Three weeks before he won the Booker, Ishiguro was interviewed in Toronto by Suanne Kelman.
S.K.: A Pale View of the Hills, your first novel, is the story of a Japanese woman drifting into an intricate and rather sad, even sinister, relationship with the West. Where did that come from?
K.I.: When I was writing it I thought the book was about things like the overturning of social values and parental responsibility. But I think there was a much more emotional motivation behind it that had to do with my personal history. I was born in Japan, in Nagasaki, and I went with my parents to England in 1960 when I was five. It was supposed to be a temporary stay, but it kept getting extended. Almost without deciding to do so, the family remained in England. But as a child, I grew up thinking I was going to return to Japan any day. And so I had this very powerfully imagined country in my head. And by the time I had more or less grown up, I realised that this Japan that existed in my head, and which was very important to me, was a country that no longer existed in reality, if it ever had. I also became aware that as the years passed this place was just fading away in my head, too.
At that point in my life there was a real need to tack it down, to reconstruct this world that I had the most powerful emotional incentives to imagine. I think that had a lot to do with why I turned to novel-writing. It explains something I didn’t understand at the time, which was that I wasn’t interested in doing research in the conventional sense to fill out my picture of Japan. I was almost defensive about that. I had a Japan inside my head, which I needed to describe as accurately as possible.
S.K.: An Artist of the Floating World seems very much to come out of that first book, in that one of the characters from A Pale View of the Hills seems suddenly to step on to centre stage. Was that how the second book did start?
K.I.: Yes, largely. I think one of the problems about being an inexperienced novelist is that it’s difficult to control your work. I was very conscious of certain traps that people fall into when they write their first novel, being too autobiographical or having a certain lack of focus. So I made a big effort to try to be quite clear about what I was trying to do in the book. But nevertheless I found thematic discipline very difficult at that stage. In the first book, a lot of things that I thought were just going to be subplots took over. I would have what seemed to be a good idea, for that moment, for that page, and I would just put it down without thinking where it was going to take me. And before I knew it, I had almost subverted my real intentions. When I finished it, I thought: “Well, the aspect of this book that is most important to me is this bit that has ended up as a subplot,” which is a story about this old teacher, whose career has coincided to a certain extent with the rise of militarism in Japan before World War II, and who, after the war, in retirement, finds himself in the awkward position of having to reassess his life’s work. I thought I would like to explore that strand much more thoroughly.
It’s also to do with the nervousness of the first novelist. I was nervous about fundamental things, that I wouldn’t have enough to fill enough pages that it would be called a novel, or that I would lose the reader’s attention. I had this rather neurotic urge to throw in everything to keep the thing going. And for the second book I calmed down a little and if ideas—however intrinsically appealing—weren’t relevant to the overall design, I developed the discipline to say “No, we don’t want this.”
S.K.: You seem to enjoy tormenting the reader, dangling some unspecified, upsetting incident for ten or twenty pages, until finally the reader finds out what on earth happened.
K.I.: The point is, particularly in the last two books, I haven’t structured the novels around a linear plot line. And this does give me tremendous freedom in some senses; I can compose much more freely. Lots of other factors come into why one episode should follow another, if you remove this rather didactic thing, this spine called a plot, which dictates that y should follow x. But the problem is keeping up some kind of momentum. So I suppose that’s just a technical device for providing a certain kind of suspense and structure. It’s also important for the reader to consider various things the character is remembering in the light of why he is remembering them, why he is juxtaposing them one along side another. I wouldn’t want to suggest that there’s anything particularly deep about this. It’s my equivalent to suspense, what’s going to happen next.
S.K.: After A Pale View of the Hills, it seems almost as if you develop a distaste for dramatic things happening, at least on stage. You use some quite Gothic effects in A Pale View of the Hills—morbid and frightening images of murdered children. But in An Artist of the Floating World, the hero never confronts the pupil he’s wronged. The pupil never takes revenge. When people die, we hear about it months later, when it’s been leeched of all emotion.
K.I.: It’s to do with what you’re interested in as a writer, and certainly for those two books I was interested in the justification process that takes place inside people’s minds when they try to come to terms with certain things about their past. I wasn’t terribly interested in things happening. I was interested in all the ways in which people like the painter in An Artist of the Floating World or the butler in The Remains of the Day fool themselves or hide from themselves. The events, if you like, are to do with that: one side of the person demanding a certain honesty, and the other side demanding some kind of preservation from the truth. And that’s the drama that’s going on rather than any kind of more plotty things.
S.K.: You said that you don’t like to do much research for the novels.
K.I.: I do research of a sort. But you see, I think that the research that a novelist does is quite different from what is normally called research. I feel I have to know the fictional landscape in which my novel takes place very well. That’s the landscape I have to research, not any actual chunk of history or real country. For The Remains of the Day I read accounts written by servants, just to give me props from which I could invent. Similarly, I read a lot of political commentary from that time to try and get a feel for the climate of the debates that were going on. I feel more comfortable if I have some background knowledge and then I know how much licence to give myself.
S.K.: It’s hard for someone like me to judge if your Japan is imaginary or not, because it doesn’t seem any more jarring than, say, Tanizaki’s Japan. But I knew your Britain was imaginary. It seemed a strange Britain for someone of your age to imagine—this strange sort of Wodehouse life.
K.I.: That was a conscious decision. I wished to set this book in a mythical landscape, which to a certain extent resembled that mythical version of England that is peddled in the nostalgia industry at the moment. This idea of England, this green, pleasant place of leafy lanes and grand country houses and butlers and tea on the lawn, cricket—this vision of England that actually does play a large role in the political imaginations of a lot of people, not just British people but people around the world. I think these imaginative landscapes are very important. I felt it was a perfectly reasonable mission on my part to set out to slightly redefine that mythical, cozy England, to say that there is a shadowy side to it. In a way I wanted to rewrite P. G. Wodehouse with a serious political dimension.
S.K.: The great difference is that the butler in P. G. Wodehouse eventually goes downstairs and rolls up his sleeves and flirts with the kitchen maid. That’s part of the Upstairs, Downstairs vision: that the servants eventually go off duty. I’m interested in the absolute purity of Stevens: a man who wants to lose himself utterly in the dignity of his public person.
K.I.: Well, he’s a kind of metaphor for something, and as such he’s a kind of exaggeration. He’s a kind of grotesque. All right, as you say, he wishes to deny this human aspect of himself. It’s a story of a man who, misguidedly in my opinion, is so ambitious to achieve a certain ideal that he does so at terrible cost. He actually loses a part of himself that is crucial: that is to say, his capacity to love. That stereotypical figure of the English butler, which is known all round the world, I thought would serve well as some kind of emblem of this terrible fear of the emotional in one’s self, and the tendency to equate having feelings with weakness. And this terrible struggle to deny that emotional side that can love and that can suffer. The butler was also a metaphor for me for the relationship ordinary people have to political power. He has these two clear metaphorical functions.
S.K.: In all three books, the characters are very repressed people. Your books seem to me largely built around the things people cannot say to one another, around silences.
K.I.: Yes. I think in the last book in particular that has become a much more conscious theme. In the first two books, that just came out stylistically. As you say, the books often work by what is not said as much as by what is said. And the intensity of certain feelings is conveyed by how they are left out, rather than by how they are overtly expressed. I think in the third book, I was trying to address that condition itself as part of the theme.
S.K.: How are your books received in Japan?
K.I.: There’s a lot of curiosity about me as a person. There isn’t very much interest in my books. The third one may actually have a larger readership, paradoxically, because it is set in the West. The Japanese aren’t terribly interested in reading books set in postwar Japan, written by some guy who hasn’t lived there in years. This is stuff that they went through many years ago, and they’re into something else now.
But they’re fascinated with me as a phenomenon. They still like to think there’s something unique about being Japanese, and they find the idea that someone could be racially Japanese but partially something else terribly threatening.
S.K.: I don’t think there’s anything in what we’ve said so far that would suggest that parts of The Remains of the Day are very funny.
K.I.: This is the thing that continually distresses me, the tone in which the thing is discussed, which suggests that it’s a boring, heavy, depressing work. I’m glad we mentioned people like Wodehouse before, because to a certain extent it was, as I said, an attempt to invade that territory, and that territory includes a light touch and humour.
I suppose there’s something funny about people who don’t have a sense of humour. Predominantly I think for me what is funny is the same thing as what is tragic. There are a few farce sequences in the book, but the humour that interests me is the humour that arises from the ridiculous and yet sad condition that he is in.
S.K.: Do you read much Japanese literature?
K.I.: Only in translation. I can’t read kanji characters. I’m often as baffled as the average Western reader who’s been brought up in the Western traditions of literature.
People like Mishima and Tanizaki are the people who are most accessible to the West, and that’s because they were partly themselves very much influenced by Western literature and thought. But traditionalists like Kawabata, who was the only Japanese Nobel Prize winner for literature, I find terribly difficult. We were talking earlier about not depending on plot too much; Kawabata’s stuff is sometimes virtually plotless. Obviously one is being asked to appreciate something entirely different. I don’t feel that I’m really understanding what he’s up to.
Japanese movies are another matter. Almost by definition, Japanese film directors were quite concerned about Western influence. Although, having said that, I think Japanese cinema grew up very much in a tradition of its own, along side the overwhelming Hollywood tradition, and indeed went on to teach Hollywood many things. Particularly directors like Kurosawa and Ozu became people that Hollywood learned from. Some of my very favourite films of all times are Japanese ones.
S.K.: One of the things I noticed in the first two books is the doubling effect, that characters slide in and out of identities—which of two characters actually said this, which child are we watching at this time? In the third book, it becomes time: on which occasion did she say this? There are always echoes and reflections.
K.I.: I don’t think anything terribly profound is being said there. I’m trying to capture the texture of memory. I need to keep reminding people that the flashbacks aren’t just a clinical, technical means of conveying things that happened in the past. This is somebody turning over certain memories, in the light of his current emotional condition. I like blurred edges around these events, so you’re not quite certain if they really happened and you’re not quite certain to what extent the narrator is deliberately colouring them. And it’s convenient. You move from one situation to another by having a character say: “Well, maybe it wasn’t that, and maybe it was this.” It’s just a very easy way of getting from scene a to scene b.
S.K.: Is there anything you’ve been dying to be asked—about one of the books or your whole career—that no one’s asked?
K.I.: No. I do interviews because this is the way publishing has got, now, and that all seems to be part and parcel of my job. But I don’t feel an overwhelming need to go around talking about my books. I spend a lot of time getting my books to say just so much. A part of me resists coming back on the stage and saying: “Oh, by the way, during this bit you’re supposed to be thinking this.”
S.K.: You don’t really like it.
K.I.: I don’t dislike it. Well, I think there’s a very interesting side to it, that you do gain quite an insight into your work because of the nature of the questions that are asked. The cumulative effect of a number of people asking questions, if they all zoom in on a particular area that you yourself as a writer hadn’t considered to be particularly fertile or contentious, does teach you something about the way the book is being read.
To give an example, with this last book I hadn’t been that conscious of, say, the nature of the narrative voice until the book came out, and this was what a lot of the questioning was about, the nature of this narrative voice. Where did you get this funny voice?
The other thing that’s interesting is to go to different countries. Quite often there’s a difference in emphasis from country to country, and that tells you something about the different respective cultures, because of course the book is the same. It’s just being read in different ways.
S.K.: Can you give me an example?
K.I.: When I went to Germany with An Artist of the Floating World, the questions were overwhelmingly about fascism. They want to make comparisons between the way the Japanese have faced up to their war experience and their militarist/fascist experience and the way Germany has. I don’t particularly enjoy talking about my books in Germany because they don’t seem to be read as fiction. They seem to be read as a further contribution to some debate.
In England the effect is almost the antithesis. People have not paid much attention to the ideas and just treated it as an exotic kind of little thing, and drawn comparisons to Japanese painting and brush work, carp splashing about in still ponds. I’ve had every kind of Japanese cliché phrase—even Sumo wrestling.
S.K.: As you’re going through the bookselling machine, lots of people like me are asking you fairly impertinent questions about your life. Does that bother you?
K.I.: I’ve got quite good at not going beyond a certain point. But somehow if you write a book, people think they have a license to ask you some very intimate things about your past or your feelings about your family. I think a more disturbing tendency at the moment is that a lot of people do interviews and the journalists go away and write up a very scathing, vicious piece.
S.K.: Has that happened to you?
K.I.: Not exactly. At the moment I’m somebody who has not been attacked. I’m probably peculiar in not having many enemies in London literary circles. There was a time not so long ago when writers were rather shabby, unglamorous people, who didn’t earn very much money. The only people who wanted to interview them were serious literary types. For some reason the perception of the writer has changed, and they’ve become glamorous people. They’ve lost the right, along with politicians and actors and other public figures, to be treated with gentleness and respect.
That worries me, because publicity is good for literature in that it sells books and gets books read, but if the tone in which books are sold and talked about actually deteriorates, then we’re probably better off not having this publicity at all. It’ll get the books to the wrong constituency and the books will be read in the wrong way. It may start to affect the way writers write. I think this is an unhealthy trend.
Now I’ve often heard writers complain about their time being invaded by doing promotion, spending all their time at literary parties and things. It’s very difficult to get yourself into an imaginary world when you keep having to do this. You can actually, if you’re not careful, end up becoming a professional conference-attender, a person who goes around talking about books. You can damage whatever got you writing in the first place.
S.K.: Do you think you’ll ever write a novel that’s not a monologue?
K.I.: Oh, I hope so. I think it’s important for writers to move on. I think there’s a particular danger that if you’ve been praised by critics for being able to do x, y, z well, you can be overcome by a terrible cowardice about leaving territories x, y, z. I haven’t quite decided about the monologue thing, but I do feel I would like to write a book with a different kind of voice, a different tone. I’m at the beginning of my career. I don’t want to be forever writing books about old people looking back at their lives in this rather laconic, understated kind of voice.
You see, I have these two authors whom I revere. Chekhov on the one hand and Dostoyevsky on the other. The books I’ve written up till now, the last two especially I think, are probably written under the influence of Chekhov. But I think sometimes I would like to write something very messy and jagged and brilliantly imperfect, in the way Dostoevsky has done. That’s a side of my writing I’d like to explore further in the future.
S.K.: Do you think you’ll ever write a novel in which a character addresses his or her father in the second person rather than the third?
K.I.: It depends on what kind of characters we’re dealing with. In the Japanese context, it is absolutely natural that people would address their fathers in the third person, there’s nothing unusually repressed about that. That’s a very Western viewpoint to think there’s anything terribly odd about this. If you’re asking me if there will be a sudden change of tone, will I write a book about an Italian family who scream at each other, I don’t know if I would. Obviously what you write comes out of fairly deep things, those things you’ve inherited as a person. I’ve grown up with two cultures behind me, the Japanese middle class, or more strictly speaking the Japanese samurai background, and the British middle-class background: Two cultures that both, in a very pronounced way, put a high premium on what in a British context might be called a stiff upper lip.
It’s not just a case of stoicism, it’s a different language, a different way of conveying emotion. I enjoy creating effects, emotional intensity and tensions in my writing through what is left out. Or exploring language that hides, rather than language that gropes after something just beyond its diction. Although I enjoy reading the latter kind. There have been some brilliant writers through our history who have tried to bend language around, to go for some things that are just beyond the reach of normal language, everyday language. There’s something exciting about that.
But, of course, language has this other function, which is to conceal and suppress, to deceive one’s self and to deceive others. So far, I suppose, I’ve been involved in exploring that language, particularly the language of self-deception.
Suanne Kelman worked as an academic and journalist for the CBC and the Globe and Mail. She is professor emeritus of the Ryerson School of Journalism and the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life.