memory, as if the more he writes about it the closer he can come to grasping the most slippery function of the human mind. As Ishiguro himself said, he doesn't consciously set out to write in a particular genre or setting--he simply combines the elements that will most effectively tell the story he wants to tell. And I believe that's why his body of work has such integrity, despite the wide variety of genres, settings, etc.

As I'm reading The Buried Giant, I am more anxious to find out whether the characters recover their memories than whether they complete their quests successfully. With an Ishiguro novel, it seems the external setting and even the plot elements are really just a framework for the characters' ongoing internal struggles to grasp who they are and what their place is in the world--if they can.

message 11: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Griffin "But don't be fooled by the fantastical excursions into Tolkien territory: This is still very much a wise, and relevant, literary investigation..."

This is, frankly, insulting. As if excursions into the fantastic would normally have precluded any wisdom or cultural relevance from appearing in the work. The most limiting lie anyone has ever told themselves is that because they liked a thing as a child, that thing must be childish, and therefore unworthy of their adult attention. Works of fantasy suffer under such misperceptions all the time, but it should not be so.

All works of fiction are fantasy. A character is made no more real because he lives in Manhattan, rather than Narnia; they are both fake, plain and simple. The wisdom and relevance of a work are derived from the universal experiences made particular by the author in his characters. Such is recognized by the reader no matter the setting. It is not seen, but felt in the heart and in the mind.

For an example, let's take "Tolkien territory." Tolkien, a WWII vet, was much affected by his time serving his country, and that experience we can see reflected in Frodo, who upon returning to the Shire finds himself unsettled in a setting he once found familiar and comfortable. Frodo has been changed by his traumatic journey with the ring, so much so that, though his task is complete, and by all rights he should get his well-earned rest, Frodo feels compelled to leave his home and his loved-ones in an attempt to regain some measure of the inner peace he's lost. In the world of the 50's, when PTSD was still decades from being understood, and thousands had returned home from the battlefields of Europe to discover they too felt a similar anxiety in returning to their day-to-day, Tolkien's portrayal of Frodo's stoic disquiet bore massive cultural and emotional weight, and still does today.

I was incredibly disappointed after reading Ursula Le Guin's rebuke of Ishiguro earlier this week, but at least during this interview, he deftly handled (rather, side-stepped) the questions about genre perception and stigma, though this pacifism may be, in fact, a direct result of the admonitions he received from Le Guin and others like-minded. This interviewer, however, could not manage to purport himself with quite so much grace. He tipped his hand early as a literary bigot, and ruined what may have been an otherwise intriguing interview for me.

I may read this book. I may not. I suppose it will just depend on how relevant I'm feeling, and how wise.

message 12: by Mari (new)

Mari Hamill Great interview!

message 13: by Tesh (new)

Tesh Thomas wrote: ""But don't be fooled by the fantastical excursions into Tolkien territory: This is still very much a wise, and relevant, literary investigation..."

This is, frankly, insulting. As if excursions in..."

You have a good point here. Children's picture books can and often are wise and relevant themselves.
I wonder if the interviewer meant something slightly different though, or whether he has actually read LOTR.

message 14: by Ben (new)

Ben Hundley Reading The Unconsoled now. Rather bizarre, but liking it a great deal. Look forward to the new one!

message 15: by Dusan (new)

Dusan Have read all of his novels, The Unconsoled being my favourite, so I'm very much looking forward to this new one.
And as for Ishiguro's considerations in his writing process, I say just get on with it. We will follow.

message 16: by Doseofbella (new)

Doseofbella Great interview! Thank you for sharing.

message 17: by Lechuta (new)

Lechuta Samuel I look forward to read this book...

message 18: by Lesley (new)

Lesley I'd go for 'get on with things & hope your audience follows'. I love everything you've published to date. Even if I didn't like one I'd keep on buying to support the next - 8/8 is an impressive hit rate so far.

message 19: by Linda (new)

Linda Love Ishiguro; have downloaded the kindle for The Buried Giant and will read with relish....

message 20: by Zeytoon (new)

Zeytoon hi

message 21: by Zeytoon (new)

Zeytoon is anyone here?

message 22: by Leila (new)

Leila Bathke Enlightening interview and beautiful words! It was particularly informative to have him explain his writing process.

Powder River Rose Enjoyed the interview very much and look forward to listening to the audio version. Thank you for sharing a bit of yourself with us.

message 24: by MaryM (new)

MaryM I've got to read this now :)

message 25: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Thank you, Goodreads, for this interview. I have just finished the book and have been pondering its meaning. The discussion with the author about societal collective memory and buried hatreds changed my perspective on the story. Fascinating!

message 26: by Carrie (new)

Carrie You are a very eloquent writer and I always look forward to reading your newest work.

message 27: by Emma (new)

Emma I'm dying to discuss the ending of this book, does anyone know of a group discussion about it? Where spoilers will be OK?

message 28: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Dimattia Great interview! Thank you Goodread fans. . . .will try to read, although I prefer it in Japanese. . .

message 29: by Calogero (new)

Calogero Mira Vorrei leggere "Quel che resta del giorno". I would like to read The Remains of the Day.

back to top