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An Exclusive Q&A with Kazuo Ishiguro on Klara and the Sun

Posted on 24th February 2021 by Anna Orhanen

To celebrate the arrival of Klara and the Sun – the much-anticipated new novel from the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – we have a special treat for our readers. In this exclusive Q&A, Kazuo Ishiguro talks about Klara and her world and the inspiration behind this stunning story of artificial intelligence and human emotion. 

The narrator of Klara and the Sun is a solar-powered Artificial Friend, a super-smart robot with exceptional observational qualities. What drew you to explore artificial intelligence, and what kind of research did you do for the book?

I was drawn to a narrator with peculiar limitations of vision, as well as outstanding abilities to observe and learn quickly about the human world. An extreme outsider at the same time child-like and sophisticated. Through her eyes it would feel natural to ask big questions like: What’s special about humans? Are humans fundamentally lonely? What do humans mean when they say they love one another?

I didn’t do much research specifically for the novel. I’d been interested for some time both in Artificial Intelligence and in genetic technologies – and in how we should accommodate the opportunities and dangers that will come from such profound developments that are now just around the corner. In recent years, I’d been lucky enough to get to know, and have fascinating conversations with, some of the most knowledgeable people in these fields. 

Through Klara we get a kind of outsider’s view of humanity, and thematically this novel touches upon the same question as Never Let Me Go, asking what it means to be human, a person, an individual. As a writer, how important is the concept of selfhood to you?

See above on the outsider perspective. I agree, Klara and the Sun definitely has a relationship to Never Let Me Go, in that both books are interested in whether or not there’s something intrinsically important about an individual. Is there something unique and special about each of us that makes us worthy of dignity, respect and love?

Never Let Me Go has a certain sadness about it, and perhaps Klara and the Sun is a way of replying to my own earlier book. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I think I wanted to express a kind of optimism and sunshine in Klara that could balance the bleaker mood and vision of Never Let Me Go. Like anybody else, I have to cheer myself up from time to time!

In an interview with Richard Beard, you once talked about how in creating characters you like to focus on the relationships first, and how the characters develop naturally through them. With Klara, this is quite literally the case – when we first meet her in the shop, she doesn’t have much of a past and her memories are fairly limited. That’s something quite different to your previous protagonists. Did you find the writing process differed from your other books as a result?

I have no blueprint for how to write a novel. My procedures, even at the basic levels – e.g. whether to write a first draft all the way to the end before starting on a second, or instead to refine each chunk, say of thirty or so pages, carefully before moving on to the next – change from project to project. The writing process for Klara and the Sun was unique to this novel, but I don’t think anything very odd happened on account of Klara having no personal history at the start. She’s not particularly unusual in this respect. She’s like a young child, coming to awareness.

On the point I was making to my friend Richard Beard that evening – about focusing less on ‘plot and character’ and more on ‘relationships’: When this notion first struck me around twenty years ago, it came as a kind of revelation to me in terms of my own writing process. It’s quite possible it had always been blindingly obvious to everyone else! What struck me was that no matter how colourful, or how loaded with backstory, a character in a story might be, we’d not start caring much about her until she was connected to at least one other character in an intriguing way. In other words, it was the relationships, rather than the characters, that had to be three-dimensional – that had to evolve interestingly during the course of a story.

Klara and the Sun is very much a novel about relationships – what it means to be a friend, a part of a family or society. When Klara first observes her owner Josie amongst a group of other kids, she notices her ‘ability to change’. What did it offer you, as a writer, to explore the idea of social selves – the selves we put on for other people – through Klara, as opposed to someone like Stevens in The Remains of the Day?

We take it for granted that the people around us have what you refer to here as ‘social selves’. We quickly learn this as small children – we see how our elders, our peers, present different sides of themselves as situations demand. But because Klara isn’t human she struggles to fit this aspect of human behaviour into her growing knowledge of our world. 

I loved the humour in Klara and the Sun, especially in the exchanges between Klara and Melania the Housekeeper. The humour in your books often springs from the dialogue, misinterpretations and social gaffes, but so does the tragedy. People often speak to conceal their real thoughts and feelings. How important is the idea of what communication can reveal and what it might hide to this novel? 

My early work, such as The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World, was all about people hiding thoughts and memories not just from others, but from themselves. That’s why the first-person narration was so integral to it. My fascination wasn’t really in ‘what really happened’, but in the way a character played hide-and-seek with his own memories and judgements about his past. 

I’m not sure if that process is so important in Klara and the Sun. This narrator is far less prone to self-deception and hiding from the truth than, say, Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, or even Kathy, the narrator of Never Let Me Go. Things are hidden to Klara because other people are concealing them from her, or because the human world remains strange and mysterious to her, not because she herself is in denial. 

Even so, as Klara’s understanding of our world becomes more sophisticated, and she incorporates more and more human traits into her behaviour, it’s possible she learns, along with everything else, the curious human strategy of not seeing things one doesn’t wish to see. Certainly, she never lets go of one crucial belief that allows her to remain hopeful throughout the novel, and there’s perhaps something very human about that!

The significance of the Sun to Klara is evident from the start, the Sun who keeps her alive. After leaving the store, Klara doesn’t just come into contact with people but also the natural world, and the reader starts to piece together the world in which the novel takes place. What came first for you when you were creating this novel, the protagonist or the world she inhabits?

I honestly can’t say that one came before the other. These things don’t appear in the imagination in a neat order, first one, then the next. Klara is just one aspect of the fictional world I put together here, albeit a crucially important aspect. 

There are dystopian features to the world as seen through her eyes, but there are, as you say, visions of fields and trees and grass and the sun which are largely benevolent and hope-giving. 

I might mention here that children’s books were a major influence on Klara and the Sun. Not so much YA, but those illustrated books for 4- or 5-year-olds. The bright, hopeful pictures and colours you encounter in them. I wanted something of that atmosphere in this novel. And also the weird logic that’s permitted in those books which you don’t find in works for older children or adults. For example, it’s perfectly allowed in young children’s books for the moon to be a creature who speaks, or a round object that’s hanging in the sky not far from the bedroom window, and one which you can access via a ladder. And so on.

When you look at books for young children, you can see in them so much of our complex mix of wishes for our children’s future: our urge to protect them from the harsher realities, the desire to pretend (just for now) that the world is a kinder place than we know it to be. Yet at the same time, those stories and pictures are often imbued with our wish not to mislead, to start giving small hints about the difficult things that lie ahead. The world of young children’s literature is so fascinating, filled poignantly as it is with the unspoken fears and hopes of our adult world. 

There are also more surreal, dream-like moments in the novel (Klara in Mr McBain’s barn), reminiscent of The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, where memory and anticipation mix with the present moment in surprising ways. Do you think these surreal elements are sometimes the best way to represent how life appears to us?

I’m not sure if ‘surreal’ is the right term as far as Klara and the Sun is concerned, though it’s absolutely appropriate for those earlier books you name. 

Klara often sees things – I mean literally sees in an optical sense – in boxes or grid patterns during moments of confusion or stress. If we’re drawing analogies with art movements here, these passages are probably more ‘cubist’ than ‘surreal’ - though this is beginning to sound rather pretentious! 

Klara’s an AF, so she wouldn’t always ‘see’ things in the way you or I would. If someone is staring intensely at her, and she’s not sure what the emotion behind that stare is, she’ll typically see all at once several versions of the person’s eyes, some of them gentle, some accusing, some angry, etc. At other times, random objects, like say a food mixer from the kitchen, can show up in her vision out of context because her mind’s making some kind of association, or it’s just struggling for coherence.

Loneliness, isolation and fear are important themes in Klara and the Sun, and there is an eerie timeliness of this novel to our pandemic-stricken world and the problems the Covid-19 crisis has highlighted, as well as created. What originally drew you to explore these themes?

I’d finished Klara and the Sun before the current pandemic, so any timeliness is purely coincidental. 

The novel is interested in human loneliness and isolation at the fundamental, ‘human condition’ kind of level, rather than in the everyday sense of individuals missing company or friends. Klara is a machine whose primary goal – her mission, if you like – is to prevent her teenager from becoming lonely. That’s the social and commercial purpose for her existence. But because Klara has the urge to learn about the world far beyond her function, ‘loneliness’ soon becomes something she explores as part of the condition of being human. Each human is complex, unique and individual. That might give each a special status, a special set of rights. But by the same token, because of the complex individuality of each human, they are necessarily held apart from one another.

One of the things that makes your work so universal is the way you explore the human condition without passing moral judgement. And yet, there are values that recur and shine through in your novels – the capacity for empathy being one of them. I felt it stronger than ever in Klara and the Sun. How important do you consider fiction itself – the writing and reading of novels – in keeping this value alive?

It’s important we have ways to share our feelings and our ideas. We can do that in conversations in our homes, cafes and pubs, in blogs like this one, in essays and commentary in the media. But there are some kinds of feelings and ideas that can’t easily be conveyed in anything other than in these carefully created forms we call novels. 

The novel, and the other story-telling art forms like drama and cinema, remain so important to us because of their ability to create, as you put it, ‘empathy’ between us. We touched above on the fundamental loneliness of individual human beings. Well, novels – like music, painting and the other great art forms – can act as our bridges to one another, despite the complexities that ensure we’ll each remain separate and unique.

But let me say: I don’t believe ‘empathy’ created and exchanged in this way will by itself prevent wars or the rise of ghastly ideologies. We must always remember, ‘empathy’ can be harnessed to create violent hatred and prejudice as easily as to produce tolerance and understanding. Recent history has shown this over and over.

That’s why it’s so important we keep a rigorous critical watch on our book culture and on our own responses to the books we read. To continually reflect, examine and debate what we should celebrate and what we should ignore. What is emotional manipulation and what is truth.   

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