Kazuo Ishiguro was about a third of the way through writing his eighth novel when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. By the time he was working on edits to the manuscript, he was in lockdown amid a global pandemic. The best of times, the worst of times.
Yet he was able, he says, to prevent these triumphs and terrors from leaking into the triumphs and terrors of Klara and the Sun (which comes out in Canada next week). He kept those worlds separate as he sat in his little study and used his very real brain to work on his book that deals with artificial intelligence.
Ishiguro won the Nobel in 2017 – a shock to him, but not his mother, he relates during an interview via Zoom from his home in the U.K. She was 91 then, living in a care home, and one of the first people he called when he received the stunning news. Only, she didn’t seem so surprised. “She said: ‘I always thought you’d win it sooner or later,’” Ishiguro says, with a laugh. “But you know, that was typical of my mother. She had a very kind of exaggerated sense of my achievements.”
Shizuko Ishiguro died in 2019. Klara and the Sun is dedicated to her.
Mothers are a strong presence in this sci-fi-infused novel: What will a mother’s love push her to do? And what will technological advances make possible?
The titular Klara, who narrates the story, is an AF – or Artificial Friend. When we first meet her, she is for sale in a shop. Josie, a young teenager with a mysterious illness, begs her mother to purchase the robot and Klara becomes everything to her: friend, teacher, caregiver, mother figure.
But Josie’s mother has bigger plans for Klara – in case the worst should happen.
Ishiguro, an eloquent polymath, has been fascinated with the idea of gene editing ever since his U.S. agent sent him a clipping from a magazine a few years ago about CRISPR, a technology which allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function.
He has done a lot of reading about artificial intelligence. The current generation of AI, he explains, uses something called reinforcement learning. Given a goal and left to their own devices to achieve it, unsupervised by humans, “they teach themselves. And it’s often mysterious how they’ve taught themselves. But they can teach themselves at such a speed, they’re scanning millions and millions of books and papers and photographs and whatever it needs to do,” he says. “It’s just given an incentive, a kind of a hunger to achieve a particular goal, and it does everything to fulfill that goal. And so I thought that was quite interesting; it had echoes of human determination.”
The seed of the new novel, however, did not come from Ishiguro’s interest in tech, but from a simple children’s story he had dreamed up, meant to be a picture book for very young children. His daughter Naomi – also a writer, then working at a bookstore – expressed strong reservations.
“She said, ‘There is no way you can go anywhere near a young child with that story – you’ll traumatize them,’” Ishiguro recalls.
So he turned it into a story for grown-ups: where the non-human friend is not a doll figure or a stuffed bear, but a robot. The childlike sense of wonder, though, remained. “I wanted a lot of that – the openness to the world, the hunger to embrace the world that you get in those young children’s books,” Ishiguro says. “Even the illustrations – the bright picture of the sun in the sky, the big fields, all those things – that kind of atmosphere was in my head when I was kind of painting the scenes in prose.”
That former children’s story has a very adult question at its centre: Have we reached a point in our advancement of science and technology where we can map out what makes each person unique – what you might call their soul? And then take that data – the impulses, wishes, desires, reflexes that make somebody a particular individual – and perhaps replicate it?
“Are we at that stage where we can excavate it and preserve it beyond death?” Ishiguro says. “It’s not so much that actual kind of slightly sci-fi question that interests me. It’s a slightly different one: If we live in a world where that is even theoretically possible, does that damage in some kind of way our sense of who we are as individuals? Will we actually start to relate to each other differently if we don’t actually feel that each individual is very special and unique? Will it do something different to our sense of loving each other, for instance?”
These questions will remind Ishiguro’s readers of his 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go – where cloned children are brought into the world for the sole purpose of having their organs harvested once they are young adults. At the heart of that dystopian novel, which was adapted in 2010 for a film starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, is also a query related to the soul: Do these cloned children even have one?
Ishiguro is still probably best known for The Remains of the Day, published in 1989 and made into a Merchant-Ivory film in 1993 with Anthony Hopkins as Darlington Hall’s buttoned-up, emotionally repressed butler Stevens.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, later moving to England with his family when he was five. For years, the move was treated as temporary, and young Kazuo lived in a perpetual state of thinking the family would be returning to Japan. It’s easy to draw the line from the child who grew up as an eternal visitor to Ishiguro’s precise observational skills as a writer today. Consider Klara’s clear-eyed, rational take on things: “What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made manoeuvres that were very complex and hard to fathom.”
After hitchhiking around the U.S. in his youth, Ishiguro attended the University of Kent before studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia – accepted on the basis of a radio play he had submitted to the BBC. It was rejected by the broadcaster, but got him into the writing program.
Still, he worried he didn’t really know how to write. He famously taught himself by holing up to practise at a cottage in Cornwall the summer before starting the program.
One thing he had written as a teen was music. He was (and is) a Bob Dylan fanatic – which led him to the likes of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. By listening to their lyrics and writing his own, he learned to write in the first person, to say a lot with a little, to leave gaps in the information and not spell it all out.
He started writing about Japan – a Japan that maybe didn’t really exist, other than in his own brain. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was set in that world, as was his second, An Artist of the Floating World.
His third novel, The Remains of the Day, was set in an entirely different world altogether – 1930s Britain, on the cusp of the Second World War. The novel won the Booker Prize, and Ishiguro, then only in his 30s, was established as a literary force.
Ishiguro has never stayed put in one genre or setting – each book is a reinvention. It’s a long way from The Remains of the Day’s Darlington Hall to Klara and the Sun’s middle-American dystopia.
But his themes are recurring. He is a writer, the Swedish Academy noted, “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
The Nobel was a surprise – his wife Lorna hurried home from the salon where she was just about to have her hair coloured when she got the news. (In an interview with The Globe and Mail on that frenetic day, Ishiguro also apologized to Margaret Atwood, who was tipped to win that year.)
He took a break from writing Klara for about half a year to concentrate on the duties that come with winning the Nobel – speeches, lectures, appearances.
Asked if he felt any Nobel-associated pressure about writing this new novel – his first, all the related marketing emphasizes, since winning the big prize – he says no.
“In some ways, it takes some pressure off,” he says. “If the book is garbage, well, it still has its place in the world as the first novel published after [receiving] the Nobel Prize.”
What does weigh on him, he says, is trying to produce the book he envisions. “I have a kind of a world in my head – a set of emotions and moods and things … that I really want to bring out into the world.” He worries that if he doesn’t get it exactly right, that world will never fully come into existence.
Aging also brings its own pressures. “I’m aware that I don’t have that much time,” notes Ishiguro, 66. “Once I was a young writer – I thought, I’ve got all the time in the world. But now I feel, how much longer will I be able to operate at this level? Anything that takes away time, I’m looking at slightly warily now, saying, ‘Well, is this taking away my last book?’”
He wonders what would have happened had he still been writing Klara during the pandemic – he submitted the manuscript to his publisher in December, 2019. He says he could barely read fiction in lockdown, never mind write it.
“It feels to me like big, big things are happening out there in the world while we are shut down in lockdown in our little houses,” he says. “I haven’t been able to think very much about fiction, I have to say, whether it’s reading or writing it. This sounds very sacrilegious, but I’m even beginning to question how fiction actually fits into this whole big picture, you know?”
Ishiguro, the thwarted rock star (although he does write lyrics, collaborating with jazz singer Stacey Kent), is still heavily influenced by music in his prose. He did some key rewriting to the ending of The Remains of the Day after listening to the Tom Waits song Ruby’s Arms.
Interdisciplinary influences are important to him, and Klara and the Sun takes inspiration not so much from music, but visual art. The cover is a clue – and the descriptions of the scenery, from Klara’s entirely rational viewpoint, are influenced by paintings of early 20th-century American modernists such as Edward Hopper, Ralston Crawford and Charles Sheeler.
There are Cubist influences too. In moments of intensity or confusion, Klara perceives people in boxes, in such a way that she can see more than one version of a face at once – like a Picasso painting with eyes all over the place. When Ishiguro talks about this, however, he is almost apologetic.
“I hesitate to say this because it sounds really pretentious,” he says. “Much more cool to say you’re influenced by Tom Waits.”
Ishiguro has expressed grave concerns about certain political developments in recent years – including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. So it’s no surprise he has been asked more than once about the name he gave one of the characters in the new book, a housekeeper who speaks broken English: Melania. It wasn’t a shot at Mrs. Trump, he says, adding he did not have the former First Lady in mind when using the name – which is quite common in Eastern Europe, where he imagined the character to be from. When the possibility that readers might make the connection was pointed out to him during the copy-editing stage, Ishiguro decided to go ahead with the name nonetheless.
“I was quite confident back then that Melania Trump would not be in the public eye for much longer and there’s no point in going to all this bother of changing the name all the way through,” he says with a laugh. “I thought she would just be something of the past by the time this book comes out – and I think I’m more or less right.”
Klara and the Sun also touches on environmental devastation, with concerns over an evil, pollution-spewing machine serving as a key driver in the plot. I mention to Ishiguro that upon Googling the brand name he gave the machine, the first hit to come up was an entry on Urban Dictionary – something I could not write about in this newspaper.
“Oh, dear – now I’m really intrigued,” Ishiguro says. “That’s got me really frightened – never mind Melania.”
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Editor’s note: (Feb. 26) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said film production for Klara and the Sun will begin in May.