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Interview by Kazuo Ishiguro with Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger
SOURCE: "Stuck on the Margins: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro," in Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, edited by Allan Vorda, Rice University Press, 1993, pp. 1-35.
In the following interview, which was conducted on April 2, 1990, Ishiguro discusses Japanese and British culture, perceptions of himself in each country, and how these perceptions have helped and hindered his career as a writer. Questions are posed by Vorda unless otherwise noted.
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, and emigrated to Britain in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. In 1982 he was included in the original "Best of Young British Novelists" after having become a British citizen earlier that year. He is the author of three novels, and each has received a literary award: A Pale View of Hills was awarded the Winifred Holtby Prize by the Royal Society of Literature in 1982; An Artist of the Floating World won the 1986 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; and The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989, Britain's top literary award. He currently lives in London with his wife, Lorna MacDougall, and their daughter.
The interview with Kazuo Ishiguro occurred on April 2, 1990, in Houston, where the author was a guest of the Houston International Festival. (Additional questions were provided by Kim Herzinger of the Mississippi Review.) Originally, we were to conduct the interview in his hotel downtown, but when I arrived Ishiguro seemed restless. Courteously, he asked if the interview could be conducted somewhere else, since he had been cooped up in his hotel for three days. We drove to my house in Sugarland, a sprawling suburb southwest of Houston, and conducted the interview in the kitchen, with Ishiguro talking and sipping ice water. As we talked, I studied his face with its broad Oriental planes and features and listened to his very clipped British accent, a startling juxtaposition—at first. During the course of the interview, I came to realize that this was an extraordinary young writer with a tremendous understanding of his craft. At the end of the interview, Ishiguro asked if we could have a late lunch of Mexican food since he never could find it in England.
[Herzinger]: Last year, just before you went back to Japan for the first time since you left at the age of six, you were somewhat worried that the Japanese would expect you to know a great deal more about the culture and the country than you actually did. Were your fears realized?
[Ishiguro]: Not really. It's partly because they knew I was coming. I had a very kind of closeted journey to Japan. I was invited by the Japan Foundation, which is part of the government, so there was always an escort hanging around. In fact, there was far more media interest in me than I had anticipated. I caused a great stir in the press—not because they were particularly interested in me as a literary figure—but because I touched a strange nerve from the social aspect. Japan is, at the moment and perhaps for the first time, facing the idea that they cannot remain a homogeneous society.
This question about immigrants from Southeast Asia as well as a greater number of Western people living in Japan has started up a process. They now have to start thinking about what it means to be Japanese and what sort of country Japan might be. This has suddenly become a live-wire issue. This idea that somebody who is racially Japanese and looks very Japanese could go to England and have lost his Japaneseness in some ways is at the same time fascinating and I think rather threatening. So there was all this interest in what kind of person I was and what messages I could bring and what the West thought about Japan. They somehow thought that I was somebody they could actually ask. So I found myself put in that sort of false territory there.
I was on TV and I did a lot of interviews and things—but very rarely about literature. There were always these questions about what do people think of Japan and what did I think of Japan.
[Vorda]: Did you respond in Japanese?
No, I spoke English all the time and I was advised to do so. Really just to avoid this confusion—that was my way of saying I'm not a regular Japanese guy. My Japanese isn't good enough anyway to speak correctly. I could make myself understood, but in Japan that is not enough. There are about seven or eight different ways to say the same thing depending on how you perceive the status of the person you are speaking to, vis-à-vis yourself. To get this kind of thing even slightly wrong produces tremendous offense. It's terribly hierarchy-conscious society, although, in a curious way, it is a classless society. It means people aren't worrying about whether they are upper class or middle class or working class. They are worrying about what number they are on the ladder.
Did the people there like the answers you gave them, or did your answers increase their xenophobia?
I avoided giving any clear-cut answers, but I think just my very being is a kind of embodiment of the whole issue.
A lot of Japanese are starting to properly travel for the first time, and by this I don't mean just as tourists. Business and international trade means that they are spending more time abroad. Of course, they have children who are growing up abroad. This is something that some people say is good and others say is horrifying because their Japaneseness is going to become dissipated. The fear is that these people and their children will come back to Japan having lost something, such as eating with chopsticks, which is part of the cultural tradition.
A lot of the younger Japanese, particularly in Tokyo, know very little about things that people in the West consider to be traditionally Japanese. They don't even know how to put on the kimono. (I suppose I would be a good example since I don't know.) If you do it the wrong way around—the left on the inside or the right on the outside or whichever way it is—it's a terrible blunder because one way you only do to a corpse; living people have it the other way, and I never can remember which way it is. But what was interesting is a lot of the young Japanese don't know because they don't wear kimonos and they don't know a lot of the basic things. The younger kids, particularly in Tokyo, are kind of like Western kids in that sense. It is a kind of baffling, weird thing from a bygone era.
They also eat meat all the time. I was shocked at how tall they were as well. Anyone under thirty is six or seven inches taller on average than anyone over thirty. This is partly due to eating American junk food, so, of course, they may not live as long.
The older Japanese are small, but they live a long time. I think they still have the longest life expectancy in the industrialized world, although sometimes the Scandinavian countries compete in this area.
Thus, the whole trip was interesting and I think it's the way the world is going now since we're becoming much more international. America has always had this melting pot reputation, and now Britain has to face up to the question of multiculturalism. The Japanese are beginning to realize it's going to be their turn since Japan is the last large industrialized country that hasn't yet faced this problem.
You stated in the New York Times Book Review that, "Publicity for me has to a large extent been fighting the urge to be stereotyped by people." Do you think the stereotyping is due to your ethnicity and to the fact that your first two novels were set in Japan?
There is a kind of paradox about my books being set in Japan and whether this stereotypes me or not. In Britain, around the time when I published my first novel, the climate had actually turned toward a great deal of interest in writers who wrote books set in that particular setting. I think there was a very peculiar thing going on in Great Britain at that time. I tend to think if I didn't have a Japanese name and if I hadn't written books at that stage set in Japan, it would have taken me years longer to get the kind of attention and sales that I got in England with my first two books. What happened in Britain, certainly during the time when I was at university, contemporary fiction was, I won't say dead, but it seemed to be the preserve of a very small strata of a very small British society. We all had this image of contemporary British novels being written by middle-aged women for middle-aged middle-class women.
Some of them are good and some of them are appalling, but that wasn't one of the exciting things that was happening when I was growing up. Anyone interested in the creative arts was interested in theater. There was a whole explosion with a kind of radical theater. Rock music, cinema, and even television—because we have quite serious arts television in Great Britain—were the kind of things that everyone was talking about while the novel had a kind of sleepy, provincial, cozy, inward-looking kind of image and no one was interested in it.
Around 1979 and 1980 things changed very rapidly. There was a whole new generation of publishers and a whole new generation of journalists who came of age at that time, and they desperately wanted to find a new generation of writers to rediscover the British novel. I think there was something wider going on in English society at that time, too. There was an awareness that Britain was a more international place, a more cosmopolitan place, but it wasn't the center of the world. It was kind of a slightly peripheral, albeit still quite wealthy, country. It started to be aware of its place within the context of the whole international scene. In the early 1980s there was an explosion of tremendous interest in literature that suddenly appeared almost overnight. This occurred in foreign-language literature with people like Garcia Márquez, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who became very trendy people. At the same time, there was a whole generation of younger British writers who often had racial backgrounds that were not the typical white Anglo-Saxon. Even some of the "straight" English writers were also using settings or themes that tend to be international or historical. So there definitely was this atmosphere where people were looking for this young, exotic—although exotic may be somewhat of an unkind word—writer with an international flavor. I was very fortunate to have come along at exactly the right time. It was one of the few times in the recent history of British arts in which it was an actual plus to have a funny foreign name and to be writing about funny foreign places. The British were suddenly congratulating themselves for having lost their provincialism at last.
The big milestone was the Booker Prize going to Salman Rushdie in 1981 for Midnight's Children. He previously had been a completely unknown writer. That was a real symbolic moment, and then everyone was suddenly looking for other Rushdies. It so happened that around this time I brought out A Pale View of Hills. Usually first novels disappear, as you know, without a trace. Yet I received a lot of attention, got lots of coverage, and did a lot of interviews. I know why this was. It was because I had this Japanese face and this Japanese name and it was what was being covered at the time.
I tend to think I got a very easy ride from the critics. I subsequently have won literary prizes with each book, which is very important in Britain, career-wise. It's one of the things that help you climb the ladder. All these things sort of happened to me, and I think it greatly helped that I was identified as this kind of person.
Yet, after a while, this became very restricting, and the very things that helped me in the first place started to frustrate me as an artist and as a serious writer. I don't want to be confined by these things even though they were quite helpful publicity-wise.
[Herzinger]: In Britain there is a rather large community of extremely important and active writers who come from, or often write about, cultures quite different from the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. I'm thinking of V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, William Body, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, Doris Lessing, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and even Americans like Paul Theroux, David Plante, and Russell Hoban. Do you find yourself grouped with them often? Do you mind it? Do you resist it? Do you think such a grouping is of any use in coming to grips with your work?
Like any writer, I resist being put in a group. The group you mentioned there is quite an eclectic one. I'm usually put in a much more narrow group—usually with Rushdie and a writer called Timothy Mo, who probably isn't that well known in America.
He's a Chinese-British writer who is quite prominent in Britain and has been nominated for the Booker Prize twice. He hasn't won it yet.
I write so differently than someone like Rushdie. My style is almost the antithesis of Rushdie's or Mo's. Their writing tends to have these quirks where it explodes in all kinds of directions. Rushdie's language always seems to be reaching out—to express meaning that can't usually be expressed through normal language. Just structurally his books have this terrific energy. They just grow in every direction at once, and he doesn't particularly care if the branches lead nowhere. He'll let it grow anyway and leave it there, And that's the way he writes. I think he is a powerful and considerable writer.
I respect Rushdie's writing enormously, but as a writer I think I'm almost the antithesis. The language I use tends to be the sort that actually suppresses meaning and tries to hide away meaning rather than chase after something just beyond the reach of words. I'm interested in the way words hide meaning. I suppose I like to have a spare, tight structure because I don't like to have this improvised feeling remain in my work. From a literary point of view, I can't see anything that links me with someone like Salman Rushdie or Timothy Mo.
If we can generalize at all about these writers, I think there is something that unites most of the writers that you have mentioned, especially the younger writers of Britain at the moment. There is something different about them, if you compare that group with the older generation of writers of Britain. The one possible, valid thing that unites the younger group is the consciousness that Britain is not the center of the universe. There was a time when Britain thought it had this dominant role in the world for a long time, that Britain thought it was the head of this huge empire. I think for a long time it was supposed you could just write about British issues and about British life and it would automatically be of global significance, since people all around the world would be interested. British writers didn't have to consciously start thinking about the interests of people outside Britain, because whatever concerned them was, by definition, of international interest.
I think there was this gray period—because literary habits take a long time to die—before the British finally, both intellectually and consciously, had accepted that the empire had gone. No longer did they have this dominant, central place in the world to go to anymore. I think perhaps the styles of writing and the assumptions of writing took a while to catch up with that, and I think this was rather a dull period in English writing. The writers were writing things in which nobody was interested, since it meant nothing to anyone outside of Britain; yet, they carried on with the assumption that Britain was the center of the world. In fact, it was this that turned it into this provincial little country.
I think the younger generation of writers not only realized that, but are now suffering from a kind of inferiority complex. There's great sense that the front line where the great clashes of ideologies were happening was elsewhere. So whether you are looking at communism and capitalism clashing or the Third World and the industrialized world clashing or whatever it is—people have this idea if you're actually based in Britain and British life is what you know—then you have to make some sort of leap. Either you go out there physically and start searching around as V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux did, or you have to use your imagination. It's much more normal for the younger generation of British writers, and, apart from the people you mentioned, I would also include Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, that they will very often not write books in the contemporary British setting they live in. They will search far and wide in their imaginations for mythical settings or historical settings. For example, McEwan's novel The Innocent is set in the Cold War period of Berlin. This is not atypical of the differences that separate the younger generation from the older generation of writers.
[Herzinger]: Americans like to believe that English language literature somehow became theirs after World War II. We pay some lip service to Greene, Golding, Lessing, Amis, Fowles, Larkin, Heaney, Hughes, Powell, Murdoch, and the rest, but not much. In fact, I would say that Americans half feel that English literature never quite recovered from the deaths of Joyce and Woolf and the war itself. How do you see yourself, and other young contemporary British writers, in terms of the twentieth-century tradition of British writing?
What I just said previously raises questions about style and technique as well as setting and theme. If you happen to actually live in a country that you think won't actually provide a broad enough setting to address what you see as the really crucial issues of the age, that inevitably means you start moving away from straight realism.
If you happen to be, let's say, living in East Germany at the moment, perhaps there's no overwhelming reason to not write realism. I think there's a natural instinct to write realism. It takes much more to start thinking of other ways to write. It's when you are actually stuck on the margins. Then you start to become conscious that you are stuck on the margins and the things that you know intimately on that concrete, documentary level just won't do. Yet, on the other hand, you realize you won't have the same authority as someone who lives in Eastern Europe, or someone who lives in Africa, or the Soviet Union, or America to write about the places that you think are rather central to the things you would like to talk about. What can you do? You know about English life and the texture of English society, but it's something you feel you can't use that well. So you start to actually move away from realism. You have to start looking for other ways in which do work. I think here you start to move, not so much into out-and-out fantasy, but you start to create a slightly more fabulous world. You start to use the landscape that you do know in a metaphorical way. Or you start to create out-and-out fantastic landscapes. Perhaps Doris Lessing got caught up in that when she went off on her science fiction venture.
It may well be that Americans are going through some of the stages that British writers once went through because American society is today so central to the world community. What are the international themes that are of interest to everybody? In America there is no need to ask this question consciously. Americans are almost exempt from having to ask that question. Perhaps they shouldn't be. In any case, at this moment, I think people can write about American society and American life and it will be of interest to people in Kuala Lumpur or the Philippines because American culture has a broad appeal. It has gotten to the point that some people say American culture is invading or taking over everywhere you go in the world. Thus, a lot of people are trying to stop it, but a lot of people are bringing it in. It's very difficult to think of any point on the globe—or any society in the world today—where people shouldn't have a valued interest in American culture.
For the time being, just because of the way things are, I think American writers find themselves in this position—that they can write in a way that at other times might seem very inward-looking and parochial. Just by virtue of America's cultural position in the context of international culture, American writers are going to be relevant. So writers who haven't tried to be of great interest to people all over the world end up being so, sometimes precisely because they're so inward-looking and unconscious of the world beyond, and they reveal so much about where a lot of these influences are coming from. I think there was a time when British writers were in this position. Perhaps American writers need to be aware of a time when it will no longer be the case for them.
[Vorda]: Do you see your prose as participating in the more traditional, twentieth-century style of such writers as W. Somerset Maugham, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, and Joyce Cary?
Not really. Most of them I haven't even read. With The Remains of the Day it's like a pastiche where I've tried to create a mythical England. Sometimes it looks like or has the tone of a very English book, but actually I'm using that as a kind of shock tactic: this relatively young person with a Japanese name and a Japanese face who produces this extra-English novel or, perhaps I should say, a super-English novel. It's more English than English. Yet I think there's a big difference from the tones of the world in The Remains of the Day and the worlds created by those writers you mentioned because in my case there is an ironic distance.
Maybe I misread you somewhat. Are you saying that readers have to get past the realism in order to reach—as Barth or Borges or García Márquez have termed it—the irrealistic or fabulist world? This is more of your intent with The Remains of the Day than just writing a traditional British novel?
Absolutely. I think it's almost impossible now to write a kind of traditional British novel without being aware of the various ironies. The kind of England that I create in The Remains of the Day is not an England that I believe ever existed. I've not attempted to reproduce, in a historically accurate way, some past period. What I'm trying to do there, and I think this is perhaps much easier for British people to understand than perhaps people abroad, is to actually rework a particular myth about a certain kind of England. I think there is this very strong idea that exists in England at the moment, about an England where people lived in the not-so-distant past, that conformed to various stereotypical images. That is to say, an England with sleepy, beautiful villages with very polite people and butlers and people taking tea on the lawn.
Now, at the moment, particularly in Britain, there is an enormous nostalgia industry going on with coffee table books, television programs, and even some tour agencies who are trying to recapture this kind of old England. The mythical landscape of this sort of England, to a large degree, is harmless nostalgia for a time that didn't exist. The other side of this, however, is that it is used as a political tool—much as the American Western myth is used here. It's used as a way of bashing anybody who tries to spoil this Garden of Eden. This can be brought out by the left or right, but usually it is the political right who say England was this beautiful place before the trade unions tried to make it more egalitarian or before the immigrants started to come or before the promiscuous age of the '60s came and ruined everything. I actually think it is one of the important jobs of the novelist to actually tackle and rework myths. I think it's a very valid ground on which a novelist should do his work. I've deliberately created a world which at first resembles that of those writers such as P.G. Wodehouse. I then start to undermine this myth and use it in a slightly twisted and different way.
I was asking you earlier on, and this is a question I ask a lot of American people who know American literature, about the genre of the Western myth. It's always puzzled me that serious writers have not to a greater extent tried to rework that myth because it seems to me a nation's myth is the way a country dreams. It is part of the country's fabulized memory, and it seems to me to be a very valid task for the artist to try to figure out what that myth is and if they should actually rework or undermine that myth. It has happened in the cinema as far as the Western is concerned, but when I ask this question people don't seem to be able to offer many serious literary works that go into that area.
To a certain extent, I suppose I was trying to do a similar thing with the English myth. I'd have to say that my overall aim wasn't confined to British lessons for British people because it's a mythical landscape which is supposed to work at a metaphorical level. The Remains of the Day is a kind of parable. Yet this is a problem I've always had as a writer throughout my three books. I think if there is something I really struggle with as a writer, whenever I try to think of a new book, it is this whole question about how to make a particular setting actually take off into the realm of metaphor so that people don't think it is just about Japan or Britain. Because ultimately I'm not that interested in saying things about specific societies; and, if I were, I think I'd prefer to do it through nonfiction and follow all the proper disciplines such as to actually produce evidence and argument. I wouldn't do it by emotional manipulation.
Perhaps it is less interesting to do it through nonfiction because it is less imaginative. I guess that is one of the joys of writing fiction.
I think one of the joys of fiction is that you are actually saying things that are universal and not just about Great Britain or America or whatever. It can be about America or Britain, but I think when fiction really takes off it is because you can actually start to see how it is relevant to all other kinds of contexts and how there is a universal streak to these things. I always have this real problem because, on the one hand, you have to create the setting in your novel that feels firm enough, concrete enough, for people to be able to find their way around it. On the other hand, if you make it too concrete and too tied down to something that might exist in reality, that fictional work doesn't take off at that metaphorical level and people start saying, "Oh, that's what it was like in Japan at a certain time," or, "He's saying something about Britain in the 1930s." So, for me, it is something that I feel I haven't quite come to terms with yet, but I'm trying to find some territory, somewhere between straight realism and that kind of out-and-out fabulism, where I can create a world that isn't going to alienate or baffle readers in a way that a completely fantastic world would—but a world which, at the same time, can actually prompt readers to say that this isn't documentary or this isn't history or this isn't journalism. I'm asking you to look at this world that I've created as a reflection of a world that all kinds of people live in. It's the movement away from straight realism that is actually the real challenge. You get that wrong and you could lose everything, whereby no one identifies with your characters or they don't care what happens in this funny, weird, bizarre world. I just wanted to somehow move it away so it's just a couple of stages from straight realism in order to let it take off with that metaphorical level. I think I've come closer to doing that in The Remains of the Day than I did with the two Japanese novels, but I still feel this is a challenge I have to meet.
Your prose is a joy to read. For example, on page twenty-seven of The Remains of the Day you write: "I was then brought up to this room, in which, at that point of the day, the sun was lighting up the floral pattern of the wallpaper quite agreeably." And shortly thereafter, the butler Stevens thinks that the "greatness" of Britain paradoxically comes from "the lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart." Can the same analogy be made to your writing style?
When Stevens says that about the British landscape he is also saying something about himself. He thinks beauty and greatness lie in being able to be this kind of cold, frozen butler who isn't demonstrative and who hides emotions in much the way he's saying that the British landscape does with its surface calm: the ability to actually keep down turmoil and emotion. He thinks this is what gives both butlers and the British landscape beauty and dignity. And, of course, that viewpoint is the one that actually crumbles during the course of Stevens' journey.
To a large extent, when I wrote The Remains of the Day, that was the first time I started to become very conscious of my own style. And, of course, quite rightly, these references that Stevens makes are also a reference to my own style. I think what happened was this. My first two novels I just wrote these sentences without really thinking about style. I was just writing in what I thought was the clearest way possible. Then I started to read review after review which talked about my understated or clipped style. It was the reviewers and the critics who actually pointed this out to me—where my style seemed to be unusually calm with all this kind of strange turmoil expressed underneath the calm. I actually started to ask myself, "Where does this style come from then?" It's not something I consciously manufactured. I had to face the possibility that this was actually indeed something to do with me. It's my natural voice. In The Remains of the Day, for the first time, I started to question to what extent that was a good or bad thing from the human point of view regarding this whole business about the suppression of emotion.
Perhaps this was actually revealed by this style, by this inner voice, that I produced in my first two books. To a certain extent, The Remains of the Day actually tackles on a thematic level the implications of that kind of style. Of course, Stevens' first-person narrative is written in that style, but of course his whole life is led in that style. And in the book I try to explore to what extent it is indeed dignified and to what extent it is a form of cowardice—a way of actually hiding from what is perhaps the scariest arena in life, which is the emotional arena. It is the first book I've written in which I was actually conscious of my own style and to a certain extent tried to figure out what it is and why it's like that and where it's coming from.
[Herzinger]: Despite a comparatively paltry audience in the United States, there is a feeling that you, along with Ian McEwan, William Body, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, and a few others—plus the international success of Granta—are leading an energetic new wave in English fiction. How does it seem to you?
It is very hard for me to assess what is going on in America because I have just visited, but it does surprise me the extent to which the Atlantic does seem to be this huge gap between the two literary cultures. There are household names here that aren't even available on the bookshelves in Britain and vice versa.
When I came over here to do my tour with Knopf in November, I discovered that there were these people who are literary giants here. For instance, consider Ann Beattie, who I don't think is readily available on the bookshelves in England. You might be able to track down a copy of an Ann Beattie book, but you could talk to a lot of literary journalists in London and they would not have heard of her. Quite likely they would not have heard of Russell Banks. On the other hand, Raymond Carver has become very well respected in England, as has Richard Ford. I would say these two writers have broken through to significant respect and readership in Britain.
All the time I'm coming across books here that I realize are very well known over here, but quite often these names mean very little to me. I've been given a book by Pete Dexter called Paris Trout, which I think is quite a well-known book here and I've noticed he's won the National Book Award. Personally, I had a hell of a time breaking through here. I don't know why there should be this huge gap, but I think it just points to the fact that—even though we share the same language—the literary cultures are so different.
The other factor has to do with the actual publishing industries, because so much of publishing has to do with contacts and literary politics. I think one of the real weaknesses of the system as it operates at the moment is that there is a tendency toward insularity. If you start operating any contact games then the mediocre domestic talent is always going to get promoted over more interesting stuff from abroad.
[Herzinger]: Since you studied American literature at university, were there any American writers who influenced your work? I hear that you think Hemingway, for instance, wrote great titles, but that perhaps the books that followed were a bit of a letdown.
I think Hemingway did write marvelous titles. I like Hemingway's early work, but I find some of his later stuff pretty mediocre, almost embarrassingly so, but his standard of title writing remained high right to the end. I think Across the River and Into the Trees is a marvelous title, but the discrepancy between the quality of the title and the book is one of the greatest discrepancies I've come across in world literature. It is staggering someone who could write a title like that could write such an appalling book, but he did write some fine stuff early on.
With American writers I tend to like the older guys from the nineteenth century, such as Mark Twain. I think Huckleberry Finn is a very beautiful book with a real liveliness to the language and the vernacular is very exciting. Moby Dick is a crazy book, yet very interesting. I like Edgar Allan Poe, who raises some very interesting questions about literature as a whole.
What about contemporary American writers such as Pynchon, Gass, and Barth?
These are all people that I should say that we don't really read in England. Pynchon is read … well, I don't know … he is bought. Usually the only book of his that anyone has read is The Crying of Lot 49, because it's short. A lot of people possess Gravity's Rainbow and V., but I know very few people who have gotten over one-third of the way through. It remains to be seen if people will finish Vineland in England, but people are buying him. Pynchon may very well be a very important writer, but I've only read The Crying of Lot 49, so I'm not in a position to say. From what I've read, it is a little too over-intellectualized for me. I suppose one of these days I should tackle his big novels.
I can't think of one writer in America who gets more critical attention than Pynchon.
Perhaps he is a great writer, or it could be because there will always be a certain kind of writer who is good for academics.
Can you name one thing that separates American literature from British literature?
One feature of your literary scene here that we don't have in Britain and generally in Europe is the creative writing industry. I think that is one of the enormous differences in the two literary cultures. It's probably true to say, and I've heard it often said, that you can't find a single American writer today of any significance who hasn't in some way been directly touched by the creative writing world, either as teacher or student. Even someone who kept away from it is going to be affected by it indirectly, because so much of the criticism and so much of the opinions of his fellow writers are going to be touched by it. I think this is something that would certainly make me nervous if I were living in a literary culture where the role of the universities and faculties who taught creative writing began to have that sort of dominant influence.
I'm not actually suggesting that the Thomas Pynchon phenomenon is something closely related to this, because I'm not in a position to comment on him. All I would say is that I would want to assess quite carefully what the role of the creative writing faculties actually is within the whole literary culture because, whether you like it or not, American literature is going a certain direction because of this and I would want to determine if the influence were benign or whether it was actually leading us up a garden path.
[Herzinger]: Lately in this country there has been some debate over the virtues of fictional "minimalism" (Granta called it "dirty realism")—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Max Apple, Mary Robison, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolffe, and a number of others have been called "minimalists." Readers seem to like the work, but it has sent critics into spasms of concern over the death of the novel, the end of American fiction, and so on. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Is there anything like minimalism and the subsequent outcry from the critics in contemporary British writing?
No. There isn't a compatible movement or phenomenon in British writing at all. Minimalism isn't a word that you hear very often in British literary debate. I should say in relation to the previous question that Richard Ford and Raymond Carver are two American writers that I admire enormously. Raymond Carver is a profoundly moving writer while Richard Ford has written two or three short stories that are amongst the finest short stories I've ever read. Perhaps it is the influence of the creative writing industry that somehow led to that sort of style, but if that's the case, then that is an aspect that I'll be quite well disposed toward because I think those two writers write with great emotional honesty about things that strike me as being genuinely deep at the human level.
The thing I fear from the creative writing industry and universities in general is that people elevate priorities that I would not consider to be terrifically important. They'll elevate to some special status issues like the nature of fiction or some rather cerebral intellectual ideas. Such issues become esteemed in that kind of environment because, after all, that is what that kind of environment celebrates. But, for me, while the nature of fiction or fictionality are things that writers might need to be concerned with to get on with their work, I don't believe that the nature of fiction is one of the burning issues of the late twentieth century. It's not one of the things I want to turn to novels and art to find out about. I think reading Ford and Carver for me is a kind of an antidote really to those over-intellectualized or self-conscious literary creations that almost seem to be created for the professor down the corridor to decipher. Carver and Ford seem to write about life in a way that is profound. Also, at the technical level, I think they are in a different league from a lot of these people who are just trying to show off or make comments about their literary techniques. The technique applied by Ford or Carver is one at the highest level and to the point that perhaps it's not that obvious. I think they say great things about the emotional experience of life.
Minimalism is not something that is discussed very much in Britain. Short stories haven't really caught on in Britain recently. You can bring out a volume of short stories and you know that only about one-third of the people read it, as opposed to the number of people who read a novel that you have written. For some reason the British don't get into short stories.
[Heringer]: To what extent has Japanese fiction influenced your work? If we look around for writers who sound a bit like Ishiguro, it would seem that Tanizaki—especially his cool precision and delicate touch—is closer to you than anybody else.
Tanizaki wrote in various different styles, and a lot of his books I wouldn't describe as cool or delicate. I think the book that is best known in the West is one called The Makioka Sisters. It is really like a Western family saga. It is one of those stately, long books like Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, or George Eliot would have written. It's about this rich merchant family where nothing terribly dramatic ever happens, but it follows the different family members through a period of social change. I think a lot of people think that Tanizaki always writes like that, but he also writes kind of weird, kinky, perverted stuff.
[Herzinger]: What book would you be referring to?
The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, which is about a medieval lord who, the first time he gets sexually turned on, is wandering around a battlefield shortly after a battle and he sees these severed heads. I think that night he peeks through a hole and sees some women dressing the severed heads of fallen clan members and he starts to get sexually turned on.
I'm sure Freud would have had a good time with this.
It gets even weirder because the thing that really turns him on is a particular head that has a nose missing. So when he becomes a powerful lord later on, he has a real sexual craving for severed heads with missing noses. It gets really funny because there is a particular guy that he takes a liking to and he really wants to see this guy without a nose and so he keeps trying to arrange it so that his nose will get cut off, but it never quite works. This poor guy doesn't know what the hell is going on. Every few weeks he loses an ear or something happens to him, or somebody is after him, but he doesn't know why. There is this weird scene where the lord gets his servant to impersonate a severed head without a nose while he is making love to one of his concubines.
I mean, this is real Tanizaki territory, and this is where Tanizaki is really interesting. And there are a few other books like that. This is, by way of saying, that there is this tendency, just because I have a Japanese name, to pull out one or two other Japanese writers somebody else has heard of and say there is a similarity to my writing. Yet the critic perhaps is basing this comparison to a Japanese writer whose book is not typical of others he has written. For example, Tanizaki wrote in a lot of different styles and he wrote for a long, long time. Tanizaki actually went into his eighties, and he produced an enormous amount of books as he went through lots of different stages. I can't really see that anybody would particularly compare me to any Japanese writer if it weren't for the fact that I have this Japanese name. Now if I wrote under a pseudonym and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I'm sure nobody would think of saying, "This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer." I often have to battle and to speak up for my own individual territory against this kind of stereotyping. I wouldn't say it's wildly unfair, but then I can think of a dozen other writers with whom I could just as easily be compared. I would say I am not wildly dissimilar to the Tanizaki of The Makioka Sisters, but then someone could equally say that for anybody almost—whether it was George Eliot or Henry James or the Brontë sisters.
[Herzinger]: How about Chekhov? He would seem to be the one overwhelming influence on American writing over the past ten to fifteen years.
Chekhov is a writer that I always acknowledge as one of my influences. When people ask me about the writers I really like, I always say Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.
To backtrack just slightly on my refuting any affiliation with Japanese literature, there are some things I have learned from the Japanese tradition, if you like, but perhaps more from the Japanese movies. I think it is the same thing that perhaps I've taken from Chekhov, and that's from reading these people and seeing movies by film makers like Ozu and watching the plays of Chekhov and reading Chekhov's short stories. I think it's given me the courage and conviction to have a very slow pace and not worry if there isn't a strong plot. I think there is an overwhelmingly strong tradition in Western literature—at least I should say British literature and American literature since I think the French have a slightly different thing going—in which plot is pretty important. By fiction I also mean movies and the way television stories are told and so on. It is almost assumed that plot has to be the central spine around which the story is fleshed, and that is almost the definition these days. When you actually think about Chekhov, it is really rather hard to actually see his pieces as plots with flesh on it. What is interesting is in Japan, until very recently, this kind of plot-with-flesh model just didn't exist in Japanese fiction.
There are writers like Kawabata, whom I find quite baffling and alienating, because he's from such a different tradition, but at the same time fascinating because he writes kind of long short stories. I believe he is the only Japanese Nobel Prize winner for literature. Kawabata's stories are often completely plotless. They are not only plotless, but the pace goes so slowly sometimes it almost stops. These things seem to break all the rules people teach about how to write screen-plays for Hollywood.
This business about pace, you read these books on how to write a screenplay or books on how to keep the narrative drive going, yet reading Chekhov or some of these Japanese writers has indicated that you don't have to worry about that very much. I've really started to get into this idea of slowness with things almost stopping.
[Vorda]: This seems evident in The Remains of the Day where the plot is loosely based; yet, you are able to piece things together. For example, Miss Kenton disappears for much of the novel, but she is always there when you need her to pull things together. The use of Miss Kenton's character seems to allow you to intermingle different elements.
I don't structure my books around plots, and I find it a great liberation. If you have to worry about making a plot work, you often have to sacrifice other priorities to the mechanical workings of the plot, and you start to distort characters and all kinds of psychological insights. I find a great deal of freedom in not having plot, but that does actually mean you have to face lots of new challenges about not boring the reader and how to structure your work. These are some of the things in Chekhov which I find a continual revelation. How does he keep you absorbed when all the people are doing is just sitting around a field and asking whether or not they are going back to Moscow? He should be crushingly boring. In fact, one or two of those great plays are boring, but some of his short stories are masterpieces.
Which ones in particular?
It's probably not that well known, but I like "Ionych." Other stories that come to mind are "A Boring Story," "Lady with Lapdog," and "The Kiss."
You stated after you wrote A Pale View of Hills that, "If you really want to write something, you shouldn't bring things into your book lightly. It's a bit like taking in lodgers. They're going to be with you a long time. I think the most important thing I learned between writing the first and second novels is the element of thematic discipline." Do you now feel you have control of your thematic discipline after having written The Remains of the Day?
I'll never say I've got control, but I think I've gotten more and more control with each book. When I read reviews, I've always read the opening and closing paragraphs to see if they're saying this is good or not so good, but then after that the next thing that concerns me is the summary. Have they actually summarized the book in the way that I wanted the book to come over? For a long time, at the beginning of my career, I would actually get favorable reviews that praised me for a book that I didn't wish to write. They were emphasizing all the wrong things and praising me for things I didn't intend to do. So I could keep quiet about it and accept unwarranted praise. Of course, this isn't very satisfying, and the question of thematic discipline comes in here. There is a real satisfaction to be gotten from being praised for exactly the right things you wanted to be praised for and not for some accidental effect you created. Because that is what you're trying to do. You're not just trying to get people to like your book—you're trying to communicate a vision. This is why thematic discipline is so important to me. I used to read all these reviews recommending that people should read my first book for the weirdest reasons, but it had nothing to do with what I was wanting to do. I was pleased because they were favorable reviews, but that was a very frustrating experience for me.
The one point I still feel an element of frustration about, and I mentioned this before, is that people have a tendency to say that The Remains of the Day is a book about a certain historical period in England or that it is about the fall of the British empire or something like that. They don't quite read it as a parable or see it take off into a metaphorical role. Now, a lot of reviewers have understood my intent and said this is not just a book about a butler living in the 1930s. It is interesting that reviews vary from country to country. It tells you something about that country, but it also reminds you that as a writer you're going to be read by lots of different people in lots of different social contexts coming at the book from lots of different directions. I think it's always a healthy thing to remind oneself that you shouldn't assume every reader's assumption is going to be the same as a British reader's assumption. There are going to be very obvious reasons why some people see it in a completely different way. And usually the further I get from Britain the happier I am with the readings, because the people are less obsessed with the idea of it just being about Britain. In Britain, I suppose I'm still slightly locked into this realist reader and I recognize that a part of that is my own responsibility. I hate to use the word "fantastic," but the book is still too realistic for the metaphorical intentions to be obvious if the people actually come from the society which the book superficially resembles.
I've been very happy about the way the American reviewers, on the whole, have read The Remains of the Day. One or two have thought it was specifically about British history, but, by and large, most people read it the way that I intended them to. As I say, I think I had more trouble in Britain, where some people thought it was about the Suez Crisis or it was about British appeasement of Nazi Germany.
[Herzinger]: The Remains of the Day and An Artist of a Floating World both seem to be about men who have an extraordinary capacity to lie to themselves while presenting themselves as very precise and cautious truthtellers. Should we imagine that this is going to be the central obsession in your work? So far, the central notions in your work would seem to demand first-person narration. Are you planning to work in any other forms?
I think this is always a difficult question about how you're going to develop as a writer. I find it rather difficult to plan more than one book at a time, and I can't really say now which other themes I'm going to be obsessed about in two or three books from now. I think, certainly, what happened with my first three books is that I was actually trying to refine what I did over and over again, and, with The Remains of the Day, I feel that I came to the end of that process. That is why the three books seem to have a kind of similarity. It's not a similarity for which I can apologize; I have no other way of working.
I don't actually think of my writing as being an attempt to cover this territory and finish it and then move over to a different territory altogether and have a go at that. I don't see it like that. I feel like I'm closing in on some strange, weird territory that for some reason obsesses me, and I'm not sure what the nature of that territory is, but with every book I'm kind of closing in on this strange territory. And that's the way I see my development as a writer. Quite often I will have an idea for a story which is intrinsically quite interesting, but I know immediately that I can't use it because I know it's not going to help me close in on this territory. It has gotten to the point now that I recognize this. I know the things that apply to this territory which will be relevant or might be relevant from the ones that are quite diverting and therefore irrelevant. If I'm reading a newspaper and I come across an item, occasionally something will hit me, something that is perhaps quite banal, but it rings some kind of strange bell. The item doesn't necessarily have to be some kind of weird human interest story, because quite often some ordinary situation will just spring out from the page at me and I'll think that's something I could use.
I don't intend to write about old men looking back over their lives all the time because I think I've come to the end of that, but I think the real challenge that always faces writers is what to keep and what to cast off from their previous concerns and previous books. I think it is important to try to identify those things that still mean something to you, that still feel unfathomed in some way, and that is the way that you close in further and further on this territory. I think most writers do write out of some part of themselves—that is, I wouldn't say "unbalanced," but where there is a kind of lack of equilibrium. I'm not suggesting that writers are usually unbalanced people. I know many, many writers, and I would say that most of them are more than averagely sane and responsible people, but I think a lot of them do write out of something that is unresolved somewhere deep down and, in fact, it's probably too late ever to resolve it. Writing is kind of a consolation or a therapy. Quite often, bad writing comes out of this kind of therapy. The best writing comes out of a situation where I think the artist or writer has to some extent come to terms with the fact that it is too late. The wound has come, and it hasn't healed, but it's not going to get any worse; yet, the wound is there. It's a kind of consolation that the world isn't quite the way you wanted it but you can somehow reorder it or try and come to terms with it by actually creating your own world and own version of it. Otherwise, I can't see any other explanation for why people should actually do this time-consuming, antisocial activity of locking themselves away and obsessively writing. I think serious writers have to try, in some way or the other, to keep moving in a direction that moves them toward this area of irresolution and lack of balance. I think that's where the really interesting, deep writing comes from. This is partly why I'm very wary of the creative writing industry. I think it could actually deflect potentially very profound individual voices away from what their muses are trying to tell them.
[Herzinger]: Please comment on such characters as Etsuko, Ono, Miss Kenton, and Stevens, who have misused their talents or have not led lives of fulfillment because of a lack of insight. And also, conversely, would their lives be better off if they had insight and no talent?
I wrote about these people not actually to pass judgment on them, because I am interested in people who do have a certain amount of talent—not just talent—but who have a certain passion, a certain real urge, to do a little bit more than the average person. They've got this urge to contribute to something larger.
I can see where this applies to Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, but do you think it applies to Stevens?
Yes, definitely. Stevens is somebody who desperately wants to contribute to something larger, but he thinks he is just a butler and the only way he can do this is to work for a great man. He gets a lot of his sense of self-respect from an idea that he is serving a great man. If he were someone who didn't care at all about how his contribution was being used, then he wouldn't end up a broken man at the end. He is driven by this urge to do things perfectly, and not only do things perfectly, but that perfect contribution should be, no matter however small a contribution it is, to improving humanity. That is Stevens' position. He's not content to say, "I'll just get by and earn money so that I can feed myself."
But then again, it doesn't seem that Stevens has any great insight as to why he does things. Nor does he seem to have a great understanding of the world.
That's true, Stevens doesn't have a great understanding. I think this is where my characters go wrong. Their lives are spoiled because they don't have any extraordinary insight into life. They're not necessarily stupid; they're just ordinary. (I write out of this fear that I, myself, will waste my talent—not only waste my talents, but, indeed, end up backing some cause that I actually disapprove of or one that could be disastrous.) Yet, these ordinary characters often are going to get involved in a kind of political arena even if it's in a very small way. The reason I chose a butler as a starting point was that I wanted a metaphor for this vehicle. Most of us are like butlers because we have these small, little tasks that we learn to do, but most of us don't attempt to run the world. We just learn a job and try to do it to the best of our ability. We get our pride from that, and then we offer up a little contribution to somebody up there, to an organization, or a cause, or a country. We would like to tell ourselves that this larger thing that we're contributing toward is something good and not something bad, and that's how we draw a lot of our dignity. Often we just don't know enough about what's going on out there, and I felt that's what we're like. We're like butlers.
You also briefly present the lives of Lisa and the footman with whom she elopes. This seems to be a microcosm of what could have been a more fulfilling or happier life if Stevens had allowed himself to fall in love with Miss Kenton instead of denying his feelings.
I had this story of Lisa and the footman because I just wanted a scene where they were confronted with just such a situation and how they (Stevens and Miss Kenton) would actually talk about it and discuss it. It refers to something they're both painfully concerned with, and, yet, they have to discuss it as a kind of professional incident or setback. When Stevens is thinking back over his life, this is one of the things that comes back to him, which is the closest they ever got to discussing their romantic possibilities. So even when Stevens and Miss Kenton are discussing their unfulfilled romance, they do it indirectly by discussing Lisa and the footman.
Stevens' vision is very myopic in that he never seems to give a thought to anything, nor is sex an issue. Do you agree that he is a pathetically tragic figure that is almost nonhuman in his thoughts and feelings?
I wouldn't want to say nonhuman.
Maybe if I could digress just one second. You had that interesting metaphor in The Remains of the Day where Mr. Cardinal suggests to Stevens that it might be better if people were created as plants, "firmly embedded in the soil," then there wouldn't be any disagreements about "wars and boundaries." Then Mr. Cardinal adds, "But we could still have chaps like you taking messages back and forth, bringing tea, that sort of thing. Otherwise, how would we ever get anything done?"
I think he's in danger of turning himself into something less than human partly because he's got this sense of perfectionism. It's this kind of terribly misguided sense of perfectionism, which, if he actually achieves it, would actually mean turning himself into something less than human. But it's not just perfectionism. It's a kind of a cowardice. That is what I'm trying to suggest and, hence, the juxtaposition of his ambition to be a great butler with his avoidance of a romantic life with Miss Kenton. I suppose I'm suggesting that often that kind of drive to that kind of professional perfectionism is rooted in some kind of cowardice about the emotional arena. It's not just a determination to be the best. Once again, I was drawn to use a butler in this kind of metaphorical way because that seemed to be a profession in which at least a stereotypical view of the professional butler is that you have to kind of erase the obviously human from yourself. This was probably a social requirement because people wanted privacy at the same time as wanting to be served. So the butler was obliged to be a kind of robot-like figure.
Nevertheless, it seems as if Stevens is devoid of any feelings. For example, his proudest moment as a butler is during Lord Darlington's political conference when his father is dying upstairs. He ignores being with his father since his duty lies elsewhere—primarily trying to get bandages for the sore feet of the snotty Dupont. Even after his father dies, Stevens does not go to attend to the corpse, whereupon Miss Kenton sarcastically says, "In that case, Mr. Stevens, will you permit me to close his eyes?" It's as though Stevens is made of cardboard, without any identity or feelings.
The role of the butler is to serve inconspicuously while creating the illusion of absence and at the same time being physically on hand to do these things. It seemed to me appropriate to have somebody who wants to be this perfect butler because that seems to be a powerful metaphor for someone who is trying to actually erase the emotional part of him that may be dangerous and that could really hurt him. Yet, he doesn't succeed because these kinds of human needs, the longings for warmth and love and friendship, are things that just don't go away. This is what Stevens probably realizes at the end of the novel when he starts to get the inkling about this question of bantering. He starts to read more and more into why he can't banter, and this is an indication of the fact that he's somehow cut off from other people. He can't even make the first steps in forming relationships with other people.
In the New York Times Book Review, you say your next book will not be repetitive stylistically and that you might "like to write a messy, jagged, loud kind of book." What kind of book can your readers expect next?
It is very difficult to say. I write very slowly, and most of my writing time I'm not actually writing prose. The Remains of the Day took me three years and during that time I did nothing else. I don't have any other job, and I turn down any offers to do journalism. I was full-time working on that book, but I realized afterwards, looking through my diary, that I actually spent only twelve months writing the words that ended up in that book. It horrifies me to think that I spent two years just working up to it, but I find that I have to have a very close map of where I'm going to go before I actually start to write the words. I have to have it almost all in place in my head first. This is once again quite unusual, because I know plenty of writers who write brilliantly, although they know very little of where they're going when they start the first draft. I have to have all these things worked out and researched. Now things may change, obviously, in the execution, when I'm actually writing the words, but I usually have to know fairly precisely what I'm trying to achieve with every paragraph. So it takes me a long time to get to that situation. I fill folders and folders up with notes and ideas which look like excerpts from a longer work. I may experiment with a particular tone or a character during the very early stages when it's very difficult to say even where the book is going to be set. All I know are the themes.
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