Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro unpacks his writing process at 7th Bay Area Book Festival

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It’s not often you get to hear a Nobel Prize winner speak, but May 2, the Bay Area Book Festival offered just that: an hourlong Zoom conversation with author Kazuo Ishiguro on his new book “Klara and the Sun,” released March 2, only two months ago.

The discussion, however, turned out to be far more than just a book talk. Joined by Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homegoing” and “Transcendent Kingdom,” Ishiguro touched on everything from his personal writing habits to the fickle role of research when crafting a fictional world. 

Clever both in writing and in conversation, Ishiguro had his wit on display throughout the event. Early in their conversation, Gyasi asked the veteran author how he manages to make “artificial” characters — such as the artificial intelligence (AI) in “Klara and the Sun” or the clones in 2005’s “Never Let Me Go” — feel real to a reader. His answer? “With great difficulty.” 

But beneath the self-effacing humor was a sharp mind intent on unpacking his writing process to the best of his ability. Ishiguro went on to argue that there was little difference between an AI character and a human one: “All characters in novels are artificial. This might come as terrible news to some readers, but they are,” he joked. “They’re all made up. We’re used to the idea of crying or weeping over fictional characters.”

Ishiguro also affirmed the importance of building relationships rather than characters — a solid bit of advice for any aspiring writers in the audience. 

“You can create individual characters that are very eccentric and colorful and interesting, but they don’t touch the reader unless they’re related to another character in some sort of interesting way,” he said. “(This may be) a bit of an exaggeration, but I find that if the relationship is fascinating, the characters on either end of it kind of take care of themselves.” 

Gyasi added on, noting that the common practice of “character sketching,” or writing down a list of a character’s traits and interests, was never effective for her. 

Both authors showed an overwhelming respect for one another, with Ishiguro often turning the questions back to Gyasi to hear her perspective on the matter. A writer of historical fiction and other research-heavy genres herself, Gyasi joined him in a frank discussion of the purpose of research — specifically, whether a novelist is allowed to have a “closed mind” in the research process, as Ishiguro put it, and to have already decided the general course of a novel before delving into the facts. 

“You shouldn’t be led too much by the research,” he argued. “We’re not writing history, you know; we’re not writing journalism. The essential thing we’re offering to our readers is something else.”

Gyasi largely agreed, though she mentioned a moment when her own research into convict leasing helped shape one of the characters in “Homegoing,” which tracks the descendants of an Asante woman for seven generations. 

“I was looking into sharecropping and finally started researching jobs that newly emancipated slaves would have had, and I stumbled upon this Douglas Blackmon article in The Wall Street Journal,” she said. “And suddenly I realized, this is what the chapter is supposed to be.” 

“It’s a difficult question,” Ishiguro acknowledged — then added, “but it’s not that difficult. I think we’ve got it right.” 

This sort of confident ambivalence was indicative of the talk as a whole; it was a conversation laden with both wisdom and refreshing humility in equal measure. Ishiguro approached each question with the utmost sincerity, dissecting his own opinions and honestly admitting when he could not reach a resolution. It was clear that Ishiguro was not there to preach; instead, he seemed eager to learn as much from Gyasi, an author 30 years his junior, as the audience was learning from him. 

If Ishiguro’s talk proved anything, it’s that a novelist is someone who asks questions, not necessarily answers them — and with a whopping 73 audience questions in chat by the end of the conversation, there must be quite a few budding authors in the Bay Area. 

Contact Lauren Sheehan-Clark at [email protected].