Oxford Interview With KAZUO ISHIGURO

Richard Ovenden interviewed with Kazuo Ishiguro at the Bodley Lecture and Award of the Bodley Medal during the Oxford Literary Festival. I happened to be in Oxford that week and managed to score tickets even though the event had been sold out for months. –Kettle Macaulay


When we were orphans


OVENDEN: Can I start with the Nobel Ish?

Ishiguro explained the controversy surrounding the Noble Prize in Literature and why there was no Nobel Prize in Literature last year.

ISHIGURO: There are two parts to the Nobel Prize: there is the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation.  The Nobel Foundation is responsible for the nominations, etc.

However, the husband of a woman who was on the Swedish Academy has been accused of serious sexual misconduct.  He is the Harvey Weinstein of Sweden, apparently.  None of the literary judgements were affected by this man – but all of a sudden everyone turned upon each other and now so many people have resigned no one can vote on anything.  There was no winner last year.

Ishiguro thinks that winning the prize is being part of a larger idea:

ISHIGURO: Have to see it as a big idea recognized internationally – it’s a very aspirational prize, wanting to mark humanity’s progress.

OVENDEN: Have you dealt with that expectation?

ISHIGURO: The day after you win, everyone wants your opinion on everything.  You are asked to be an expert on things you know nothing about.

Ishiguro referenced someone Eastern Asian who said: ‘You must guard against The Genius Syndrome.’ And Ishiguro goes on to explain this is a syndrome in which people think that because they have won the prize, that they’re a genius and therefore can pronounce on anything.  He then urges caution.

ISHIGURO: Be careful in society whose opinion you care about and why.


Ovenden said memory was a strong theme in all of Ishiguro’s works.   

OVENDEN: People are forgetful, nostalgic, or even in some instances a whole society is forgetting/remembering. What constitutes ideas worth keeping?

Ishiguro brought up the question of what responsibilities the Bodleian Library has as a keeper of societal memory and what responsibility writers have as cultural record keepers of history and society.

ISHIGURO: Memory plays a role with characters in my writing.  Some are playing hide and seek with memory.  They must resort to self-deception.  But there is a rival warring instinct in them as well to see things clearly—a battle that goes on within them.

OVENDEN: Is there a parallel with the characters in your work and the societies and nations you write about as well? Do they struggle with memory and deciding to forget?

ISHIGURO: I fully accept there are times when it’s better to forget. Because they can’t pull together otherwise.  But if you forget too much then you’re not dealing with things that you need to.

Then Ishiguro turned the question around.

ISHIGURO: How does Britain go about forgetting and remembering as a nation? Where are the memory banks for a nation? Who manipulates these memories and decides? Popular TV programs in some ways serve this purpose, but what parents tell children is in many ways how nations remember.

Ishiguro turns to Ovenden

How confident are you that you’re impartial in what you archive? How do you decide what to collect and what to jettison? Do you think you’re impartial?

OVENDEN: We try. We’re trained and our archivists dedicated themselves seriously to the task. But it’s a very difficult and subconscious thing and there are things we’ve jettisoned that we regret.  We’ve received deposits of books since 1610. Through an arrangement with the publishers in all of Britain we at one point received all first editions of every book published.  But back then they decided not to collect some things.  Books by women for instance, and novels.  It wasn’t until 1870 that the Bodleian found they didn’t have works by Jane Austen or Mary Shelley.  They had to buy them and they were very expensive…” (Audience laughs)

ISHIGURO: One of my concerns – that our process at every point in time is flawed.  As a result we’re hardwiring our biases into the collective conscience as a nation.  And other things are permanently forgotten. Same in the arts.

OVENDEN: We choose to shine a light historically—[but] goodness knows what’s disappeared.

ISHIGURO: No women, [no books from] other countries/other races.  If I write a novel there is some oversight. It’s very untidy but there is severe scrutiny of reviews and official gatekeepers.  Although it’s imperfect, the work we do has been evaluated, scrutinized for a number of years. I wonder if there’s any scrutiny of what you do?

OVENDEN: Then there are interesting cases –a tendency to shy away from unpleasant topics such as eugenics for example.  But we need to reflect the anxieties of our society. [Our staff] wants to document the Remainers. It’s vital to document what the Remainers say on their websites, but also to capture LeaveEU.com—to mark what they said. But technology is changing the world and memory.

ISHIGURO: I try to stay away from social media.  Social media—unlike the old days—TV had the effect of unifying the nation – We all [were having] the same conversation.  Social media tends to divide and factionalize. It’s a zero sum game between factions.


Richard Ovenden turns the conversation by mentioning that Ishiguro is nearing the completion of his next novel. Ishiguro says that his interests have turned to AI and biotech in recent years. 

ISHIGURO: These are huge challenges to us. We haven’t had the dialogue about how to handle these changes.

Richard Ovenden indicates writers play a role in raising these issues within society. That in effect, their books can kickstart a needed conversation.

OVENDEN: So we can talk about [these issues]. There are interesting developments for writers whose books are issued in electronics. People can now survey scenes in a book that were the most read by readers and include these scene in TV adaptations.

Ovenden clearly thinks this is madness. Ishiguro thinks a technique for writing a screenplay that utilizes only the most read over scenes of a book shows no understanding of story structure.

ISHIGURO:  There is a big AI conversation that I had with a fellow – a genius. He looks about 17 [but he’s a leading expert in AI]. We talked and toyed with the idea: can an AI write great novels? We talked about a program called Tolstoy 3.  I have no idea what happened with Tolstoy 1 and 2, but this fellow had created AIs that can play chess and do other things. The challenge is: can an AI produce a great novel? What interests me about this – if an AI can understand human emotions and move audiences then why stop at novels? Why not come up with a big idea? I’m talking about a potential idea such as capitalism or Marxism.  Or money.

That’s one thing that interests me.  And the other:

Even if Tolstoy 3 produces a wonderful novel would just the fact that it wasn’t coming from a human being—do you need to know at a deep level that it’s a human to human relationship?

Ishiguro goes on to speculate about the humanity involved in literary artifacts:

ISHIGURO: Looking at first editions of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley – why do we pay huge amounts of money for them? Is it because that these things are hard evidence they came from a human?

Richard Ovenden then relates how Philip Larkin spoke of the two qualities of a book: magic and meaning.  [He also provided a quote from Larkin but I couldn’t get it down nor can I seem to find it on the internet.]

OVENDEN: Scholars can pore over what a book says and how it came to be written.  But the magic part of art and books is something totemistic. An item still has a quality in this age of saturation by digitalization. “But the power of objects is still potent. Even more so than it used to be.”

ISHIGURO: Or is it just nerdiness?

OVENDEN: It is nerdiness. But it is contact with marks of genius. Moments of genius become marks, leave marks–.  (Here he said something about Galileo that I didn’t catch.)

ISHIGURO: There’s a supposedly inspirational value over and above nerdiness? Perhaps it’s important to remind ourselves they are human beings not unlike us.

Ishiguro says he’s sometimes started to think of famous authors from the past as being inhuman–– like AI’s.

ISHIGURO: Someone showed me a humble exercise book—the nocturnal scrawl which was an almost completed version of The Metamorphosis.

Ishiguro said that he looked at it and in a way it brought Kafka down to a more human level.  He made a joke that his own composition books by comparison seemed much neater and better done…

ISHIGURO: I’m still not clear on why it’s so valuable—is it contributing to society in a practical sense? Part of it is a celebration of its humanity. Flawed.  It was a struggle to produce it.  I don’t know how dependent what we do is [upon] a human-to-human connection.

Ovenden commented on how they have notebooks from Ada Lovelace that contain some of the very earliest coding known to man.  He talked about the value of this artifact from the past and the events that will be held around discussions of this notebook and coding artifact. Then he talked about how Ishiguro is connected to that tradition himself, and how with his new book he will help us sort out the future with AI’s and such…

ISHIGURO: I don’t think the next book will be of any help. (Audience laughs.) I’m communicating on an emotional level.

After the talk, Ishiguro answered three questions from the audience. The first two questions had to do with AI and so I’ve put them together.

In response to question #1

ISHIGURO: We have to assert ourselves in understanding the potential outcomes of using AI’s and Big Data and be prepared to speak up about those outcomes.

We weren’t ready for Brexit and we aren’t prepared for this.

In response to question #2

ISHIGURO: We shouldn’t be disqualified from discussion.  We think we have no right to talk about AI because we don’t know the hard science behind it.

He used an analogy to guns, saying he didn’t know how to take apart and load a rifle, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have very strong opinions about firearms. 

ISHIGURO: We don’t have to be conversant with the hard science, we just have to understand the implications. The tech people know the science but they are often just as ignorant as we are of what will happen in the future with their own technology.  But look at Brexit and the dot com crashes.  We can’t defer to people who understand very complex financial products.

We may not understand the hard science behind AI’s but we still must look at the possible outcomes AI can perpetuate and decide how to address those possible outcomes.

I got to ask Question #2: 

MACAULAY: The Bodleian collects books now to create a record for the future.  Do you write to an audience now or are you writing for an audience in the future?

ISHIGURO: That’s a very interesting question. No, I don’t have that luxury.  In the beginning I wrote for the six people who I liked who I thought were the only people who would read my work. I became very nervous after that when other people were going to read my writing.

At a certain point it became clear my work was garnering international interest and I began to think about that audience and to ask – what would interest such an audience?  So I keep that in mind.  However, there have been other authors who were interesting to everyone in their own time and we have no interest in them now.

But really, I’m still writing for people I like. I can’t help it.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO RE-POST THIS INTERVIEW: Please credit me–Kettle Macaulay–and include a direct link to this website. I did my best to write down the interview as it was happening. Taking notes by hand, I wrote down exact quotes wherever possible. However sometimes I could not write fast enough to record what they said word for word, so I instead provided the content of their comments. At other times I’ve inserted a few missing words that either I did not take down or they did not say but help the flow of sentence coherency.