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B e e r h e LP join over one million people who have taken charge of their mental health. Again, that's better help dot com forward slash how to fail. Thank you very much. To better help. Hello and welcome to How to Fail with Elizabeth Day, the podcast that celebrates the things that haven't gone right.
This is a podcast about learning from our mistakes and understanding that why we fail ultimately makes us stronger, because learning how to fail in life actually means learning how to succeed better. I'm your host, author and journalist, Elizabeth Day. And every week I'll be asking a new interviewee what they've learned from failure.
One of Kazuo Ishiguro, whose earliest memories was of moving from Nagasaki in Japan to Gilford in England at the age of five. His father's job as an oceanographer had taken the family overseas. The young Kazuo was unable to bring with him a favorite toy and that you shot with a pretend gun to make an egg drop out. It was, he later recalled, the main thing I was disappointed about.
Perhaps then, it's no coincidence that many of his extraordinary novels deal with a sense of yearning, of dislocation and of loss. As an author, he is interested, too, in the nature of memory. His most famous book, The Remains of the Day, was written when Ishiguro was only 35. It won the Booker Prize and was adapted into a major film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. His other works, including Never Let Me Go and the Buried Giant, collectively earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017.
This earns him another notable accolade. He is the first ever Nobel laureate to appear on how to fail.
And now Ishiguro is back with his latest novel, Kallara and the Sun, a beautiful moving exploration of what it is to be human as seen through the eyes of an A.I. robot designed to befriend children.
Interestingly, Ishiguro never entirely set out to be a writer at various points in his youth. He was a singer, a grass beater and a community worker on a housing estate in Glasgow when he was accepted onto the now celebrated University of East Anglia creative writing course. He was, he says, slightly taken aback because it suddenly became real. I thought, these writers are going to scrutinize my work and it's going to be humiliating. Now, at the age of 66 and universally lauded as one of our greatest writers of contemporary fiction, I think it's fair to say any humiliation was definitely worth it.
Sir. Kazuo Ishiguro, welcome to How to Fail. Hi, very nice to be with you.
It's so lovely to have you. Have you ever got over the loss of that toy, a hand that you shot at with a pretend gun to make an egg drop out?
Yeah, well, it wasn't such a trauma, to be honest. There was a similar toy that I missed more. Once again, it was sort of a gun thing. It was supposed to be like a lunar landscape. And this kind of er thing floated a tiny border up into the air, suspended in space, and then you're supposed to shoot at it. For some reason. I had these two toys given to me almost simultaneously and then we left.
But the hand one is easier to explain to people in interviews. And so I think that's how you got hold of that one.
I was on a TV show not long ago and somebody actually produced more or less the same thing from back then and said, here you are, here's your hand toy.
After all these years, how do you feel about it? And just wanted to film my reaction and then rather shatteringly, they'd never left it for me to take away. So I still don't have it.
Oh, no, that's terrible. As someone who is so fascinated with the nature of memory, was that toy as you remembered it when you were presented with that again?
Well, I was actually on camera. They didn't say that this was going to happen, so I didn't really get a chance to unpack yet and fire the gun at the hand and everything. But it probably was it looked pretty correct. I think it was Japanese and everything, you know. But, yeah, I had to go and do something immediately afterwards and then they'd packed up and gone. So I still don't have it. It's very elusive, this hent, or if anyone comes across it in some form, I mean, you know, please let me know.
I finally catch up with it.
But the thing is, it could be the source of all of your artistic drive. So maybe you shouldn't ever have the toy. You should just perpetually yearn for it. And you can carry on writing all these fantastic books, that's for sure. Anyway, it's like a Rosebud thing, perhaps.
Yeah. I mean, maybe all my novels, the trajectory is towards the retrieval of this hand toy that you fire, a plastic gun that I mentioned there.
When you apply to the UA creative writing course, you felt this sense of dread, fear of being humiliated. Were you humiliated during that course?
No, I wasn't actually. There are only six of us on the course. It wasn't like it is now, people don't really have a concept of a creative writing course in those days. This was really a pioneering course. And actually even within the University of East Anglia, a lot of the other academics really frowned upon it. They thought it shouldn't exist. We shouldn't be giving Emmys for things like this.
You know, it only existed because Malcolm Bradbury, the guy who put this on the course, was a celebrated writer and academic. To be frank, I wasn't I was pleasantly surprised that the standard wasn't that high, although I think there was some interesting writing being done in the course. And very rapidly I was seen to be the star of the course, which I wasn't so sure about myself. But before I went, yes, I didn't know what to expect because I was a bit of an impostor.
I hadn't really written much fiction.
Do you feel like an imposter now or do you think the Nobel Prize has helped you maybe get over that?
I don't think the Nobel Prize is done. I think one way or the other about that. I mean, we can talk about this later when we come to failures. I mean, at some deeper level, I worry about the whole imposter thing. Yes.
But not at the level of do I deserve to be published or do I deserve to be called a writer? I don't think I ever had much doubts about that once I got going. But at a more profound level, I do ask, is what I do really that worthwhile? Does it merit something like a Nobel Prize alongside scientists? You know, people have made huge breakthroughs in medicine. Do I merit a Nobel Prize alongside such people for what I do?
And I guess some of the things that have been happening in the world in recent years do lead me to actually wonder what is the purpose of writing novels and putting them out there? Is it that important? In fact, have we been contributing to something that's a bit dodgy, given the way we seem to have shifted over on emotions rather than truth and fact? This idea that what you feel is what matters. You can if you feel it, then it's true.
I'm kind of wondering if the huge emphasis I've always put in my work on being able to communicate through emotions and to relate to readers emotionally, is that a sound way to be going about things that kind of larger level? I've often thought, you know, is this thing what I do? Is it just some sort of cultural accident that it's been given a certain place in the hierarchy of things and I get given prizes and knighthoods and things, but actually that's just some sort of historical and cultural accident.
And is it actually so valuable? Is it actually contributing to something, a drift away from truth and a kind of dispassionate way of looking at things? Fascinating.
I don't have an answer other than saying that I think what you do is incredibly valuable because every single one of your novels encourages the reader to examine what life means and what brings it meaning.
And it's interesting to me that you're talking about how useful emotion is, because it strikes me now that car in the Sun is a meditation on that in many ways in which you use the point of view of an artificial friend who doesn't fully understand the nuance of this human world that she finds herself in, or even sometimes what she's literally seeing. And therefore, you as a writer have to use deceptively simple language to reveal quite profound truths.
And I just wanted to know on a technical level how difficult that was for you, because essentially you have to see the world anew.
Yeah, but I've always had a habit of doing that. Ever since I started to write. I've always written from the point of view of an outsider, a foreigner, a peculiar kind of autistic butler, a clone. It's my kind of favoured stance is to use a distanced and sometimes peculiarly kind of emotionally restrained viewpoint to look at human beings. I'm always after perspective, and so I'd like to create things that perhaps offer readers a slightly startling perspective on familiar things.
No, Chloro wasn't such an amazing departure for me at all, really. I didn't feel it felt oddly natural to me to be talking through a robot. I think about that set.
Was it startling for you to see the world anew when you moved to Guildford from Nagasaki at the age of five? It was startling at some level, but not as much as all that, because, I mean, if you can cast your mind back to when you were very young, but everything was startling. When you're only five, you remember when well, maybe you don't remember. But I mean, presumably there was a time when you couldn't walk.
And so the world was something that you crawled around and then suddenly you could walk and you could run and you couldn't speak and then you could speak. And so it just seemed to be part of that. It was another new batch of experiences. But I went to school at the same time for the first time as the English kids did. So I was kind of in sync with my peers in that sense. I didn't have that weird. Coming to a school where people have been together for ages and they will speak in this different language, I felt I was kind of learning things at more or less the same pace.
It was odd because I don't remember actually not being able to speak English. But obviously when I when I arrived, I didn't speak English, but I don't really have a memory of consciously learning the language.
You mentioned the butler there from the remains of the day. Just before we get onto your failures, is it true that you wrote the remains of the day in four weeks using a technique you and your wife describe as the crash?
No, it's not true at all. This has become a bit of a weird myth. I mean, I said this in some interview. Maybe I wrote about it somewhere, though. This was just a way to get the rough stuff, the rough draft done. And I was finding at the time difficult, quite a bit of self-discipline, but partly because of other obligations to just get down to it. And so we just clear the deck of everything.
I mean, in those days, we didn't have things like the Internet. So it was easier. You know, I wasn't allowed to pay any attention to the answering machine. I wasn't allowed to open any mail in those days. I used to spend a lot of time shopping and cooking. I didn't do any of that. I was just given one hour off for lunch and two hours off for dinner. And then after dinner I'd have to go work again.
And I had Sundays off. That was it. For four weeks. We just thought, you know, let's see what happens if I did that. And it wasn't just the amount of time. It was the psychological space you entered into when you did that. It was a bit weird. But yes, it was like before we had this concept of virtual reality and alternative realities. It was like I found myself entering a fictional world that seemed to be more real than the world outside.
And on Sundays I would go outside and giggle, Oh, I wonder in the street outside and giggle at everybody.
And the fact that the fact that the High Street Sebnem High Street was on the slope seemed to be hilarious.
I love also the idea that you and your wife were involved in this endeavor together. Is she very much someone whose opinion you respect as a reader? Will she be someone who reads your work first? How involved is she in the creative process?
Oh, she's vital to the creative process. You have to understand that for one reason or another. We've been together for 40 years. And so she knew me before I was a writer. You know, when we met, I hadn't written anything. I was a would be singer songwriter. And so she was there criticizing the very first things I wrote on paper and saying, you know what? What was this? Do you reckon you're a writer because you've written this?
I mean, so, you know, stories, whatever. I mean, she was the first person to look at them, scrutinize them, say which ones were good, which ones weren't. And so I've kind of got used to that. I mean, she's a very good critic and editor. But the important thing is I know where she's coming from. I know when to ignore her and where not to ignore her. Most of the time I don't ignore her because I get in real trouble if I do ignore her.
And I mean, it's almost second nature to me, you know, that she's part of the team. Sometimes you get these musical duos that are nevertheless their act is named after just one person. Like a person I really admire at the moment is get in Welch, the American singer. But actually there are a couple is getting Welch and David Rawlings, but it's a two person act with a name. The band name is Get In Welch and I kind of feel it.
It's a little bit like that with me and my wife. She doesn't just edit afterwards. I mean, she sometimes gives me the ideas to start with.
That's so lovely. And your wife's name is Lorna. Let's give her her name.
Yeah, she's going to Lorna Núñez. You know, I've got another member of the family who I have to get past before I can send anything off, which is my daughter, who's now a published writer. She had a short story collection up early in 2020. She has a book coming out and her first novel coming at the same time as me in twenty twenty one. And I have to get past her as well now. And so for Clara, for instance, I thought I'd finish Clara back in 2019.
Yeah, in the spring of 2019. I thought I'd finished it, but my wife told me I had to do about four months more work on it. She didn't say to four months more work. She said, you know, you've got to change this, this, this, this. And it took me four months. And then I thought, I better show it to my daughter. And then she gave me a huge pile of notes.
And so I spent about ten more months on account of these family members who would allow me to show it to my agent or anything. It's tough. You know, it's very difficult. But I mean, what can you do?
Just don't get any pats once ones have that as well. Don't get any artificial friends.
Well, we don't we don't have live animals, but we have a lot of stuffed toys here. So maybe they'll start talking and giving editorial comments.
And let's get onto your first failure, which is your movie script failure. And I have to just say for listeners that you wrote such beautifully constructed paragraphs by each of your failures, you can really tell that you're a writer. But I'm just going to let you tell the story in your own words about your movie script. Failure, I had been writing some script before, right at the start of my career, I wrote these television things for Channel four in the early days of Channel four.
And I always kind of fancy myself as a screenwriter as well as a novelist. And, you know, I became friends with Merchant Ivory, the Ismail Merchant, and James Ivory, who did the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day. And they basically said in their rather strangely open and lackadaisical way, write a screenplay and we'll make a movie. And they were talking about know like a big budget, Hollywood funded movie with kind of big stars.
And so I wrote the screenplay, The White Countess, which I thought, you know, I thought would be good. If it's set in, why not have a film set in Shanghai in the 1930s? And it's fine, very expensive. But, you know, fine, we'll go out there, shoot.
It was a great opportunity, but I think I was a little bit complacent. I didn't really understand what making it like a big movie involved. I had a lot of the arrogance of the novelist by this time fairly acclaimed novelist post book Booker Price or this kind of stuff. So I was writing it around the time of the publication of Never Let Me Go.
And I think the result was I thought this a beautifully shot film. James Ivory directed it beautifully. Christopher Doyle, one of the great cinematographers, worked on it. And the images are stunning. It's one of the first Western productions to be actually shot on location in China in 2004, something when the shooting took place. The acting was lovely. Redfin's Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, the Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who people might remember from the ring and other things.
They did it beautifully. And I kept watching the different versions of it and thinking, actually, what's wrong with this is a screenplay. My screenplay is all wrong. It wasn't just a personal fate. I mean, if I just written a bad novel, I get the blame for that. But I thought this is a huge team spending huge amounts of money. People have invested money in this and people have worked hard on this. And actually the foundation of this isn't very good because I'd fail to understand many fundamental things about screenplays.
Now, obviously, we could talk for a long time. The difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. I don't know if you Elizabeth, I know you write novels. I don't know if you've ever tried to write a screenplay for the first time.
Over the last few months, I have been working on an outline, which is an adaptation of a non-fiction book I wrote, and I was always deeply intimidated by the idea of writing a screenplay, because it sounds horrific to me that it's just what people say, because I spend so much time writing about what people think.
And I realize now that there's a liberation that comes with that as well. But that for me is the big intimidation. But what did you find?
Well, you're intimidated by it, and I think that's a good thing. I just went into it fairly briefly and perhaps with a touch of snobbery, thinking, oh, I know how to write novel. So I don't know how to write screenplays. And my having done so early in my career for television, it's interesting. You say it's you rely entirely on what people say. And it's not just what people say, it's what the audience sees. You have to communicate entirely visually.
But there are many, many other differences and it's very deceptive.
I think the gap between telling a story on the page and telling the story on the screen and one of the fundamental things that I came up against is around the how you portray memory as a novelist. I've always used memory not just as a fascinating theme in itself, but as a method of telling the story. I've always told my stories through the narrator's memories, and that's how this thing unfolds. But there's something about film that makes it very unsuitable for conveying memory.
There's something about the actual art form. And I think it's partly to do with the fact that a cinema film is moving images.
I think there's a very close affinity that we all recognise between photographs and memory. That's why photographs are so important for us and why they're so good at evoking the past. When you see a photograph of your parents or whatever, there's a textual memory hovering around photographs, particularly old photographs. A moving image doesn't do it. There's something too concrete about it. And I think that's because we don't actually remember things in moving images. Well, at least I don't I don't think maybe you do.
I don't know. I feel when I try to remember something, when you said earlier on about my toy chicken toy, what I'm seeing still images or at most I'm seeing something like a tableau vivant and there's a snapshot of a particular moment. And then I'm starting to interrogate that picture. I'm saying, well, what came before it? What's at the edges of that picture? Is there a person at the edge there? What was I doing before?
What am I wearing? Where am I coming from? What am I sitting on? I think that's the kind of way I find that memory works.
And when I'm writing fiction, it's much easier to evoke that you get the texture of memory. And I think your relationship to your memories can be actually conveyed like that. In the cinema, the film typically is partly because of the way the grammar of film has evolved, I think, but memory is usually just a technical device. It's a way of actually changing the order in which the story is told so that you can hold back pieces of information. So you get typically just a flashback and then you're telling the story in a different order.
That's how the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day was told, isn't it? Yes, I think so. This is very conventional. Yeah. And quite rightly, I think it would have been intolerable if it got, you know, well, this dreamy kind of memory texture. Every time, you know, people want to know what happened, you know, what happened. So what happened back then? And that's how we watch films. You know, I think I appreciate that much more about the strengths and weaknesses of the two forms.
And I think there is something peculiarly clumsy about film when it comes to memory.
And I think it's better to not rely on memory very much, just use it as a device. I mean, there are exceptions. There are some notable films, I think, that have come close to it, but they tend to be quite arty films like Terence Daviss, Distant Voices Still Lives. There are like outand out art movies that actually come quite close to capturing memory. And he does it by using almost stills. He always goes into it via like a still of a whole way from his childhood and then the camera slowly pulling back.
And so I think memory is very difficult to capture with a moving image.
And when you're talking about the screenplay you wrote and elucidating the weaknesses of it, is this false modesty or when the film came out, did other people think that the screenplay was weak, too?
I think most people thought the screenplay was weak. Sometimes people were too polite to say so, and sometimes they blamed other people, which I felt even worse about, actually. But I'm a huge film fan and I have actually written screenplays since then. I'm working on a screenplay now and I think I've got better. Well, at least I avoid pitfalls better now. No, it's not false modesty. I think I can be fairly objective about it, perhaps because I feel I've got better now.
You know, I can look back and say, no, there are some big problems here. And then there are other things like what you just pointed out. When you're writing fiction, you're used to having access to the inside of characters, heads and their minds and their thoughts.
Very difficult to do through a camera staring at actors faces. So you've got to find other ways to get that interior thing. You know, you've got lots of things. You've got music and facial expressions of very good actors. You've got all those tricks, but you can't really get inside unless you start using the very clunky device of voiceovers and what you like when you receive negative criticism.
Have you got better at dealing with it?
Amazingly, I don't like criticism. I mean, however, I'm probably not as bad as some people, actually. I mean, I'm amazed at how sensitive some of my fellow writers are to negative criticism, you know, cut up in the board and can't speak for days, know just because they get a bad review. I mean, I've watched on nationwide television people kind of slamming into some of my most successful novels, novels that went on to become very successful, both critically and commercially.
I've read bad reviews and then over the years, the consensus move in my favor. It's also because when I was kind of growing up as a writer, as a creative person, it was one of these kind of strange models I had for success was things like Bob Dylan when he went electric, you know, about this. You know, he was this kind of folksingers, the dawning of the folk singing circuit. And then he starts to go on tour with a rock band.
And it culminates in this famous concert in Britain where somebody shouts, do this at him and people boo all the way through the electric half of the set. I had that recording as a bootleg long before it was actually officially released from when I was about 14 or 15. I used to play it over and over and thinking, this is heroic because I mean, all of us thought he was right. He pushed rock music to the next stage of evolution by doing that.
So I always thought this was part of what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to have half of the audience booing you for having moved on and that this is what great artists are supposed to do. They're supposed to get a mixture of good reviews and really hostile ones. But I've also had the experience, I have to say, of often reading praise, whether on paper or people coming up to me or whatever. And I think actually that's not what I intended to do.
I tend to receive the praise and say, oh, thank you very much. But I think actually this person misses the point. That's not what I was trying to do. If that happens a lot, I feel then that is my failure. I haven't conveyed what I was trying to convey, even if the person thinks positively of the thing. And in that sense, since this is a discussion about success and failure, I've noticed that like a lot of creative people, I have a kind of very lonely sense of success and failure that runs alongside the public one, because I know privately, secretly what I.
Seeming to do and if it's clear that that hasn't happened, if it hasn't conveyed itself successfully, it doesn't matter in a way whether people are giving a thumbs up or thumbs down or sales are good or if people make new movie adaptations, one I haven't quite achieved while I was trying to achieve. I know that privately to myself, I think, well, I didn't quite succeed there. Well, in fact, that was a crushing failure. They've mistaken it for something, something else.
You sound like you're such a tremendously discerning person. You discern the quality of either the compliment or the criticism, because I suppose that there are some people who would argue that if you've written something and someone praises it for how it has affected them and it might not be what you've intended, but maybe you did that subconsciously. And maybe great art is also a form of dialogue so that it becomes something else in the hands of a reader. I mean, I say that as like an incredibly needy person who hoovers up all compliments.
But I'm impressed with your take.
Well, don't get me wrong. I mean, I'm hungry for compliments as you are. If someone says, you know, that they were terribly moved by this book because of X, part of me feels terribly grateful. I want them to go and tell everybody about it, you know?
But however, if that X isn't something I had intended, then, yeah, there is a part to be quite a big part of me, actually a crucial part of me that thinks, oh, OK, I'm getting praise for the wrong things, or at least for a subsidiary thing. It's not the central thing I intended to do because I don't write many novels. And all these years I've only written about eight novels or nine novels are not quite sure.
And when I do decide to write a novel, I'm going after something very clear in my head. You know, I really want to convey a particular thing. I'm bothering to do all this because I really want this thing to come into existence. And so it does matter to me if I think what it hasn't come into existence. Something else has to some extent, people might think it's pleasurable, they like it. But if it hasn't quite achieved what I wanted to achieve, I mean, I haven't done what I set out to do.
So it's not that I think it's a failure, but there are these two parallel things going on. You know, I have this internal challenge of, you know, let's see if I can do this. And then I ask, did I do it?
And then there's this other external public thing. Is the book a success? By whatever public measure, books are a success. You know, is that getting good reviews or lots of people buying it and reading it and talking about it? And in one way or the other, every one of my books is slightly not matched up to what you know, the response is not quite matched up, but I've learnt to live with that and I kind of accommodate that.
And sometimes perhaps I underrate what I rather arrogantly feel is a misreading. I mean, perhaps those misreadings are not misreadings. Maybe it's important to understand them and appreciate them. I mean, a book like Never Let Me Go, for instance, I was slightly annoyed that people took it so much as a kind of warning about science and, you know, like a Frankenstein situation about science. And people would ask me, do you think this is what's going to happen, that we'll soon have clones, that we're breeding for organ donation purposes?
And a lot of people kept saying to me they found the profound and terrifying because of this dark and prophecy. I remember receiving a postcard from Harold Pinter before publication. He'd read the book and and he'd written in this kind of very deep felt black pen right way across his postcard. I found it bloody terrifying. I extradimensional. And that's all he said. I just thought, oh, God. Harold Pinter has written to me to say he found it bloody terrifying.
But I thought I didn't want this book to be terrifying, a story that wasn't quite what I was doing. You know, it was a kind of a metaphor for people taking the metaphor a bit seriously, literally here. It was a kind of a metaphor for the ageing process or something like this.
The remains of the day, people often say, is about the British class system. They say, what's the incisive analysis of the British class system? Well, that's all right. But, you know, I've learned to think, oh, fine, if people think that, but that that's the way I wrote it. And so success and failure is not a thing like everybody.
I lap up can public success at a certain point. I'm very needy for it. I had a challenge. I set myself and I have to ask myself, do I really think it's worked? I'm so compelled by this.
I feel like it's a whole other podcasts or I want to go through every single one of your books.
By the way, you've written eight novels and one short story collection, and I want you to tell me what you intend to do with each one. But perhaps you will indulge me when I tell you what my reading of crime the Sun is, and you can tell me that I've got it terribly wrong.
But for me, Karen, the sun was all about God and faith shaking.
I can tell you're shaking your head. Oh, my. No, no, look, no, let's be clear about this.
I mean, everything I've said so far might intimidate. My readers and not wanting to ever say anything to me that indicates how they receive the book, know what the book meant to them. But I'm actually incredibly open about books, meaning whatever it means to people. And in fact, I'm actually very well known, well, not very well known. But in the film world where people are constantly optioning various of my books, I'm quite well known for being really lackadaisical of how faithfully people are that my about my things, whether for the stage or radio or for film.
You know, I would do whatever you think, just be passionate about it. But you don't have to be particularly faithful to my vision. You just do your thing. Yeah. I mean, it could be about God.
Yeah. I'm really, really, I'm really interested. Are you really interested that you think it's about God? I mean, there is something about Clarus relationship to the sun, which is obviously something like a religious instinct or actually is a solar powered machine. So it's natural that she thinks the sun is the source of everything good and is the supreme generous being. She also thinks the sun is omnipotent as well as being good and generous. So, yes, it is partly pursuing the human instinct for believing in God or wanting God graveness it as you are.
You've understood what it's about. I said, well, thank you. Well done. Well done. Thank you for that. That was completely fascinating, that discussion. But I'm aware of time.
And we must get onto your second failure, which is, in your words, your near total failure to grasp science. And you are speaking to someone who completely understands this. My father is a retired surgeon and I just don't have that kind of brain and did single science at GCSE. But tell me your story have faded science.
Well well, as you said in your introduction, my father was a scientist who passed away in 2007, but he came here as a research scientist and spent most of his time in Britain building a machine he was inventing at the expense of the British government. And that machine is now in the permanent collection of the science museum in London. Incidentally, what is the machine?
He was an oceanographer and it's a machine that was commissioned really by the British to try and predict tidal behavior after a series of floods on the East Coast of Britain in the fifties. And I guess one of the reasons the Science Museum is interesting is because it was pre digital was pre computers, and then he was still working on it when things started to go digital. So it's quite interesting in that sense. I grew up with my father, who every morning disappeared to some kind of lab in the woods, a bit secretive.
And I remember everywhere there were these kind of blank pieces of paper. One side would be blank and there will be these kind of wave diagrams on the reverse side. I used to use those A4 sheets or foolscap sheets as my kind of scrap paper, everything I wrote for my schoolwork or whatever. You know, I didn't have to buy paper refill pads. I just used tons of these things with these graphs, wave patterns on the other side. And that kind of epitomized my attitude.
It was just this squiggly thing on the other side is a bit of a nuisance because otherwise I would have had both sides of the paper.
And I partly blame the education system of the United Kingdom.
I went to a very good grammar school and it was academic. I received a very good education there. We were divided very quickly into sciences notes and it was deeper than just an academic division. People who had been close friends ceased to be close friends because they went into the sciences. And it wasn't just that I saw less of them. Just the way we approached life seemed to be different. I became a kind of hairy hippy who talked about books and songs and rock bands, and some of my friends weren't like that.
They had a different approach to life and until quite recently, I just dwelt in this world where we thought that was all right. We will be ashamed to say we knew nothing about politics or nothing about economics, and I don't care. And that's fine in my world. We think it's a kind of moral obligation as a participant in a democratic society to try and understand society to some extent through politics and economics. But it's astonishing the extent to which my friends, my fellow writers and people in that kind of world, I mean, we have a joke about how little we understand science.
We go, ha ha ha ha. They don't understand this.
You know, it's not just the facts or the science itself. It's the whole approach to the world, the kind of scrutiny, the kind of attitude you have to inquiry that comes with science. I think having been kind of divided off from it all this time, I think I have lost out a huge amount. And today I really regret it, not only because I think I had less of an excuse being brought up in the household of a research scientist who was quite passionate about his work.
I was the art person in the House and I can't quite willfully refuse to go beyond a certain point in trying to understand my father's work. I think now it's come to really matter that there are people like me.
I'm part of the problem because I think the world has now moved to a stage where we are not only on the brink of enormous scientific breakthroughs, I think we've already had a number of the key ones just in recent years. Perhaps I'm being overdramatic, I think, with something close to like at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or when agriculture was first discovered by Homo sapiens. I think we've got certain breakthroughs in the area of artificial intelligence and also in the area of gene editing and understanding about the genome that allows us to do things that will profoundly change society in many, many ways.
Of course, I think they'll be very positive things that know we have cures for all kinds of illnesses, but we have to rethink our entire way of how we organize society. I think that old assumption that we all have jobs and that's how we get paid and that's how we feed our families and that's how we get a sense of self satisfaction and dignity. I mean, I don't know if that's a model that can continue anymore. And there are various other challenges.
You know, I think we could end up with a very savage meritocracy that's rather like apartheid when gene editing becomes something that's every day because, you know, you'll be able to create people who are intrinsically more intelligent or more athletic or less prone to illness and others. You create a caste system that isn't based just on prejudice, but is based on something biological, you know, how are you going to cope with that?
And another worry, I think, is that with things like artificial intelligence, I mean, if anyone who's bought a car recently and been driven mad by the safety devices that beep and make noises every time you try and reverse or anything like that, and you phone up your garage and say, look, can we stop this? And they say, well, we don't know how to do it. It's all inside that box. We can't access it. We got this on a massive scale coming up.
I think we're going to become more and more dependent on artificial intelligence for decisions about justice, about medical procedures, about who gets insurance, who doesn't, who qualifies for a mortgage, who doesn't, whose kids deserve to go to universities. So many things are going to be dependent on artificial intelligence, but it's going to be inside a black box. They're are going to be biases and prejudices that are baked into that box. And we won't be able to unpack it because we don't know what the hell's going on in there.
Who put them in there? We don't know how it works. We won't be able to unpack it in the way that we took many years unpacking, say, slavery, or the fact that women shouldn't be able to vote to go outside and do what we gradually unpacked these kinds of things that everyone thought was absolutely true. But I don't know if we're going to be able to what's going inside these assumptions that will run our lives, I don't know.
And the other is terrified as Harold Pinter. Well, I'm not one of these people are terrified about science. I think there's going to be really beneficial things. And I think with things like CRISPR, the gene editing technique for which two women have just won the Nobel Prize, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier were just last month awarded the Nobel Prize. It's an absolutely groundbreaking technology that could actually lead to the end of many, many fatal illnesses and debilitating illnesses.
But it also opens the way for designer babies and various enhancements. And the other thing I worry, we're talking on the day after the riots of Trump supporters storming the Capitol in Washington.
I think artificial intelligence actually might take away the edge that liberal democracy has traditionally had. One of the reasons why totalitarian states collapsed, certainly the communist states collapsed at the end of the Cold War was because they weren't as good at making money, they weren't as good at running society successfully. And the West became richer and richer and people are more comfortable. And so that became a model. But I think artificial intelligence could actually take away that advantage. I think a centralized system like an autocratic centralised system could work very well with artificial intelligence and things like surveillance on your citizens and things like that can be done very, very efficiently.
We already live in a time when China provides a rather strong alternative model of success to liberal democracy. And I think this is one of the other things that we have to worry about. Coming back to the whole failure thing. I kind of think people like me have been part of the problem. We don't pay attention to the breakthroughs in science, never mind in technology. And we kind of think, oh, that's for the scientists, you know, this kind of weird elite bunch of people to sort out at academic conferences somewhere.
And and they can just tell us things. But I mean, the covid crisis has really shown us how intricately what science can and can't do. It's linked with how we live.
It sounds as if all of this is a relatively recent realization of yours, but. Did you ever talk to your father about how you felt about your knowledge or how he might have felt about a perceived lack of interest in science when you were growing up? I don't think we did.
And I think that that is an area of regret for me.
As I say, he died back in 2007, and I kind of wish I had made more effort. I might not have been able to understand it, however hard I tried the details of his work, but I think I could have learnt so much if I had actually been more open to that way of looking at the world and that way of scrutinizing the world. Not least because when scientists perhaps this is very naive, scientists will tell me this is rubbish.
But my impression is that when scientists argue and they can argue viciously about something, they have an assumption that there is a truth that they can arrive, that there is a conclusion. And that argument is predicated on that idea. I live in the world where it doesn't really matter what the truth is. I mean, it's how you present the argument. You can argue about what you thought about the film or even about how a particular society is run.
There seems to be an understanding that you would never actually come to a conclusion about this. So what matters is your stance, your posture, how articulate you are when you're arguing there's something perhaps fundamentally wrong about that.
And I think now that we have seen how far this can go, to some extent accelerated by social media. But we have seen with Donald Trump and his followers how far you can deviate from what should be absolutely objective, undeniable fact just because you just assert that you feel the opposite. I do wonder if to some extent, a lot of the things that we've been valuing and celebrating in the arts for so long, this ability to have a diversity of opinions and respecting one another's opinions, however, barking mad they might be as long as they are presented in an attractive or interesting the eccentric way in a colorful way, then.
Oh, great. Let's listen to the person. Maybe there's something actually wrong fundamentally with that approach. Maybe. All right. It's very difficult in many areas to come at a hard fact. But it is in science as well, you know, people are often changing their minds, but they argue as though there is a truth that you're arguing about, not just a bunch of subjective views.
Hmm. We're getting on to territory here, outlined in your third failure, which I'll go into in a second. But we've talked about your father's view of the world and what he did. What was your mother's view of the world?
It's probably much closer to mine. I learnt a lot of things about Western literature from her. She had come across them in Japanese. So I remember things like The Merchant of Venice and all these Shakespeare plays. You kind of acted out her versions of them at the lunch table and things like this. She introduced me to a lot of the writers who later became very important to me. Like Dostoyevsky, she bought me my first Dostoyevsky book and said, Read this.
And she had read all these things in Japanese. And she came from a more of an art background, I suppose. And she probably, like me, didn't really understand my father's world and probably didn't make a huge effort to do so either. But I don't think that it's her fault. You know, I had perhaps less excuse because I was part of a generation that was supposed to be hungry for knowledge. And I was given probably much wider educational opportunities than my mother was a woman of her generation.
She was a schoolteacher. And then when she married, she was expected to give up her job. That's what the expectation was for a kind of Middle-Class Japanese person of her generation. Not only did I have educational opportunities, I was then given these vast horizons when I very early on in my life, became what you might call a successful writer.
I've been a full time writer for a long time. I have the opportunities that most people don't have to spend time thinking and reading and researching and going places and listening to people. And I do regret that. Now, I've reached the age of 66. I know so little about science, even, you know, basic things that I hear now when people are talking about covid. And I think, oh, I don't even understand that. So I've been trying to learn the difference between Genom chromosome gene and how they relate to the human cell.
But we're talking about the ABC, you know, literally like the alphabet, you know, so that I can understand some of the things that people say on the news about the vaccine or about covid. And I think this split is very regrettable. And at the personal level, there was a whole dimension to my relationship with my father that I missed, that we both shared a passion for music on his part. I mean, he didn't really get fiction either.
There was probably a whole dimension that I missed out. So I think that is a failure and it's almost like a generational failure of people like me. But it's a personal failure between myself and my father.
I think talking about a lack of understanding leads us onto your third and final failure, which is, as you've written it, a failure to have a clue about how so many of my fellow citizens in the UK and abroad were feeling and thinking by the time 2016 came around, 2016, of course, the year of the Brexit referendum, the year of the election of Trump. But you mean this in a deeper way as well. So maybe you could explain where you're coming from on that one?
Well, it was very much triggered by those two things. There were wake up calls. And it's not to say that I haven't moved to a position of thinking or the people who wanted Brexit were correct. And I was ignorant about all their reasons for wanting to leave Europe or that Trump supporters are correct. People who voted for Trump back then in 2016, you were correct to do so. And how ignorant of me not to have understood how they felt.
That's not my position, but I didn't even know that they were there. I didn't know this feelings were there.
I didn't even start to ask why so many people might feel that way. So I wasn't even at the stage of asking questions like, have they been fooled? Have they been tricked? Are they being ignorant or are they correct? Is there some massive failure on the part of the establishment that has ignored them? I realized that I wasn't even anywhere near asking these questions. Maybe most people wouldn't feel too bad about that. But this is supposed to be part of my job, part of my remit.
I've been allowed not to commute every day to go into an office or do whatever, because I'm supposed to sit around and think I get given these awards and things because I'm supposed to have some sort of an insight into the world and society and how people relate to each other and human relationships. And so I did feel this wherever this came from, whatever this was, I couldn't get away from the fact that this was a colossal failure of vision on my part.
Whatever I've been writing about in my novels. And whenever I try to say, yes, this is about the universal human condition or whatever. Well, I certainly wasn't taking all this into account in the universal human condition as I was portraying it, trying to convey it was a failure to understand fully human beings in a very everyday sense.
If I might be as bold as to say in terms of the. Pantheon of authors who live in London, I feel you have had much more life experience of what life is like for people beyond that gilded bubble than many of your peers, because as I mentioned in the introduction, you worked on this housing estate as a community worker outside Glasgow for a while.
And I understand that your work with homeless people directly informed how to tell a story.
So do you feel that you miss that, that you sort of want to go and be able to do that again, to be more rooted in the experience of the everyday?
Well, I don't know if I've got the energy or the ability now to go back into that kind of work or that kind of world. I also think, quite honestly, that even when I was doing that kind of work, I'm not sure if I would have spotted it had I been working with the homeless. I used to help rehouse people who were homeless in West London. You know, if I was doing that kind of work in the run up to 2016, I don't know if I would have noticed still, because I think it's very easy to live inside a very tight bubble in that kind of work.
I met some great people, colleagues, as well as the people that we were supposed to help. I learnt a lot from them back then in the 1970s and 1980s. But it's very easy in that kind of world to live in a very, I hesitate to say, self-righteous bubble. But you get into a kind of a bubble with everyone has particular kinds of political views, often very left of center. And you're campaigning. You have a clear sense of communal identity that allows you to belong to that particular tribe and function well within it.
And you do find yourself in a kind of a bubble. In one of the things that I felt liberated from when I became a full time writer and I left that world was that I was allowed to read The Daily Telegraph and no one was going to take that too seriously. Are people still from that world? I mean, not long ago, I casually said to one of my friends from that time, one of the best ways to track how covid is working.
This is back in April or something. How it's spreading around the world is look on the Web page of The Tracker online of The Daily Telegraph. And they were horrified. So what The Daily Telegraph.
And I thought, oh, yes, I remember now. So I don't think it's necessarily the case that being out there necessarily helps, particularly in big cities. I think because we are so crowded on top of each other and so many different tribes and different worlds have to co-exist in the same relatively small physical space, we get very good at just blanking out huge sections of people. And a classic case in point is not being able to see homeless people when you're walking from the tube station back.
But in many ways you have to pick and choose in a big city who constitutes your world in the way that you wouldn't. You lived in a small village and so you get very good at censoring out huge hunks or the people around you. It's almost like I don't know if you are a musician, Elizabeth, but I mean, it's almost like when you're given the pentatonic scale and someone says he has five notes, you have to make all your tunes up just with those five notes, ignore all the other notes on the piano.
Everything's made up out of those five notes. And after a while, your ear adjusts to what that pentatonic scale sounds like. You don't miss the other notes. You're not consciously skipping them or anything. You just confine yourself to those five notes. And I feel we live like that, particularly in the modern city. And I think it's very easy to do that. And in some ways, physically going out there and immersing yourself, it may not be the thing.
I don't know what the answer is. I mean, maybe some sort of concept of vertical travel where you don't travel along the surface of of the world, but you travel your next vertically field.
So well, maybe not next week. Maybe I should get into some travel books, vertical travel in London or something like this. So you stay in the same physical space, but you travel into different tribes and different people live right next door to you. Yeah, yeah. You penetrate all these different worlds because, you know, I think that's what we don't do too much. Before covid, I was travelling all around the surface of the world and I think I was always talking to people more or less like me in New York or in Tokyo, in Germany or wherever.
And I don't know what the answer is here, but I think as we can see with what's happening all over the world and most notably in America at the moment, there are these massive, massive divisions between people who live next to each other. There seems to be this huge gulf just in vision and thinking basic values.
I'm going to ask you quite a big question, but I know that you're going to have such an interesting answer, which is, as you rightly say, we live in an age of division and we have seen in only two recent history where that can lead. As you say, we're talking a day after that horrendous insurrection, the storming of the capital by white supremacists and various other supporters.
And I read in a profile of you that you were born in 1954. And the journalist said if those two last numbers had been switched around, you would have had a formative and very different experience being born in Nagasaki in 1945.
And I know that your mother. Survived the Nagasaki atomic bomb. How do you think that has informed your view of what's happening now? Do you think that you can inherit trauma even if you don't experience it yourself?
I said it's a very difficult question. I've always thought that the atomic bomb didn't really touch me very much because I was brought up as a child in an age when people are trying to forget it and Japan was in recovery. And actually, I didn't actually realize that every city didn't have an atomic bomb. I only discovered that when I was in England and I opened up an encyclopedia and there was a picture of a mushroom cloud and it said Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only two cities ever to be atom bombed.
And I thought, oh, I remember kind of a feeling of pride, but over the place I come from, it's got this distinction. It was odd because people would sometimes mention the atomic bomb and my parents would often refer to it, but not in terms of trauma because, you know, I was a small child. And so it was like a marker in time or something like that. I mean, it's a very good question.
Can trauma be passed through the generations you're suggesting? Well, I think in some ways it probably can. I think this is one of the things that really profoundly interested me, this idea of societal memory, as opposed to an individual remembering we're used to this idea that individuals have to wrestle with this question, when is it better to just leave behind childhood traumas or indeed, you know, traumas in adulthood in order to go forward into the future? Sometimes you just have to move on, you know, but then others will tell you you don't deal with those things in the past properly.
You just shove them to one side. All kinds of bad things will happen to you or come back and get you. So there is this dilemma. Should you forget? Should you remember? When is it best to forget? When is it best to remember what? I think a lot of those same questions apply to nations, societies.
And I think this is one of the really difficult things. I mean, she should say, since you raised the atomic bomb question, I mean, should my parents have actually tried to instill in me some of that trauma or were they right to kind of try and create an amnesia, societal amnesia between the generations to say, oh, that was in the past? You know, we had to move on. Things are really good now. Japan is a democracy now and war is over.
And, you know, we've got to be great friends with the Americans. And, look, everything is getting better. I think this is a really interesting question. Yet how do traumatic things or not just traumatic things like a bomb hitting you, but the dark things that you as a country have done, what do you do about these things? I mean, do you pass them on to future generations? And so we're having this whole thing now about statues, taking down statues that commemorate slave drivers or indeed in America, putting down symbols of the Confederacy.
I'm all for this, actually. Well, whether you take it down or whether you actually stare nakedly at what these things symbolize one way or the other, I think it's good that people actually look at these symbols from the past. But I think it's a much more complicated and deep process, how societal memories work and where the memory banks for a country or a nation who controls them. I think it's a very difficult and complicated thing. I think things like popular entertainment has a huge role to play in how the past is remembered.
I think things like the Crown are a bit weird, actually, to be honest, but we won't get into that.
Well, you've met the Queen Mother. Of course, that's another little known fact about you.
Well, she was my employer for one month after school.
This is when you were a grass eater? Yes. Yes. And she was very kind, you know.
But I think things like popular culture has, I think, a disproportionate impact in how people remember, in quotes what happened to past generations in your nation, in your community, in your tribe, whether you like it or not, there is a battle over societal memory. And I think some of that battle is played out in the script of popular drama, you know, often popular drama that isn't overtly historical or political and just certain assumptions that are carried in there about what happened in the past or what didn't happen in the past, or just censoring things, pretending that everybody in a particular country were heroic resistance fighters rather than collaborators.
I mean, pretending that the rise was this benevolent, pleasant thing where people had great dinner parties with great curries. You don't have to be overtly political or historical to propagate a certain kind of vision of the past. And that becomes the memory. What people tell their offspring or the younger generation is also very important.
And this is something that really fascinates me. And I think many of the problems we have, issues we have at the moment are divisions have something to do with faulty societal memory. We don't quite understand where some things have come from or what our position is, what our situation really is, what the context is. Oh, my gosh, I could talk to you for many, many, many hours, but I'm so grateful to you for talking so brilliantly about the nature of failure and what it means to you and going over the script of your past, imperfect though it might be, and sharing that with us.
I'm hugely appreciative. Kazuo Ishiguro, for you, giving up your time today.
And I can't wait to read that travel book about vertical experiences, so get to it.
Well, I think you could do it, but I'd like to say that, though, it's been a great pleasure to talk to you. I've talked at great length.
It was all so good that I'm actually rather reluctant to end it. But honestly, thank you so much. Well, thank you.
This has been a really, really interesting conversation.
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