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When 21st-century sci-fi meets human emotion

The setting is London’s Soho Hotel.

Amid an army of publicists present to fuss over Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley, one man sits quietly. It’s Kazuo Ishiguro, the 56-year-old Booker-prize winning author of The Remains of the Day.

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He’s the real reason this publicity machine is grinding right now, with the film of his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go upon us. Directed by Mark Romanek, and starring the aforementioned starlets, along with The Social Network’s Andrew Garfield, it’s a beautiful slice of science fiction about a trio of friends raised together in a school to be organ donors.

You might think Ishiguro would feel uncomfortable surrounded by all this Hollywood glamour; after all, most screenwriters – let alone authors – are kept well away from the media at such events. But he seems relaxed, welcomed. “I’m friends with the people who made it,” he says. He spent time on set helping shoot a ‘making of’ film for the DVD but kept a respectful distance from the production. “I feel it’s often not helpful to be on the set too much,” he says. “It’s like a really busy day at the office – and then the visitor turns up. So what are you supposed to do with this person?”

For a film that deals with friendship, it seems apt that the script for Never Let Me Go grew out of one. Adapted by Alex Garland, Ishiguro – known to his chums as Ish – first got to know his fellow novelist over a series of “rambling” lunches in the wake of Garland’s hit debut novel, The Beach. As their friendship evolved, so did Never Let Me Go – which Ishiguro twice abandoned. With Garland lending a sympathetic ear, when he later asked if he could adapt it for the screen (following his own success scripting Danny Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine), Ishiguro agreed.

He credits Garland’s generation for inadvertently assisting in writing the book. By the time Ishiguro returned to the novel for a third time in 2001, Garland and writers such as David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) had begun to experiment with science fiction. “It’s almost like they’ve given us older writers licence to use it,” he says. “Before, it was ghettoised and stigmatised. For years there has been a prejudice towards sci-fi writing, which I think has been to the loss of the literary world, and not vice versa. But with things like graphic novels now, people are taking it seriously.”

In light of this, Ishiguro began to see a way forward. “My main interest was to create a situation where the life-span of a group of young people was unnaturally short. I wanted them to have a limited perspective. So to what to the rest of us looked like a cruel fate was to them normal. And I was trying for a long time to figure out how to do that.” He hit on the idea of creating a dystopian world that mirrored ours with one major exception – a breakthrough in biotechnology has led to clones groomed to provide healthy organs for the sick.

He says he has no “strong feelings one way or the other about cloning”, freely admitting that it’s a device to raise the question of what it means to be human. In the case of Never Let Me Go, both novel and film are far-removed from emotionally sterile worlds so often associated with sci-fi. Rather, the characters – in particular Kathy (Mulligan) and Tommy (Garfield), who become a couple – are desperate to feel, to love and to belong, in spite of the grim fate that awaits them. In truth, the sci-fi label is misleading, says Ishiguro. “I’m just wary like everybody else that it’ll bring in the wrong audience with the wrong expectations.”

In the past, the closest Ishiguro has got to aliens is dealing with his own feelings on living in a foreign land. His 1982 debut novel, A Pale View Hills, told the story of a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro’s family moved to England six years later. The son of an oceanographer, Ishiguro and his two sisters expected to return to Japan after a year – but instead saw their family settle in Guildford, Surrey, so their father could work on oil development in the North Sea. Curiously, it was through cinema that he kept in touch with his roots. “I didn’t read much when I was young, I watched films,” he explains.

He saw Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai when he was 10, “which is a great thing for a boy to see”. By the time he was in his teens, he was devouring the domestic dramas of Ozu. “I could see my childhood. Those were the rooms I remember from my childhood. Those family relationships were relationships I knew – the women spoke in the way that my mother spoke. So for me it was a very intense, private thing as well, and it did have a huge impact on the way I wrote my early novels.” Not only his debut, but his second novel, 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World – which dealt with an ageing painter living in post-WWII Japan.

Yet it was his third, 1989’s The Remains of the Day – turned into a hugely successful 1993 Merchant/Ivory movie – that cemented his reputation. The story of a butler caught between love and duty, critics marvelled at how a Japanese author by birth could so acutely lift the lid of the British class system. Of course, Ishiguro had lived in Britain for almost 30 years – and not just in England. In 1976, he spent some time in Glasgow. “I lived in Renfrew, for six months,” he notes. “I was a community worker there.” He laughs for a second. “I’ve done all kinds of weird things in Scotland! I’ve even been a grouse-beater.”

Married to wife Lorna, who comes from Milngavie, Ishiguro now lives in London – though his fiction has frequently strayed beyond. His fifth novel When We Were Orphans was set in pre-war Shanghai, the same setting as the 2005 film The White Countess, Ishiguro’s second Merchant/Ivory collaboration. Based on an original screenplay he wrote, and starring Ralph Fiennes, it was arguably the only bad experience he’s had in the cinema. “It was dogged with all kinds of problems,” he says, notably that producer Ismail Merchant died during post-production. “Ismail dying was very hard to recover from. Merchant/Ivory operated almost like a family. So the whole thing became quite traumatic.”

While Ishiguro has published six novels across 30 years, he broke that five-year production cycle in 2009 with the publication of the anthology Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. In the same year, he realised a teenage ambition, co-writing four songs for jazz singer Stacey Kent’s 2009 Breakfast On the Morning Tram album.

“If you’re a songwriter, it’s all about letting go,” he says. “What you really dream is that lots of different artists will take your song and find new things in it. And that’s kind of what I want to do. I don’t want it to just end with my book.” He lets out a wry smile. “I’d like there to be a musical of Never Let Me Go!”

Never Let Me Go opens on February 11.

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