"I can write about old age while still using young people"
Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for his 1989 novel, 'The Remains of the Day'. Six years before it became a movie, 'Never Let Me Go' had been a Man Booker Prize finalist. Paddy Kehoe spoke to the author at the time of the novel's publication in 2005.
Kazuo Ishiguro had no axe to grind about biotechnology when he set out to write 'Never Let Me Go'; it merely proved to be the handy framework for a fictional work that he had been looking for a long time. "I wanted a framework in which I could talk about this basic fact about our lives, that we have this very limited lifespan. But instead of the 70, 80 or 90 years that we can now look to; I thought I would contrive a situation where, for these characters, they only have at most 30 years. They live in this very particular dystopian world where that's their fate. For them, the whole life process is concertina-ed into 30 years."
His characters are clones, fated to be organ donors with short lives. But nothing is underlined in bold, the future is hinted at in loaded, mysterious sentences haunting the narrative. Nothing is spelt out. "That's how we feel we are," he said, indicating that the clone motif, far from being some fantasy indulgence, was inspired by his view of the human condition. "We try to push it [our mortality] right to the back of our minds. In some kind of unconscious way, all our decisions are made with that knowledge in the background. The novel has a device - I can write about old age while still using young people. Mystery, horror, the sense of an impending horrible thing - all that is going to reveal itself."
He wanted the book to have "a certain sense of sadness and pathos, but not something that seems sentimentally manipulated. I try to go for a sense of sadness that is part of the fibre, part of life, something that is sad because that's the way things are. I want people to be able to recognise sadness as part of what's in our nature, rather than something contrived."
Ishiguro did not attend a boarding school, but two of his characters in 'Never Let Me Go' have received a very privileged education. The institution in which the clones find themselves - the actual locale of most of the action - has the claustrophobic, paranoid air that you might find at times in a boarding school of, say, 30 years ago. "There is something about the boarding school setting which seemed to me the perfect physical embodiment of childhood in general," the author observed. He talked of the conspiracy of adults "to tell some things and not tell others."
"Even those of us who weren't at boarding school are kept in some sort of bubble by adults in order to protect us, and we're drip-fed information about the larger world that we will one day inherit."
He had recently turned 50 at the time of our conversation. How did he feel about getting older? "I'm more aware of the time ticking away now. I don't worry about what comes after. I'm not a religious person, I don't worry about heaven and hell too much. I haven't been brought up in that kind of tradition. It's a sense of sadness I feel, rather than any terror that this will come to an end." He is married with a daughter who should now be 20 years of age. "I've been very lucky, but like any life, there'll be ups and downs. It's like a party that will come to an end; it still feels very far off. I feel a kind of sadness about that. This book to some extent reflects that. All of us at some point will grow feeble and die."
'Never Let Me Go' had received favourable reviews in the main, although Philip Hensher in The Spectator had found it "implausible on every level". "They [the characters] could have been turned into tins of Pedigree Chum without raising rational concern," wrote Hensher. Ishiguro has a refreshing attitude to reviews, not for him that feigned indifference that many writers assume towards reviews of their work. He hadn't seen any of the Irish reviews, but I gathered he would have read them if presented with such notices. He considered himself fortunate to receive lots of reviews, which he considered a tremendous privilege. "That means I'm able to actually see the overall shape. So where does the consensus arise between people in say, Los Angeles, Dublin London, France and so on? To some extent, I can afford to pay less attention to the one or two maverick reviews, whether they're favourable or very negative. Some writers bring out a novel, they may only get three reviews and so they get very sensitive about every word that is said in those three reviews. Sometimes I have been praised for a book, but the book has been summarised in such a way that the writer of the review hasn't understood it at all."
His earlier novel, 'The Remains of the Day', enjoyed remarkable success after its transformation into a Merchant Ivory film in 1993. The film starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and was nominated for eight Academy awards. In 2006, The Observer asked 150 literary critics to vote for the best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005. 'The Remains of the Day was placed joint-eighth'. "Because of the international scope of the English language, you can become a global star if you have a hit work, even if you are a literary novelist, "he declared tentatively. "Inevitably there is a certain pressure, but the person I'm competing with is my younger self. I feel very grateful that people have praised me in the past and given me awards; it gives me the security of having a certain position, so that when I write something people will read it and publish it, and so on. The pressure comes as I get older. I might wonder to what extent I measure up compared with my younger writing self. It's like an athlete as they get older. Novelists do tend to peak in their thirties and early forties, by and large. As I get older, I do feel a certain pressure about keeping going."
He wrote his books at his London home. "I know some people like to go an office and write, but I like the fact that I can write in my own environment. If you're a writer these days, there's a very public side to it, like right now," he said, referring to our interview. "You spend a significant proportion of your working life publicising the books. I often do three years writing, two years publicising. I've tried to cut it down this time around, but for the last two books that's how it worked out. You do Britain, you do the United States, Europe, Japan, you're not travelling all that time, but it's very difficult to write. You go on a trip, you come back - there's a week - then you go off on another trip. If you're doing that it's very difficult to sit down to any kind of sustained writing." I asked him about his next book. "I'm thinking about a few things," he declared, nonchalantly, as you might, in the middle of book tour. One of those things, a five-story collection called 'Nocturnes', would duly appear in 2009, again to largely positive acclaim. Largely positive, Ishiguro would no doubt tell himself, in his scrupulous way.
'Never Let Me Go' is published by Faber.