Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Booker prize in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day , is one of the literary world’s most respected novelists. It raised eyebrows in 2005 when he published Never Let Me Go , a dystopian science fiction novel about children who discover that they are clones destined to be harvested for their organs, though the book is now regarded as one of his best works. But when the literary world learned that his new book, The Buried Giant , is an Arthurian fantasy about the quest to kill a dragon, it didn’t just raise eyebrows—it made heads explode. Ishiguro was puzzled by the response.
“People are perfectly entitled to read my book and say they don’t like it,” he says in Episode 145 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “But if they’re saying, ‘I’m not going to read your book, despite having liked your previous books, because I hear there are ogres in it,’ well, that just seems to me classic prejudice.”
Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, was raised on samurai stories full of demons and shape-shifters, and avidly reads each new translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey , ancient tales of warriors, gods, and monsters. His longtime friend and mentor Angela Carter also wrote fiction full of myth and fantasy, and he thinks these various influences helped inspire him to write fiction that defies easy categorization.
“These are tools that have been used ever since people sat around the campfire as cavemen,” he says. “The Ancient Greeks used it, the Romans used it, Scandanavian folk tales, Japanese folk tales, European folk tales. We’ve used them all along. Why have we suddenly got rather snobbish and sneer-y about it in just the last few years?”
He admits that publishing books like Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant has gotten easier in recent years, as younger authors—like David Mitchell, whose 2004 novel Cloud Atlas was filmed by the Wachowskis—have helped expand the range of subject matter that’s accepted in the literary world.
“It’s enabled older writers like myself, who perhaps grew up in a crustier, more prejudiced kind of atmosphere about what we could and couldn’t do if we considered ourselves to be literary authors, people like me have been liberated by a lot of the work that’s being done by writers who are a generation, or perhaps two generations, younger than me,” he says.
He’s still not sure why certain topics provoke such consternation among some readers, but suspects it may come down to insecurity. Readers who are most attached to the idea of literature as a status symbol, and who are most desperate to be seen as serious, may eschew books that seem like too much fun.
“When we’re teenagers we’re very prone to this, you know, ‘If you like that band you’re not cool, if you wear those sneakers you’re cool,’ but with reading we should grow out of that,” he says. “And for some reason books with dragons in them arouse some sort of fear on the part of a certain kind of insecure reader.”
Listen to our complete interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in Episode 145 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Kazuo Ishiguro on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”:
“There’s a tiny little bridge passage where the hero, the young Sir Gawain, rides from one castle to the other across an ancient Britain. And it’s only a stanza or so, but there’s a little description of what a terrible place Britain was back in those days. And the poet—it’s an anonymous poet—the poet says, ‘There were no inns or anything like this for him to stay at, he had to cling on to rocks to sleep, in the driving rain,’ which kind of puzzled me. I don’t know why he has to sleep on rocks rather than under a tree, but anyway, that’s what it says. And then the bit that really caught my imagination, it says that often he’ll be chased out of villages by wolves or wild boar or by panting ogres. And the panting ogres are never mentioned again, they’re just part of the landscape, like unfriendly bulls or something.”
Kazuo Ishiguro on Angela Carter:
“She was much more than just my tutor at university—when I was doing a writing program many years ago—she then went on to be kind of a mentor figure, and we continued to be friends right up until her early death at the age of 51. I don’t know if her writing had a direct effect on something like The Buried Giant, but generally she was an example of an author who didn’t think in categories, she didn’t think some things were not suitable for literary fiction and other things were. She was a pretty out-of-the-box kind of writer, and I think to some extent her career suffered while she was alive. I mean, she was quite a neglected writer during the time when she was alive. It was only later on that people have come to recognize what an important writer she was. But that’s when I first started to write, it was right at the beginning of my writing life, and I think maybe because of people like Angela, I’ve never really thought in terms of categories, or genre even.”
Kazuo Ishiguro on fantasy and reality:
“I like the coexistence of gods and the supernatural alongside the banal and the everyday. I was brought up on a lot of samurai stories as a child. Not just samurai folk tales, but I read a lot of manga-type stuff featuring samurai, and it may be true to say—maybe I’m generalizing falsely here—but in a lot of Japanese samurai tales fantastical elements like that seem to exist very easily and naturally. … In that landscape, it always seems to me the coexistence of oni, as they’d be called in Japanese folklore—which is a kind of a demon-cum-ogre, I guess—and foxes that are shape-changers, and things like that, are very, very common. And it seems to tap back into something ancient and profound, so that all comes fairly naturally to me.”
Kazuo Ishiguro on religion:
“In my book … one of the accusations the Anglo-Saxon warrior aims at the native Britons—the Christians—is to say, isn’t it convenient that you’ve created for yourselves a god who is infinitely merciful? All you have to do with your god—never mind what atrocities your armies commit—all you have to do is pray sincerely, and maybe atone, and commit a few pious acts of self-inflicted pain, and you believe that your god will forgive you, because you’ve created a god of infinite mercy. But from our viewpoint, he’s saying, this is just a way of condoning hideous, vicious behavior. … And it’s the Christian nations that rampaged around the globe, creating these empires, all over the world, and it’s an interesting thought as to whether that would have been quite so easy had they not had this god who would forgive them anything.”