Mitchell David

David Mitchell Interview

David Mitchell has achieved the rare double of critical acclaim and bestseller sales. With an imagination the size of a planet, he is perhaps the only writer for whom the old reviewers’ phrase is true: his best known novel, Cloud Atlas, really does contain more ideas in each chapter than most writers manage in an entire book.  His new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, went to number 1 in the bestseller charts in its week of release.  It is also sure to feature heavily on prize lists this year, because it is very good.

Can you tell us a little about the writing process for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?  Did the stories of Jacob on Dejima, Miss Aibagawa in the monastery and the English fleet develop from one germ of an idea, or were they separate stories which happened to fit together?  Were there any technical challenges in maintaining a third person narrative voice through so many sections?

I went wrong twice and only succeeded on the third take.  Book 1 (Jacob on Dejima) and the characters of Ogawa the interpreter and Orito the midwife were salvaged from my first attempt.  The end of the novel was salvaged from my second attempt.  Book 2 (Orito in the monastery) and Book 3 (the English frigate) were products of the third, and final, attempt.  All this probably means that it is truer to call the book a composite than it is to call the book a product of a single germ.

The technical challenge didn’t lie in maintaining a third person voice, but creating it in the first place. I’d never really attempted this commonest of forms before because I never knew what to leave out – the third is the infinite voice, whereas the first is the limited one – what first person narrators say is limited (and determined) by who they are.  A few years ago I asked AS Byatt how she decided what to put into third person narratives, and her answer was as simple as it was helpful: What you think the reader will want to hear, that’s what you put in.  Additionally, I devised a sort of ‘thought helmet’ to be worn by only one character per chapter: the thoughts of the chosen character, and that character alone, are ‘audible’ to the reader.  So thanks to AS Byatt and the Thought Helmet, on my third attempt to write the book I deployed the third person narrative, and managed, finally, to get the novel finished before it finished me.

The story in Jacob de Zoet has a more unified feel than in your first three books, where smaller stories made up a whole.  Did you feel under pressure – from yourself or readers – to write a book that had one single storyline?  Indeed, as your books manage the tricky task of matching sales with critical acclaim, does this put pressure on you as a writer, knowing the added attention that the author of Jacob de Zoet will be scrutiny to, that the author of Ghostwritten wasn’t?

It wasn’t that I felt under pressure to write a book with a single storyline: it was that because I hadn’t really done one before, it was an attractive proposition.  I want each book to feel new and distinct: my ideal would be that, in a blindfold test (shades of the Pepsi Challenge here), prose from two of my books could not be identifiable as having been written by the same person.  I don’t achieve that ideal, but it’s one of a small group of inner advisers who influence the shape a book takes.

Pressure about an as-yet-unwritten book’s reception?  Happily, I guess, the task of making any given book work drowns everything else out, for most of the time.

Richard Price spoke of the difficulty when researching a novel of knowing when to stop the research and begin writing. Was this a problem with a novel so “research-heavy” as Jacob de Zoet?  Does research assist the imaginative process by providing a factual springboard, or does it tie you down to what must be known?

I view research as a necessity that is both problematic and pleasureable. If you don’t do any, you can’t get to the end of your first paragraph. If you don’t do enough, historical fiction will be threadbare and implausible. If you do too much, you’ll become a professional Patrick O’Brian or Simon Schama reader and never actually start writing. If you do too much but then forget to submerge nine-tenths of it beneath the waterline, you’ll have ‘look at me!’ sentences like: ‘Shall I light the room with the whale oil lantern, Madam, or will it be the pig tallow candles tonight?’ So with life, so with art: avoid the pitfalls, learn from your mistakes, and keep working until you get the balance right.

Regarding your second question, you need to work out a policy.  This will depend upon how heavily you wish to emphasize the ‘historical’ versus the ‘fiction’ of ‘historical fiction’.  My policy involved using history as a sort of DIY warehouse where I could source the raw materials, but giving myself a licence to assemble those raw materials according to the dictates of the story. For example, an historical HMS Phaeton sailed into Nagasaki in 1808 and demanded the handover of Dejima. When the Dutch didn’t comply the British seem to have set fire to one or two small boats, and left. My novel didn’t want to hang around for 8 years between Books 1 and 3, so I renamed the Phaeton ‘Phoebus’, sailed her in sooner, and had her bombard Dejima with artillery, setting off a chain of events which affect other characters in the book.  If you follow the facts too closely, you end up writing non-fiction.

You’ve spoken before of your admiration for, and desire to emulate in your writing the best qualities of, Perec, Calvino and others.  Are there any direct influences or inspirations for Jacob de Zoet?  (Enomoto’s monastery, for some reason, reminded me of the convent in Black Narcissus.)

Yes, I saw Black Narcissus years ago, so maybe.  My most conscious source for Mount Shiranui was the Temple of Atuan from Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea book, The Tombs of Atuan.  The idea of a menagerie of disfigured people occurs in José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night.  Napoleon-era set naval fiction, notably the Aubrey-Maturin cycle, informed life on my frigate and the attitudes of its crew.  Yasunari Kawabata wrote a (mostly) non-fiction account of a single go match, called The Master of Go.  Eduard Dekker, a Dutch writer who wrote under the name Multatuli published a book Max Havelaar which fed into my Dutch characters, both sympathetic and less so.  My Irish convict’s story draws on Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore.  There are probably 20 or 30 other sources, but I can’t think of them now.

Many of the secondary characters, such as Dr Marinus and Arie Grote, seem to be bursting with life beyond their restricted appearances on the page.  Did you edit much material about them from the final version of the novel?  Are there ideas for the characters that you would have liked to include?

Certainly, I edited about 50 or 60 pages out of the novel for the final MS. There’s much more than meets the eye with Marinus in particular. He will appear in my next novel, set around now. In the book after that he’ll be the main character. That’s what I plan right now, but of course plans can change.

As an Irishman, I’m bound to ask whether living in Ireland is likely to inspire your literary imagination in the future as much as living in Japan has done?

I don’t know: I’d think twice before writing about Ireland, not least because so many Irish writers do it so well. Why bother trying to describe the countryside when McGahern’s on the shelf before you?  Another reason for my reluctance is that my wife and I intend to stay living here for a very long time, and what if the good townspeople of Clonakilty took exception to my portrayal of their culture?  There are only so many bars where you can get a good pint of Murphy’s, y’know…  That said, I’ve got half an idea knocking about for an Irish/ Orcadian/Icelandic sort of a book: maybe if I go back 800 years I’d be safe?  What do you think?

Your sharing a name with a well-known comedian made me think of the difference between your professions: he gets an immediate response from an audience for his efforts, where you work for years alone and get only limited feedback.  Would you swap places with him, professionally speaking?

Never!  David Mitchell the comedian has skills I can only dream about. I kill jokes stone dead, even really good ones, and it takes me weeks of editing and polishing to work out what I want to say, whereas he can produce funny and incisive sentences spontaneously.  He may well evolve into a figure as central to the culture as Stephen Fry… while I’ll still be hacking away in my little hut in West Cork, for years alone…

Finally, can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

I like Sylvia Townsend Warner, who I guess would qualify as overlooked nowadays. She’s both barbed and gentle, and wry, and wise.  She asks you to concentrate more than many modern writers, but if you do, you find her novels taking up residence inside you, and glowing.  Lolly Willowes from 1926 is a great one about a woman who becomes a witch and meets a Devil as sympathetic as Bulgakov’s, but all of her books are strong, and distinct from one another.

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

In writing his fifth novel, David Mitchell had an unenviable task.  After the cumulative nimbleness of Cloud Atlas, he retreated into a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story for Black Swan Green (“I thought it was about time I wrote my first novel”), but all eyes – my eyes anyway – were on what he would do next. In particular, could he break the pattern that had made each of his first three novels, despite their inventiveness and compexity, seem to be less an ocean than a multitude of drops? Could he apply his considerable imaginative talent to a fully unified story?  Or would he be damned either way: accused either of failing to break new ground, or of not playing to his established strengths?

Until I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I didn’t know that Japan shared a common border with the Netherlands.  Well, it did in the 18th century. It was called Dejima, a small artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki, an airlock between east and west, a “walled-in hamlet of warehouses”. It provided Japan with a connection to Europe after the country closed off relations with the rest of the world, and was occupied by Dutch merchants taking delivery of shipments from their port of Batavia (now Jakarta), in Indonesia.  The privilege of being the only westerners to trade with Japan was not an unqualified one: ‘”the Shogun’s hostages” is what the natives dub us,’ observes one trader.  When one young clerk complains that he cannot cross the Land-Gate from Dejima to Nagasaki, he gets short shrift from his interpreter, Ogawa:

‘But [you] may pass through Sea-Gate and away, over ocean.  But I – all Japanese – prisoners all life.  Who plot to leave is executed.  Who leave and return from abroad is executed.’

The clerk is Jacob de Zoet, employed by Dutch Chief Vorstenbosch to investigate the endemic corruption on the island.  “Dejima’s books for the last five years are a pig’s dinner.”  Jacob is a young man of ability and integrity, both factors in his subsequent fortunes.  He is warned by the colourful Arie Grote, however: “Stop all these little perquisites, eh, an’ yer stop Dejima itself,” and also, significantly, that “loyalty looks simple, but it ain’t.” Jacob feels trapped on Dejima but also trapped by the past he left behind – and the future he awaits – back in Zeeland: he is engaged to a girl called Anna, while here on Dejima, his attention is increasingly drawn to midwife and student Miss Aibagawa.  Mitchell sketches the strangeness of the foreign country-within-a-country in quick strokes:

There is a row of stone idols; twists of paper tied to a plum tree.

Nearby, street acrobats perform a snonky song to drum up business.

The palanquins pass over an embanked river; the water stinks.

Jacob’s armpits, groin and knees are itchy with sweat; he fans himself with his clerk’s portfolio.

There is a girl in an upper window; there are red lanterns hanging from the eaves, and she is idly tickling the hollow of her throat with a goose feather.  Her body cannot be ten years old, but her eyes belong to a much older woman’s.

Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.

A hairy beggar kneeling over a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog.

Jacob proves his ability in brokering a successful deal for the sale of mercury to Lord Abbot Enomoto, but Japan is not a meritocracy (nor anything close: “democracy is not a flower who bloom in Japan, I think”), and Jacob, Miss Aibagawa, and Enomoto will become locked in alignment in a horrifying way as the story progresses.  Enomoto symbolises power, and power is at the heart of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  In a story where most – individuals, companies, countries – are interested in their own advancement, it is the powerful who have most to fear.  The Dutch have the power of being the only country trading with Japan, but they would be foolish to forget, for example, that “the English are a vicious race.”

The members of the strongest companies and countries also tend to forget, as one high-ranking character observes, that “power is a man’s means of composing the future, but the composition has a way of composing itself.”   We are reminded of the futility of men’s plans in the face of greater events, and also – in the powerfully affecting closing pages of the book – of how little a man’s own key life events matter to others or to posterity.

As the world turns – as Enlightenment follows “ignoration”, as imperfect democracy flowers across the globe (“In the animal kingdom,” says one Dutch merchant, “the vanquished are eaten by those more favoured by Nature.  Slavery is merciful by comparison: the lesser races keep their lives in exchange for their labour”), Japan retains its closed mystery.  “The Third Shogun closed the country to prevent Christian rebellion,” comments one historian, “but its result was to pickle Japan in a specimen jar!”  Even Jacob, late in the book, must admit, “Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence.  The country doesn’t want to be understood.”

And while this is the rich unified narrative I was hoping for, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is told in three distinct parts.  The second part is almost a thriller, and brings to mind not only an echo of the subjugation theme of Cloud Atlas, but also of various cultural reference points: Black Narcissus, The Handmaid’s Tale, even Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  The third part muddies the waters beautifully. Throughout the book, Mitchell frequently uses short paragraphs and paired ellipses which imitates narrative pace despite the stately progress of the story.  Each scene is a small perfection of detail and narrative payoff, and what is remarkable is how Mitchell achieves the sense of immersion while keeping his details spare and unobtrusive.

The book shifts under the reader’s eyes, sometimes about this, sometimes that, and only at the end do we recall the overview.  It is a book about the great shifts in power between countries and ideologies, and the weight of money, but it is also an intricate human drama and an emotional voyage.  “Why must all things,” a ship’s captain wonders, “go around in stupid circles?”  Because nations and politics may change, but people never do.