Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro captivates audience at Scripps Presents collaboration

Kazuo Ishiguro stands, smiling.
Kazuo Ishiguro spoke at an event sponsored by Scripps Presents and PEN Out Loud on March 4. (Courtesy: Frankie Fouganthin via WikiMedia Commons)

Winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature, Kazuo Ishiguro has always been interested in the lives of everyday people, as he explained at the PEN Out Loud event held in conjunction with Scripps College on March 4.

I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for the fact that the ordinary person –– and I include myself in the ranks of the ordinary person — most of us, our relationship to power, to political power or economic power, is often like that of a servant or butler, or maybe like the clones in ‘Never Let Me Go,’” he said, referencing one of his novels. 

We do our little jobs to the best of our ability, often. But most of us, we work for an employer or somebody or a corporation or maybe for a cause. But we often don’t have the perspective to see how our little contribution is being used.

Ishiguro has developed a reputation for his delicate, heartbreaking novels, which often center around the subservient members of society. Such a reputation, in fact, that he must constantly iterate his position as an “ordinary person” — a glaring indicator that the author may actually be extraordinary.

Ishiguro’s extraordinariness takes on a low-key quality. His voice is soft, tinted by a pleasant British accent, and his graying hair sits semi-groomed on top of his head. Behind his rimless glasses rest deep, dark eyes. He speaks mostly in long, winding profundities.

Nobody else seemed to have a problem with his monologues, though. As demonstrated by moderator and Scripps Presents alum Jia Tolentino and the active chat of more than 900 attendees, everyone present was awed to share virtual space with such a titanic figure.

“I wish you could talk for an hour longer,” Tolentino lamented as the interview portion came to a close after a brisk 40 minutes.

Ishiguro was there, ostensibly, to discuss his new book “Klara and the Sun,” but the rapport between him and Tolentino did not allow such a streamlined discussion to take place. Instead, the conversation ranged from his love of music, failed career as a musician, the melancholy of children’s stories and Ishiguro’s philosophical musings on love. 

Ishiguro first explained the new challenges of offering book talks remotely, as opposed to moving from city to city in-person.

“I’m beginning to feel the kind of pressure I’m told that jazz musicians feel,” he said. “Particularly if they’re doing seven nights in the same club or something — they have to produce something different every time because spontaneity is absolutely crucial to that kind of music.” 

At the end of his songwriting career, when he was still a young man, Ishiguro explained his music had moved in a very simple direction, where he tried to push the methodology of “between the lines and beneath the surface.” As he grew into his career as an author, this ethos continued. 

“My last songs are like my first stories,” Ishiguro said. 

Decades later, he has become a master of the unsaid, using the lack of resolution in his novels to keep ideas lingering in the minds of readers. How to accomplish this is something that creative writing courses often forget to teach, Ishiguro said, so he had to discover the answer through music.

“When you write a song, you have to lodge, almost virus-like, into people’s heads,” he said. “Part of the aim is to stay there. It’s no good just having a song that people are interested in for the three minutes when it’s playing. The whole point of a song is that you lay an egg in somebody’s head and you annoy them with it for years to come.”

Originally, “Klara and the Sun” was drafted as a children’s book, but after Ishiguro explained the plot to his daughter, which ended with a sick little girl dying, she told him that he was probably better served writing it as a novel for adults. While he ended up heeding her advice, there are still elements of children’s literature that Ishiguro carried through the writing process.

“One kind of art that was very important to [the conception of] ‘Klara and the Sun’ was the kind of illustrations you’d get in small children’s books,” he said. “Those worlds are filled with kind of a longing, almost a wish on the part of the adults who put the book together to shelter the young reader from the harsher truths. A very kind version of the world is presented there. Animals have smiling faces.”

“And yet, you see the hints are there. There are little things captured in faces or there’s a melancholy about the sky — it’s like we don’t really want to lie to them.”

He decided he wanted the world he created in his novel to possess that same feeling of a kind world steeped in sadness.

“I think there’s something to do with my Japanese upbringing. I think for some reason the Japanese culture, certainly when I was young, gave small children — like 4 years old or whatever I was — really, really sad stories, indeed with some sort of trauma,” he said. 

Part of what enabled Ishiguro to visualize the world through a childlike lens in “Klara and the Sun” is that the main character is an A.I. who has the naivete of a young child. The author has become slightly acquainted with the world of A.I., even attending a meeting at DeepMind, a prominent A.I. company. What used to sound like science fiction quite recently has become real, and the opportunity books give to explore a tangible future with robots seems to both excite and concern Ishiguro.

“I think there are some very fundamental changes coming, comparable to when we entered the Industrial Revolution,” he said. “And [in] what used to be called speculative fiction or science fiction, we’re not talking about predicting what might happen in the far-off future — we’re talking about how are we going to live now? … Words like ‘love,’ will that mean the same thing? It seems to me that speculative fiction is mainstream fiction now, and, in some way, because of the age we live in now, all serious fiction has to have a speculative aspect to it.”

And with that, the night was over. A conversation which felt like it could’ve gone on for hours –– at one point, Ishiguro claimed to have prepared questions for Tolentino as well –– came to a now all-too-familiar abrupt end. 

“Bye! We’ll all vanish,” Tolentino said before the webinar’s close.

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