Kazuo Ishiguro puts to rest that old adage, “Never meet your heroes.” He spoke with me via Zoom from his house in England (I was in my kitchen in New York) about his latest book, Klara and the Sun, coming from Knopf on March 2. It’s his eighth novel and the first since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, but he left all questions about the impact of the prize by the side of the road. “I was writing when the Nobel came along and had to stop,” he says. “So any damage done by the award won’t show up in Klara. This is just a normal book.”
Ishiguro’s normal books are all wonders, as is this one, in which the narrator, Klara, is an artificial friend, an AF, who carefully observes the goings-on inside the shop where she waits (and hopes) for a human owner, and the world outside the window.
The seeds of the story, Ishiguro says, were “an illustrated children’s book idea I had in my head, about a child who isn’t well, confined to her room. She and her doll watch the sun go down until one night they are able to leave the room and visit outside.” His daughter, however, said it was too sad for a children’s book.
“Then,” Ishiguro continues, “my wife and I were driving on a dark English country road and we were knocking about story ideas. We came up with a thriller idea—going back to the family home after a long time and there’s a creepy feeling that one sibling is a robot. So these two kinds of story ideas came together.” He laughs.
“To talk about it sounds more dull,” Ishiguro says. “But we are living in a time when the most powerful companies in the world are successful because they can map our behavior, and our future behavior. The assumption is that we have the means to excavate who people are.”
Ishiguro has delved into science fiction (2005’s Never Let Me Go) and fantasy (2015’s The Buried Giant), but Klara is ultimately a book about relationships and what makes human beings unique. “What is love? Can we replace a person we love?” Ishiguro asks. “Google will never be able to explain love or bereavement. It’s just not possible.” In Klara, he explores “the question of the romantic notion that we love. Is it a grand illusion that can be usurped by technology?”
Ishiguro says the pandemic has drawn attention to the power of books: “Stuck in our houses, which have become our sanctuaries, we realize how important books are. You can go somewhere in your head and on your own.”
He has certainly written important books. They’ve sold millions of copies and won numerous awards. In addition to the Nobel, Ishiguro won the Booker in 1989 for The Remains of the Day. (And he was knighted in 2018.)
Ishiguro recalls Knopf publisher Sonny Mehta, who died last December, as “my editor, my publisher, my friend.” They met in London right after his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, came out from Putnam in 1982. “ ‘Why didn’t we buy your first novel?’ Mehta asked me. Then, of course, I moved to Knopf.”
Jordan Pavlin, Knopf editorial director and Ishiguro’s editor for Klara and the Sun, says, “This might be my favorite of all his books. Because of Klara, the novel’s remarkable narrator, it has a quality of innocence and wonder. This is a novel about the capaciousness of the human heart—Klara describes it as having ‘rooms within rooms within rooms—and the relationship between memory and grief and love.’ ”
Ishiguro’s U.K. editor, Angus Cargill, publishing director at Faber & Faber, considers Klara “classic Ish, a kind of bold new step on the one hand where he invokes a whole new world but thematically and emotionally in line with all of his books. The link between his books is originality and continuity.”
Peter Straus, managing director at the U.K. agency Rogers, Coleridge & White, took over as Ishiguro’s agent after the death in 2014 of his longtime U.K. agent, RCW founder Deborah Rogers. (Binky Urban of ICM represents Ishiguro in the U.S.) Straus says Klara is under option in 55 territories. He calls it “brilliant, like every book by Ish. He always surprises me—his empathy, imagination, depth, and power. He changes the way you think. I feel honored to work with him and want everyone to read this book.”
I’d hoped to interview Ishiguro in England, but despite being thwarted by the pandemic, it was a heartening experience to talk with him and the people who know and work with him. Pavlin sums up what she calls “the magic of his work” when she tells me that in his Nobel speech he said, “In the end, stories are about one person saying to another, ‘This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it feel this way to you?’ ”
Pavlin adds, “You read his novels, especially Klara—and you find yourself thinking, ‘Yes, yes, this is just what it feels like to be alive, to be human.’ ”