Interview with Kazuo IshiguroPosted by Goodreads on March 3, 2015
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 book...how 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.
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.
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.
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