Book club webchat with David Mitchell
David Mitchell joined our bookclub discussion in September 2011, as our chosen book was his novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He also answered questions on Cloud Atlas, his inspirations, writing style and love of languages.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a masterpiece of historical fiction. Set in 1799 in the Japanese trading port of Dejima, it follows young Dutchman Jacob de Zoet's struggle to make his way and win the affections of a beautiful but scarred Japanese midwife, who is dangerously close to the local Samurai lord.
MaxineQuordlepleen: Which character did you imagine first? And (spoiler alert) did you want Jacob and Orito to get together? Or did you see it as all doomed from the start?
David: I imagined Jacob first. He is the reader's vehicle into this odd, compressed world, and he was originally the writer's way in, too. You can only plot so much in advance until you reach a point where you have to 'write your way in'. In an earlier version I did intend (spoiler alert) for Jacob and Orito to get it together, and quite early on, too - the novel would have followed their marriage. Then I realised I was writing a sort of Nagasaki EastEnders, and went back to the drawing board. That's OK, though - novels are built from changes of mind. Doomed? Only sort of.
browneyesblue: I would like to know more about how David's love affair with all things Japanese came about. I love the measured pace and tone of his books, and they have piqued my interest in Japan, so where did it all begin for him?
David: I had a Japanese girlfriend in London in the early 90s, in my early 20s, an influential age when life is something of a board-game. Japanese fiction I could recommend includes The Makioka Sisters by Juni'ichiro Tanizaki, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and Silence by Shusaku Endo.
beequeen: I am impressed by your ability to jump from genre to genre, when so many writers tend to stick to a fairly narrow range. Given that your previous books have been set in such a variety of backgrounds, what first inspired you to write about 18th century Japan? It is not after all a very well-known area of history (to the average British person at least).
David: The fact that 18th century Japan isn't much known about or written about was attractive - fewer competitors! - and the fact that I wanted to write about Dejima, this odd laboratory where East was entangled with, fascinated by and fearful of West, dictated the period - Dejima stopped existing in the 1850s.
As a reader, I'd rather read about a time and place I know little about than those I know a lot about, and every writer is guided by his or her inner reader...
Countryslicker: I loved Thousand Autumns through and through, particularly its pace which allowed the characters to develop and give the island life such a strong sense of time and place before events exploded. Unfortunately it read so clearly I think I am now an expert in Japanese-Dutch history at the end of the eighteenth century. How much research did you undertake into the period or should I not hold forth quite so vehemently and just enjoy the story!
David: I did a fat stack of research! Research to lay down the foundations of the world (how did the Napoleonic Wars redraw Europe?) and research to enable each scene (when was shaving cream invented?) I quite like historical fiction for this very reason, though - my understanding of the past gets improved, plus I get the story. Is that not a 'Buy one, get one free' worth having?
natto: Just wondering how the success of Cloud Atlas affected you? Do you feel extra pressure when writing now, or are you just enjoying it?
David: I had a slow immersion into the swimming pool of literary reputation, so I never had to handle instant fame, luckily for me. I think I have evolved pressure-ignoring skin, so when it's just me and the book I'm working on, I can focus on the book I'm working on. I enjoy writing very much. The job of putting together sentences, sentences which, we hope, have no faults, no cracks, no cruddy bits sticking out - that's a source of the deepest satisfaction for me.
filmbuffmum: I'm rather nervous about the filming of Cloud Atlas and was wondering how much input you had into the adaptation process? Have you seen the finished version yet, and do you feel it captures your internal view of the book, and does a writer even have such a thing, or is it modified by critical and reader responses?
David: I had very little input into the film, which was fine with me - screenwriting is a different art to novel writing, and it would be arrogant to think I could do both. But I have met the Waciowskis and Tom Tykwer - the directors who also wrote the script for the film - and I respect them as writers very much. Also I attended the cast read-through of the script in Berlin about a month ago, and at least on paper the film worked very well. It doesn't follow the book too slavishly, which is where a lot of film adaptations go wrong.
Does a writer have an internal view of a book? I guess, though I wrote the thing 10 years ago now, so I'm not sure what my view was... yes, I think it is modified by the world's view of the book, unless you live as a total hermit and avoid ever encountering the world's view of the book. A tall order in our Linkedin, Twittering age...
CalatalieSisters: Regarding Cloud Atlas, I found I enjoyed the structure more than the actual content. Am I wrong to read a novel primarily for the sake of its content rather than its form? And to read enthusiastically forwards to the content of its resolution? I wanted the resolution, but what was more beautiful about the book was its voice and its structure, and I should have been reading more "in each moment" rather than thinking of the plot.
David: I'm glad you liked the structure. Themes and ideas - yes, some writers - like Umberto Eco - seem to set out with the ideas, and their novels are almost lecture notes set to fiction. I'm not knocking that or saying it's wrong - I like his books a lot - but that's not how I work. I'm more a plot and character man, these are the elements that keep me reading the books I love. So I can see that a reader who needs more intellectual nourishment than I can offer might find my books a little cerebrally... thin? I find my ideas as I go along. Or perhaps I'm just a bit distrustful of answers to the big questions: the big questions are big questions because they're not easily answerable. Maybe I'm more of an explorer than an answerer...
TillyBookClub: With Cloud Atlas, did you play around with a lot of different structures and characters before whittling it down to its present arrangement? Was there an Ezra Pound moment where you took out the scissors and did a literary mash-up? Or was it a fully formed structural idea from the word go?
David: Cloud Atlas was written with the structure clearly in mind before I began. It was nine parts long, however, before reality began to bite and I realised six was the limit - only so many times you can ask a reader to start again. I wrote each novella in its entirety first, though I did work out the cliff-hanger moment as I wrote them.
sfxmum: English is not my first language, but I have lived here for the past 19 years, and it often amuses me the influence both languages have in the way I express myself. I understand that you have immersed yourself in another language and I wonder if this has a similar influence on the way you use English?
David: My Japanese is OK rather than great, but as you know if you study any language other than your own, you get to see your mother tongue as a building from the outside as opposed to a house from which you never leave. You see its strengths and weaknesses. And it's fun, and informative about what language is, isn't it?
I can't say what sort of a writer I would be if I hadn't dabbled in foreign language because I can't see into that parallel universe, but I do think I'd be a somewhat different writer. One of my recurrent themes is communication, and miscommunication, and non-communication (the book before 1000 Autumns, something called Black Swan Green, is about stammering) and my time as a struggling operator in Japanese certainly informs this theme - it can't not.
jamaisjedors: As someone who spends her life translating between languages, I wanted to say how much I appreciated your "translation scene" with Jacob helping out the interpreters with Dutch/Japanese. You are obviously totally fascinated with language, as all good writers shoold be. I loved the palimpset quality of Cloud Atlas and the way you seemed to be having fun with language there (but not in an off-putting self-conscious way I thought). Can you trace back where your fascination with language came from? How many languages do you speak?
David: Thanks for your kind comment about the translation scene - an EFL lesson, in a way, even though the answers are being used to set poor Jacob up and deliver a threat. I studied a little Dutch, but as usual not enough to speak with any confidence. Novelists are doomed jacks of all trades. Perhaps my fascination comes from the fact that I stammer - when language isn't as fluent as thought, you notice it more, and think about it more - your survival as a kid can depend on working out how to do what your disfluency is trying to stop you doing.
CalatalieSisters: I loved that in Thousand Autumns, after the childbirth in chapter 1, chapter 2 had a spilling of "fecund" ink, alongside blood, that left Jacob delivered onto the floor at the birth of his own story. And then later, again, Aibagawa speaks of words having blood, smell, pain, and of the fact that she has to be inured to such things in her job of delivery. Beautiful slidings between blood and language, between literal births and (something to do with) linguistic creativity.
I wondered how systematic such lovely touches are. Do you see yourself as pursuing a theme, or rather as being spontaneously playful just as the words hit you? Do you think of it as an attempt to communicate a definite metaphorical meaning to the reader, or do you just play, and in the course of that hope for the reader to be presented with something rich enough to stimulate her own play?
I adored the two conversations between Jacob and Aibagawa that I have read so far - the monkey in the warehouse and the scene where he assists her translation.
David: What an observant posting. I'm not sure if 'systematic' is quite the word for these resonances between theme and style and language, though I'm not sure what the word should be. It's more like you train yourself to spot them in the stream of ideas that occur to you as you construct the narrative - to spot them and, if appropriate, to use them.
I can't do all the reader's thinking for him or her, nor would I wish to - it's more like presenting the reader with a posh buffet with dishes I think will go with one another well, and then leaving the reader to dine (find meaning and, I hope, pleasure) on those aspects of the text (the buffet) his or her own tastes draw him or her to... (Hear that metaphor come crashing down? Me too...)
I couldn't get Jacob and Orito together often - the rules of Dejima make chance encounters very very tricky to bring about, but you've got a sweet one in the garden ahead of you...
TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
David: My most inspirational childhood books were the Earthsea series by Ursula le Guin - intelligent fantasy that still inspires me today.
TillyBookClub: Does your mind permanently fizz with words and pictures and juxtapositions and plotlines? I have an image of you like a Quentin Blake illustration in a Roald Dahl story, with a vast array of squiggly crazy drawings fireworking out of your head.
Did all that research for Thousand Autumns give you a lot of ideas, or is that mainly background to the events you've already imagined?
David: Actually yes, there's this stuff called 'Grow-Ur-Story', you can buy it from most good garden centres. You pour it in your ears before you go to sleep, plug your lug-holes with vaseline to stop it trickling out, and when you wake up, lo and behold, look what's grown ;-)
Seriously, ideas for fiction come like ideas for anything else, from the world, from books, from conversations, from the way you conflate ideas in your head, from your kids, from mishearings and malapropisms... the world's made of them. The trick is to identify ones that sit well, that have potential for development, the ones that are useable amongst the near-infinity of ideas that are not useable.
TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
David: The first piece of advice? Like the Nike advert, Just Do It. Practise writing in a notebook - anything will do. If you don't have a great idea for a story, just write about the view from your window, and see where it takes you...
jamaisjedors: What was the last book you read?
David: The last book I read was The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a terrific book I thought - cerebral and delving, sad and good. Always nice to be treated like an adult rather than a market demographic. Now I'm reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness, an Icelander - again, superb.
TillyBookClub: How much do you generally leave on the cutting room floor? Are there whole swathes of David Mitchell literature buried in a drawer under the bed/in the bin?
David: Some stuff falls to the cutting room floor, but it generally gets reincarnated elsewhere.
LongStory: The picture you paint of the future in Cloud Atlas still haunts me a little. I would be interested in whether you are feeling more or less optimistic about the future since then.
David: It depends on what that day's newspapers look like. And I'm very nervous about how our children will be flying, or having food brought to supermarkets, or how their container ships will lug stuff around the world without oil. Solar power is good for light bulbs, but we still haven't worked how to shift heavy stuff without combustion engines. Hmm....
TillyBookClub: I feel as if I would recognise one of your books even if it came to me as a nameless, coverless manuscript. You are such a distinctive author. But I'm surprised by that, because you can shapeshift and write so confidently in so many different guises. Do you think you can describe your 'voice'? Did you quickly find/recognise it when you started writing?
David: If it's not too pretentious to say it, I feel that I'm the servant (or midwife?) of each book, and it's my job to hunt around and find the best voice, or the optimum voice, for that book. Clearly, this isn't a One Size Fits All proposition... I don't think I could describe my voice, other than 'Hopefully The Right One'.
It's a novelist's job to be able to shape-shift if that novelist is going to have a crack at a wide and varied cast. So I wouldn't say I'm so special in this regard.
babybessa: Has your novel been translated into Japanese or Dutch and, if so, how has it been received?
David: Thousand Autumns was translated into Dutch (appearing only a few days after the English version came out) and it did very well in the Netherlands. Things move at a more glacial speed in Japan, and it isn't out there yet. We'll see. Japan has had other things to think about this year than foreign fiction.
OliviaMumsnet: Do you like the idea of ebooks rather than hardbacks or paperbacks? Also, I also sometimes listen to audio books at night which gives me more of a chance to get through things. I have just looked to see how long the Thousand Autumns audio version is , and it's over 18 hours! Have you heard it? Were you pleased with it?
David: Eighteen hours of audio book? Holy Disc-changer, Batman. Ideal for commutes, or house-painting, or situations where you are physically occupied but mentally free. (To answer your question, I listened to segments, and was pleased with the quality of the readings - hearing your work spoken brings lines to life in unexpected ways - but I didn't actually listen to all 18 hours. Entre nous.)
As for ebooks, yes, they are fine by me, though I'm still a book man myself. Reading can be a meditative, intense - spiritual? - experience, and I prefer the vehicle of reading to be an artefact rather than just the words. Not a very rational standpoint I know, and no doubt it shows my age, but it's how I feel. (Although as I lugged 10 books around Iceland in my backpack last months, I wasn't too sure...)
TillyBookClub: David, thank you very, very much indeed for coming on and for your thoughtful and insightful answers. Looking forward to seeing what you write next. Please come back and talk about it, whatever it is. Has been a joy and delight to have you here.
DavidMitchell: My pleasure - and thanks to everyone for the thoughtful questions.
Last updated: about 3 years ago