Many may know Kazuo Ishiguro as author of The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005). Now, with the March release of Klara and the Sun (Alfred A. Knopf)—his first novel since receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017—Ishiguro tells the story of Klara, an “Artificial Friend” for sale who hopes to be chosen by a customer. With the aid of its unforgettable narrator, the novel explores what it means to be human—to love, to feel loneliness, and everything in between. American Libraries spoke with Ishiguro about his new work, the parallels between Klara’s world and ours, and being knighted.
Klara and the Sun is a powerful commentary on the ethics of technological advances and artificial intelligence. What inspired you to address those themes? It was an opportunity to have a narrator with an interesting perspective. The Artificial Friend is almost like a baby at the beginning: completely fresh, completely open, but taking things in at a phenomenal rate. As [Klara] very rapidly absorbs the world around her, she starts to take on qualities of human beings, including their self-deceptions, hopes, dreams, and fears.
We increasingly think algorithms and data can define people—that somebody’s personality, somebody’s characteristics can be predicted and mapped out by Big Data and algorithms. So that comes up in the novel: Can you replace somebody you love? If you could reproduce that personality algorithmically, would that work?
What similarities do you see between our world (particularly during the pandemic) and Klara’s? The world of Klara and the Sun is just slightly in the future. This is one of the things that we’re going to face very rapidly. If you move to a model where you say, “Well, we only need a small percentage of human beings to actually work; machines can do a lot of it,” then we’re going to have to rethink our social values and how we value one another.
One of the positive things that might come out of [the pandemic] is that it highlights how important human contact is, not just emotionally but even in terms of the economy. I hope people realize that, along with what we can do, the pandemic is highlighting what we can’t do with technology.
Libraries being closed has presented a real problem. People depended on going to these places during their day. They’re important common areas. They fill a need that’s deeper than just exchanging books, which is an important enough function.
What role have libraries played in your life? In the south of England, in Guildford, where I grew up, parents there thought it was good their children went to the library on the weekend. I remember going on Saturdays, and I had to be in there for 30 minutes. I couldn’t get out until I had taken the books back in town and found new ones. And of course, once you take out some books, you’re obliged to take them back, and so you’re locked into this system.
And at first I really resented this—bringing back books I thought my parents would approve of, about ancient Egypt or something. But that whole business about just hanging around browsing, it did actually work on me. You look at all these spines, and after a while, you get fascinated. The first time I got into reading was when I was about 9 years old, when I went through all the Sherlock Holmes short stories. A lot of my friends did as well.
I had these old John Murray hardcovers that were in the library, and I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories in those editions. Quite recently I found one of those editions—I think they’re from the 1940s or 1950s—in an antiquarian bookshop. And I bought it; it was the exact same jacket, it was bent out of shape, but I remembered it from those library days.
How did winning the Nobel Prize affect your writing process, your feelings about writing, or both? Or did it? In the short term, I had to stop writing Klara and the Sun for about six months. Things go completely crazy for a while. And the odd thing is, nobody warns you about it. You don’t know that your name is up for consideration, there’s no announcement of any short list. It just comes completely out of the blue. You’re having just a normal day and then suddenly you’ve turned into a Nobel Prize winner. All the press turn up, and camera crews turn up within half an hour, foreign bureaus and newspapers. Before you know it, you’ve got to start writing a Nobel lecture that’s going to be read in perpetuity.
I hope it’s not going to affect me too much. I don’t see why it should. It’s a huge honor and a huge prize, but it’s not something that needs to affect my day-to-day life in any way.
There’s something called the Nobel syndrome that other winners have told me about. You’re a scientist or something like that; you get invited to so many conferences about things you know absolutely nothing about. I know this; I’ve been invited to crazy things, to be a keynote speaker or something. And if I was out of my head, I would say yes. And I would go around talking about things I know nothing about, and people would take me seriously because I was a Nobel Prize winner. And I would sign petition after petition every day about issues I know nothing about. Because you become a piece of currency. They say, “Three Nobel Prize winners are turning up to our conference.” Or: “Three Nobel Prize winners have signed our letter of protest.” They don’t really care what you know or don’t know. And so I’m hoping I don’t fall for that one.
You received a knighthood in 2019. What’s it like being a knight? The person who gave me the knighthood was Prince Charles. I first met him when I was a grouse beater for his grandmother, the Queen Mother. I would bring up bloody bits of shot grouse, and he would say, “Oh, thank you so much, thank you.” He would come and have a chat with us, because there were only 14 of us.
It’s like the Nobel; [being a knight] doesn’t make any difference in my day-to-day life. I don’t go around calling myself Sir Kazuo Ishiguro. It doesn’t encourage people to read your work in an intimate way. But on the other hand, I’m pleased to have been honored. It’s a recognition of my vocation and of what we all do. And that would include all the people involved with books—publishers, booksellers, librarians. It’s an affirmation of what we do.