GROSSMAN: Thank you for coming to tonight's programming featuring
Kazuo Ishiguro and F.X. Feeney. I am Andrea Grossman, the founder
of Writers Bloc, a non-profit author lecture series dedicated
to bringing to Los Angeles my favorite writers and their literature.
we turn to Ishiguro and to F. X. Feeney, I would like to thank
Cheryl Rhodin and the Board of Directors of The Writer's Guild
of America for making the theatre available for us tonight. And
thanks as always, to Pam Henstell at Knopf. To my volunteers,
to Debra Frankel, and to Kazuo Ishiguro for stopping here at Writers
Bloc while in Los Angeles. We would have been otherwise "unconsoled"
had he not. And thanks to the very special F. X. Feeney as well.
for tonight. I love Kazuo Ishiguro's books, because they're so
seductive in their settings, their eras, and their mysteries.
He gives us characters who are not quite comfortable with their
social order, or their fit into the tight stricture of their class.
There's a palpable discomfort with the aristocracy. In the case
of his new novel, When We Were Orphans, the dismay with
the realm's main source of wealth opium turns to
conflict and kidnapping. The ensuing mystery simmers for twenty
years or so, and all the while, the reader feels like yanking
the main character by his lapels yelling for him to do
something to solve this at last. I remember yelling in a similar
manner at the butler with his quiet complacency in The Remains
of the Day warning him that something's afoot
that something's not quite right.
It's not that Ishiguro tricks us by holding something back from
us until late in the game. That's standard operating procedure
for every mystery novelist in the business. What distinguishes
Ishiguro's novels is that his characters, although intelligent
and perceptive, sometimes choose not to see what's directly in
front of them, and the reader is drawn into this denial, and makes
the same choices as the characters. The reader can identify with
the characters so strongly, while sensing this self-deception
inherent in the characters. Perhaps it is this element that makes
his books so perfect for movies.
of movies, I've known F. X. Feeney for about eighteen years, and
have appreciated his film reviews for that long. They're grounded
in a basis of solid literary love and appreciation. And this is
one guy who knows his literature as well as he knows his movies.
He's been a critic for the LA Weekly for years, has adapted
Orson Welles' story The Big Brass Ring for the screen,
starring William Hurt. And like many other Los Angeles residents,
has some scripts that have been bought and could get the green
light at any minute. Catch him on KPCC 89.3 on Friday mornings
with Larry Mantle he's the best thing to happened to KPCC
in ages. His reviews are brilliant and succinct and entirely personal.
He makes us remember that yes, some films really are based on
literature, and he reminds us how and why.
you, and it is my great pleasure to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro and
F. X. Feeney. . .
X. FEENEY: I was thinking that perhaps we would start with
a short reading from the book if that's alright. . .
ISHIGURO: That's what we agreed on. . .
Yes. Get a taste of the book.
ISHIGURO: I'm only going to read for I'll say
three and a half minutes. This is literally to give you a taste
of the book. This is right from page 56.
is slightly surprising to me, looking back today, to think how
as young boys we were allowed to come and go unsupervised to
the extent that we were. But this was, of course, all within
the relative safety of the International Settlement. I for one
was absolutely forbidden to enter the Chinese areas of the city,
and as far as I know, Akira's parents were no less strict on
the matter. Out there, we were told, lay all manner of ghastly
diseases, filth and evil men. The closest I had ever come to
going out of the Settlement was once when a carriage carrying
my mother and me took an unexpected route along that part of
the Soochow creek bordering the Chapel district; I could see
the huddled low rooftops across the canal, and had held my breath
for as long as I could for fear the pestilence would come airborne
across the narrow strip of water. No wonder then that my friend's
claim to have undertaken a number of secret forays into such
areas made an impression on me.
remember quizzing Akira repeatedly about these exploits. The
truth concerning the Chinese districts, he told me, was far
worse even than the rumors. There were no proper buildings,
just shack upon shack built in great proximity to one another.
It all looked, he claimed, much like the marketplace in Boone
Road, except that whole families were to be found living in
each "stall." There were, moreover, dead bodies piled up everywhere,
flies buzzing all over them, and no one thought anything of
it. On one occasion, Akira had been strolling down a crowded
alley and had seen a man some powerful warlord, he supposed
being transported on a sedan chair, accompanied by a
giant carrying a sword. The warlord was pointing to whomever
he pleased and the giant would then proceed to lop his or her
head off. Naturally, people were trying to hide themselves the
best they could. Akira, though, had simply stood there, staring
defiantly back at the warlord. The latter had spent a moment
considering whether to have Akira beheaded, but then struck
by my friend's courage, had finally laughed and, reaching down,
patted him on the head. Then the warlord's party had continued
on its way, leaving many more severed heads in its wake.
cannot remember ever attempting to challenge Akira on any of
these claims. Once I mentioned casually to my mother something
about my friend's adventures beyond the Settlement, and I remember
her smiling and saying something to cast doubt on the matter.
I was furious with her, and thereafter I believe I carefully
avoided revealing to her anything at all intimate concerning
that's it. I'm just going to leave it to that.
This book is constructed along lines of layered tension.
It really is very rich in terms of its structure. When we first
meet Christopher Banks, the narrator of the scene you've just
heard who is remembering Shanghai at that point, when we first
meet Christopher, he is fresh out of Oxford in England. He is
on the way to becoming a detective, and there are certain riddles
about his past that are not quite clear even to himself. This
emerges particularly as he's going around London trying to network
and meet people to advance his career. He is an orphan, but there's
a mysterious severing with his past that finds its counterpart
in the woman Sarah Hemmings who he meets. And so we think, is
this going to be a mystery story? Is it going to be a love story?
Then, as the story moves towards Shanghai, one can feel many pages
in advance that Christopher is being thrust to make a decision
to choose between the spontaneous authentic love that's rising
between him and Sarah and just simply trying to seek out what
is the truth of his own life.
are so many surprises, some, really quite outstanding surprises,
as the story progresses, I wondered, in terms of your creative
process, how willing were you to be surprised at the table when
you were writing, or did you have to know more than your hero,
and devise the game of hide and seek with the reader, or did you
set out to be surprised yourself?
Well that, to me, is a very crucial question about writing. To
me, it's getting to be the question I worry about the most. How
much should I know about a story before I start actually writing
the words that go into the book? There was a time, earlier in
my writing life, when I used to plan almost neurotically. I would
spend a book like The Remains of the Day
I believe I spent two years just planning it, and only a year
writing actual prose. Since we're here in Los Angeles, I could
say that it's a bit like location hunting getting everything
ready and then going out there and filming it. It was almost
like that to me. Everything had been done. And planned, and I
knew everything, I knew about the characters, their motivations,
the plot, how the themes would work. I wouldn't dare start until
I knew everything.
I began to think, after a while, that there were limitations to
this. And that there was quite a lot that I was perhaps denying
to myself by not allowing what you just described this
element of surprise. Whether a writer surprises himself. Not least
of all because I think that some very uncomfortable things sometimes
pop up. And some of the most interesting writing can be just that:
stuff that is quite uncomfortable for the writer. Stuff that you
would perhaps, if you had been in control more, you would perhaps
would prefer to avoid it. So these days, I slither a lot between
these two poles. At the one end, there's this appeal of putting
in a blank piece of paper into your machine whatever it
is and just starting and seeing what kind of startling
things come out. And being slightly horrified by it. But then
using that as your raw materials and shaping it, and getting something
out of that. At the other extreme, there's this meticulous planning,
and producing something very controlled. I think there are pros
and cons to both.
think the neurotic mapping kind of approach, it does enable you
to produce a very controlled book. Where you can manipulate the
emotions of the reader very very finely. Where a tiny little element
on page 34 reverberates or something on page 86. You've weighted
everything just like that, and you can play on the reader's expectations,
undermine their expectations, their emotions and so on
their fears. But it can sometimes be a bit dead a bit cold.
And you can sometimes get this extraordinary stuff coming out
if you allow yourself surprises, but that can be very messy.
You can produce something brilliant but messy. So this has become
the big question for me. It's not so much a question of, "should
it be third person or first person," or anything like that. Always
it's for me, "should I start now, do I dare start now?"
You seem so in command of the reality of Shanghai at the turn
of the century and also in the 1930s. How much thinking had gone
into it beforehand for the composition of this book? Was there
another project that you had worked on and you simply had inhabited
this place in your mind, and were able to then invent more freely?
I did actually do some hard research. I gathered together a collection
of guide books and local history books, written in Shanghai at
the time. I spent what I thought were very unreasonable amounts
of money at Antiquarian bookstores for these shabby little
volumes telling you where to get the best coffee cake in
Shanghai, stuff like that. These were fascinating eventually.
I prefer to work from sources like that, rather than scholarly
books written many years later about the place. So I did do that
kind of stuff. And my father was born in Shanghai in 1920, although
he is entirely Japanese. His father, my Grandfather, was an industrialist
there during that period. And so, there had always been a kind
of family background, and I did have access to all these photographs
albums of what looked almost like movie stills these
gray and white photos of guys in white suits with ceiling fans.
These always conjured up a certain atmosphere for me.
I would say that by and large, for me, I don't really like that
kind of hard research very much. I try to keep it in control.
Because for a novelist you see, I don't feel I'm a historian,
I don't feel I'm a social historian. I'm certainly not a travel
writer. I'm not trying to inform people what a place is like,
whether it's Japan or England of a certain time, or Shanghai.
I'm trying to get my imaginary world alive. And it takes
quite a lot of effort to build an imaginary world that kind of
works within itself. And if you get too much of this stuff from
the outside what the real Shanghai was like I think
it stops your real world from developing and growing. Sometimes,
this kind of research in libraries, and old books and interviewing
people, can be a bit of an alibi for a novelist or a creative
person, a fiction writer. Because in the end, a lot of the research
for a fiction writer is inside your own imagination. You've got
to go in there and start delving around and you have to know what
the atmospheres are in that world. You have to know if it is a
realistic world, or if it's something that veers slightly away
from realism. You have to know if it is a comic world. You have
to know its terms and moods, and what kind of people inhabit it.
And you can only do that by actually taking a plunge and going
inside. I mean, it can become an alibi or crutch, all the researching.
The passage you read is particularly evocative I think, because
it is from a child's point of view. I mean, you have the liberty
of an adult voice recalling childhood episodes and tranquility,
but they have the necessary exaggeration of childhood and they
call upon universal things: "I was wondering is my best friend
lying to me or not?" I felt that, although your biography states
that you moved to England from Japan at age five, I don't find
that you're an autobiographical writer. I cannot locate that person
in the text except through a certain feeling of internal exile
on the part of the characters. But that is something that any
native of any place can feel even if they're staying where they
grew up. I wondered about just how you locate those kinds of realities
in your imagination.
I'm certainly glad to hear you say that you couldn't really
locate me autobiographically in the book. Increasingly these days
I think, there's a tendency for people to want to locate some
clearly autobiographical figure in people's novels. I didn't sense
it so much, say ten or fifteen years ago. It might just be me,
but there seems to be an increased interest in in some
ways, people want to bypass the work of fiction. They want to
know about the author. They're always saying, "Is this character
based on you?" With some authors this is the case. They
work like that. But I've always had an oddly oblique relationship
to my characters. I should say that there's a kind of emotional
autobiography in there somewhere perhaps. About displacement,
exile. But none of the things I describe happened directly to
me. Of course, there's a character here who as a boy who moves
from the East to the West in strange circumstances, and can't
quite fit in in either place. But that's not really me.
It's not even the issue of the book.
It's not the issue of the book, no. I've often tried to figure
out what my relationship to my characters is. I think that I tend
to work more from searching inside myself for little impulses
or tendencies that might not even be noticeable from the outside.
But they might be ones that I feel are significant, or perhaps
that I fear, in myself. I create perhaps a grotesque character
around a tendency like that. So if it's the fear of emotions,
or whatever, it might not be something that pronounced in me.
People who know me may not say that I'm any more emotionally repressed
than the next guy, but if that's what I'm interested in, then
my temptation is to build as in the case of Stevens the
butler a monster of emotional repression, or at least some
kind of peculiar self-denial in regards to his emotions. And I
think that I've often tended to do that. I can't really point
to any character who relates to me directly.
You mentioned choosing a comic tone or a particular tone, and
that these things are more important even than first or third-person.
That brought to mind one question that grew while reading the
book. Technically, I thought that you pulled off a very difficult
trick, though it's not felt as a trick as one's reading it. One
has a first-person narrator. One is trusting this narrator. He
seems very together, he's very rational, he's always very observant.
And yet there are moments when the impressions that people present
to him as he was at college, "Oh, you were a loner" and he always
thought he was a joiner! Little things like that accrue, and then
there is a long stretch where one has to question whether the
narrator is in contact with reality at all, and has grown deluded.
But he is presenting his delusion with such a poker face that
one is unsure of what to do. I wonder if you could talk about
how you kept your own balance as the storyteller, while working
through that stretch.
I think these days, I'm caring less and less what's really happening
"out there." You said there that at times you wondered whether
the character is deluded perhaps he has lost touch with
reality altogether. I think that I have become so interested in
what the person thinks is happening, that perhaps I as
an author have slightly lost touch with reality. I'm not that
concerned about what really happened out there. What's important
to me is what's happening in a person's head how does it
feel inside that person's head. Just as in my early novels, I
wasn't so much interested in what had happened to certain characters
in the past. I was interested in what they told themselves
had happened. And how they kind of hid from certain versions and
played around with their own history. That whole cat-and-mouse
game one plays with one's own memories, one's own visions of oneself
that interests me. In this book, yes, you could say in a way that
this narrator, this first-person narrator is an unreliable one.
Is that the catchphrase?
Yes, and he's living in an unstable cosmos.
Yes. But I didn't want to write the sort of book where there is
an identifiably crazy guy going through a normal world, where
the reader can actually measure the distance between his craziness
and the solid normal world out there. So that he goes thought
this world with a lot of people doing double takes every time
he comes out with how he thinks things should be. I didn't want
to write that sort of book. I wanted to say that many of us
even if we're a perfectly sensible normal human being some of
the time, there is in many of us, some sort of small irrational
core of motivation. We're often wanting to do throughout our lives
something like mend something that got broken way back
in childhood. That if we were actually sensible and logical about
it, we would know that it's far too late. You can't bring back
a alcoholic dead father by marrying a drunken man and trying to
cure him, for instance. But we all know what that means when we
say somebody is trying to do that because we understand
a rather crude and extreme example, but I think that we don't
simply do things to make money and eat and sleep. Peculiar things
govern the big decisions that we make in our lives. Often it's
something rather irrational. I wanted to say in this book, "What
would it look like if we actually paid some respect to this slightly
crazy logic? Let's see what the world would look like from the
point of view of that logic." Ostensibly, it's a detective story,
but it gets a little strange. Here we have a boy who looses his
parents at an early age. When he grows up as an adult, there's
a part of him that remains that small child who has lost his parents.
He thinks that all the bad things in the world would be put right
if only he could find his parents. Many many years later, there's
a part of him that thinks, "It's still not too late. If only I
could get back to that place, Shanghai, on the other side of the
world, I'll still find my parents, held up somewhere in some shack
by the kidnappers. And then all the bad things in the world would
go away." So I've tried to paint a picture of the world that bends
around to that crazy logic, that allows him to have that logic,
rather than one that tells him he's mad.
Right. It seems when one is reading the book and reacting to the
many things that are going on, especially during the Shanghai
chapters, one gets the sense that if our Hero is deluded, other
characters are AS deluded in different ways. Sarah is hugely
ambitious in marrying Sir Cecil There are changes that this brings
to her life. These new perspectives reveal things to her that
she's tying to make Christopher see at the same time. There are
moments when I don't know if Christopher is entirely in touch
with reality, but there is a reality in the book that the characters
share even when they're in their fantasy.
Yes. Tentatively these realities touch. But I am interested
in the reality that exists in his head, not some philosophical
idea of exterior reality.
To look to another writer for a moment for an analog. There's
a moment we were discussing a little before we came onstage
in Vladimir Nabokov's The Gift which is a beautiful novel.
There are two moments which conjoin across a couple hundred pages.
The first is when the Hero, who is a young poet, sees his father
walk into a rainbow on a mountaintop while he's hunting for butterflies.
It's just a staggering image that occurs near the top of the second
chapter. It gives you a sense of the father. Who he is. He seems
a bit magical, that he has this experience of stepping into a
rainbow. Then of course, the father has disappeared under circumstances
of the revolution.
Several hundred pages later, there is a moment where the Hero,
Feodor, and Zeena, the woman who seems to be prepared for him
by fate they are certainly attracted to each other
they happen to walk into a vestibule where they're going to let
somebody into a party. The person hasn't shown up yet, and because
Europe has timers on the lights, suddenly the two are plunged
into darkness and we wonder, "Are they going to kiss? Is this
the moment when they discover that they really love each other?"
saying where the scene goes, the prism in the window casts a rainbow
over the shoulder of Zeena that the Feodor sees and the poet doesn't
really think about it much, but as a reader, you're kind of exploding.
You're thinking, "Oh, this is the disappeared father. There's
something fatal about this moment."
thought about it for a couple reasons. It seemed to me that two
people, who are not sure if they are in love or not, sharing a
darkened vestibule, that's a place that the protagonists of The
Remains of the Day as well as When We Were Orphans
would be perfectly at home. That moment strikes me being very
much at home in the context of your novels. But there's a corollary
moment here in When We Were Orphans when, during a particularly
important conversation between Sarah and Christopher, Christopher
is shredding a plant he's not even thinking what he's doing.
He's pulling the leaves off it. That reverberated for me with
a moment much earlier just a strange moment in childhood
when he's talking with Akira he's shredding a plant. I
wondered: in Nabokov, it's a sign of fate. Here, it has a certain
feeling of his childhood reality trying to break through at the
very least, in When We Were Orphans. I was wondering, was
that a planned effect, or was that a surprise that came to you
in the writing? How do you see that moment and evaluate it?
That particular thing that you described is just an accident.
I didn't plan it. He's shredding something in his childhood scenes,
and at another key moment he's shredding something. I wasn't aware
of it until you said it.
Oh well. . .
But it doesn't mean that it's extraneous for you to point
that out. You do want your characters to have certain mannerisms
that go on and on. Perhaps without thinking about it, I have things
that I have my characters do over a period of time when certain
things happen to them. And I think this is one of Christopher's
things. He shreds things. It's kind of a way of stitching together
a book. Although in this case if indeed, this is a motif, it's
an entirely flukey one. I did try and put in little things like
that, except intentionally sometimes, to tie aspects of a book.
To get a reader to remember another small moment, and compare
those scenes. It's a very simple way of doing that. The magnifying
glass I used in that way. I very much wanted to start the book
with a high society detective who thinks he can conquer all the
bad things in the world by solving crimes. And so he's looking
at things through a magnifying glass. And he studies bodies, murdered
bodies, through a magnifying glass in a way that detectives do
wanted him to be looking much later in a war zone, in the middle
of a war, at charred bodies in a bombed out ruin. At the dead
members of a little girl's family. The little girl's still alive,
and he's saying "Don't worry, don't worry I'll find out
who did it." Of course, the whole place is full of charred bodies
it's a war zone. And he's looking through the same magnifying
glass. That was a deliberate use of this kind of idea. A little
habit he has, taken from one context to another, to highlight
a kind of poignant inadequacy of a certain way of approaching
the tragedies or the darkness of the world.
How about writers that you looked up to. Is there anybody
that you feel most strongly influenced by, or that inspired you
to become a writer in the first place?
I'm probably not a typical writer in many ways unless
everyone else is lying. When I talk to my friends, they seem to
have grown up reading a lot, often writing from an early age,
and indeed, having big mentor-type writers. I don't mean interpersonally.
It might be Tolstoy or whomever that they've grown up with. I
kind of missed out on all that. I actually read very little as
a teenager in fact, generally. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter
until I was about 24. Like many things in life you bang
on a door and it doesn't open, and another one happens to open,
so you go through it. That's what happened to me with writing.
I suddenly discovered writing fiction at around age 24. And I
started to do it. I was allowed to do it, so I very rapidly started
to get published after years of getting nowhere as a singer-songwriter.
answer your question, it's a bit odd. There are writers that I
really like. Of the classical authors, I like for instance, Dostoevski
a lot, and Chekhov. But I don't know to what extent they've influenced
me. The odd thing I notice is that writer's I don't particularly
like, often influence me quite a lot. Even people I haven't read
very much have a kind of peculiar influence on me. It's just there's
one aspect and, I think, "Oh, I'll adopt that."
instance, Proust's novel this dirty great long thing. I
always think I ought to read it, but I haven't gotten past the
first volume. I've only gotten about 80 pages into this four-thousand
page book. I can't get beyond that because it gets incredibly
boring around that point. And yet, the first 60 pages or so, the
thing that's called the Overture, I think has probably taught
me more about writing than almost any other bit of writing. I
read that between my first and second novels and it was a complete
revelation to me: that you didn't really have to write your novels
in a kind of screenplay way, with a scene, and a scene and another
scene. I don't know if you are familiar with that Overture thing
or not, I don't know if you are. . .
That's about as far as I got too. . .
But the possibility that you can just follow a mind. The memory,
just drifting from a fragment of one scene set in one point in
time, and then suddenly be reminded of another thing that happened
many, many years apart. That you can move from one scene to another
like this playing around very fluidly with the associations
of one scene to the next reverberating against each another.
You don't even have to have full scenes. You can just teasingly
glance off one, and come back to it later. This kind of great
fluidity, that at the same time, mimics quite skillfully how someone
might remember or just daydream. This was a tremendous liberation
to me. And that's all I ever read of Proust. But I feel it's been
kind of a foundation, technically, to the way I approach things.
Often in terms of my prose, I think I have been influenced very
much by David Magashak, who you've probably never heard of.
Wasn't he the translator of Chekhov, among others?
He was the translator of quite a lot of Russian stuff. I read
a lot of Russian literature translated, and I think something
to do with his translated prose really rubbed off on me. I don't
know whether the original Russian was anything like that, but
the way it came out in English, rather appealed to me. Once again,
at an impressionable age. Writing age anyway. And I think that
to some extent, I still write in this kind of translation-ise.
Because I rather like that. I realize that I'm quite freaky in
this. That the people who influenced me a lot, aren't my literary
heroes necessarily, but they do influence me.
FEENEY: I wonder if there isn't a generational thing here.
Because what you say has been alluded to in other ways by such
writers as Martin Amis and Richard Price. Two writers who grew
up in the 50s and 60s and were, as they would freely admit, probably
more influenced by comic books, television and movies in
terms of their approach to the novel. They came late to reading.
I wonder if one byproduct would be that one might be interested
in recreating the past. Doing a novel set in the 1920s, or 30s.
Trying to building a bridge into the past, if one comes to novels
as an adult.
It might well be true. I was born in 1954. I am very much that
generation that grew up on television and movies. In a way, that's
not such a bad thing. As novelist, when you muck around with images,
when you try to make your reader picture things and imagine things,
I think it's more or less fair enough to assume that the reader
has a lot of these "stock images" that come from movies and television
already in their heads. A writer writing in Victorian times would
have to describe quite thoroughly say, what a hotel in Africa
looked like. We have been bombarded and saturated with so many
images from advertising, movies, television programs, documentaries,
travel, whatever, that as a writer of fiction, all you have to
do is just refer, or at least provoke or evoke, certain stock
images. Of course, you can do quite clever things with that. You
can undermine it, you can manipulate that. Whether you like it
or not, that's what you're dealing with. In order to make these
pictures come alive in the reader's minds, you've got to be aware
of what the stereotypes are that are circulating around. To some
extent, I feel I have some authority in that area, because I am
a typical kind of person who has been saturated by these movie
images and so on.
latest book of mine, set in Shanghai. Immediately, you don't just
think about about an historical Shanghai. You think about the
mythical Shanghai that's evoked by the various Chinatowns along
the West Coast here, or by Josef von Sternberg's movies or whatever.
It's as much a place of myth as it is of history. And you can
do a lot playing around with people's expectations, undermining
them or fulfilling them, and so on. Whether it's a good thing
or a bad thing that's the world we live in, that's the
world in which we are communicating in as writer's and reader's.
So I feel quite good about the film thing, on the whole.
what you said about going back to the 30s, I think that's something
separate. I think a lot of writer's, certainly British writer's
(I don't know if it's the plight here in America, for quite interesting
reasons), but British writer's of my age and younger, you'll find
to a peculiar degree, they write about either the Second World
War, the period between the wars, or the First World War. Certainly
speaking for myself, I think it was a kind of an occupational
inferiority complex I had when I first started to write fiction.
I felt that I lived in this very safe, quiet, affluent, corner
of the world. And I felt, as a person, very privileged. But it
wasn't the front line of where things were happening. "He wanted
to write the big novels of the day." It was difficult to write
that kind of "big novel" by just describing the life that I knew
immediately around me. The life in London in the 1980s as it was
then. Because this was safe, quiet, whatever. Surely for the big
themes, you had to go to places like Eastern Europe, Africa. To
some extent, we, in a very decedent way, felt envious towards
writers who lived in oppressive regimes because they could just
describe their everyday life, and it was immediately big and significant.
think the solution that a lot people came to, and to some extent
in Europe a lot of writer's still resort to, is that you can either
travel geographically in fiction and set your novels in Africa
or Eastern Europe. But of course, feel that you're at a disadvantage
because you don't know that locale well. You can get to know it,
but you feel slightly intimidated by that. Or you can go back
in time. And you can keep talking about Britain, England, Europe,
whatever. Go back in time. And you don't have to go back very
far to a point when all these values that we take for granted
today: democracy, freedom, affluence, all these things were really
threatened. You go back a generation, and Europe is in absolute
turmoil. I think that's partly the appeal for going back to the
30s for me. It's not that kind of fascination with the surface
style of the period. This is location hunting. You need a place.
You need to find a place in history where you can bring your themes
out in a big way. These days I'm beginning to think there's something
wrong with that way of thinking, actually. Although I still do
it setting books in war zones, times of great political
upheaval. That's well and good, but it can sometimes be a kind
of an alibi for not exploring deeply enough the quiet surfaces
of the life that you know. Perhaps there is a big difference between
just writing "big" novels and writing "deep" ones. Perhaps the
real challenge is to look at the everyday sadness and tragedies
and triumphs that lie beneath a still quiet surface if that's
where you happen to be. But as I say, there was a time when a
lot of slightly matured male writers wanted to write these big
themed books. And it was kind of a habit that stuck.
Gore Vidal, when speaking about American literature, once spoke
of the Civil War as our "Trojan Wars." A lot of American fiction
is often drawn from there and why is that? There were very few
people who wrote about the Civil War when it was happening. But
sometimes there is an unconscious thing that really does move
upon a generation. Where you feel the need to do it and perhaps,
like the Ancient Greeks spinning tales of Troy which had happened
hundreds of years before, we say to ourselves "that's where all
the good drama is, let's go there and mine that." I wonder if
you feel sometimes that your choice of subject is somehow "outer
world" or is it coming to you as it is coming to other members
of your generation?
I think it's just the locations. It's my themes that are coming
from someplace else. I don't really take my themes from the period.
It's the other way around. I go into the 30s because it's a good
stage for the things I want to talk about. I've always been interested
in what happens to peoples' values when they have invested all
their energies and their lives in the prevalent set of social
values, only to see them change. So it's always interested me
to take a period of big change and to see what happens to people
when, at the end of their lives, they find the the world has changed
its mind about what is good and what is bad. But for this particular
individual, it's too late. They had the best intentions, but history
has proved them to be either foolish or perhaps even someone who
contributed to evil. It is very much that way around for me. I
use it as location hunting. But as I say, I'm beginning to think
maybe that it's a bad habit to keep going to war zones
times of huge change.
Let's have some questions from the audience.
Do you think that everyone is a potential writer?
I think perhaps it's a matter of writing about something that
people will find unique, or find valuable. I don't know if it's
the case that we can all just tell each other stories and are
content. I think there are stories that we put a higher value
on than others. And sometimes I think that it's pure luck. I certainly
feel, that as somebody who tries to write fiction, that I can
only really write in a way that I find satisfactory. At least
something that I know. At least from my own emotional level for
myself. Often, I feel that there's a large element of luck as
to whether my particular preoccupations when they're written up,
are things that people at large find interesting. That vibrate
at some deeper level with people. I can easily see that I would
just be writing for me, and that it would be something that only
matters to me. . .
Yes, but did something set you free?
You mean to write? I can tell you that sometimes, there is a particular
trick. This is leaving aside your question of "Is everybody potentially
a writer." I don't know. Probably not by definition, No. I have
to say it. Because what we're talking about are the people whose
stories seem to be of more value than anybody else's. But leaving
that aside, what are the things that trigger people on to write
books or write movies or to paint pictures or whatever. I my case,
it had very much to do with Japan. My relationship with Japan.
Although I didn't actually think so at the time. Having gotten
older and looking back, I see that my relationship with Japan
was crucial in turning me from a singer-songwriter, an unsuccessful
singer-songwriter, into a writer of fiction.
went from Japan to England as a child, at the age of five. I moved
with my family. I was always under the impression that we were
going to return to Japan. My parents had planned to return to
Japan after a year, perhaps two years. Between the age of five
and fifteen, I was fully under the impression that my life would
be in Japan. So I had built up a very important place in my head
called Japan, when I was growing up in England. A place where
I would ultimately belong. A place built up of my childhood memories,
and I had quite a lot of them. My Grandparents, the house I lived
in, the Kindergarten, all these things. And my speculation about
what it would be like when I went back, all the educational material
that kept getting sent to me. . . So I had a very thorough world
in my head that I called Japan. And only later, when I realized
that I wasn't going to go back to that Japan, when I realized
that in any case, this Japan of mine probably didn't exist anywhere
except in my head. If I went on a plane to this place called Japan,
it wouldn't be anything like it. Also when I realized that with
every year that went by, this rather precious world was fading
in my head. I think there was a real motive, a real impulse to
write it down. To actually put this whole world that I had in
my head, everything I felt about it, everything I knew about it
its colors, its moods, its shortcomings I wanted
to have it all safe in a work of fiction so that it would be preserved.
And I could go on and forget it and I could still say, "it's there."
I didn't realize it at the time. I thought I was writing a book
about this theme or that theme.
back, I think that this was the very strong drive that led me
to write these novels. Because after all, it's an odd thing to
do: to sit around writing novels, when you don't even know if
you are going to build a career in it. It's very time consuming,
it's anti-social. You have to have quite a strong motivation to
write a novel. You said did something "free" me. I don't
know if "free" is the right word. It's almost the opposite. But
that's what tied me to writing. I think it's something like that
first of all. A big motive like that, pushes you into being a
creative person of some sort.
Do you take a more direct interest in the Japanese translations
of your works, or do you leave it alone?
No. I can't read or write Japanese. I have no authority over the
translation anyway, and short of getting some Japanese person
to read it out loud to me, and even then my command of the language
isn't sufficiently good. These days, I can say honestly, I don't
care particularly care that much more for Japanese culture than
any other culture. Well, that's an exaggeration but as
far as the translation goes, there's nothing special about it.
May I ask you about the title of your new book? I've thought a
lot about it. When We Were Orphans. I couldn't believe
that it could just pertain to the protagonist and the woman he
meets. Is there was something more symbolic about the title? Or
am I reading too much into it?
Well yes, I did intend for there to be a wider application. Of
course, there are a lot of people in this book who are literally
orphans. Actually, there are four or five. I wanted to suggest
this always sounds very grandiose and silly when you say
it like this I wanted to suggest that we're all orphans
of course, in some kind of way. But let me explain so that it
doesn't sound too sweeping and bland. It's partly why I read that
passage from the book just now. I was interested in examining
this. . . Well, let me start over and put it like this: You walk
about the streets with a four-year-old, which I used to do a couple
of years ago with my daughter. It's amazing how rapidly total
strangers will enter into a conspiracy with you to make the child
believe that the world is a much nicer place than it actually
is. How they will immediately put on a smiley face. You go into
a store where the person there is always very grumpy. They suddenly
perk up because you have a child, and they say something sweet
and they hand over a lollipop. And this is quite right. There's
this instinct in all of us that makes us want to keep little children
in a bubble, where they believe the world is much sweeter than
it actually is.
of course sadly, we all know that each child at some point will
have to come out of that sheltered bubble and come out into the
less nice, more disappointing world. If we're lucky, we make that
journey smoothly. If not as in the case of the protagonist
in my book, where they are suddenly thrown into the night, into
the harsh world (Christopher becomes an orphan). What I'm suggesting
is that perhaps even if we are not literally orphans, many of
us, perhaps somewhere way back in our emotional memory at least,
we have a sense of disappointment or regret at discovering that
the world is not quite the beautiful sunny place that adults led
us to believe when we were very young. That's what I'm trying
to explore in this book. How, when we move out of the bubble,
sometimes we do keep hold of some remnant of that memory. There's
a part of us which, perhaps almost irrationally, wants to go back
to that nicer, sweeter world. Even though we know that it's hopelessly
naive, that it can't be done. That's what the orphan theme is
supposed to be. In that sense, we all share some element of being
I was fascinated to hear that you were influenced by Proust, even
though you found him boring. I was also surprised that you put
things in the book and aren't aware that they're there, until
somebody might call your attention to the power of it. When I
read The Unconsoled, I thought I was reading Proust
except I was never bored. I thought I should put it down, but
I never could until I finished it. Even though I wasn't sure exactly
what I was reading. The images that kept coming up in my mind,
they propelled me to find out where this was going. I then discussed
it with my wife, who spoke of the image of the white tile, which
kept coming back in the book. This suggested to her that this
might actually have been an institution, and much of what took
place clearly took place in the mind of somebody who had been
locked up. I read a review in The New York Times, and thought
that that person clearly missed it completely, just didn't understand
what the book was about. I would love to get some input from you
about what it might have been about.
I'm glad that you didn't find The Unconsoled boring. I
do appreciate your fulsome response to the book. It's hard to
summarize briefly what my intentions were in writing the book
but, maybe I should just say this: I was thinking around the time
I wrote that book that often, writer's use one of two ways to
tell the story of someone's life. There's this straight kind of
David Copperfield biography method. You have their early
life which you follow chronologically. They get older and maybe
they die at the end. The other common way is through flashbacks.
At a certain point in their life, perhaps quite later on, have
them recall key moments of their life. After a while, you have
filled out what's happened to that person. His or her life. I
used that method myself in my early books.
I thought maybe there's a third way, that maybe nobody's tried
yet, and it might be interesting to try. Not that dissimilar to
these other methods, but a little different. Why not have someone
just turn up, in a town, let's say. And they'll run into all the
people in that town, strangers. These people would exist to a
certain extent, but this person will start just as one
does while dreaming that this person will start to appropriate
figures he's met, to stand in for people who are much more important
in the character's life. I'm referring to when, like tonight,
I might see (turning to F. X. Feeney) you in my dream. I have
your face very vividly etched in my imagination. And it might
be standing in for you. F. X. Feeney in my dream. But sometimes,
it might not be. It might be just your face that I have appropriated
to stand in for some other emotion or figure or incident that
happened way back, that I am trying to resolve in my mind. I think
that we do that all the time. I thought it would be interesting,
instead of using the flashback or the biographical method, to
have this person wander around a town, getting involved with the
business of that town, but beneath it all, there would be this
other layer. Because every time he ran into people, there would
be echoes of his parent's marriage or, he'll see a young
man there, and he'll begin to project his own past onto that young
man. And before you know it, he's not telling you about this young
man. He's telling you about himself, and so on. He would even
appropriate characters to project his fears of who he might become.
In this way, you would actually get a picture, if not the literal
history of a person's life, then at least the big emotional history.
All the things that he fears and that he regrets and he remembers.
was the method that I wanted to use in The Unconsoled.
It was for that reason that I made that book obviously rather
dreamy, by using a lot of the techniques that the dreaming mind
uses to tell stories. Because I wanted to remind people of that
thing that we always do at night. I thought that to some people
at least, that this process would ring a bell. That they would
understand what was going on.
You set your first two books in Japan. Did your parents seek to
immerse you in Japanese culture while you were growing up in England?
My parent's didn't particularly immerse me in Japanese culture.
But they did try to keep up a Japanese side to my education. This
was just a practical thing, because they thought I was going to
have to grow up in Japan. I was slightly resistant to that until
a certain young adult age. I wasn't interested in Japanese culture,
I didn't want to read Japanese books in translation or seek out
Japanese art movies until I was in my 20s. It was always this
stuff that my parents wanted me to do. But I was actually much
more interested in the things that young people that age are always
interested in: rock music and so on. There weren't any Japanese
rock 'n' roll superstars, so I wasn't particularly interested
in Japan. Today it might be different, what with Pokeman or whatever.
I think there was a Japanese influence insofar as I was brought
up by Japanese parents. And I was very conscious all the time
while growing up in the home counties of England, that they were
very different to my friend's parents. The values they held, they
way they looked at British society. I probably looked at British
society through their eyes. They did, and actually, they still
do. They still live in the home counties of England. They still
regard the English as "the natives" that they are living amongst.
I often hear them discussing the people "over here" they call
them. One of them might notice a certain quirky thing about English
customs. They will discuss it, and they'll say, "Hmm they
do that here." I think I must have grown up very much looking
at the world around me at this slight distance. The Japanese influence
perhaps came in like that, rather than overtly in being immersed
in Japanese culture.
When you research your locales, do they actually exist? For instance,
in The Remains of the Day, as Stevens leaves Darlington
Hall, he drives to the top of a knoll and sees a wonderful view.
Does the view actually exist? Or is it only in your head?
Well, I've seen many views like that in England. . . But I don't
know if there is a specific. . . I didn't actually stand on the
top of a hill and write it down. I live in England. It's not too
hard to evoke these things. It kind of goes back to what I was
saying to F. X. earlier, about research and locale. I find too
much hard research is actually a bit of an inhibition on the imaginary
world I am trying to create. The Remains of the Day, I
don't know how accurate that book is about the life of butlers.
I did a little bit of research, but it was the other way around.
I had certain things I wanted to say metaphorically. If butler's
didn't do certain things but I needed them to, I just had them
do that. Because I wasn't trying to write a book to tell people
how butler's lived. I was writing something else, and I thought
a butler was a good way to look at English life. A way of talking
about these things. I am quite a bad hard researcher. I don't
tend to go places and sketch.
Your novels are wonderfully interior, exploring the nuances of
a character and a worldview and the delusions that come with that.
And as the other person was saying, they all have a lot of suspense
to them. And it seems that your plot is carried through character.
I was wondering if you could talk about how it is you conceive
that, how you see plot developing in your stories.
I never think that consciously about plot. This latest novel is
the first time I was thinking consciously about plot, because
I was trying to pastiche a detective fiction: some sort of plot,
mysteries that are resolved. Even there, I didn't think consciously
about what is usually called plot. I usually let that take care
of itself. If you are focusing on the themes and the characters,
probably there is a momentum. My books are not necessarily
fast. Some of them are quite slow going books. If there is a momentum,
it's because you're curious about what the narrator is going to
reveal about himself. There's not much suspense in the sense of,
"is the hero going to get shot?" or that kind of stuff. But it's
more of, "Is this person going to own up to something? He seems
to be coming close to sort of owning up to something, so let's
hang around a bit longer and see it he does." It's more that kind
of suspense, I guess.
I structure books, I do tend to structure them in terms of how
a narrator moves in his own head, from one position to another.
Those of you who have read my books will notice that I have this
kind of pseudo-diary form. The narrator has written a chunk on
this date, another chunk at a later date, and so on. This can
go on for some time in some of my books. And this is due partly
because I structure my books according to the mental states of
the narrator. They have this way of thinking, and then they kind
of moved slightly, they've owned up to a few more things, but
not everything. So the next chunk they write is from a slightly
different position, and the third chunk is again, written from
a different position. I think that this perhaps gives a book a
certain amount of momentum. The sense of the narrator shifting
his position underneath all the writing. But I don't think too
much in terms of plot or suspense in the way that a mystery writer
or suspense writer would have to. (Turning to Andrea) Should we
go to another question?
Kazuo, how many more questions to you want to take?
I'm okay, but maybe people have a life to go back to. . . I am
very happy to be here. I'm not offended at all if you have babysitters
that are going mad. . . Please don't stay because you think it
looks rude. . . I'm quite happy to carry on. . .
I wanted to ask what it's like for you to see one of your novels
becoming a film adaptation. Something which is basically being
created in your mind. I'm thinking of The Remains of the Day.
What's is it like to see it on screen, and for that matter, were
you satisfied with what they did with that?
The simple answer is yes. I thought the film The Remains of
the Day was terrific. I'm not just saying that as a P.R. thing
you know. I did think that it was a very fine movie. In a way,
well, F. X. is probably much more authoritative than me, but I
think that a movie like The Remains of the Day, for me,
it kind of harks back to an earlier kind of Hollywood film from
the golden age. It's slightly unusual now, in the middle of all
the action pictures. But you go back to the Preston Sturges, Frank
Capra era, then that kind of film doesn't seem so odd. I thought
it was a good, serious, uncompromising movie, beautifully acted,
must confess the first time I saw some rushes, I had some irrational
responses to it. And they were completely unfair. I wanted to
say, "Look, why have you shot it this way? You've got this door
on the wrong side." Because obviously, I had a very clear picture
in my head as to how a particular thing looked. "How could you
make such a silly mistake, having that. . ." But then very rapidly,
I started to accept that the authority of the film kind of took
over. That it had its own solidity.
any case, I kept opening magazines and newspapers and reading
this phrase, "James Ivory's The Remains of the Day," and
the first few times I saw this, I thought something had gone wrong.
But then I thought, yes, that's right. There is something called
"James Ivory's The Remains of the Day," which is sort of
related to my Remains of the Day. That's perfectly alright.
It has to be a work that works in it's own terms, and I think
I think it's a mistake to look at movies as though they were translations
of a book in the way you might do a French translation of a book.
. . It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that all you should hope
for is a really good movie with the same title. I think first
of all that it has to be a good movie, and very much a poor second
whether or not it's loyal to the original. That's what I feel.
And I can feel very lucky in the case of The Remains of the
Day, because it was very faithful to the book in many ways.
The atmospheres, the moods, might be very different, but I think
it was a serious, brave movie, particularly for a mass-market
movie. I thought it was terrific.
FEENEY: There's word that you have written a screenplay
for Merchant-Ivory. Is that true?
I don't know if it's going to go into production of not, but what
happened was while doing research for this novel set in Shanghai,
I came across certain things that I couldn't fit into my novel.
They had no place in my novel. In particular, I found that there
were these White Russians living in Shanghai between the wars,
who had fled from the Russian Revolution. They were these aristocrats,
Countesses and Princes, who were working as bouncers. A lot of
the Countesses were working as Taxi-dancers and prostitutes, and
living in great poverty. I found that world very fascinating.
Of course, there was no place for this to exist in this particular
did write this screenplay with Jim Ivory, very much discussing
the thing with James Ivory. About a family like this living in
Shanghai, and their relationship with an American diplomat. Apart
from the fact that it takes place in Shanghai, there is no resemblance
at all to this book. Far more naturalistic. It's kind of like
a Merchant-Ivory thing. I wrote it for James Ivory. . . There
were lots of opportunities for costumes and stuff.
must say that there is a part of me that actually wants my books
to not be filmable. I'm very schizoid about this. I feel that
when I write a novel and offer it to people, I am offering them
an experience they can only get by reading a book. It takes a
lot longer to read a book than to sit in front of a movie screen
or switch on the television. I know that as a reader, I sometimes
read books that I think are perfectly unique. They have to offer
something that you can't get from these other, more powerful media.
I don't want to compete with these things, I want it to be different.
a sense, part of my writing more and more interior monologues
and more subjective monologues, I think is perhaps an instinct
that tells me that this is where novel writing is strong. You
can go inside people's heads. You can paint interior pictures
of a world, very well in a novel. In television and film, these
are necessarily third-person media I think. It's hard to get inside
a person's head. Of course, great actors and great directors manage
to do this, but it's much harder. Anyway, that's certainly the
way I want to push it. Perhaps slightly move away from straight
naturalism as well, because I do want to offer a reading experience
that isn't the same. Having said that, and sounding very schizoid
about it, once I finish a book, I really want the phone to ring
and to hear that we've done the film deal. . .
I was very interested in the way you paint the picture of the
way you built yourself as a novelist concerned primarily with
interior worlds, and we've all been talking about this. You said
that it's more important to you what goes on inside the minds
of the characters that you create than any "real world" that might
be out there. In connection with that, you talked about your tendency
to put your novels in some sort of "real world" economic or political
catastrophe. There is an interesting tension there. What is the
role of the political in your novels?
I haven't ever tried to write political novels in the sense of
trying to directly bring about some sort of change in the law
or a political system or something like that. But I am usually
interested in people's small personal world and the big political
world. Whether one likes it or not, the bigger political world
does touch on the small personal world. Perhaps my books are political
because they do mention wars and so on, but they're not overtly
political in that sense. You wouldn't come away with a slightly
different view of the morality of the positions of the various
sides of the war reading my books. I
am very much concerned with the relationship between the personal
and the political.
I appreciate your point about the tension that exists between
writing novels that are very much interior landscapes, while using
at the same time, real historical settings. I think there is a
point where your poetic license kind of runs out when you're describing
big things that actually happened in history. You can't just keep
making things up for the sake of what you want to say. You have
to treat history with respect. Otherwise, it's an abuse of history,
rather than just a simple use of history. That's a tension I've
always felt as a writer. I know that I am prone to abuse history,
because I want to twist it around for my purposes.
I wondered if you could comment on what strikes me as themes of
imperialism, the class system and racism in your books.
Those things are there. I don't know how central they are. It
almost comes with the territory. I don't know that I have a profound
interest in imperialism as such, any more than my having a profound
interest in the war the last war. I guess what I'm doing
is talking about things that concern me as a person living in
the world today. It's sometimes quite useful for me to look at
these things, these issues, if I talk about a character in another
period or era going through these same things.
imperialism to some extent, is part of this use of history that
I talked about, which sometimes veers into an abuse of history.
In things like The Remains of the Day, or this latest book,
I need the dark side of imperialism to orchestrate my story. People
who invest their small efforts they try to do their best
but because they live in a particular kind of society,
despite their best intentions, these darker things touch them
and contaminate their lives. Stevens, to some extent, is touched
by imperialism. Both of the British Empire and the would-be imperialism
of Nazi Germany. Whether he likes it or not, no matter how much
he tries to keep out that world. The main character in this book,
although he doesn't realize it, his life has been deeply touched
by what you could loosely call the economic imperialism of British
companies in China; the selling of opium to the Chinese.
There is a moment toward the climax of the book, where the hero
is being driven through the ruins of Shanghai by a Japanese Colonel,
and the Japanese Colonel says, "If you think this is something,
wait until you see what's coming." Basically telling him in a
clairvoyant way, "World War II." It struck me in that moment,
at that connection, the intersection of history with intimate
stories, that you see history as a chorus of stories and voices,
as well as the interior lives of the characters.
As I say, it's about how the big world inevitably touches our
small world. In the case of wars, it touches it in the most tragic
and horrific way. Perhaps at the best of times, our small worlds
are always colored by the big political world. Perhaps much more
than we would care to believe. Sometimes, my books have been about
One of the things I want to thank you for, for being with us tonight,
is that you do seem to create worlds in which the world we know
impinge very beautifully on the worlds that we are discovering
through your characters. We really enjoyed it.
Thank you very much for having me here.
and edited by Kurt Wahlner