From his home in London, Ishiguro talked about the novel, the Nobel, parenthood, how he managed to stay afloat during the pandemic and more.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Several of your previous books were on my mind as I read “Klara and the Sun.” It struck me that the deep need to prove our right to exist — to prove that we deserve to occupy whatever space we occupy, that our existence has had a purpose and has not been wasted — seems to be at the heart of so much of your writing. I thought about the butler in “Remains of the Day.” I thought about the clones in “Never Let Me Go.” The artificial friend, Klara. Why do you think you’ve returned so often to that idea? Or I guess I should first ask, do you think you’re returning again and again to that idea?
A: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. I come back to it from perhaps different angles. It’s not just what interests me about human beings; it’s what I admire about them, even when they go wrong. It’s what I love about human beings. We’re not like cows or sheep or whatever. We’re not content just to feed ourselves and reproduce and then die. We’ve got to keep asking ourselves, “Have I made a contribution? Have I been a good . . . ?” Even if I’m a criminal, I’d ask myself, “Have I been a good criminal? Have I been loyal to my gang members?” It’s just hard-wired into human beings. We want to say that we did it well, not just in terms of career, but in terms of being a parent or being a sibling or being a friend or being a spouse.
Q: The juxtaposition of technology and living beings — having this machine who is trying to build an accurate understanding of the natural world and of human society — must have been such a ripe situation for storytelling. Had the advances in artificial intelligence been on your mind in recent years? And is technology something that you fear or celebrate — or both?
A: Both, I think. I had been quite immersed in reading and actually talking about things like AI and also gene technology. I was very interested in these areas for a number of years, without really thinking I’d write a book about it or that it would actually turn up in any form in any of my novels. I do have fears about it, but . . . I think it does open up amazing things for us, particularly in terms of health care. Of course there are enormous dangers, and so as a society we have to actually reorganize ourselves so that we can benefit from these things and not have these things destroy our civilization.
Q: Parenthood is one of the central relationships in “Klara and the Sun.” How has fatherhood shaped you as a writer?
A: I can’t imagine what kind of person or what kind of writer I’d be if I hadn’t experienced parenthood. Your perspective shifts. Emotionally, intellectually, you look at the world differently. I think your perspective becomes longer as well. You’re not just looking at things in your own lifetime. You see things in terms of your child’s lifetime, your grandchildren’s lifetime, your great grandchildren’s lifetime. The way you look at life, our existence, everything seems to change. And it changes at that kind of empathetic, emotional level. Occasionally I come across writers who say if you have children it messes up your career. I think this is a profound mistake, unless you think a writing career is just about sitting down and producing a certain quantity of writing.
Q: They do get in the way of your office hours sometimes.
A: [Laughs] Artistic endeavor is about trying to experience life and reflect life. I’m not saying that writers who don’t have children don’t write profound books. We have many, many examples of this. I don’t think it’s something a writer should try to avoid because they think it’s not good for their career.
Q: In your Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2017, you spoke of the prize as an indication that one has “made a significant contribution to our common human endeavor.” What is that endeavor?
A: Since being given this huge honor — some people think this is the ultimate honor across all the fields of endeavor — I’ve been trying to figure out whether not just I, but whether the activity of literature is worthy of this kind of honor alongside medicine, physics, chemistry, and of course, peace. There’s an economics prize now as well that’s been added in modern times.
I want to say, of course literature is just as important, but this is something in the dead of night I kind of worry about. Why? You take away medicine, we’ve got real problems. You take away the sciences, you take away peace. . . . Literature, does it deserve to be up there? Do I deserve to represent it? I’ve been saying for years, if you take away reading, take away literature, you take away something very, very important in the way we human beings communicate with each other. It’s not enough just to have knowledge of facts. We’ve got to somehow be able to communicate our feelings and our emotions. We’ve got to be able to tell each other what it feels like to be in different kinds of situations. Otherwise, we don’t know what to do with our knowledge.
When we create stories for movies or just stories that we tell each other when we meet, this is something very, very fundamental. Take that away, some bad things are going to happen. We’re just going to end up profoundly lonely and not be able to function as a civilization.
Q: When you wake up in the morning and you feel the first spark of motivation to start your day, what is it that’s motivating you?
A: Like everybody, I’ve been missing company because of the pandemic and so on. Often I would have been getting up looking forward to some event, I’d be seeing somebody I want to see. I love conversations with strangers, with old friends, with members of my family. A conversation is something that always excites me because it’s always going to open up something new. We have had a lot to think about recently, not just about the pandemic, but about where we’re going as a society in the Western world. We’ve had many, many challenging things, and some of that you might think is depressing, but — I hate to say this, it feels in rather bad taste — but that’s kind of what gets me up in the morning. I think, “I’m going to find out more about this. I’m reading this, and this book is fascinating, and these ideas here are fascinating.” Some awful things have happened in the last year or so, and people have lost a lot of loved ones, but these are not uninteresting times.
Mary Laura Philpott is the author of “I Miss You When I Blink” and “Bomb Shelter,” forthcoming in 2022. The full transcript of her conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro for Nashville Public Television’s “A Word on Words” is at AWordOnWords.org.