How did the English setting come about for The Remains of the Day?
It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel. And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler? We thought this was a very amusing idea. From then on I became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor.
As a metaphor for what?
Two things. One is a certain kind of emotional frostiness. The English butler has to be terribly reserved and not have any personal reaction to anything that happens around him. It seemed to be a good way of getting into not just Englishness but the universal part of us that is afraid of getting involved emotionally. The other is the butler as an emblem of someone who leaves the big political decisions to somebody else. He says, I’m just going to do my best to serve this person, and by proxy I’ll be contributing to society, but I myself will not make the big decisions. Many of us are in that position, whether we live in democracies or not. Most of us aren’t where the big decisions are made. We do our jobs, and we take pride in them, and we hope that our little contribution is going to be used well.