Mr. Ishiguro
talks about
his new novel
When We
Were Orphans
(Knopf) .


Previous Novels:

The Remains
of the Day

The Artist of
the Floating

A Pale View
of Hills



  Wednesday, October 11, 2000 at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Los Angeles

ANDREA 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.

Before 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.

Now 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.

Speaking 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.

Thank you, and it is my great pleasure to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro and F. X. Feeney. . .

F. X. FEENEY: I was thinking that perhaps we would start with a short reading from the book if that's alright. . .

KAZUO ISHIGURO: That's what we agreed on. . .

FEENEY: 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.

It 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.

I 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.

I 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 Akira.

Okay, that's it. I'm just going to leave it to that.

FEENEY: 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.

There 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

But 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.

I 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?"

FEENEY: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

But 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.

FEENEY: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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.

FEENEY: It's not even the issue of the book.

ISHIGURO: 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.

FEENEY: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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?

FEENEY: Yes, and he's living in an unstable cosmos.

ISHIGURO: 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 that metaphor.

That's 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.

FEENEY: 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.

ISHIGURO: Yes. Tentatively these realities touch. But I am interested in the reality that exists in his head, not some philosophical idea of exterior reality.

FEENEY: 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?"

Without 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."

I 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

FEENEY: Oh well. . .

ISHIGURO: 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 — I guess.

I 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.

FEENEY: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

To 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."

For 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. . .

FEENEY: That's about as far as I got too. . .

ISHIGURO: 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.

FEENEY: Wasn't he the translator of Chekhov, among others?

ISHIGURO: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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.

This 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.

But 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.

I 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.

FEENEY: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

FEENEY: Let's have some questions from the audience.

QUESTION: Do you think that everyone is a potential writer?

ISHIGURO: 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. . .

QUESTION: Yes, but did something set you free?

ISHIGURO: 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.

I 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.

Looking 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.

FEENEY: Do you take a more direct interest in the Japanese translations of your works, or do you leave it alone?

ISHIGURO: 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.

QUESTION: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

But 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 orphans.

QUESTION: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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.

But 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.

This 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.

QUESTION: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

QUESTION: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

QUESTION: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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.

When 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?

ANDREA: Kazuo, how many more questions to you want to take?

ISHIGURO: 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. . .

QUESTION: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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, beautifully shot.

I 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.

In 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 it does.

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?

ISHIGURO: 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 novel.

I 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.

I 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.

In 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. . .

QUESTION: 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?

ISHIGURO: 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.

But 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.

QUESTION: I wondered if you could comment on what strikes me as themes of imperialism, the class system and racism in your books.

ISHIGURO: 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.

The 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.

FEENEY: 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.

ISHIGURO: 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 that.

FEENEY: 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.

ISHIGURO: Thank you very much for having me here.

——transcribed and edited by Kurt Wahlner

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