A Conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro about Never Let Me Go
What was your starting point for Never Let Me Go?
Over the last fifteen years I kept writing pieces of a story about an odd
group of "students" in the English countryside. I was never sure who these
people were. I just knew they lived in wrecked farmhouses, and though they did a
few typically student-like thingsargued over books, worked on the occasional
essay, fell in and out of lovethere was no college campus or teacher anywhere
in sight. I knew too that some strange fate hung over these young people, but I
didn't know what. In my study at home, I have a lot of these short pieces, some
going back as far as the early '90s. I'd wanted to write a novel about my
students, but I'd never got any further; I'd always ended up writing some other
quite different novel. Then around four years ago I heard a discussion on the
radio about advances in biotechnology. I usually tune out when scientific
discussions come on, but this time I listened, and the framework around these
students of mine finally fell in place. I could see a way of writing a story
that was simple, but very fundamental, about the sadness of the human condition.
This novel is set in a recognizable England of the late 20th century. Yet
it contains a key dystopian, almost sci-fi dimension you'd normally expect to
find in stories set in the future (such as Brave New World). Were you at any
point tempted to set it in the future?
I was never tempted to set this story in the future. That's partly a
personal thing. I'm not very turned on by futuristic landscapes. Besides, I
don't have the energy to think about what cars or shops or cup-holders would
look like in a future civilization. And I didn't want to write anything that
could be mistaken for a "prophecy." I wanted rather to write a story in which
every reader might find an echo of his or her own life.
In any case, I'd always seen the novel taking place in the England of the '70s and
'80sthe England of my youth, I suppose. It's an England far removed
from the butlers-and-Rolls Royce England of, say, The Remains of the Day. I
pictured England on an overcast day, flat bare fields, weak sunshine, drab
streets, abandoned farms, empty roads. Apart from Kathy's childhood memories,
around which there could be a little sun and vibrancy, I wanted to paint an
England with the kind of stark, chilly beauty I associate with certain remote
rural areas and half-forgotten seaside towns.
Yes, you could say there's a "dystopian" or "sci-fi" dimension. But I think
of it more as an "alternative history" conceit. It's more in the line of "What
if Hitler had won?" or "What if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated?" The novel
offers a version of Britain that might have existed by the late twentieth
century if just one or two things had gone differently on the scientific front.
Kathy, the narrator of this book, isn't nearly as buttoned-up as some of
your previous narrators (such as those of The Remains of the Day or When We Were
Orphans) and seems more reliable to the reader. Was this a deliberate departure
on your part?
One of the dangers you have to guard against as a novelist is
repeating things you're deemed to have done well in the past, just for the
security of repeating them. I've been praised in the past for my unreliable,
self-deceiving, emotionally restrained narrators. You could almost say at one
stage that was seen as my trademark. But I have to be careful not to confuse my
narrators with my own identity as a writer. It's so easy, in all walks of life,
to get trapped into a corner by things that once earned you praise and esteem.
That's not to say I won't one day reprieve my buttoned-up unreliable
narrators if that's what my writing requires. You see, in the past, my narrators
were unreliable, not because they were lunatics, but because they were
ordinarily self-deceiving. When they looked back over their failed lives, they
found it hard to see things in an entirely straight way. Self-deception of that
sort is common to most of us, and I really wanted to explore this theme in my
earlier books. But Never Let Me Go isn't concerned with that kind of
self-deception. So I needed my narrator to be different. An unreliable narrator
here would just have got in the way.
Was it a different experience writing from the female perspective, and
also writing in a modern-day vernacular rather than the more formal language of
I didn't worry much about using a female narrator. My first published
novel, A Pale View of Hills, was narrated by a woman too. When I was a young
writer, I used narrators who were elderly, who lived in cultures very different
from my own. There's so much imaginative leaping you have to do to inhabit a
fictional character anyway, the sex of the character becomes just one of so many
things you have to think aboutand it's probably not even one of the more
As for the more vernacular style, well, she's someone narrating in
contemporary England, so I had to have her talk appropriately. These are
technical things, like actors doing accents. The challenge isn't so much
achieving a voice that's more vernacular, or more formal, it's getting one that
properly presents that narrator's character. It's finding a voice that allows a
reader to respond to a character not just through what he or she does in the
story, but also through how he/she speaks and thinks.
This novel, like most of your others, is told through the filter of
memory. Why is memory such a recurring theme in your work?
I've always liked the texture of memory. I like it that a scene pulled
from the narrator's memory is blurred at the edges, layered with all sorts of
emotions, and open to manipulation. You're not just telling the reader: "this-and-this happened." You're also raising questions like: why has she
remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when
she says she can't remember very precisely what happened, but she'll tell us
anyway, well, how much do we trust her? And so on. I love all these subtle
things you can do when you tell a story through someone's memories.
But I should say I think the role played by memory in Never Let Me Go is
rather different to what you find in some of my earlier books. In, say, The
Remains of the Day, memory was something to be searched through very warily for
those crucial wrong turns, for those sources of regret and remorse. But in this
book, Kathy's memories are more benevolent. They're principally a source of
consolation. As her time runs out, as her world empties one by one of the things
she holds dear, what she clings to are her memories of them.
The setting for the first section of this book is a boarding school and
you capture well the peer pressure and self-consciousness of being a kid at such
a place. Did you draw on your own past for this? Did you have other direct
sources, such as your daughter?
I never went to boarding school, and my daughter doesn't go to one now!
But of course I drew on my own memories of what it felt like to be a child and
an adolescent. And though I don't study my daughter and her friends, notebook in
hand, I suppose it's inevitable the experience of being a parent would inform
the way I portray children.
Having said that, I can't think of any one scene in that "school" section
that's based, even partly, on an actual event that ever happened to me or anyone
I know. When I write about young people, I do much the same as when I write
about elderly people, or any other character who's very different from me in
culture and experience. I try my best to think and feel as they would, then see
where that takes me. I don't find that children present any special demands for
me as a novelist. They're just characters, like everyone else.
The school setting, I must add, is appealing because in a way it's a clear
physical manifestation of the way all children are separated off from the adult
world, and are drip-fed little pieces of information about the world that awaits
them, often with generous doses of deception, kindly meant or otherwise. In
other words, it serves as a very good metaphor for childhood in general.
You've sometimes written screenplays, including the one for the upcoming
Merchant Ivory movie The White Countess. And you've had the experience of seeing
your novel The Remains of the Day made into a well-known movie. What for you is
the relationship between cinema and the novel? Is it fruitful or dangerous for a
writer to work in both?
I find writing for cinema and writing novels very different. That's partly
because writing novels is my vocation, my full-time job, while I'm a kind of
enthusiastic amateur when it comes to screenplays. A key difference is that in
cinema the story is told principally through images and music--the words are a
kind of supplement. In a novel, words are all you have. But the two forms have
many things in common, of course, and I think you can learn much about one from
As you say, I wrote the screenplay to The White Countess, and collaborated on
a movie released last year, The Saddest Music In The World. One important
attraction of screenwriting for me is that it's part of a larger collaborative
process. There's something unhealthy about continually writing novels all your
life. A novelist doesn't collaborate the way musicians or theatre people do, and
after a while the lack of fresh influences can be dangerous. For me, working on
a film, with a director, with actors, maybe other writers, is a good way to keep
outside influences coming in.
I'm often asked if I worry that writing screenplays will make my novels more
like screenplays. But I've found the exact opposite. Looking back, my first
novel, A Pale View of Hills, looks to me very close to a screenplay in
technique. It moves forward scene by scene with pared-down dialogue, little set
descriptions and stage directions. But just after I finished that novel, I wrote
two screenplays for British TV's Channel 4, and that made me acutely conscious
of the differences between film writing and novel writing. I became dissatisfied
with the idea that I might write a novel that could just as well have been a
film. My feeling at the time was that novels wouldn't survive as a form--wouldn't
be able to compete with TV and cinema--unless they focused on doing things only
novels could do. Ever since then, I've tried to write books that offer an
experience completely different from the sort you might get in front of a cinema
or TV screen. You could say I want to write unfilmable novels--though I've been
keen enough to discuss movie adaptations once I finish a book! But while I'm
writing, I want my novel to work uniquely as a novel, and my screenplay to work
uniquely as a film.
A Conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro about When We Were Orphans
Is it true to
say that When We Were Orphans is, in part, an homage to the 'Golden Age' of
English detective fiction that took place in the '20s and '30s-- the work of
writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers?
Maybe that's putting it too strongly, to call the novel an homage, because it's
not really a conventional detective story. But yes, there's a relationship.
These mystery authors--Christie, Sayers, a whole host of others--became
enormously popular in England just after the Great War. Today, they're still
read and enjoyed, but their work is, by and large, derided as being
two-dimensional, class-ridden, and most importantly--and in contrast to the
American crime tradition--much too genteel. I'm sure you know the type of thing.
The stories often take place in some idealized English village of the time,
where everyone knows his or her place, and life would be idyllic but for one
thing: there's a murderer on the loose. So everything, just for the moment, has
fallen into disarray. But the vision of evil isn't very scary. The murders all
take place in some crossword puzzle-like dimension. And all it takes is for one
remarkable figure, the Great Detective, to arrive on the scene, go click, unmask
the murderer, and the order and tranquility is restored. At the close of these
books, there's no sense of post-murder trauma, even when someone's gone through
four or five victims in a tiny country village. Once the killer's unmasked, then
everything in the garden's rosy again. The Great Detective is thanked and goes
on his way. Of course, looked at one way, this is escapism of the shoddiest
So what is it that fascinated you about this tradition?
Well, when you look at it in its proper historical context, you can see it's a
genre filled with poignant longings. Because what you have to remember is that
this genre flourished right after the utter trauma of the Great War. Europe had
just experienced modern warfare for the first time. A whole generation of young
men had died in hitherto undreamed-of conditions, and social values had been
turned upside down. The point is, those detective stories were devoured by a
generation who know only too well the real nature of suffering and mayhem in the
modern world. They knew full well that evil wasn't about vicars poisoning widows
for their inheritance. They'd seen the face of modern evil--rampant
nationalisms, blood-lust, racism, dehumanized technological mass killing, chaos
no-one could control. The 'Golden Age' detective novels, if you look at them a
certain way, are filled with a pining for a world of order and justice that
people had once believed in, but which they now know full well is unattainable.
There's a forlorn wish that even now, all it needs is this superhuman figure,
this detective, to come and put the world right again. It's escapism, but
escapism of a particularly poignant kind.
Christopher Banks, your detective hero, has to some extent stepped out of
this genre, but the world of When We Were Orphan is quite a long way from that
of these genteel mysteries, isn't it?
I hope so. What I began with was the notion of taking one of these Golden
Age detectives and setting him down, completely out of his depth, in the turmoil
of the twentieth century, as the world hurtles form one horror to the next. I
had this rather comic idea of a detective going about high society London with
his Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, who by the end of the story is examining
dismembered corpses in a war-zone, with the same magnifying glass, desperately
The novel starts in high society London in the 30s, but a lot of it also
takes place in China, in Shanghai during the first half of the twentieth
century. What drew you to the place?
I'd had it in the back of my mind for some years to set a story in what's
referred to as 'Old Shanghai.' My father, who is Japanese, was born there in
1920, and lived there with his parents until the outbreak of W.W. II. His
father--my grandfather--had been charged with setting up Toyota in China, and
that's why they were there. Toyota in those days wasn't a car company, but a
textiles firm. In our family albums, there are photos of the original Mr. Toyota
visiting the house. Shanghai in those days was a glitzy, glamorous, wild place.
Gambling, opium, luxuriously decadent night-clubs. The center of it, what was
called the International Settlement, where my novel takes place, was where
British, American, European and Japanese industrialists were vying for dominance
as they built skyscrapers and made vast fortunes.
Meanwhile, the Chinese themselves were locked in a bitter underground war
between the Nationalists and the Communists. There were also Russian aristocrats
who'd fled the Revolution living in ghettos, and later, in the thirties, Jews
escaping Europe settled there. It was pretty lawless, but the elite lived in
some splendor, while others, including most of the native Chinese, live in awful
poverty. You could say it was a kind of prototype for many modern cosmopolitan
cities we have today. I used to look at these family albums, with photos of my
grandfather in a white suit, in offices with ceiling fans, or posing in front of
cars with big running boards, and it all looked to me like an old movie or
something. And yet this was the same grandfather I lived with in quiet
provincial Japan in my childhood. And it was odd to think that my father, who's
lived the last forty years in the leafy Home Counties of England, actually grew
up there. I think I'd been wanting to set a novel in that Shanghai for some
time. Of course, it all vanished with the war, and then the Communist
Christopher Banks sets out to solve the great mystery of his past: the event
that shaped his childhood in Shanghai. Childhood and, more specifically, memory
are crucial themes here. Are they important to you as a writer?
I've never written anything that didn't, in some important way, concern
childhood and memory. This book contains an extended section containing the
narrator's memories of an innocent, happy childhood in Shanghai before events
suddenly took it all away from him. I've always been interested in memory,
because it's the filter through which we read our past. It's always tinted--with
self-deception, guilt, pride, nostalgia, whatever. I find memory endlessly
fascinating, not so much from a neurological or philosophical viewpoint, but as
this tool by which people tell themselves things about the lives they've led and
about who they've become.
Nostalgia, incidentally, is an emotion I'm very interested in these days. This
book's a lot about nostalgia. I think nostalgia is a much-maligned emotion, and
I'd like to speak up on its behalf. Of course, it can be a vehicle for a lot of
shoddy, reactionary baggage. But in its purest forms, I think nostalgia is to
the emotions what idealism is to the intellect. It's a way we have of longing
for a better world. We remember a time--often from our distant childhood--when
we believed the world to be much kinder place than it proved to be when we grew
up. I think nostalgia is a profound emotion that's all too often dismissed
Like the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, Christopher Banks is a
man unable to see the larger world picture in his pursuit of order in the rather
insular universe he knows. Are you drawn to that part of us that's somewhat
deluded by our own unique experience?
Well, actually, I think most of us live in our small worlds. It's natural.
We do our jobs, we bring up our children, we try and get by the best we can.
It's very hard to get proper perspective in our lives. It's very difficult to
rise above the immediate urgencies that weigh each of us down and take a look at
how things are up there, above the roof line. Yes, my characters are deluded, or
they can't see where their small world fits into the large world, but that's
because I feel that for most of us that's our fate. The small world of our
unique experience is where most of us live.
Early in your adult life you were planning to be (and were) a
singer-songwriter. Was the switch to writing an easy one for you and do you find
the work at all similar?
As you say, from the age of sixteen and perhaps till as late as twenty-four, my
ambition was to be a songwriter. It was the '70s, so yes, the natural thing
seemed to be a singer-songwriter. This was a drawback, since my singing is,
well, let's say it's not a strong point! But I play guitar and piano, and I
wrote over a hundred songs, made demo tapes and did the whole thing of going to
see A&R men at the various recording companies. My heroes were people like
Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson. I also liked
songwriters from an earlier era like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Carlos Jobim. I've
always loved the early songs of Jimmy Webb. 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' was a
kind of ideal for me: economy of narrative, the bitter-sweet blend, the
evocation of landscape, it's all there. Anyway, I had a few years of unblemished
failure in terms of getting a career going. But looking back, I did learn a lot
from my songwriting, and when I started to write fiction, when I was
twenty-four, I think I was able to start at a more advanced point than I would
have otherwise. When I sometimes read the work of writing students, or writers
who are just starting out, I often recognize things they're going through in
fiction that I went through in my music. For example, I think I got through my
intense adolescent autobiographical phase in my songwriting. (You wouldn't want
to hear those songs.) Similarly, that phase writers often go through, a kind of
purple prose phase, when you're exhilarated at gaining for the first time
anything like technical prowess: I went through that in my songs too. I had a
lot of songs with strange stream-of-consciousness lyrics going over augmented
and diminished chords thrashing around to some Latin beat. By the time I came to
write short stories, I'd managed to pare things right down. I'd begun to
distinguish between what was showing off and what was authentic artistic
expression. Though mind you, that's still a distinction I find hard to draw.
What are you working on now?
As it happens, I'm thinking about a novel about a writer of American popular
songs, between the end of W.W. II and the start of rock-and-roll. Someone of
European ancestry, trained in classical European music in his childhood in
Vienna or Strasbourg or someplace like that, who comes to America as a penniless
refugee, learns this jazz and show music, becomes American. But I've got two
other possible novels, and I haven't decided which to get to work on next. After
the turn of the year, I'm going to stop traveling and promoting my last book and
really get down to working on my next one.