Kazuo Ishiguro in Seattle

Monday, March 30, 7-8:30 pm

Seattle Central Library, Microsoft Auditorium

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In person, Kazuo Ishiguro is funny.  He started off his book reading by saying the following:

“I’m going to read the first three pages of my book, not because these are the best passages in the book, but because they happen to be the first three pages.  Also, people never know if they should applaud or not after the section is read, kind of like at a concert, where you’re not sure when to clap.  So, let’s say not to clap after I finish reading.”

Of course, people did clap.  And who could blame them?  Ishiguro is the rare author who writes best-selling books which are also critically acclaimed.  When I got to the Microsoft Auditorium of Seattle Central Library roughly 20-25 minutes before the reading was to begin, it was packed.  I would’ve sat a few rows closer, if not for tall people obstructing my view (and viewfinder).  I ended up sitting a few rows further back, next to two nice ladies.  When I asked if the seat was taken, one of them said, “We’ve been saving it for you.”

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Before Ishiguro came on, the library photographer roamed the aisles, security kept checking in (don’t remember them being so active when Ursula K. Le Guin was in town, but then, her event wasn’t as packed as this one, and they seemed to be concentrating on keeping the stairs and aisles clear).  I also listened in to the conversation next to me, where both ladies were mentioning other books of his (the one on the aisle had read most of them).  I helped them with some movie trivia, as the one closer to me couldn’t remember the actress who starred in movie version of The Remains of the Day (Emma Thompson, paired with Anthony Hopkins, as they had been for Howards End the previous year).

Finally, one of the librarians came to the podium, mentioning that the closing times for the library would be announced during the reading, for which they could do nothing, as the library closed at 8.  But, Ishiguro would stay to sign books, and she told us which exit to use when we were finished.  She was followed by a representative from Elliot Bay Books, who remembered when Ishiguro first visited Seattle for A Pale View of Hills (according to an article online, it was actually for The Remains of the Day, so I may be remembering this incorrectly).  It had been a small gathering then, in the Elliot Bay Books basement (the current Central Library is only 11 years old next month).  Then he remembered the excitement around The Remains of the Day from the people who were at his reading and had already read the book (this was before it won the Booker Prize).  The next time, the gathering was much larger.  Ten years ago, when Ishiguro came for Never Let Me Go, the Microsoft Auditorium was able to host the event — and hold a lot more people.

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The representative then introduced Ishiguro, who read those first three pages.

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After Ishiguro finished, he sat down with the man for a short Q&A before it was turned over to the audience.  Ishiguro said he had thought about setting The Buried Giant in a war zone, such as France during WWII or Bosnia in the 90s.  “But people would be talking about the historical details if I did that,” Ishiguro said.  So instead, he chose a time that went back to folklore (“not literally, but metaphorically”).  Luckily for him, there is a historical blank of about 80-90 years in the history between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons, and that is when his story is set.

He also incorporates parts of Arthurian legend into the story, since evidence exists that the real King Arthur was a Briton who fought the Anglo-Saxons and forged a peace between them.  The Buried Giant takes place during this peace, and since Sir Gawain is the youngest of the knights in the Arthurian tales, Ishiguro decided to make him the oldest person here.  Like an old gunfighter (Ishiguro based him on John Wayne and James Coburn’s personas), he is from a way of life that no longer exists, and in this way is a cousin to Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day.

Added into the mix is a mist of forgetfulness, which allowed Ishiguro to ask questions of what society should and should not forget, and — on a more personal level — when a couple should “remember dark passages, when should they forget,” which he does through an old couple, Axl and Beatrice.  And what happens when shared memories are different, or fade?  Would we want all those memories back?

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The final topic covered before the audience had a go at it was his use of music in his books.  He doesn’t use any music in this one, but “the big decisions I make in a novel, I make intuitively, like a musician deciding one take over another.”  This is also why “only later do I think up a clear reason of why I put stuff in my novels.”

The following questions from the audience and answers from Ishiguro are paraphrased, except where quotes are used.

Q: Why does the narrator say “you” in your novels?

A: It makes it sound as if the narrator is addressing the reader.  In the past, that hasn’t been true.  In Never Let Me Go, the narrator is addressing other clones; in The Remains of the Day, another servant.  This makes the reader feel “they are eavesdropping on a closed world.”  In this book, however, the narrator is almost omniscient.  Originally, Ishiguro had the narrator addressing an audience of slaughtered children through history, “but then I back pedaled, so don’t worry if you read it and didn’t get that. It’s entirely my fault.”

Q: What technique do you use so that the reader knows more than the character?

A: One reason Ishiguro loves first person narrators is for that reason.  “People always reveal more than they realize when they are talking to you,” he said.  We use certain skills to discover that information; he wants us to use the same skills when reading his books.

Q: Concerned artists that influenced him, asked by the moderator.

A: Charlotte Bronte he likes and was heavily influenced by, but he loves Dostoevsky and has no Dostoevsky in his writing at all (“I love Demons, sometimes translated as The Possessed, because everyone in the book is mad.  A new character appears and you think, ‘Maybe this one is sane,’ but then he turns out to be mad, too.”).  On the other hand, he finds Proust to be “a snob,” but the way Proust deals with memories is similar to how Ishiguro deals with them (and Proust “can write sublime passages”).  As for Charlotte Bronte, “I re-read Jane Eyre and Villette three years ago, and realized how much I had ripped them off.  Both books show how “a first person narrator can seem to be confiding in the reader while at the same time holding something huge back.”  With Bronte, it’s usually who she’s in love with.

Q: About how he reaches intellectual decisions when writing, and how the dragon comes in.

A: The second part he didn’t want to answer because it might spoil the book — he merely stated that the dragon is in the book because “I needed a dragon for the story” (it’s his concept idea).  As for the first part, he’s carried around a notebook since 1982 in which he writes down abstract ideas.  From these ideas might spring a novel.  If it’s a good idea for a story, “I should be able to write about it in 3-4 clean sentences.”  In both Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, he treats the sci-fi and supernatural elements, respectively, as normal.

Q: What is the importance of the landscape?

A: For this book, he imagined it looked like Iceland, since that looks like a mythical landscape, with parts that are inaccessible, even though the book takes place in England.  In Never Let Me Go, all of England became “this boring little town called Norfolk.”  “If something was within the beliefs of the people, it exists in reality (in The Buried Giant).”  The beliefs express the hopes and fears of the people.

Q: Why wasn’t Never Let Me Go set in the future?

A:  “I didn’t have enough energy to create a future world,” he said.  Also, it was much creepier to put it in the recent past.  For that book, the only historical change he made was, what if there had been a breakthrough in tech during WWII, instead of in nuclear physics?

The final question came from two rows behind me, since Ishiguro felt that he and the moderator had been ignoring the people back there.  She was asked to come closer and speak her question, but when she got within a manageable flight of stairs from them, Ishiguro said, “That’s far enough,” prompting laughter.

Q: “What do you think is the role of the fiction author today?”

A:”I can only talk about me and what I appreciate in other authors,” Ishiguro said.  “Having written novels for over 30 years, I know I have no practical answers to solving the problems of the day.  All I’m wanting to do is share emotions and feelings about being alive and being human and to understand those feelings.”

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Then began the exodus for home for some and for the signing line for others.  The woman who had sat next to me left before the audience Q&A began.  The other woman I found in line after I bought a copy of The Buried Giant for Ishiguro to sign.  “We’ll pretend we’re friends and I’ve saved you a place in line,” she said.  Thanks to her kindness, I got through the line within a half hour, even though –as we found out when we got to the front — Ishiguro was posing for photos, with the representative from Elliot Bay Books taking most of them with an array of cameras.  But we have a ways to go before we get to that point.

In the meantime, this woman and I began talking.  I found out she was a teacher and mother; she found out I was a creative writer and blogger.  I gave her one of my cards with my blog information on it.  I also found out what her name is, due to the sticky notes being passed out for the signings.  And no, I’m not going to print it here, since I didn’t ask her permission first, even if it is only her first name (but I do hope she’s reading this).  We noticed, as we passed the table full of books, that some copies of The Buried Giant had a black border around the pages, making it look even more like a mythical book.  I didn’t trade my copy for one of those, however.

Anyway, we discovered we could take photos with him and this woman gave the Elliot Bay rep her camera, but then my book was taken by Ishiguro’s representative first, so I handed over my camera at the same time and quickly explained how to operate it.  The rep ended up focusing on the glass behind us, which was better than my blurry photo of Le Guin and less orange than my photo with John Scalzi, but not as clear as the photo I took with Thelma Schoonmaker (which is not on my blog, but trust me, it’s awesome).  Ishiguro was making comments the entire time about it being a serious/professional camera, which made me laugh, while the person taking the photo admitted, “But I’m not a professional photographer.”  He ended up taking two photos, the second of which is produced below.

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After the photos were taken, and despite telling the woman in line that I was going to ask Ishiguro about narrators (since I’m having difficulty with mine in my novel), I merely stood in silence as he signed, thinking the answer to the question rather too long for a signing line.  But that’s okay.  I have a feeling his book may do a better job of answering my questions, or maybe I should let intuition take over.  It seems to have done well for Ishiguro.

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