Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro didn't set out to become a novelist. In the 1960s, he came to San Francisco from England with his acoustic guitar, hoping to make it as a singer-songwriter.
Things didn't work out the way he had planned. Within a month, someone stole his guitar, and eventually Ishiguro turned to writing fiction. But he continues to draws on his roots as a songwriter.
"Many of the things I do, still to this day as a writer, as a novelist, I think it has its foundations in what I discovered and the kind of place that I arrived at as a writer of songs," Ishiguro says.
Ishiguro's latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is set in a future time, where children no longer go to school; instead they learn on devices, isolated from each other. The story is narrated by a human-like robot, who serves as one child's "artificial friend." If certain elements of the novel feel oddly prescient of pandemic life, Ishiguro says that's purely coincidental.
"I finished the book before the pandemic, and I have to say, [the pandemic] took me completely by surprise," he says. "I couldn't have dreamt that something like this would happen. ... In the novel, I'm talking about a society that is undergoing profound changes and it doesn't quite know how to reorganize itself."
On why he wanted his narrator to be an artificial person
Klara was especially interesting for me because she doesn't bring any baggage with her. ... She's like a tabula rasa at the beginning, and she's quite childlike and very open. ... That appealed to me. I wanted some of that childlike freshness and openness and naivety to survive all the way through the text in her. I wanted her to remain a very optimistic character who has a childlike faith in the presence of something good and protective in the world — even as she learns all these other things, darker things about the human world that she occupies.
On sympathizing with Klara, despite her being an A.I.
It shouldn't be that surprising, really, though, that an artificial creature could actually solicit our sympathies as much as a human one. Because after all, characters in books are artificial. We're making that kind of leap anyway. When we read books and you get weepy over the fate of some character, we're not weeping over a real person. We've put ourselves into some kind of space where we're relating to created beings. At some level, we're responding metaphorically because we think that it impinges, in some metaphorical relationship to our real lives, I suppose. I never thought it was going to actually be an intrinsic problem in terms of how my readers would feel because my main character was artificial.
On how songwriting was his foundation in writing
I feel like I served my apprenticeship, as a novelist, writing songs. And in some ways, that's why I was able to kind of jump into my career at a relatively mature point. I think my first novel isn't like a typical first novel. And [the success of] The Remains of the Day — which a lot of people still think is one of my best books, that's only my third book, written in my early 30s — is because ... I went through the other stages in my songwriting. And I think I realize, even now, new things about songs and the value system that counts when you try to write songs, seriously write songs. I now realize more and more as I get older how they define my decisions as a novelist.
On listening to singers to inspire his writing
When I'm writing, the actual voice of the narrator is very important, and I find I take enormous inspiration ... from listening to singing voices. I love to listen to Stacey Kent, who I write lyrics for, or many other singers. There's something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of a singing performance. I'll listen to Nina Simone, all kinds of singers, ... and just the voice — not much the lyrics of the songs — sometimes the voice alone gives me something to aim for in my writing. I'll think, it's that feeling she gets there, that's what I want in this passage, and I can bypass the intellectualizing of it or the articulating it in words. I can just try and go for that kind of feeling.
On if winning a Nobel Prize in 2017 changed his confidence
This is, by and large, how I've experienced prizes and honors throughout my career: It feels to me like that happens somewhere outside out there on a different planet, almost in a parallel universe, and the person who receives these things is some sort of avatar. I'm really proud and grateful to get these honors, because many, many writers who are as good as me or better don't get these honors. So let me just say that I'm profoundly grateful for them. However, when I'm writing in my disheveled, untidy study, it's got nothing to do with what I'm doing. I have a very lonely sense of success or failure. I'm trying to bring something into being and sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can't. And that's about the extent of it, really.
Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. He's best known for his novels "Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go," which were each adapted into popular films. In reviewing his new novel, "Klara And The Sun," our book critic Maureen Corrigan described Ishiguro as the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing, fragility and the inevitability of death - all that, even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place.
"Klara And The Sun" takes place sometime in the near future. Something has created a great disruption in society. Society is stratified. Privileged people are known as high ranking. People who have lost their jobs to very smart machines are known as substituted. The substituted have had to redefine their lives, for better or worse. Children no longer go to school. They learn on their devices. They don't see other children, except for what's known as interaction meetings. But some children have artificial friends or AFs, which are artificial beings who look like real people but are programmed with artificial intelligence and kept alive by solar-powered batteries that have a limited life that ends with a slow fade. The narrator of the story is an artificial friend named Klara, who's chosen to live with Josie, a teenager who's sick and may be dying.
The novel is about what it means to be human in a world where humans have created a rigid hierarchy of winners and losers, and people are isolated from one another but can develop close relationships with machines powered by artificial intelligence, machines that appear more devoted and self-sacrificing than other people do. In a world like that, what does it mean to have a human heart? Are we deluding ourselves when we think that everything that makes us unique can't be duplicated by a machine?
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954 in Nagasaki, after it was decimated by the atom bomb and then rebuilt. When he was 5, he moved with his family to England, where he continues to live. He became a writer after trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, which we'll talk about later.
Kazuo Ishiguro, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been too long, so it's a pleasure to have you back. Does this book have a resonance that you didn't even expect it to have because of its release during the pandemic? Schools are closed, and in your novel, children don't go to school anymore. People are isolated from one another and are interacting through their computers. They're learning - children are learning on their devices. Is that something that - did you make any tweaks after the pandemic? I mean, the book is new. You wouldn't have had a lot of time to make changes.
KAZUO ISHIGURO: No, no. If there are any reverberations, they're purely coincidental. You know, I finished the book before the pandemic. And I have to say, you know, it took me completely by surprise. You know, I didn't know something on this scale was coming up. I - you know, I couldn't have dreamt that, you know, something like this would happen. Maybe in some other sense, you could say, you know, that there's an underlying atmosphere of kind of global crisis and things hitting society. I mean, we're talking about - in the novel, I'm talking about a society that is undergoing profound changes, and it doesn't quite know how to reorganize itself.
GROSS: I - you know, I have to say, the narrator of your novel is the artificial friend, Klara. And who wouldn't want a friend as self-sacrificing and devoted as Klara is, someone who's programmed to learn everything they can about you and to please you? And honestly, I found Klara the most sympathetic character in the novel. I mean, she's pure in a lot of ways, even though she's artificial.
ISHIGURO: It shouldn't be that surprising, really, though, that an artificial creature could actually solicit our sympathies as much as a human one. I mean, because after all, you know, characters in books are artificial. You know, I mean, we're making that kind of leap anyway. We're - when we read books and get weepy over the fate of some character, we're not weeping over a real person. You know, we've put ourselves into some kind of space where we're relating to kind of created beings. And we're - at some level, we're responding metaphorically because we think it impinges in some metaphorical relationship to our real lives, I suppose.
So I never thought it was going to actually be an intrinsic problem in terms of how my readers would feel because my main character was artificial.
GROSS: Klara is seeing the world and people in the world as an outsider. She's programmed to know the things that she knows, but she's learning about, like, human emotion, and she's learning about people and about the outside world from experience. And the more experience she has, the more she understands about emotion and feelings. So what is the advantage to you, as a writer, writing from the point of view of such an outsider who's apart from the world and is just kind of learning about it?
ISHIGURO: I think I've always been drawn to - you know, throughout my career to narrators who are, in one way or the other, quite a bit on the outside. But Klara was especially interesting for me because she doesn't bring any baggage with her. It's not like, you know, she has her value system which kind of clashes with what she finds. She's like a tabula rasa at the beginning, and she's quite childlike and very open.
And so that was - you know, it's not just the way, the very restricted way, in which she actually reads the world that appealed to me. I wanted some of that childlike freshness and openness and naivety to survive all the way through the text in her. I wanted her to remain, like, a very optimistic character who has a childlike faith in the presence of something good and protective in the world, even as she learns all these other things, darker things about the human world that she occupies.
GROSS: Do you want to explain what lifted means in your book, or would that be giving too much away?
ISHIGURO: Oh, I don't mind, no (laughter). But lifted is just the expression that's used colloquially in the book for kids who have benefited from gene-editing. They've been enhanced by gene-editing. And now this is something that is already possible today. It's just that we don't quite have the final technical tools to do things, but we're almost there. I mean, the gene technology of - genetic technology CRISPR has actually completely revolutionized the field. And the two women who pioneered that just won the Nobel Prize in December just passed. So I think this is something everyone would hear about much more.
But basically, yes, I mean, some kids receive treatment at some point in their lives, which enables them to be "more intelligent," quotes-unquote, perhaps more athletic, certainly less prone to various kinds of illnesses. And so that makes them in one - by one set of values, they're higher up the hierarchy. You know, they deserve better jobs, better education, more responsible positions in society. So we're having - we're seeing a kind of caste system developing between kids who are being lifted and kids who haven't.
And in the - in "Klara And The Sun," I mean, we look at two teenagers who've grown up very fond of each other, and they're on - you know, they're on either side of this divide. Klara is solar powered. But the solar powered battery or, you know, power source has a limited lifespan. Because she and other artificial friends need the sun to stay powered, to stay alive, she thinks of the sun as God and basically prays to it, asking for help, asking for interventions, when she needs it, promising to do good things in return. She doesn't understand that the sun isn't a God, that the sun doesn't live in the place where she sees it set every night, that the sun can be too harsh for human beings. And I assume that's in part because of the disappearing ozone layer (laughter) that also she doesn't understand. Is this a way of expressing what you think of religion, that it's a kind of false premise in a way, that we create gods because we misunderstand our own creation, our own self?
ISHIGURO: I don't think I was trying to be critical of religion. I just thought Klara would reflect that aspect of humanity, like she reflects other aspects of humanity. This isn't something that she really learns, as she points out, from humans. I mean, many other things she learns when she gets out into the human world. And she becomes more and more human-like. But this is something that's there from the start because she's solar powered, I suppose. And it's perfectly logical for her to think, you know, the sun is the source of nourishment, the source she and her fellow AFs in the store are concerned.
But then, when she looks out the shop window into the street, it kind of makes sense to her that the sun is actually nourishing everybody. And that's the way it looks. You know, there are these big, tall buildings. And the sun is coming down in shafts. And people are being nourished by the sun. You know, they're happy when the sun comes out. And so she holds onto this belief, I suppose, that the sun is the source of good things and that the sun is always watching over everybody.
And when she needs to save the family that she lives with from impending heartbreak, the sun is naturally the person that she turns to. I mean, the sun is a person for her. And she goes to ask the sun's help. You could say this is like a religious instinct or whatever. But, I mean, I found it very interesting to remove the usual kind of - the social context away, you know, take it away and just have it in this rather pure, naive, artificial being - that she, too, could actually repeat these patterns of belief and faith and that there should be something rather touching about it. I thought that was quite interesting.
GROSS: Your father was an oceanographer. Am I right in saying that he was an engineer?
ISHIGURO: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. He was, like, an inventor.
GROSS: When I was growing up, I didn't have any sense that, like, the machines in my life were invented by somebody. (Laughter) You know, like, they existed. And they were - you know, I didn't understand how they worked. But with your father having, like, created things, because I think one of the things or machines - I'm not sure what it was exactly - that he created is in a museum in England, did you have a sense growing up that, like, technology is created by people, that people actually do that? They're not things that just exist (laughter). Like, people like your father create them.
ISHIGURO: Yeah, I think I probably did. My father spent his whole life, his working life, just creating this one machine. He had a little department under him. That's why we were in Britain, because the British were funding his research. And he just made the one machine. It wasn't like, you know - he wasn't like Steve Jobs, you know - I'm going to make this and then launch this. I mean, he just worked on this one machine that could predict storms at sea. And, yeah, as you say, I mean, his - that machine is now not in just any museum, it's in the Science Museum in London. You know, that's the main, big museum for science in London, in the United Kingdom. And so I'm very proud of that.
But, yes, I grew up - although I grew up with this kind of - with a lot of science in the family, one of the things that I now kind of regret and, perhaps, hold myself accountable for is the fact that I didn't take any advantage of it. I think there's this kind of severe barrier between the world of the humanities and the arts and the one on - and science on the other. And I was probably - you know, I kind of imbibed something of that climate. Maybe there's less of it in the United States. I don't know. And so - you know, I didn't - I wasn't nearly as interested in science as I should have been. And from a very early age, I kind of siloed myself off in the world of books and music. And I kind of thought science didn't have very much to do with me. And it's only, you know, in old age, as I am now, I realized how much the world of science and the rest of the world, you know, the world that, you know, authors live in, are just interconnected.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kazuo Ishiguro. And he has a new novel called "Klara And The Sun." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kazuo Ishiguro. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. His novels include "Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go," which were both adapted into films. His new novel is called "Klara And The Sun." And our book critic Maureen Corrigan called it a masterpiece.
Let's talk about your life. So you were born in Nagasaki in '54? Do I have that right?
ISHIGURO: Yeah. Yeah. November, 1954.
GROSS: OK. So - you know, it's after the war. How much of Nagasaki was rebuilt?
ISHIGURO: It was completely rebuilt. Yeah. So I didn't have any real direct sense of this place being, you know, where the atomic bomb fell. It was just this thing that adults sometimes mentioned.
GROSS: Did they sometimes mention it because they wanted to protect children like you from hearing about it?
ISHIGURO: Well, I don't know what they did with each other when they were in their private moments. I mean, they must have lost so many people dear to them and so on. So I imagine there were more serious, you know, earnest and bereaved conversations even then, a decade later. But I - it wasn't even, like, a taboo thing, I remember, you know? When I was a child and all the time I was growing up in England, you know, my parents would just refer to it almost like a marker in time or something that happened in the way that people would refer to the war. You know, they would refer to the genshi bakudan, you know, the atomic bomb. So - you know, they might say, that bridge was there. But, you know, it disappeared during the atomic bomb. Or they might be telling me a story, a funny story, about a friend, an anecdote or something. And then it might just kind of end with, oh, but she died during the atomic bomb.
You know, and it wasn't, for me, any different to the way I heard many of my young English friends, you know, talk about the war. They would say, oh, you know, so and - my - you know, my granddad died in the war or something like this. And so I didn't really think it was anything that special until I was much older, you know, until I was about 8 or 9. And I was living in England. And I kind of learned almost in a schoolboy way by looking - I actually saw this in an encyclopedia, that Nagasaki was, you know, one of only two places that had been atom bombed. And I remember feeling a kind of pride. I think, oh, I come from one of the - one of only two places to suffer an atomic attack, you know? So it was a strange kind of relationship with the atom bomb. But, of course, you know, I had parents who thought about it in a certain way, my mother particularly, you know, because she was there at the time.
GROSS: Well, your mother survived the bomb, right? I think your father was working in China at the time.
ISHIGURO: Yeah. He wasn't there. But my mother was there. All my mother's side of the family were there.
GROSS: How did your mother survive?
ISHIGURO: Well, I mean, a lot of people survived. I mean, this is what people don't kind of quite understand. I mean, we're talking about what by - even by the standards of the 1960s were primitive, you know, atomic bombs. And so unlike Hiroshima, you know, Nagasaki wasn't a direct hit. And so - you know, a lot of people - I mean, my mother's house - I mean, she was then a teenager living with her, you know, parental family. A lot of kind of - it was just the kind of - the blast, the kind of - the air had actually kind of blown out things. But, you know, they weren't that aware of it.
And my mother, ironically, because she'd been hit by a flying roof tile, she was resting at home to recover from her injury. And the rest of the family went to the stricken parts of the city. And they saw, I think, you know, horrible things. And, indeed, you know, her father died of leukemia not long afterwards. And - but people didn't know about things like that then, you know? So a lot of my images of that time really come from my mother's perspective as somebody who was almost like a spectator, but with this kind of big, unspoken thing, when the family members would come back to the house after, well, helping, which actually, in practice, meant burning, you know, heaps and heaps of bodies.
GROSS: Did your family describe things that they'd seen?
ISHIGURO: Not to me, you know, I was a boy. (Laughter) No. I mean, I was a small boy, you know, in Nagasaki, you know, 3 years old, 4 years old and 5 years old. It's only much later, when I spoke to my - when I was - as an adult, I would have conversations with my mother about her experience of it. My aunts, my uncles, I never heard them speak about it. I would say, by and large, the Japanese attitude to the atomic bomb was to say, look; I mean, it happened. Let's move on, you know? And there's a surprising lack of bitterness towards the people who dropped the bombs on Japan. In fact, you know, people say it was this kind of - they called it, like, a honeymoon occupation. The Japanese and the Americans seemed to embrace each other in the years after the Second World War. And the Americans, you know, poured huge amounts of money into Japan to build a powerful ally against the huge kind of communist bloc of the world in China and the Soviet Union.
And so very rapidly, I think, memories of the war and the atomic bomb were left behind. So - you know, I haven't actually - Terry, you know, I haven't - so the war - the bomb hasn't actually, and Nagasaki or the fact that I came from Nagasaki, doesn't kind of loom over me in anything like the way that I - you know, people with a Jewish background or people who are Jewish have the Holocaust haunting them through the generations. You know, I know many Jewish people who - it's very hard for them to get away from the shadow of the Holocaust. I've never had that with the atomic bomb. It's something I gradually became aware of. And even now, it feels peculiarly distant from me.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kazuo Ishiguro. And his new novel is called "Klara And The Sun." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with writer Kazuo Ishiguro. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. His novels include "Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go," which were adapted into films. His new novel, "Klara And The Sun," was described as a masterpiece by our book critic, Maureen Corrigan.
So when you came to England from Japan with your parents, because your father had a job that was supposed to be temporary as a researcher, you move to - I think it was Guildford. And it was - it sounds very rural. You were like five minutes away from a farm. There were hedgehogs around. The milk was delivered by a horse and wagon.
ISHIGURO: Yeah, that's all true. Yeah. The farm was less than five minutes. The farm was less than five minutes. I mean, yeah. I mean, it was just - it was more or less right there.
GROSS: So you're used to, like, a rebuilt city, Nagasaki, and the new technology of the time. Did you feel like you were entering like a different world and a different era?
ISHIGURO: I certainly felt like a different world. And it felt like a much quieter, a less colorful world, I have to say. I mean, the children's toys were very muted and rather austere. And this is 1960. And what people in America perhaps wouldn't understand is that Britain had gone through a period of huge austerity after the Second World War. Britain had become a very, very poor place. There was rationing until the 1950s. You know, people had to present tickets to just get their portion of food. And I think that's something very hard for people in America to understand because the 1950s were huge boom years in America.
And even compared to Japan, you know, it's like, in 1960 - you know, England felt impoverished. You know, there wasn't the variety of color and toys and, you know, excitement, particularly from a child's point of view. But I really appreciated the rural countryside as it was. I mean, it wasn't real countryside, but, I mean, you know, the town more or less ended where our house was. And I grew up in these English fields and English trees. And my parents friends were kind of very, very old-fashioned English types, you know.
GROSS: So you were a choirboy in church in England. Were your parents - did your parents practice any religion in Japan?
ISHIGURO: No, they were without religion. I remember at one point when I was about 15 or something, I asked, what was our religion? Because I know that in Japan, you had to have an official religion on your birth certificate, I think I think mainly to prove that you weren't Christian. It dates back to some era when Christians were, you know, seen as a threat. So everyone has to have an official religion. My mother had to actually go upstairs to look it up. And she said, you know, we're Buddhists. But I'll just go and tell you what kind of Buddhist. And she came back down and said, yes, we're all Zen Buddhists. So I said, all right, we're Zen
Buddhists. But, I mean, the attitude to religion was kind of like that, you know. And I would say that's fairly typical of a a Japanese family, that the role of religion - obviously with some exceptions - but by and large, religion is not the same kind of thing it tends to be in the West. And most Japanese people would have a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist shrine in their homes, as was the case in the house I spent the first five years of my life in. You have them both there. And they're - you decorate them with different - for different festivals and things like that. They're not - they don't seem to have a deeper religious identity attached to them.
GROSS: So you grew up in England, which, you know, still has a monarchy. And your new novel, "Klara And The Sun," has so much to do with a class structure, like a very rigid form of class structure. One of the jobs that you had when you were a young man was as a grouse beater. So I'm assuming - and this was for - was this for the Queen Mother?
ISHIGURO: It was, yeah. But that was just like a - just for one summer.
GROSS: But it just seems such a strange job, the idea of beating birds out of the heather so that the most privileged people in England can shoot them for sport.
ISHIGURO: Yeah, but I don't think it's something unique to England by any means. Anywhere where there's any kind of, you know, game shooting, I think that's a system.
GROSS: What did it feel like to participate in that? It doesn't seem like your values.
ISHIGURO: I just did it as a very interesting experience for four weeks in the summer, you know. And it introduced me to, I suppose, a kind of a world I wouldn't normally see. You know, later that same year, I spent three months hitchhiking around North America. And I was sleeping in missions and things like this or on the side of the road. So it was a year - it was a very formative year when I went from meeting members of the British royal family and being employed by one of them to being a hitchhiker, you know, and sleeping in kind of - in beds with kind of homeless people. It was very interesting.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kazuo Ishiguro, and he has a new novel called "Klara And The Sun." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kazuo Ishiguro. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. His novels include "Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go," which were both adapted into films. His new novel is called "Klara And The Sun."
When you were hitchhiking across America, Did that coincide with the period when so many Americans were turning to Eastern religions like Zen Buddhism, and as you were describing, your parents were from Japan and were - although they didn't really practice, they were officially Zen Buddhists? So I'm wondering what that period was like for you.
GROSS: There was quite a lot of that, actually. There was a lot of that in America to an extent I had - I never experienced in living in England, and particularly because I was actually - I was on the West Coast a lot of the time. You know, I was hitchhiking on Highway 1, and so particularly in California. And I remember places like Berkeley, where I spent a few days, you know. I mean, there seemed to be every kind of variation of some kind of guru worship or some kind of method or some kind of alternative quasi-religion being offered every few steps as you went down Telegraph Avenue or something. Somebody will be waiting to accost you with some leaflets and trying to recruit you to something. So for me, it was quite exciting. Yeah. I learnt a lot from that trip.
But I'd say the other thing that I actually realized then, perhaps for the first time, was that although there were a lot of people doing what I was doing back then, hitchhiking, you know, with kind of long hair and rucksacks - actually, there were two very distinct groups. There were people like me, middle class kids who are doing this to kind of widen their experience and broaden their romantic vision of life. And there were people who are already by then, at the age of 19, 20, they were, you know, they were running away from things. Their world was just collapsing. And, you know, they were - you know, they were just people running away from horrible situations. And it took me a while to actually come to terms with this, you know. I wanted to think that everyone was having a great time like me.
GROSS: When you were on the road during the period when so many people were looking at Eastern religions, were you seen as somebody who could be closer to that because you were Japanese, your family was from Japan? You know, even though they didn't practice and Buddhism was their official religion, were you seen as somebody who could, you know, be more enlightened as a result?
GROSS: Not especially. But I think - if I wanted to play on that, I could. You know, I mean, you know, if I just, you know, because what happened - what would happen is that, you know, you would hitchhike into some town, into a city, you know, San Diego, you know, into Berkeley or wherever. And very rapidly you'll learn that there was a place somewhere in that city where a lot of young people would just gather.
And so in the way that I suppose many people are very highly aware of now, you would actually kind of create a sort of persona for yourself. And you'd just kind of join in and sit down and, you know, this will be your circle for the next two days or three days. And you could experiment with your identity in the way that I guess a lot of people do with social media now. And in that sense, I suppose kind of - being a kind of a long-haired Japanese guy with an English accent with a rucksack and a guitar, if I wanted to play up that kind of mystical side, I mean, I could. But I wasn't a big person for things like Zen and things like that, you know.
GROSS: When you were on the road creating different - like, trying on different personas and trying to figure out who you were, who you wanted to be, what were some of the things that you tried that, you know, that you largely abandoned but maybe kept part of?
ISHIGURO: I was then wanting to be a singer-songwriter, and that's why - cumbersome as it was. I mean, you try hitchhiking with a guitar, you know, an acoustic guitar. It's a really clumsy thing to carry around with you. And actually, somebody stole it one month into this trip in San Francisco. And I was really relieved, you know. Yeah. I was trying to be the singer-songwriter. And, you know, I thought I would get discovered, you know, sooner or later while hitchhiking around America. I don't know why I thought that, but in those days, like a lot of English people, we thought San Francisco was where, you know, all these wonderful things happened.
And so, yeah, I wasn't trying to - I never tried to pass myself off as some sort of wise Zen kind of figure from the East. I was trying to pretend that I, you know, I was this genius undiscovered singer-songwriter. And that was something that I had to let go fairly soon because of the limitations of my abilities.
ISHIGURO: But I think that was actually very important to me in - when I took up writing. And many of the things I do still to this day as a writer, as a novelist, I think it has its foundations in what I discovered and the kind of place that I arrived at as a writer of songs.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of the kind of songs that you were writing back when your aspiration was to be a singer-songwriter, and if you were willing - and might be asking too much - if you were willing to sing...
ISHIGURO: (Laughter) I'm not going to do that.
ISHIGURO: I was always a pretty competent musician. I still am. You know, I can play the guitar pretty well. And so, you know, like a lot of people, when I was 15 or so, I was writing these kind of intensely autobiographical songs, you know, real kind of, you know, intense bedroom kind of angst songs, you know, which would sound a little bit like Leonard Cohen or something. But then I went through this kind of - probably the equivalent of what - I see a lot of writers when they're starting out doing this. I went through a kind of a period when I was just flexing my technical muscles. And so I went through kind of purple prose kind of James Joyce period or what I kind of - Kerouac, Ginsberg period.
And by the time I was finishing my songwriting career, which had no material success, I was writing very, very pared down songs. You know, I could play all these chords. I could do quite fancy things - I decided I would just bring it right down to something very simple and minimal. And I was trying to tell little stories in just a few minutes, which meant that you had to put a lot of the meaning between the lines. As I say, I mean, that kind of became my style.
And this is why, I mean, to this day, a novel for me is always a certain kind of a first-person narrative. It's kind of like I'm still this guy with an acoustic guitar in a kind of a shabby room, darkened room with about 30 people listening to me. That's the kind of atmosphere I always try and create.
GROSS: In church, when you were a child, you were the lead choir boy - do I have that language, right? (Laughter) And so you must have had, like, a really good voice then. Did you want to change the kind of voice that you had? I mean, obviously, your voice changes when you become - when you start to become a man. But, like, was there a sweetness in your voice that you didn't want, you know, that you had when you were a boy in church that you didn't want as a singer-songwriter? Did you want to have a more, like, I've-lived-life kind of voice?
ISHIGURO: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, before my voice broke, by all accounts, you know, I had this beautiful, angelic voice, and so I had a kind of local fame. I would sing solos at the church choir and also at the school choir, you know? And people knew me as this little Japanese boy who could, you know, sing these kind of Christian anthems and, you know, these things sort of very beautifully, the solo passages. When my voice broke, I couldn't sing at all. That - I could still hold a tune very well. But, I mean, I think it's also because of what you said. I was trying to, yes, sound like Robert Johnson or something. I don't know what I was trying to do. You know, I would sound like Bob Dylan or something.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
ISHIGURO: I don't know - which is absurd, you know? And so - but to this day, this business about voice is very important. I mean, you know, when I'm writing, the actual voice of the narrator is very important. And I find I take, you know, enormous inspiration as an - oddly, you know, as a writer of fiction, from listening to singing voices. You know, so I love to listen to Stacey Kent, who I write lyrics for, or many other singers. I mean, there's something almost impossible to capture in words about the quality of a singing performance.
GROSS: Kazuo Ishiguro, thank you so much for talking with us.
ISHIGURO: Thank you, Terry. It's a great honor to speak to you.
GROSS: Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel is called "Klara And The Sun." Here's a song he wrote the lyrics to. It's called "I Wish I Could Go Traveling Again," sung by Stacey Kent.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I COULD GO TRAVELING AGAIN")
STACEY KENT: (Singing) I wish I could go traveling again. It feels like summer will never end. And I've had such good offers from several of my friends. I wish I could go traveling again. I want to sit in my shades, sipping my latte beneath the awning of a famous cafe, jet-lagged and with our luggage gone astray. I wish I could go traveling again. I want a waiter to give us a reprimand in a language neither of us understand, while we argue about the customs of the land. I wish I could go traveling again. I want to sit in traffic, anxious about our plane, while your blase comments drive me half-insane. I want to dash for shelter with you through the tropical rain. I wish I could go traveling again. I want to be awakened by...
GROSS: After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new album by singer-songwriter Julien Baker. Ken says she's only in her 20s but seems already to possess a lifetime's understanding of how people can hurt themselves. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.