David Mitchell

British novelist David Mitchell spent much of his twenties teaching English as a foreign language in Sicily and Japan. Something of the footloose wanderer has characterized his fiction ever since. Both within individual books and across his body of work, Mitchell's writing is a brilliant peripatetic affair, springing between continents, eras, genres, and protagonists with a backpacker's delight in novelty.


His debut, Ghostwritten, was a globetrotting "novel" that took the form of short stories linked by overlapping cameos. His next two books, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas, were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and confirmed Mitchell as a prose conjurer eager to toy with expectations. Black Swan Green followed, a dreamlike, semi-autobiographical tale of a boy's coming-of-age. With any other writer, this would have been the logical preface to a blossoming career. But with his usual disregard for the predictable, Mitchell's Bildungsroman was the product of a mature period. His latest novel is the intricate recreation of an obscure corner of Japanese history.


The Barnes and Noble Review had the pleasure of Mitchell's conversation and discussed an array of topics including the new book, Charles Dickens, and what a neuroscan of an author's brain might reveal.



Mark Martin: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set primarily on the tiny man-made island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. What drew you to this particular time and place?


David Mitchell: It was a keyhole in the door in the wall that encircled Japan for 250 years. It was the only meeting point for Japan and Europe. And it reversed the usual colonial situation where the Europeans arrive and make the rules. The ten to fifteen Europeans who lived there were effectively prisoners or hostages. They weren't allowed to leave. The only people they could meet were merchants and translators and very, very expensive prostitutes. If I couldn't find a halfway decent novel swimming around in all of that, then I wouldn't be much of a writer.


MM: You do have an interest in isolated societies. Whether it's a Japanese doomsday cult or a seniors' home run like Colditz, examples appear throughout your books, and Dejima adds one more to the list. Could you explain what fascinates you about these claustrophobic little worlds?


DM: I think, dramatically, enclosure is quite good news. If there's no exit door, then when the going gets tough, people can't conveniently leave. If characters are stuck in a place, whatever human neuroses they are host to can fructify. Those neuroses are free to bear fruit and follow their arcs to a conclusion.


MM: Were there any particular literary models or inspirations you had in mind when writing this book?


DM: Models, no. Patron saints, yes: The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa and, a much more recent book, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. If not pinned above my writing desk, they were on the bookshelf at the end of the room, to remind me how high the bar of historical fiction can and should be. Also, as a writer you want to stay open to people who might have tried the same sort of thing and have cracked problems in a particular way, just so you don't have to reinvent the wheel. And if you're on board a ship in the age of sail, it's not clever to ignore Patrick O'Brian, because he's a gold mine of research that you can use.


MM: You went to live in Holland to research the Dutch protagonist, Jacob.


DM: I could do the Japanese side from a lot of what I knew already. But I didn't know a thing about the Netherlands or Dutch people. I needed to go and find stuff which you can't get in books.


MM: I’m not qualified to judge its accuracy, but I found the historical detail very convincing. In the back of my mind, I pictured you spending long taxing hours in the depths of the British Library.


DM: Staring, frowning, scribbling with a pen. You could do a sort of a digitalized window in the background that moves through the four seasons. No, I didn't get to the British Library. I did get to the University of Leiden and had a couple of long afternoons with a history professor who's a specialist on Dejima. And I got access to the day registers—the logbooks—that the chief residents of the Dutch East India Company used to record what was happening: the official version of events.


MM: And made good use of it …


DM: Yeah, well, research needs to be submerged beneath the waterline, at least nine-tenths of it. Otherwise you get those sort of awful sentences where people are flashily comparing the merits of different types of horse-drawn carriages.


MM: The middle part of the book is a departure from the first and the last sections in that it moves away from Dejima to follow Orito, Jacob's love interest. It includes elements of black magic and an obscure sisterhood of disfigured women. It's almost a change of genre. It's quite daring. It’s interesting, and it works. But I wondered if you were worried about performing that kind of switch in the book.


DM: No, in a way the reverse is true. I was more worried about having 500 pages of stylistically identical prose and how to keep that engaging. That would have been the thing to have brought off. Dickens could have done it. Tolstoy could. But I'm not sure I can. I'm happy and grateful that you assign a kind of writerly courage to my decision to change gear as dramatically as I do in the middle section. But the thought that it's a courageous decision is kind of misplaced.


MM: You have a habit of blending genres and styles, and there are some other notable writers also doing that at the moment. Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon come to mind. Do you see that approach as particular timely? Is the mixing of genres something that makes sense now when it wouldn't have worked, say, twenty years ago?


DM: I think that genre is a set of colors in the writer's paint box. And I would agree that there does seem to be a growing awareness around now that this set of colors is something you can utilize and play around with in the confines of one book. Which is a very long way of saying yes.


MM: In 1997, Time magazine listed you among the top 100 most influential people in the world­. Do you think fiction really is influential outside of publishing and its readership?


DM: It's a great question. If I were a lawyer, I'd feed on the words "its readership." That's where the enclosed, Dejima-like, terms of your question operate. That's the door that gets kicked down and where influence can bleed into the rest of the world. People do read books and are moved by them. Sometimes intellectual people read books and are moved by them. Dickens, since we mentioned him before, got the law changed with Bleak House. That's just one very specific example. But I'd perhaps go a little more new-agey on you here. I'm tempted to use words like "spirit" and "the soul." Really good books work because you don't consume them like a pack of freeze-dried pasta. Books will take up residence inside you, and even afterwards they'll stay there and alter slightly how you think about things. But that said, while it's hugely gratifying that the good people at Time responded positively to my work, I'd add the cavil that I'm not even in the top five most influential people in my own house.


MM: You've mentioned Dickens a couple of times. Are you a big fan?


DM: Dickens is great. The stuff that doesn't work so well, the sort of mawkish Victorian stuff—I'm not really sure why he wrote that. Hard Times, you know, it's got things in it to admire, but it's not a great book. But the best of Dickens is really pretty bloody wonderful. He's a strangely designed aeroplane, one that takes off and does wonderful things and goes enormous distances. But if any one of its components were designed differently, then the whole thing would blow up on the runway before it got a quarter of a mile.


MM: I've read a couple of articles from you on the practice of writing. But there's no David Mitchell journalism. There are no op-eds, no memoir. That seems unusual among young writers of your stature, and I wondered if you could say something about that.


DM: It might be partly because of the sort of writer I am. I do focus, first and foremost, on the meat and potatoes of plot and character, with sort of side dishes of structure served at the same time. Theme and ideas are things I certainly don't start with. It's no accident I didn't become an academic or an intellectual. If it were possible to do a neuroscan of the part of the brain that is taken up with imagination rather than the part where intellect reigns supreme, then I think for me imagination would certainly have the upper hand. Ideas for me rise slowly through the surface of my stuff, rather than me implanting them at a very early stage and structuring the book to illustrate them, almost like a fictional essay. I'm not that kind of writer at all. So, the ideas, the themes, that I do get are a relatively scarce resource, and I want to keep it all for my fiction.


MM: You said that you don't start off with themes and ideas. What do you start off with? The kernel of every novel?


DM: Different novels have different kernels. I think of them as stem cells, actually. With Cloud Atlas, it was the structure and the idea of a predation, predacity—which is an idea, I suppose. But there I'm being a bit revisionist about that book's history. It was the structure first. Then the desire to create narratives to show that there's nothing automatic about forward progress. Regress is just as possible as progress in civilization.


MM: And with The Thousand Autumns?


DM: Dejima was just this strange, wonderful, weird cat flap of a place between two cultures. It's what the crew of the Starship Enterprise would call an "anomaly," a space-time anomaly. There are not many Dejimas in history and I very much wanted to see if I could do something with it in fiction.


MM: It's been reported that Wachowski Brothers want to produce a film version of Cloud Atlas. How's that going?


DM: It's at an encouraging stage of development. I think it has a fabulous script, which deeply impresses the book's author. It's also a very long fabulous script, which makes large studios nervous. It might be unhelpful to the project to say more. It ain't over till the fat lady sings and the director says action.

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