His style is ever changing; Cloud Atlas tastes so very different to the palate than Black Swan Green, for example, that it's almost ridiculous to think that they share the same author. Yet the care with which he constructs his settings, plots, and characters is evident throughout each of his five novels.
It would be easy to say that the genres of science fiction, mystery, thriller, and straight literary fiction have all been used in Mitchell's writing, but a more truthful statement is that they've been bent to his will. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet incorporates the history of the Dutch East India Company, and takes place on the trading-post island of Dejima, Japan, as the 18th century slips into the 19th.
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David Mitchell: That I couldn't? Oh, many, many. Of course, what they were... I know there were a lot out there, but because they never made it into the finished product, they're sort of still running about at the fringes of my mind.
Kirsten: Did you get distracted by them?
Mitchell: Yeah, I mean, the ones that I wanted to spend time on, often I did, and I filled pages in my notebook with them and their lives and what they were doing, what they'd want. In a way that's more than a distraction. It's a commitment, and a relationship. But, still, if they'd been in the finished product, then it would've been misshapen. It would've been bent out of shape. So, yeah, a lot more than distracted, and it hurts to not use them.
Really, from the history of Dejima and the timeframe of the 18-year span that I chose to have Jacob de Zoet there, there are a few other interesting historical events that happened that are in my initial scheme of the book and that I wanted to include.But, in the end, there was too much history and not enough fiction. So I had to go back to basics and start over, which I did about 18 months into writing the book, and many tens of thousands of words later, excluding a lot, and monkeying about with history a little bit for fictional purposes in order to make it work as a novel... Well, that's a big rambling incoherent sentence but I hope it makes sense to you.
Kirsten: Oh, absolutely, and we'll edit this so both of us sound like perfect geniuses at the end of it.
Mitchell: Okay. Articulate, fluent, casual, witty...
Kirsten: Yes. Also good looking. [Laughter]
Mitchell: Oh, all right!
Kirsten: I know that you spent time as a writer in residence in the Netherlands. What is a writer in residence?
Mitchell: It depends on the institute in question, really. In my case, it was a guy who lives in a room, in an office, at the end of a wing off a big old rambling house, in a nice neighborhood of a quiet town. The majority of the occupants of the house, or institute — The Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies — were, on the whole, academics from all over the world, on year or half-year sabbaticals to find some peace, quiet, and a change of air to write in, or they were allies in groups and, in order to uphold six months' or a year's worth of study, would group with colleagues from around the world also on sabbaticals.
We could get involved with life there as much or as little as we wanted. We weren't really required to do anything more than just hang out. I got pieces of the book done, but in a way it was more useful for the conversations that I was allowed to be privy to, and occasionally a party to. There were a bunch of linguists. They were researching prehistoric languages, which sounds quite bizarre, I know, but that's what they were doing. And a group of Scandinavian political scientists, and some Anglo Dutch medievalists. So just to be allowed to befriend them and be able to sit in with some of the smartest specialists... Their knowledge is extremely deep. That opportunity was wonderful.
I've got an acquaintance who was a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, which was a very, very different gig. [Laughter] He was only there for four weeks, and he's so interested in airports, but it seemed that his chief role was to be complained to. People would love arriving in his room and just mouthing off about how much they hate their job. So it depends on what the rules of the game and location are.
Kirsten: When you were living in the Netherlands, how did that feel compared to when you were living in Japan? By that I mean, being northern European, you kind of blend in better? Did people speak Dutch to you?
Mitchell: Yes and no. The default mode is that in the Netherlands people speak English first, and then they find out that they're both Dutch, especially around Amsterdam or The Hague. Or they certainly are very much aware that lingua franca is probably going to be, or may well be, English. Yes, I blended in. I didn't have to pay the three percent ethnic stress tax, which you have to have to pay when you're in the ethnic minority in any area. Life is much easier in many ways compared to Japan.
Kirsten: Did you always know that you would go to Japan?
Mitchell: No, no. Really, I had no idea until about two months before I went. I had a Japanese friend whose visa expired, and she saw that it was her time to go back. I was in my early to mid-20s without any commitment anywhere, and that seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
Kirsten: I'm glad you did it.
Mitchell: Thank you very much. The formative years of your personality, it's often been observed, may well be age three to age eight or so. There's another bunch of formative years which are in your early 20s, I think. Early to mid-20s. The three to eight time determines, to a large degree, your personality and what sort of a person you'll turn out to be. Not completely, but in many respects. Formative years in your early 20s are not about personality. Perhaps it's your life, the rest of your life, just the structure of it and the where of it. If you're lucky, if the opportunities fall your way, then you take part in a very strange kind of a board game where you roll dice and pick up this card that directs you to... Japan. Pick up this card, it sends you to... Mexico. You come to be in these places, and it may amount to nothing. You may be there for three weeks and then return home, or you may be there for years, and all it takes are details like who you end up getting married to, or having kids with, or in the case of a writer, where you end up collecting idea seeds that may spend years germinating. Well, with me, it happened to be East Asia.
Kirsten: It's been very profitable for your readers, so thank you.
Mitchell: Well, it's really my pleasure and my privilege and my luck that you believe so.
Kirsten: Did you have assumptions about life at the end of the 18th century that were challenged when you did your research?
Mitchell: Probably.For once, well-advisedly, I was humble enough to have a strong suspicion that any assumptions I might have had could well turn out to be duff ones. This is a little like your first question, and I love interesting questions and am grateful that I haven't been asked this a thousand times before, but it's tricky to answer because what you're asking about is a sort of built-over negative.
Before you go to a place, you have certain ideas about it. If you've never been to Honolulu, you have a mental Honolulu, built out of, frankly, not very much. But your imagination abhors a vacuum, so it dishes up the goods. When you do go there, the previously mentioned Honolulu instantly evaporates and is replaced by the real one, and from that moment on it becomes very hard to think back to what your imagined Honolulu ever looked like in the first place.
I suppose the answer is that my impressions were that people at the end of the 18th century were erroneously similar to people in the late 20th century. In some ways they are, but the way that a differently structured society thinks about class, and very different levels of technology — these things affect who we are, how we think, what we aspire to. You have to do your homework. You have to learn about the society, learn about the technology, before you can begin to write the scenes. You can begin to build characters, but you have to get ready to revise them as you go on.
God makes much more sense at the end of the 18th century — for example, before the discovery of bacteria in medicine, in an age where a hospital was a place where you generally went to die rather than to get better. Certainly, I would have been a much more fervent believer in those days than I am now. Piety makes more sense. So it made sense for Jacob, my protagonist, to be much more God-fearing than I imagined when I was first sketching out ideas.
Mitchell: He does, in the long chapter when I'm bombarding the reader with information on Dejima. All these weird names that we're not used to: Who was that again? Who was that again? In terms of the work, there's so much to transmit that the act of smuggling in the Psalm book was also a good means of propulsion to get the reader through those 20-odd pages. It helps build up the character, but it also fulfills a narrative purpose.
Kirsten: Here at Powell's, I work with books in the rare book department...
Mitchell: Fun job? It must be.
Kirsten: Yes, it's pretty good. The classic Enlightenment texts in medicine, law, economics, philosophy that are in your book — to me, it was like seeing old friends.
Mitchell: Oh, bless you.
Mitchell: I think at the time, the venerable Scot you mentioned preferred to pronounce the name as "Smiley."
Kirsten: Good, because I always felt so horrible for him.
I really enjoyed seeing these referenced in your book. We know them as classics, but in your book they're brand new ideas. I've always found John Hunter to be fascinating.
Mitchell: He is, isn't he? He's really a rather unsung man.There are so many unsung pioneers in very unsexy areas, like health. These are the people who laid down the foundations for our society. It's not the military guys, who got all the glory. It's these people that non-specialists haven't heard of who are really why we're here.
If Fleming, who was one of Hunter's students, had not worked out how to inoculate against smallpox, for example, chances are you and I wouldn't be here, because one of our great-great-greats would have died in childbirth. That goes for most people in an age where your only defense against disease was your own immune system, which was not understood at all in those days. It was an age where medicine would usually kill, and an age where, if a baby presents a prolapse of the arm during childbirth, then certainly the baby would be dead, and the mother may well be dead within a few weeks. She would have puerperal fever, etc., etc. Yes, it's the doctors. It's the public health people.
Kirsten: It's really very nice to have the illustrations in the book. I know one is from Smellie's work, but did you or your parents draw some of the others?
Mitchell: The engravings are obviously engravings. The skeleton is by William Cheselden from the mid-18th-century text about bones, the Osteographia. The flea is one of Robert Hooke's. And there's one from Smellie. The others would be either by my mum or my dad.
Kirsten: I liked your character Dr. Marinus very much.
Mitchell: Thank you. He's one of my favorites, too. He's probably only number five, six, or seven in terms of line length in the book, but when he's around he tends to steal the show, which I'm very happy about.
Kirsten: He's so gruff, but he's a wonderful person.
Mitchell:My Dutch editor has decided that if a film ever gets made, then John Malkovich would be the man to play Marinus.
Kirsten: That could go very well.
Mitchell: It would be great, actually. It was an inspired suggestion.
Kirsten: As I don't have to tell you, the structure in your books is always a little bit different. This one is more straightforward than the others. How did that feel to you?
Mitchell: Only when I got it right did the book work. It's not quite as straightforward as it looks. Though, I'm glad it looks straightforward. In "Part One," we've got one narrative viewpoint, which is Jacob. In "Part Two," we've got two narrative viewpoints, Orito and Uzaemon. And in "Part Three," you've got three: Jacob, the English captain, and the magistrate. It goes from a one-stroke engine to a two-stroke engine to a three-stroke engine, and I think it gives an accelerating effect to the book.
Kirsten: I have to say I was so engrossed in the story that that subtlety didn't come out for me.
Mitchell: I'm delighted. I'm sort of jumping up and down and saying, "Look how ingenious I am!" It means your eye's on the ball — the plot and character — which is where your eye should be.
Kirsten: In Thousand Autumns, there's so much that hinges on honor and integrity versus greed and personal advancement.
Mitchell: That's beautifully put. I'll store that away and use it myself in future interviews.
Kirsten: Honorable characters go through so much physical and emotional pain, and yet they remain honorable.
Mitchell:A few people have sort of looked for contemporary metaphors in the book, but they aren't there because they don't need to be. The Dutch East Indies was the Enron of its day, and you don't have to do "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" things, like spell Enron backwards and give that name to one of your characters. You simply don't have to. You don't have to put in metaphors or implicit analogies of Afghanistan, where Western countries are blundering into East Asian or Asian societies, about which we know nothing at all and yet expect to impose our wills, without any flare-ups, without any lamentable consequences.
In nemesis is relevance, is what I wish to say.
Kirsten: That's put nicely.
Mitchell: It's four words rather than the 180 that I've already used.
Kirsten: I don't want to give away any of the plot, but was there a historical precedent for the big evil in the book or did you make it up?
Mitchell: I'm happy to say it's mostly made up. The time and the place and Shinto itself does give a lot of blank spaces, which then a horrid little parasitic novelist can fill, and maybe it gives the impression he knows such things went on, but to the best of my knowledge, no. The point there was to try and do evil that was sort of unnervingly comprehensible. Evil is usually a very weak point in fiction because it's kind of banal — as has been observed by much sharper friends than myself — or it's simply ludicrous. It's a James Bond baddie who's causing all this human misery for $12 billion dollars. Join Goldman Sachs, if it's the money you're after. You don't have to concoct this ridiculous plot.
What gives most of us pause for thought would be cheating death. If you could cheat death, you could justify a lot to yourself. You can almost hear the loopholes opening up in one's ethical system. "All we have to do is this and then we can cheat death." Yeah, that seemed plausible, so that's why I motivated Enomoto the way I did.
Kirsten: The characters with honor and integrity suffer, but I'm glad that they win in the end. I've never lived there, and I don't know the culture, but it seems like such an elegant and Japanese way to go about getting rid of the evil.
Mitchell: Historically the poison would have been an unforgivable lapse of honor, I think, because it's quintessentially sneaky. It's dishonorable to not face your foe man to man, sword to sword, I suspect. But on the other hand, the people who did win the big battles did so because they weren't above using treachery at the time. Then once they're in charge of the historians, they start to reconfigure history in their own favor.
Kirsten: That's a good point.
Mitchell: It's a universal point as well. There's a couplet, "Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? Because if treason prospered, none may call it treason." Isn't that cool?
Powell's readers will have people who know the precise version by heart 100% accurately, because your audience is one of the most un-bluffable in America. Not that I'll ever try and bluff an audience anyway, but I doubly wouldn't try to bluff a Portland audience.
Kirsten: It's wonderful that people still read.
Mitchell: I'm quite optimistic. I think it's both wonderful and becoming more and more necessary. I think the more short-attention-spanned our culture becomes, the more nutritious and the hungrier we are for reading. Even the kids who don't want to eat food that is good for them... I once knew a 16-year-old who announced that one day he wouldn't eat anything but chocolate anymore, and his very wise mum said, "Okay, that's fine. Instead of eating with the rest of us, you will have chocolate every evening." At first, his siblings were really envious and complaining, "This isn't fair!" But, by the third day, they could see the point and the result ended in vomiting and a lifelong love of vegetarian health foods.
The point of all this is that the body knows when it needs vitamins and eventually it will win. It'll go for the apple in a situation like that. I think the same is true for the mind. And my evidence is that, yes, we are wading in a sea of crap, but the biggest hits of all, like The Wire, are also the best things of all.
Kirsten: The Wire, that's the TV show about Baltimore?
Mitchell: Yes. I'm sure you've heard 100 people say —
Kirsten: Everyone loves it.
Mitchell: It really is as good as everyone says. I also thought, "Oh, come on, it can't be Shakespearean, it can't be Chaucerian," but it is. Lo' and behold, it really is. It's amazing. And it's phenomenally successful. It's put together not by focus groups but by writers.
Kirsten: I've heard that it's used in schools to teach.
Mitchell: I'm not at all surprised. I would view it as a staging post to a lifestyle reading habit as well.
Kirsten: What you say is definitely true for me. The more crap there is around, the more I want the apple that is a fabulous book.
Mitchell: Yes, me, too. And I don't think we're that unusual.
Kirsten: One of the things that I wanted to say to you has to do with the body of the books that you have put together. You should know that I'm just a year and a half older than you, and we have a lot of the same cultural touchstones probably.
I mean this as the greatest compliment: to me, you're like Madonna. [Laughter]
Mitchell: That's also something I not only haven't heard a thousand times before, but I've never, ever heard. Let me have a think. It's my lips, right? Or...
Kirsten: It's your ability to change up. You don't produce the same thing over and over again, and yet you're still always so good.
Mitchell: Thank you very much.
Kirsten: And I'm glad you haven't heard that a thousand times.
Mitchell: No, I really haven't. I think I feel like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, not Madonna, but now that you mention it, I do actually get the point. Not that I see myself in the same constellation as these people, but you can see how many writers there are in their early 30s and how few are still able to make an active living as a writer in, say, their late 60s, whose books are still anticipated by a hungry readership. The obvious question is, "How come? Why this dropping off?" Why, where, whence, actually.
If ever there was a time for that lovely word, it's this. Whence. Whence this drop off. Whence this dying off. I've thought about it a lot. The publishing industry loves brands, and it'll try to brand you or turn you into a brand, because it makes everyone's job easier. The bookstores know what they're getting. The reps know how to pitch it. The editor knows how to pitch it in-house. It's why I do believe readers respond widely and well to it, because they ought to know what they're getting. That's all well and good for five or ten years, but trends do date, and they are susceptible to obsolescence.
I won't name any names, but there have been books that I've loved, and I bought the next one and the next one. When I'm about three books in, I'm thinking, "Hang on, I paid 20 euros for this book six or eight years ago, and this is the same one, isn't it?" My loyalty ebbs away. It's not that I've clinically thought out a career path, but I do have instincts and inner voices. One inner voice says, "I'm not interested in writing the same book or even a variation on the same book, ever. Not even once." Another instinct says, "If I'm not interested in writing it, then most people won't be interested in reading it." Reading "Cloud Atlas Rides Again" or "Cloud Atlas, Part III" — why would a reader bother? So, I do like to nurture and cultivate my curiosity and encourage it to go off and become interested in opposite directions and dramatically different areas.If I ever do have a brand, then I hope it's a brand of brandlessness.
Kirsten: What I wanted to say last to you, and I think this ties in nicely, is that as a reader, I trust you. By that, I mean I'm always willing to go with you where you're going to take me.
Mitchell: Oh, thank you very much. Hearing that sounds like music. I do know what you mean because I feel that for some writers, as well. I suppose I love hearing it because it gives me the feeling that my inner voices aren't wrong, yet. And that again, in turn, gives me hope that I might be able to still earn a living from writing into the decades ahead. Nothing is certain in this life. Well, what is certain is I'm becoming increasingly unemployable in any other area, and it's lovely to think that I have even a small readership out there who trusts me and maybe will age with me. That's a very consoling thought.
Kirsten: Thank you, and I look forward to meeting you when you're here on July 20.
Mitchell: It'll be really nice to see Portland again. If I were to live anywhere in the states, Portland's got something. Not quite sure what it is. Powell's, for one thing. Also, I don't know, the big, slow, lazy bend of the river and the trees. It reminds me slightly of Cambridge in the U.K., and slightly of Christchurch in New Zealand. It's got an Anglican-ness about it, which might chime with me because I suppose I do, as well. Long live Portland. Long live Powell's.
Kirsten spoke with David Mitchell by phone on June 10, 2010.
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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.
Books mentioned in this post