In his early childhood, Kazuo Ishiguro’s family left their home in Nagasaki, Japan, for a Southern England small town, and he was forced to adjust. In his early adulthood, Ishiguro failed to fulfill his dream of becoming a jazz musician and was once again forced to adjust. This time he more than “adjusted” — with an acclaimed debut novel at the age of 27. Now, at 60, Ishiguro has managed to maintain a steady literary momentum, a steady amount of creative space, and a steady success rate.
The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel, and his first in a decade, is as risky as it is intriguing. It is a sort of historical fantasy novel filled with she-dragons and knights, according to some, and an allegory of historical amnesia according to others. Yes, it is heavy with dialogue and yes, it dabbles in theology on the surface, but it is also deeply human, rooted in themes fundamental to the human experience: love, history, and the ability to remember it all.
JANE GAYDUK: Was there a lot of pressure on you to produce a new novel in the last 10 years?
KAZUO ISHIGURO: Oddly there wasn’t. It was disconcerting actually — no one seems particularly eager for me to produce new work. I think writers who write crime fiction, or certain kinds of genres, do get enormous pressure put on them — it has something to do with the way the industry works. Whereas with writers like me publishers seem to make a big point of not putting pressure; it’s in bad form. And so I was left in splendid isolation; it was part of the reason I didn’t realize that so many years were going by and I hadn’t produced another novel. But I have to say I did produce a book of short stories between Never Let Me Go and this one, but no, I don’t think I’ve ever felt any pressure in terms of time.
Nobody’s ever said to me “you must produce something by a certain date,” apart from right at the beginning of my career, when somebody said to me “you’ve produced a novel that’s got some tension, you must keep up a certain rhythm, at least once every two years you should publish a novel otherwise you’ll disappear.”
They were wrong.
Well, it took me four years or five years before I came up with my second novel, and that wasn’t a strategy, that was just how long it took. And it didn’t do me any harm at all; I’ve never thought about it since. I don't feel any pressure in terms of timing. I do feel pressure in terms of what I eventually put out there. I’m very fortunate in that people give me a lot attention when I eventually put out a book, but that does mean there’s a certain amount of pressure on me, because whatever I publish is going to come under enormous scrutiny, so it has to be acceptable.
You first novel came out in 1982. Has the changing digital landscape of the past 30 or so years affected how you write lengthier works?
Now that you’re asking me this question, maybe there is something that’s slightly changed, and I’m barely aware of it myself, which is, in the old days when it was pen and then typewriter, every time I wrote even something for an early draft, the adrenaline would come out. And it was almost like I was about to perform, even if I was in my study and I knew I could revise it, because I didn’t have the ability to carry on revising it and revising it, as I do now on the computer. Every time I put a sheet of paper into the typewriter in the old days I would have to go into some zone of concentration, I suppose like an improvising jazz musician in front of an audience. And that sense now, that I’ve got to get it right, concentrate, focus — that isn’t quite so urgent anymore. There’s a feeling that oh I’ll do it, then I could look at it, then I’ll change it again. Maybe a little edge has gone off. Sometimes I miss that sense that you’re up there in the spotlight and you’ve got to produce something, which can be an incentive and a source of invention in itself, as a lot of musicians will tell you.
Research has gotten easier in the internet age, but sometimes that can be deceptive as well. You tend to use something relatively superficial as your research because there’s a lot of it at hand. In the old days you had to go to libraries or actually go around interviewing people; maybe you dug deeper in some way because there was no choice but to do otherwise. It’s easier to be satisfied with a more superficial level of research when you just do it online.
How would you tackle the idea of memory — a huge theme in The Buried Giant — if you were to set a story like that in the age where everything is online?
One of the questions that intrigue me right now — I suppose these are questions that emerged in my mind as I was writing The Buried Giant, but there was no room in the book itself for exploring them — would be, where do the memory banks in a modern society reside? And I think that question has gotten really complicated now. Maybe in simpler societies such as the one I portray in The Buried Giant — I don't think those societies were simple but perhaps they were simpler in respect to this particular question — you could point to your living memory, what the oldest people who are living still remember about what happened, literally what is handed down, people telling each other things.
In today’s world it’s so hard to figure out where on earth these last memories are being stored or indeed where what happened last week is being stored. It’s fragmented and it’s in so many places. It’s in all these tweets and all these postings, it’s in media and in popular entertainment, it’s in all the things that people are saying to each other through technology and face to face, and I think the ways of controlling what is remembered are so sophisticated now. We’re talking about ultra sophisticated, deliberate manipulations and recordings of what is happening, so I think the question has got so complicated in the modern world, and while on the one hand it’s fascinating, I find it almost overwhelming to think about how a society like ours today would go about storing memories.
And how do we go about forgetting things?
That’s quite alarming as well. Possibly a lot of people have the ability to make us forget things and when we have information overload, as we do, it’s much easier to forget things, you don’t even have to resort to forced amnesia, you just crowd things out of people’s heads. Because of the neck of the woods I live in, culturally, I pay a lot of attention to what happens in movies and books and how those things tend to have a powerful influence on the way we remember, say what America was like in the 1920s, or what was going on in France during the Second World War when it was occupied. I find it fascinating to note the extent to which in popular culture many things from the relatively recent past are either not there at all or are distorted.