'People say it's like Game of Thrones, but it's not that kind of story'
His new novel may feature mythical creatures and knights on horseback, but if you're hoping for big battles like the epic TV series, think again, Kazuo Ishiguro tells Kate Whiting
Ten years after his last novel was published, Kazuo Ishiguro is making headlines again - and he's one of the first to read them. His wife, Lorna, has set up Google news alerts, so she sees every mention of his name online.
"For the last couple of weeks, I've been in a state of alert because, any moment, she'll say without warning, 'There's a review appeared in Los Angeles and it says this'. I can never quite relax, because she's always about to come at you with something."
All the buzz is around the Booker Prize-winner's latest work, The Buried Giant, set in a murky mythical post-Arthurian Britain of ogres, pixies and knights errant.
The author, who turned 60 in November, is slightly bemused by a fixation on the fantasy aspects of the novel, with some reviewers comparing it to Game Of Thrones.
"I've never actually watched a single episode - I'm meaning to now, because I can't open a review without someone making a comparison," says the writer of The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go, adding that Homer's Odyssey and old Japanese folk tales are more his thing.
"I feel like I've stepped into an ongoing debate about the role of fantasy tropes in literature - some think we don't want all this in serious literature and other people say you've got to open the parameters, because literary fiction is being stifled otherwise."
It was a throwaway line in the 14th century poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight that piqued his interest in the setting.
"There's a tiny stanza that describes Britain as a really rough place - it actually says sometimes he'll be chased up hills by panting ogres. So I got a vision of a certain kind of Britain from that poem, it was quite comic, but quite evocative."
Ishiguro's story opens with Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in a warren of underground houses "on the edge of a vast bog". One day, the pair decide to make a journey to their son's village, although they can't remember where it is, or why he's not now with them.
This memory loss is caused by a strange mist over the country and it's linked to a spell placed on a she-dragon called Querig.
On their journey, Axl and Beatrice encounter a Saxon warrior called Wistan, who has been given the job of slaying the dragon. They also meet chivalrous Sir Gawain, who's now elderly, but still wears his rusted armour with pride. A fragile peace exists, but tensions are bubbling away under the surface.
"I wanted to talk about societal memory; when's it better to remember and when's it better to forget," explains Ishiguro. "To make this story work, I wanted to create a situation where memories are being artificially interfered with, which raised the question: do they want their memories back or not? I could have gone down a sci-fi route, in a galaxy far away, but I wanted to go for something mythical."
By avoiding setting the story in a contemporary, realistic world, he wasn't "obliged to take a political stance".
"I thought of all kinds of societies which had huge areas of their recent or distant past buried, causing some sort of tension and dysfunction in society. In America, slavery and segregation is an obvious case."
And so to the question of why it's taken Ishiguro 10 years to write another novel.
He did publish a collection of short stories, Nocturnes, in 2009, but The Buried Giant began life long before that. It was promptly discarded when his wife told him it wasn't good enough.
"Marriage and literary criticism don't necessarily go together," he says, chuckling, referring to her comments as an "intervention".
It's tempting to think Axl and Beatrice are based on Ishiguro and Lorna, but he insists there's nothing autobiographical about them: "Anyone who knows us would say we don't resemble those two, but I can speak with some authority about marriage that goes on for a long time.
"That's the main show as far as I can see. It's not about the courtship. Jane Austen and all these books finish when the couple decide to get married and that's fine, but for me now, the natural thing to write about would be the whole long slog of a couple who stand by each other right to the end, because that's not easy, however devoted you are to each other."
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954. His mum had survived the atomic bomb as a teenager and his dad was an oceanographer who brought the family to England for work when Ishiguro was five.
He grew up speaking Japanese at home and idolising Bob Dylan and other American singer-songwriters, which led him to write his own songs and eventually short stories. He met his social worker wife when he was working for a London housing charity and they have a daughter Naomi, who's in her early-20s.
As with his previous novel, the Booker-shortlisted Never Let Me Go (which told the tale of cloned children born to be organ donors), it's impossible not to cry at the end of The Buried Giant.
"Emotion is something that shouldn't be deployed lightly," says Ishiguro, who studied creative writing under Angela Carter and Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia.
"I don't like to write scenes where little animals die just to make people cry. There's a temptation to do that, but I want people to be moved at exactly the right moment for exactly the right reason. It has to feel earned."
Two of his books have been adapted into films - 2003's The Remains Of The Day starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and the film version of Never Let Me Go was released in 2010 - and he's written a couple of screenplays.
The film rights for The Buried Giant have been bought by Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin, producer of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Ishiguro admits he has reservations about it. "The danger is that if people are being lazy about it, they can stick it into a ready-made genre, as people have been doing with the review, saying it's a bit like Game of Thrones, it's not that kind of story. There's not enough battles.
"But Scott Rudin is a very shrewd producer, so if anyone can figure out a way to do this, it'll be him."
He's always read reviews of his books and doesn't believe writers who say they don't. "At some point, you're going to look on your phone and see what this newspaper said. You'd have to be a very odd person not to read any of it."
He steers clear of Twitter, however: "I don't have the time, nor the energy." He hopes to start work on a new novel in the autumn. He laughs when asked if there will be another 10-year gap."That just depends how long it takes to write. And it depends on my wife."
The Buried Giant is pubished in hardback by Faber & Faber at £20