For the Ishiguro household, 5 October 2017 was a big day. After weeks of discussion, the author’s wife, Lorna, had finally decided to change her hair colour. She was sitting in a Hampstead salon, not far from Golders Green in London, where they have lived for many years, all gowned up, and glanced at her phone. There was a news flash. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop this,” she said to the waiting hairdresser. “My husband has just won the Nobel prize for literature. I might have to help him out.”
Back home, Kazuo Ishiguro was having a late breakfast when his agent called. “It’s the opposite to the Booker prize, where there’s a longlist and then a shortlist. You hear the rumbling thunder coming towards you, often not striking. With the Nobel it is freak lightning out of the blue – wham!” Within half an hour there was a queue of journalists outside the front door. He called his mother, Shizuko. “I said: ‘I’ve won the Nobel, Shon.’ Oddly, she didn’t seem very surprised,” he recalls. “She said: ‘I thought you’d win it sooner or later.’” She died, aged 92, two years ago. His latest novel Klara and the Sun, in part about maternal devotion and his first since winning the Nobel, is dedicated to her. “My mother had a huge amount to do with my becoming a writer,” he says now.
We are talking on Zoom; he is holed up in the spare bedroom, his daughter Naomi’s undergraduate books on the shelves. His own study is tiny, he says, just big enough for two desks: one for his computer, the other with a writing slope – no one goes in there. Encouragingly, he compares the interview process to interrogation, borrowing from a scene in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that explains how agents are trained to withstand torture by having layers of plausible backstories, “until they are just a shrieking head”. Yet he submits to questioning with good humour; in fact talking for several hours with the exacting thoughtfulness you’d expect from his fiction.
In Nobel terms, at 62 Ishiguro was a relative whippersnapper. Precocity is part of the Ishiguro myth: at 27 he was the youngest on Granta’s inaugural best of young British novelists list in 1983 (with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes et al), appearing again the following decade. In between he won the Booker prize for The Remains of the Day, which was given the full Merchant Ivory treatment in 1993. Indeed, his claim that most great novels were produced by writers in their 20s and 30s has become part of literary legend. “It is Martin Amis who goes round repeating this, not me,” Ishiguro says, laughing. “He became obsessed with the idea.” But he still maintains that your 30s are the crucial years for novel writing: “You do need some of that cerebral power.” (Which is lucky for Naomi, who at 28 also has her first novel, Common Ground, out this month, much to her father’s delight.) Whenever anybody brought up the question of the Nobel, his standard line used to be: “Writers won their Nobel prizes in their 60s for work they did in their 30s. Now perhaps it applies to me personally,” the 66-year-old notes drily.
He remains the supreme creator of self-enclosed worlds (the country house; the boarding school), his characters often under some form of lockdown; his fastidious attention to everyday details and almost ostentatiously flat style offsetting fantastical plot lines and pent-up emotional intensity. And Klara and the Sun is no exception.
Set in an unspecified America, in an unspecified future, it is – ostensibly at least – about the relationship between an artificial “friend”, Klara, and her teenage owner/charge, Josie. Robots (AFs) have become as commonplace as vacuum cleaners, gene-editing is the norm and biotechnological advances are close to recreating unique human beings. “This isn’t some kind of weird fantasy,” he says. “We just haven’t woken up to what is already possible today.” “Amazon recommends” is just the beginning. “In the era of big data, we might start to be able to rebuild somebody’s character so that after they’ve died they can still carry on, figuring out what they’d order next online, which concert they’d like to go to and what they would have said at the breakfast table if you had read them the latest headlines,” he continues.
He deliberately didn’t read either the recent Ian McEwan novel Machines Like Me or Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, which also take on artificial intelligence, but from very different angles. Klara is a sort of robotic parent, “Terminator-like in her determination to look after Josie”, but she is also a potential surrogate child: when Josie gets sick, Klara is being programmed to take her place. “What happens to things like love in an age when we are changing our views about the human individual and the individual’s uniqueness?” he asks. “There was this question – it always sounds very pompous – about the human soul: do we actually have one or not?”
The book revisits many of the ideas behind Never Let Me Go, his 2005 novel about three teenage clones whose organs will be harvested, leading to certain death before their 30s: “only a slight exaggeration of the human condition, we all have to get ill and die at some point”, he says now. Both novels hold out the possibility that death can be postponed or defeated by true love, which must be tested and proved in some way; a fairytale bargaining that is also made explicit in the boatman’s challenge to Axl and Beatrice in his previous novel The Buried Giant. This hope, even for those who don’t believe in an afterlife, “is one of the things that makes us human,” he reflects. “It perhaps makes us fools as well. Perhaps it is a lot of sentimental hogwash. But it is very powerful in people.”
He is unapologetic about repetition, citing the “continuity” of great film directors (he is a huge cinephile), and likes to claim that each of his first three books was essentially a rewrite of its predecessor. “Literary novelists are slightly defensive about being repetitive,” he says. “I think it is perfectly justified: you keep doing it until it comes closer and closer to what you want to say each time.” He gets away with it, he says, by changing location or genre: “People are so literal they think I’m moving on.” For him, genre is like travel, and it is true that he has enjoyed genre-hopping: When We Were Orphans (detective fiction); Remains of the Day (period drama); The Unconsoled (Kafkaesque fable); Never Let Me Go (dystopian sci-fi) and The Buried Giant (Tolkienish fantasy). Now, as the title Klara and the Sun hints, he visits what he calls “children’s storyland”. But be warned, we are still very much in Ishiguroland.
Based on a tale he made up for his daughter when she was small, the novel was originally intended to be his first foray into the children’s market. “I had this very sweet story,” he says. “I thought it would fit one of those lovely illustrated books. I ran it past Naomi and she looked at me very stony-faced and said: ‘You can’t possibly give young children a story like that. They will be traumatised.’” So he decided to write it for adults instead.
He is always slightly surprised by people’s responses to his work, he says. “I was actually quite taken aback by how bleak people found Never Let Me Go.” He received a postcard from Harold Pinter on which was scrawled “I found it bloody terrifying! Harold” in his trademark black felt tip. He’d underlined bloody. “It’s supposed to be my cheerful book!”
His wife has always been his first reader; often, as was the case with Klara, having “a dismayingly large influence after I thought I’d finished”. Now he also has Naomi as an editor. Once a writer gets to his position, he says, editors are reluctant to touch his work, worrying he will storm off “in a flaming temper” to another publisher. “So I’m very thankful that I’ve got these rather strict members of my family that do that for me.” Winning prizes, of which he gets “an absurd” number, “happens in a parallel world out there,” he says. Even the Nobel: “When I’m sitting in my study trying to figure out how to write something, it’s got nothing to do with it. I have my own private sense of when I’ve succeeded and when I’ve failed.”
Each novel takes him around five years: a long build-up of research and thinking, followed by a speedy first draft, a process he compares to a samurai sword fight: “You stare at each other silently for ages, usually with tall grass blowing away and moody sky. You are thinking all the time, and then in a split second it happens. The swords are drawn: Wham! Wham! Wham! And one of them falls,” he explains, wielding an imaginary sword at the screen. “You had to get your mind absolutely right and then when you drew that sword you just did it: Wham! It had to be the perfect cut.” As a child, he was mystified by swashbuckling Errol Flynn films when he first came to the UK, in which the sword fights consisted of actors going “ching, ching, ching, ching, for about 20 minutes while talking to each other,” he says. “Perhaps there’s a way of writing fiction like that, where you work it out in the act, but I tend towards the ‘Don’t do anything, it’s all internal’ approach.”
Ishiguro’s mother was also a gifted storyteller, telling stories from the war (she was injured by a roof tile in the Nagasaki bombing) and acting out scenes from Shakespeare at the dinner table. He holds up a battered copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a present from his mother when he was around 16. “Because I was a would-be hippie, she said something like: ‘You should read it – you will feel like you are going out of your mind.’ So I did read it, and was completely riveted from the start.” Dostoevksy has remained one of his greatest influences. His mother introduced him to many of the classics: “She was very important in persuading a boy who wasn’t interested in reading and wanted to listen to albums all the time that there might be something in some of these books.”
The family moved from Japan in 1959 to Guildford when Ishiguro was five; his father, Shizu, a renowned oceanographer, had a two-year research contract with the British government. Ishiguro describes his father as a strange mix of scientific brilliance and childlike ignorance about other things, which he drew on to create Klara. After his father retired, his machine to predict wave surges spent many years in a shed at the bottom of the garden, until 2016 when the Science Museum in London asked for it to be part of a new mathematics gallery. “Along with Naomi becoming a published writer, that was a very proud moment for me.”
His parents bought him his first portable typewriter when he was 16, but he had “firm plans to become a rock star by the time he was 20”. In particular, he wanted to be a singer-songwriter, like his great hero Bob Dylan, writing more than 100 songs in his bedroom. He still writes lyrics, collaborating with the American jazz singer Stacey Kent, and today owns no fewer than nine guitars. (He accepted an honorary degree from St Andrews University in 2003 solely for the chance of meeting his hero, who had also been awarded one – “I would be in a green room getting dressed up in a robe with Bob Dylan!” But the musician postponed until the following year. “I was very happy to get it with Betty Boothroyd!”) Amid the establishment harrumphing when Dylan was awarded the Nobel for literature the year before him, Ishiguro was delighted. “Absolutely he should have had it,” he says. “I think people like Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell are in a sense literary artists as well as performance artists, and I think it is good that the Nobel prize recognises that.”
His Nobel lecture, “My 20th Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs”, concludes with an appeal for just such a breakdown of artistic silos, along with greater literary diversity in general. “It is not enough just to look at the ethnicity question,” he clarifies now, “if it is just a variation on that old joke that the BBC is open to people of every religious belief, race and sexual orientation – as long as they’ve been to Oxford or Cambridge.” Of his own status as “a literary poster boy for multicultural Britain”, as he was introduced in one TV news interview in 2016, he is always at pains to stress that he feels “slightly on the outside of the conversation” about the English colonial experience as depicted in novels by Salman Rushdie or VS Naipaul. “I just happen to be somebody who looks a bit different so I get lumped with these other writers,” he says. “But it is not a very deep categorisation. In library terms, I’m being put in there because of the jacket.” He would like to see more diversity not just in terms of ethnicity, but also class. As he points out, he is unusual among his literary contemporaries in having attended a state grammar school and one of the then-new campus universities.
Always a master of the polite “No” to journalistic requests, he is cautious about falling prey to “the Nobel syndrome” of pontificating on the world. He describes himself as “an exhausted writer, from an intellectually exhausted generation”. His daughter accuses him, and his liberal-minded peers, of complacency about the climate emergency. “I plead guilty to that,” he says. “I always say to her it is partly just an energy problem, that people of my age spent so much time worrying about the postwar situation, about the battle between communism and capitalism, totalitarianism, racism and feminism, we are too tired to take on this.” Klara and the Sun is his first novel to touch on the crisis, but he concedes the children’s story framework allowed him to avoid engaging with it deeply.
For the first time, he is beginning to fear for the future, not just the consequences of climate change, but other issues raised in Klara: artificial intelligence, gene-editing, big data – “sorry to bang on about this” – and their implications for equality and democracy. “The nature of capitalism itself is changing its model,” he says. “I do worry that we are not in control any more of these things.”
Yet he hopes that Klara and the Sun will be read as “a cheerful, optimistic novel”. But as always with Ishiguro, any consolation has to be earned. “By presenting a very difficult world you can show the brightness, you can show the sunniness.”