The Thread®

Kazuo Ishiguro draws on his songwriting past to write novels about the future

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. His previous novels include The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. He also writes lyrics for jazz singer Stacey Kent.
Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. His previous novels include The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. He also writes lyrics for jazz singer Stacey Kent.
Andrew Testa for the New York Times/Penguin Random House

Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro didn't set out to become a novelist. In the 1960s, he came to San Francisco from England with his acoustic guitar, hoping to make it as a singer-songwriter.

Things didn't work out the way he had planned. Within a month, someone stole his guitar, and eventually Ishiguro turned to writing fiction. But he continues to draws on his roots as a songwriter.

"Many of the things I do, still to this day as a writer, as a novelist, I think it has its foundations in what I discovered and the kind of place that I arrived at as a writer of songs," Ishiguro says.

Ishiguro's latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is set in a future time, where children no longer go to school; instead they learn on devices, isolated from each other. The story is narrated by a human-like robot, who serves as one child's "artificial friend." If certain elements of the novel feel oddly prescient of pandemic life, Ishiguro says that's purely coincidental.

"I finished the book before the pandemic, and I have to say, [the pandemic] took me completely by surprise," he says. "I couldn't have dreamt that something like this would happen. ... In the novel, I'm talking about a society that is undergoing profound changes and it doesn't quite know how to reorganize itself."

Interview highlights

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

On why he wanted his narrator to be an artificial person

Klara was especially interesting for me because she doesn't bring any baggage with her. ... She's like a tabula rasa at the beginning, and she's quite childlike and very open. ... That appealed to me. I wanted some of that childlike freshness and openness and naivety to survive all the way through the text in her. I wanted her to remain a very optimistic character who has a childlike faith in the presence of something good and protective in the world — even as she learns all these other things, darker things about the human world that she occupies.

On sympathizing with Klara, despite her being an A.I.

It shouldn't be that surprising, really, though, that an artificial creature could actually solicit our sympathies as much as a human one. Because after all, characters in books are artificial. We're making that kind of leap anyway. When we read books and you get weepy over the fate of some character, we're not weeping over a real person. We've put ourselves into some kind of space where we're relating to created beings. At some level, we're responding metaphorically because we think that it impinges, in some metaphorical relationship to our real lives, I suppose. I never thought it was going to actually be an intrinsic problem in terms of how my readers would feel because my main character was artificial.

On how songwriting was his foundation in writing

I feel like I served my apprenticeship, as a novelist, writing songs. And in some ways, that's why I was able to kind of jump into my career at a relatively mature point. I think my first novel isn't like a typical first novel. And [the success of] The Remains of the Day — which a lot of people still think is one of my best books, that's only my third book, written in my early 30s — is because ... I went through the other stages in my songwriting. And I think I realize, even now, new things about songs and the value system that counts when you try to write songs, seriously write songs. I now realize more and more as I get older how they define my decisions as a novelist.

On listening to singers to inspire his writing

When I'm writing, the actual voice of the narrator is very important, and I find I take enormous inspiration ... from listening to singing voices. I love to listen to Stacey Kent, who I write lyrics for, or many other singers. There's something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of a singing performance. I'll listen to Nina Simone, all kinds of singers, ... and just the voice — not much the lyrics of the songs — sometimes the voice alone gives me something to aim for in my writing. I'll think, it's that feeling she gets there, that's what I want in this passage, and I can bypass the intellectualizing of it or the articulating it in words. I can just try and go for that kind of feeling.

On if winning a Nobel Prize in 2017 changed his confidence

This is, by and large, how I've experienced prizes and honors throughout my career: It feels to me like that happens somewhere outside out there on a different planet, almost in a parallel universe, and the person who receives these things is some sort of avatar. I'm really proud and grateful to get these honors, because many, many writers who are as good as me or better don't get these honors. So let me just say that I'm profoundly grateful for them. However, when I'm writing in my disheveled, untidy study, it's got nothing to do with what I'm doing. I have a very lonely sense of success or failure. I'm trying to bring something into being and sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can't. And that's about the extent of it, really.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

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