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

ON THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE

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.

MEMORY AND FORGETTING

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.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE IMPLICATIONS FOR OUR SOCIETY

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.

See Ya At Mars Con!

Hola! This weekend I’m at Mars Con in beautiful Williamburg, VA.  I’m so excited by this year’s theme. Are you going? We should meet up for talk/food/drink or go to a panel together. (Find me on fb and friend me to make that work.)

Otherwise, come see the fascinating panels I’ll be on. Please come up and say ‘hi’ at the end of the panel.  I’ve got swag for you! “Kettle’s Magic Balm”.  🙂

Friday:

MORAL CONFLICT IN FICTION, 7pm

ADVENTURES AND DISASTERS IN SPACE, 9pm

Saturday:

OUTSIDERS UNITE! 3pm

BEYOND MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRLS, 7pm

 

 

One Wild Crazy Pod Cast

Hey all two people that read my blog.  I hug you.  This week, I offer up to you a wild and wooly pod cast interview Kodiak Julian did with me at Wis Con last spring. (I know, I know, enough about Wis Con already.) We’re talking about the possibility that Sam Harris, the famous philosopher-Buddhist, might be trying to kill me. We also discuss alien encounters, my experiment in mooching off strangers on a train for two days, and a most unusual dinner party.  But wait–there’s more! I perseverate on tickling rats & the amazing concept of “Rat Park”.

Here it is – https://www.spiritoftheendeavor.net/home/2017/10/8/73-kettle-macaulay-interview

So enjoy it already. Feel free to smear it around the internet a little.

 

It’s Hard to Convey The Rapture That is Wis Con

Wis Con was pretty glorious this year.  I mean, I had a severe head cold and bronchitis, while back at home my beloved was suffering through a kidney stone–which cranked my guilt factor tremendously high–but I went anyway and had an incredible and amazing time.

Head cold 0 — WisCon 3. I love these guys. Elijah and J Dubb.

The panels were full of chewy speculative fiction goodness. The rainbow of genders inspires me. There’s so much to love: I see people at Wis Con that I adore.  We hug whenever we meet.   The work that panelists do in envisioning what a POC positive, disability-inclusive society could look like makes me verklempt. People are friendly, and yet very cool–a challenging mix, in my experience.

I really like Madison as well–esp. vegan-friendly places like Monty’s Diner.

Vegan chocolate-peanut butter-banana shake! Just sayin’.

And there were moments that I thought were really funny.

FIRST GLORIOUS MOMENT AT WIS-CON: This year I was in a reading called EVEN LONELIER MONSTERS.  Karen Joy Fowler came.  But I didn’t know that.  And I’m glad I didn’t know until after the reading, cause my involuntary reaction was like: 

RISK TAKING AT WIS-CON: I was on a panel at Wis Con about sex in fairytales.  I happened to have two princess crowns on me (a friend was going to throw them out) when I decided to see if the panelists for the fairy-tale panel would want to wear them at the panel.

But would they? This is Wis-Con–You could get punched in the nose offering someone a princess crown.

So we all met, and I said, “Um, I happen to have….these…crowns…if you–” They totally snatched them up. Gimme those crowns. Like that.  And they looked FABULOUS in them of course.

Ariela Housman & Emily Cataneo rocking the princess crowns at our “Wait This is about Sex?” panel at Wis Con.

ANOTHER FUN MOMENT AT WISCON:

Friday night, the night before our fairy tale panel, Nisi Shawl had a party where people could make decorative crowns for their head. So I made myself one and wore it the next morning at our panel. The panel was at 8:30 am on Saturday morning (I know) and by 10:00pm on Saturday night I was talking this guy at a party who had been to the panel that morning. He’s going on and on about how interesting and great it was, (!) but then started telling me all the questions I asked and topics blow-by-blow.  I finally had to say, You know I moderated that panel, right? Turns out he hadn’t recognized me — without the crown.

Not man-spaining.  Just a totally iconic look.  #hippyearthgoddess ; >

FINAL FUNNY MOMENT AT WISCON:

The Concourse Hotel is great–love the lobby, love the con rooms and my hotel room.  One of the hotel maids named Anne and I had a deep discussion on the first day about tipping and after that I exchanged fun little notes with the maid Pam who cleaned my room every day. I think she must have known I had a bad cold from all the sudafed packets lying about and the tissues in the waste basket.  She left me two extra boxes of tissues. (!)

Meanwhile, at the end of Wis-Con there’s a Sunday night dessert awards ceremony.  As usual the Honorary Guests  give speeches while we all eat fancy desserts.  (I cried through a few speeches last year.) But the line for the dessert ceremony is looooong.  So while my Wis-Con besties and I were hanging out in a clutch I asked this guy in line behind me if he could take a picture of us all with my phone. He wasn’t enthusiastic to say the least, but on the other hand he didn’t say no.  He quickly took two pictures of us all together and handed me back my phone.  Which was great. Except…

Something’s missing from this group shot of us all…hmmmm.

I asked if he could take the picture again. He frowned like he didn’t get why. I explained I wanted to be in the picture. With my friends. Sorry if I hadn’t made that part clear before. My fault. It’s not like he rolled his eyes at me–but yeah, he was totally rolling his eyes.  Anyway, he was very kind and took another picture.  ; >

Please Sir, may I be in the picture? Jenni Moody, Jeremy Sim, Alisa Alering, Kodiak Julian, and me.

And, that about wraps it up.  I came away inspired by people on the panels, got to deepen some friendships, and maybe for the first time ever in my life went to four parties in a row–a miracle in itself–and actually enjoyed each and every one of them.

On the way home, I had an airport layover in Atlanta.  I was walking by a cafe stand and this woman who worked there said, “You don’t look too good, hon. Come here.” I told her I had a cold and this beautiful woman just gave me a giant disposable cup full of herbal tea–for free.  She said it was called ‘medicine ball’ and all the employees came to her for it when they were sick and had to work. I have no idea what was in it, but I would just like to thank you, dear airport lady, because that tea made me sweat a little just like you said it would, and made me feel SO much better on the flight home.  I feel very touched by these people in the service industry who take care of us all when we travel. Very grateful, too.  I tip like mad everywhere I go, because I know how poorly they’re paid for backbreaking work, and I know how much your feet ache after standing for hours and hours.

About an hour after I was back at home and on my couch the medicine ball wore off and I was sick as a dog for the next few days. I’m still thinking I shouldn’t have gone with my sweetie in such pain — but, seriously, because it was Wis Con, it was worth it.

Aside

Howdy West Virginia Book Festival!

Did you find this site by looking at one of these cards?

TheHagExpert2Final-FJM_Mid_Res_1000x1500

If you did, thank you so much for stopping by.  There’s a subscribe button down on your left, so you can subscribe to my newsletter.  (If you’re on a phone, you’ll want to press the cog wheel/star thingy to see the list of old blog posts, etc. Just scroll all the way down to the bottom.)

When you subscribe, you’ll get a password to unlock my short story, “WONDER WOMAN WALKS INTO A BAR”.  And that’s not all—-

—Not all you say? Stop the madness!

Once a month I’m giving away something to a random subscriber of KETTLE’S WEIRD NEWS.  Could be a new speculative fiction book, could be an old s/f classic, or a cool t-shirt, or some yummy food treat.  Given how wee tiny my new subscription list is, let’s just say your odds of being that random subscriber are pretty high if you sign up now.

Meanwhile, I wish I could be there at the festival because you all get to see Neil Gaiman in the flesh don’t you? Sigh, sigh, sigh.neil-gaiman

Finally I’m sending out big hearty thank you to Sue London, because she was the one who offered to hand out these cards at the festival at her booth.  You rock, Sue!

Wis Con — My people!

I just registered for Wis Con — a feminist science fiction and fantasy conference in, you guessed it, Wisconsin.  Woot!

When they described this conference as one for people interested in speculative fiction that has a strong interest in feminism, race, class, and gender I about swooned.

That’s me! That’s me!

I cannot wait.  It’s May 22nd — and my hope is to come back with a cool reading list and a fistful of new social media friends.  I am stoked!