Interview with David Mitchell

Posted by Goodreads on July 5, 2010
One of today's most exciting novelists, David Mitchell has refined the art of writing diverse characters. Whether it's a doomsday cult member escaping arrest in Japan, a tribesman living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, or a teen boy with a stammer in 1980s England, his facility has earned him a rash of nominations and awards. Recently the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green was named one of Time magazine's ten best books of the year, and his best-selling novel Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His newest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is set in Japan on the man-made island of Dejima, once the only contact point with the West during the isolationist Edo period. In 1799, an earnest, young Dutch clerk begins his assignment on Dejima, where he meets and falls for a Japanese midwife. Mitchell, who lived and taught in Japan in the '90s, spoke to Goodreads from his home in Ireland.

Goodreads: What was the genesis of this book? Was it a character?

David Mitchell: Not the character but the place. But sometimes the place can be a character, can't it? Like Dickens's London or Ellroy's Los Angeles. It actually becomes a weird, many-headed kind of character in its own light.

In 1994, I was in Nagasaki and got off the wrong streetcar and found Dejima by accident. It's actually a physical place, being restored to how it was in the Edo period, which is quite a neat trick because land reclamation has pushed back the shoreline some distance, so it's now an island in an inland moat, a few hundred yards away from the sea. If you like the book enough, you can go there and walk the streets.

GR: Parts of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are funny. But you're often thought of as a serious author. Do you think it's hard for people to see the humor in serious fiction?

DM: I would dispute that humor and what we're calling serious art are incompatible. I would actually reverse it and say all of the best stuff, all of the immortal, imperishable stuff that has been in print for decades or will be in print for hundreds of years—it is so good because it contains humor. Where would we be without it?

GR: Who are some of those immortal authors for you?

DM: Chekhov, Melville, DeLillo, Nabokov, Austen, Marilynne Robinson.

GR: Not all of those authors have humor.

DM: The element of humor will often tumesce—which is a lovely word—it will often tumesce and form this nodule that we call a joke, and here we are, it's a funny story. You can find humor in funerals, you can find humor, God help us, in divorces, you can find it in the worst stuff that happens to us. Of course all languages have equivalents for gallows humor, black humor. Yeah, sure, Marilynne Robinson writes serious books, it would be like bread that didn't contain water, it would be stale and unswallowable. She may not be known for her hilarious anecdotes, but there's a lightness and a levity—a humor there.

GR: People often talk about science fiction writers building a world, and you've invented future worlds before. But here you're writing about the Dutch encountering Japan about 300 years ago. Could you talk about world building in science fiction and historical fiction?

DM: In the future, the spectrum that matters is effective through to ineffective; you hope you're on the effective end of that spectrum. It needs to be imaginable (in your own head) and transferrable (to the head of the reader). However, you can't actually be wrong.

With historical fiction, the spectrum is right through to wrong, it's historically correct to historically incorrect. If it's too much in the incorrect direction, then it's not going to work. The onboard proofreader in your reader's mind will say, "Hang on! They didn't have electric lights at this point! This is a book, this is fiction, it isn't real!" And—puff!—the whole thing disappears in a cloud of smoke, and the reader quite rightly throws the book across the room, end of story.

To get it right, you need to research and research and research. And then you need to hide all your research, otherwise something else happens. You get sentences like, "Milord, would you like me to light the sperm whale oil lantern or would you prefer the cheaper but smokier pig tallow candle?" You burst into laughter and—puff!—the illusion is gone. So you have to get it right, then you have to hide it.

Historical fiction isn't easy; it's not just another genre. How are they going to speak? If you get that too right, it sounds like a pastiche comedy—people are saying "thou" and "prithee" and "gadzooks," which they did say, but to an early 21st-century audience, it's laughable, even though it's accurate. So you have to design a kind of "bygone-ese"—it's modern enough for readers not to stumble over it, but it's not so modern that the reader kind of thinks this could be out of House or Friends or something made for TV—puff! Again, the illusion is gone. It's very easy to be wrong; it's very easy for the book to fail.

GR: In this book you use many dialogues: Dutch, Japanese in translation, Japanese not in translation, English.

DM: Three versions of "bygone-ese," spoken by three different national groups, and they can't all speak the same way, and you have to take into account gender and class and education level. It's the hardest thing I've ever written.

GR: Can you talk about the role of religion in the life of Jacob de Zoet?

DM: It's the 18th century, a much more God-fearing century. The mortality figures being what they were, and life expectancy being what it was, I would have been a lot more, I think we would all have been a lot more, God-fearing. And the sciences then [were unable] to explain the big questions. It struck me as realistic that Jacob would be a more God-fearing protagonist than many 20th, 21st century protagonists are. It also chimes in well with his innate integrity and scrupulousness. And it also harmonized with my desire to write an uncool protagonist—he's very honest, pious. These are certainly unfashionable qualities in our own age, when we like our heroes to have a rogue-ish swagger. It also gives me a good third chapter, where he refuses to comply with a regulation that requires all Christian artifacts and books to be sealed up in a barrel for the duration of their stay on Dejima. He's got this book of psalms that saved the life, quite literally, of one of his ancestors—he wouldn't exist without that book. He feels that to hand over this book to these heathens would be to trample on his faith, and he just can't do it. He's got to disobey official orders and smuggle it ashore, and he's not sure what the cost will be if he's caught. He rather suspects the cost will be very steep, but he goes ahead and does it anyway.

GR: Goodreads member Adam asked about intertextuality—you've had characters who appear in more than one of your novels. Can you find some in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?

DM: Thanks, Adam. Yes, you can. There's one character from Cloud Atlas, there's the ancestor of a character from Ghostwritten, and there's a four-legged character from Black Swan Green. There are one or two other touches, but I forget what they are.

GR: You've talked about not wanting to throw the reader out of the book, but in Cloud Atlas you used structure to create that "puff!" that interrupts the fictional illusion.

DM: Of course you know it's not real; it's a book, you just bought it. Ah, that's why fiction's so wonderful, isn't it? We know it's an illusion, but we enter into a contract with the writer—the title of the contract would be Terms of This Book's Illusion. Both the reader and the writer sign that contract. We're both going to pretend it's real, but the terms of this pretense can vary from book to book. Cloud Atlas, at the end of the first section, where the sentence is broken off halfway through and we jump into the next world, it offers a subclause to the contract saying, "By the way, in this book, according to the terms of the contract, I'd like to do this from time to time—would you like to go along with it?" The reader who agrees keeps reading, and the reader who says, "Oh, I can't be having with this"—the book goes spinning across the room in a perfect 2001-space-station-odyssey whirling loop. I hope that doesn't happen too often. This book has a somewhat more regular contract, a slightly different contract. But all books do. Perhaps the contract defines the book—that's an interesting thought.

GR: Goodreads member Caitlin wants to know why, after your more speculative novels, you moved to a realistic novel in the (roughly) contemporary period in Black Swan Green.

DM: A few things. One, I'd just written Cloud Atlas and I wanted a break from research. Two, I became curious about disfluency—I realized that "uncommunication," to coin a word, was one of my themes, and that my stammer might have something to do with this. That became more interesting, and I wanted to write about it. Three, I suppose I became interested, belatedly, in writing my first novel—even though it's my fourth one. Human mud and entanglements and that messy human stuff became more interesting to me as I was aging through my mid-thirties—not a bad place to start with your own, really.

GR: What are you reading right now?

DM: Lots of things. The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox.

GR: What is a typical writing day like for you?

DM: I'm a dad and a husband and a son and a brother, and of course these relationships bring responsibilities, around which I fit my writing. So I do the school run in the morning, write in a kind of office for three to four hours, break for lunch, another hour, then do the school run in the reverse direction. Kind of depends where I am in the publishing cycle; around publication time I do e-mailing and interviews like this one, eat, throw the kids around the garden for a bit if the weather's nice, bedtime. Might get another hour or two in before I get to bed—a good day would be seven working hours.

GR: Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DM: I can only write if I stand on my head and have "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen blaring out on a continuous loop.... Not really. My writing life has been too susceptible to change, and my writing hours are too precious to be able to afford the indulgence of ritual.

GR: There was an academic conference about your work last year. Did you go?

DM: I did. It sounds self-aggrandizing, but I just wanted to relish the weirdness of it. I was invited, and it seemed gracious to accept. I went, and as I expected, it was very strange to hear one referred to as "Mitchell" in sentences like, "In this passage, Mitchell clearly means..." when I'm actually in the room. It was odd for me; it was probably even stranger for people reading their papers out. I like to think we all enjoyed the strangeness of it together.

Interview by Carolyn Kellogg for Goodreads. Learn more about Carolyn and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)

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message 1: by Kelley (new)

Kelley I think dialog in historical fiction can be tricky for a writer. You want to make it sound like it fits the time period, but you don't want to make it too difficult for modern readers. Rob Roy comes to mind for me. The Scottish dialect was too realistic. I couldn't understand what the heck the guy was saying. It drove me nuts. LOL

message 2: by Meloncat (new)

Meloncat I am currently reading this book now and it's a step away from from my normal reading choices. I'm really enjoying it so far! After I'm done, I'm thinking I'm going to go and try to find his other book. Hopefully I'll soon have a new author to follow and recommend. :)

message 3: by Veronica (new)

Veronica Great interview -- I loved this quote:
"To get it right, you need to research and research and research. And then you need to hide all your research, otherwise something else happens."

That's exactly what was wrong with Ian McEwan's Saturday. "Look at all the research I did on brain surgery!". Really great historical authors like Mary Renault seem to effortlessly avoid this trap. I'm really looking forward to reading Jacob de Zoet, a new David Mitchell is always exciting!

message 4: by Richard (new)

Richard Wise David,

"Bygone-ese" that's exactly right, writing my own 17th Century work The French Blue was sort of a balancing act between modern sentence structure and I guess a more elaborate way of speaking. The didn't talk like Shakespeare in the 17th century, so you add parenthetical phrases like "He bought it, did he not" to make it sound a bit archaic without as you say, gadzooks, hark and methinks.

Research is the key, though I think the trick is to integrate little nuggets of knowledge. Though you don't do much of that in your latest (I am still reading it and love it, btw). It's one of the things I like best about good historical fiction, painless education. Perhaps leaving those little gems out is more literary, but I couldn't resist.

message 5: by Heather (new)

Heather Cole I have just finished Thousand Autumns. Stayed up till 4am to drain the last dregs of this new masterpiece. Of all the praise I could heap on it, one thing stands out. Mr. Mitchell, I don't know if you've read Oliver Statler's "The Japanese Inn." What's shared here is the ineffable touch of truly characterizing the denizens of what was for Jacob an all-too-foreign world. We all know how both actual travel and traveling through fictional landscapes achieve the furthest extent of enrichment when the people we meet "come alive" for us. I know I'll never forget this teeming world, and I refuse to accept that my time with it -- and with them -- them is *over.*

message 6: by Kathleen (last edited Jul 15, 2010 04:43AM) (new)

Kathleen George Carolyn,
Kathy George here. Good interview. I've been reading about this book and it was good to hear from the author.

message 7: by Doctor (new)

Doctor Of course Mitchel is right about the sperm-whale oil. I think, however, that his need to say that kind of thing is terrifying. Do some writers of historical fiction write that badly?

He is right about the humor, and all of the writers he mentions and whom I know are humorous. He might have included Dickens, just to nail down his point, or, for that matter Joyce and Faulkner.

But the list he gives is, in itself, humorous and inadvertently so. Does DeLillo, good as he is, really belong on a short list that has Tolstoy, Austen, and Melville?? Furthermore, who in the world is Marilynne Robinson? This is a classic example of the tyranny of the new.

As for the reader's comment about McEwan's Saturday, knowledge is never something to apologize for, and let that reader dream of the day when Mitchell--or Marilynne Robinson for that matter--can write at McEwan's level.


message 8: by Veronica (new)

Veronica If you don't know who Marilynne Robinson is and presumably haven't read any of her work, I think it's presumptuous to suggest she can't write at McEwan's level.

For the record, I enjoyed McEwan's earlier work, especially A Child in Time and Atonement. But in Saturday he's resting on his laurels. It has its good moments, but it certainly isn't up to his usual standard.

message 9: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen George I agree with Veronica. In my opinion, McEwan has many talents but he sacrifices truth to sensation and is condescending toward many of his characters. Robinson is tough, unsentimental, and honest.

message 10: by Doctor (new)

Doctor You are quite right. I have not read any of Marilynne Robinson's writing. Therefore, I suppose I am on shaky ground in saying she cannot measure up to McEwan.

On the other hand, there are a lot of writers I haven't read. I read contemporary fiction, but it's hard to know just what to read, and so I rely on the advice of friends, book reviews, etc. . Frankly, I have never thought of reading Robinson because I have never heard of her.

I don't agree with you about Saturday. It is brilliant. So is On Chesil Beach. So is Solar. And I have read most of his older stuff. I think he ranks with some of the best writers of the last thirty years. He has won a lot of prizes, and he has earned his reputation.

So much for our quarrel . I still think that Mitchell's grouping of Robinson with Melville and Tolstoy is unbearably trendy.

Good to hear from you. Enjoy your reading.


message 11: by Doctor (new)

Doctor Well maybe I should try something Robinson has written. What's her best?

On the other hand, I think your description of McEwan's writing is borderline inane.



message 12: by William (new)

William Pleasant I thought Cloud Atlas was fab and look forward to reading this new one.
If you are looking for recommendations, Doctor, I recently saw a review of a book on the Vulpes Libris site that said '...An A-Z of Possible Worlds is perhaps even better than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which I adored)...' That was enough for me. I've just got it and I can't rave about it enough but it's hardly had any attention. I wouldn't want to say here that it is 'better' than Cloud Atlas (what means better anyway?!) but it's well worth a google to find out more. It's by A C Tillyer and published by Roast Books.

message 13: by Excerptreader (new)

Excerptreader Next on The Excerpt Reader's blog, a review of David Mitchel's excerpt from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Visit the blog or my twitter page

message 14: by Doctor (new)

Doctor Many thanks, William.

William wrote: "I thought Cloud Atlas was fab and look forward to reading this new one.
If you are looking for recommendations, Doctor, I recently saw a review of a book on the Vulpes Libris site that said '...A..."

message 15: by الحربي (new)

الحربي أبي رسائل وسائط للجوال

message 16: by الحربي (new)

الحربي fgjjrtiflgvbn.m;;ghlhoigh;oda'epr9t

message 17: by Steve (new)

Steve From Goodreads site:

Marilynne Robinson author profile
bornNovember 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, The United States
genreLiterature & Fiction, Religion & Spirituality

about this author:
Her 1980 novel, Housekeeping, won a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Her second novel, Gilead, was acclaimed by critics and received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the 2005 Ambassador Book Award.

Her third novel, Home, was published in 2008 and was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award; it won the Orange Prize.

I haven't read them, but if all three of your published works are on the lists for Pulitzer or National Book Award and have won several awards, I would say you are gaining a pretty good author reputation.


Doctor wrote: "You are quite right. I have not read any of Marilynne Robinson's writing. Therefore, I suppose I am on shaky ground in saying she cannot measure up to McEwan.

On the other hand, there are a lot of..."

message 18: by Doctor (new)

Doctor Steve-

You are quite right. I looked her up the other day. I stand corrected.

message 19: by Pinknorth (new)

Pinknorth so interesting !

message 20: by Doctor (new)

Doctor Pinknorth wrote: "so interesting !"


Her books?

message 21: by William (new)

William Pleasant Honestly - check out the A-Z: I stumbled upon it by accident and it pretty much blew my head off.... Can't recommend enough though afraid I might be getting a bit evangelical about it!

message 22: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Scobie A great interview, though I was especially intrigued with Mitchell's comments about writers who cause readers to lose "the illusion" of a book's believable world. I've loved everything of his except "Gohstwritten", but I'm halfway through "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" and getting very concerned about where the character of Abbot Enomoto is going: ending up like a character from "A Chinese Gohst Story" may prove to be a"puff!" moment for me. ;-)

message 23: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Scobie Doctor wrote: "You are quite right. I have not read any of Marilynne Robinson's writing. Therefore, I suppose I am on shaky ground in saying she cannot measure up to McEwan.

On the other hand, there are a lot of..."

I can't stand any of McEwan's earlier works, marred by an unberably 1980's trend towards using incest as a mark of Serious Literature. To me, his Atonement (definitely a Great Novel) is a thankful atonement for all of his bad earlier works.

But in defence of Mitchell, I think he was demonstrating his own dry humour in including Marilynne Robinson's writing in that list. He was also talking about serious writers who embed humour in their seriousness, not giving a list of the All Time Greatest novelists.

message 24: by Sheila (new)

Sheila Culshaw This was one of the most exciting books I've ever read, but it took me ages to get into it. I also enjoyed Black Swan Green because it was set in the author's home town and illustrated what happens when a rich lad goes to an ordinary comprehensive school. I think there might have been a bit of autobiography in here but I might be wrong.

message 25: by Kim (new)

Kim Wells-Ball The Bone Clocks is my favorite one. The supernatural elements make it a bit Gothic and mysterious. Derek Thompson wrote a brilliant summary and review of it:
David Mitchell’s almost-perfect masterpiece that taught me how to write my essay on metaphysical and metamorphic topics.

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