One of the most celebrated authors of his generation, British novelist David Mitchell won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best British novel by a writer under 35) with his debut effort, Ghostwritten. He went on to write thematically daring, structurally complex works like number9dream; this month’s A.V. Club Wrapped Up In Books selection, Cloud Atlas; and the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green. His latest, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, is a poetic, moving story of a Dutch trader’s travails in late-18th-century Japan. Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years, and also spent time in Italy; we spoke to him at home in Ireland, where he had just returned after a book tour of America.
The A.V. Club: The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet won you a lot of praise, both in the U.S. and abroad. Did you anticipate how well it would be received? Is that something you consider when you’re preparing a book?
David Mitchell: When you’re writing, no. You can’t think too much about reception. That’s a luxury that just isn’t involved. All you can think about is how to make the book work, and through all possible readers, it gets condensed down into one particular reader—which is largely me, and probably my wife as well. It all gets distilled down into that one reader, and if it works for that reader, then hopefully it’ll work for everybody else. As regards this particular book’s intended reception, no—I handled the book as a bag of nerves, actually, just thinking I’d chosen something far too obscure, a misty niche of Japanese history. I began to worry, during those three days that it takes the editor to read it; during that time, I became anxious that the effort had been toward something much too obscure, and that my literary career would go shooting down in flames. But luckily, my editor gave me a good response back, and again luckily, that’s continued up until the present with many people who have read the book.
AVC: You lived in Japan for a number of years, but was there anything in particular about this period of Japanese history that drew you to write about it?
DM: It was Dejima [an artificial island in the Nagasaki harbor that became a Dutch trading colony] itself. Specifically, what it was—this strange, singular, confined meeting place that not many people know about the existence of. I wanted to get that in a book somehow. One level to work through is the people who lived there, how the Dutch and the Japanese would see one another, particularly during Napoleonic times, when the ships stopped being able to get through from Batavia [modern-day Jakarta]. What would it have been like to be marooned there, not knowing why the ships had stopped arriving, not knowing why you were cut off the way you were? And then whether you’d ever see home again, or if you’d die in this strange, mystifying, in some ways unfriendly place. So all of these things, through Dejima, are why I wrote the book.
AVC: Did you begin thinking about the book when you were still in Japan, or did it come to you after you’d already left?
DM: Both, really. I found out about it when I was there—this is when I was 24, before I got disciplined about writing—and even then, I knew I wanted to do something with the place, and I hoped nobody would write a book set there in the meantime. But it took me a very long time to get around to writing about Dejima. That was the wise part of me, knowing how difficult it would be to write a book set there. Once I finally had the idea, though, and I started to write, I realized it was sort of an anti-narrative enclosure. There was a point where Dejima just stopped these illegal encounters between the Europeans and the Japanese; the unexpected events that make a novel stopped happening in reality. So I sort of realized I’d wandered into a trap. [Laughs.] A place to trap unwary Western novelists—and unwary Japanese novelists as well. That’s why there was a part of me that realized it was going to be a very difficult novel to write, and kept putting it off. So I didn’t actually start it until a few years after I’d left Japan.
AVC: A number of the comments we’ve gotten from people who have read it say they found it particularly interesting because so little has been written about that time and place.
DM: That’s encouraging to hear, and it reminds me: Never underestimate the reader. I will be less afraid of the byways and side lanes of history in the future, I think.
AVC: With Thousand Autumns, you turn further away from the highly formalist structure of your early work, especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Is this a deliberate direction you’ve taken?
DM: I don’t really think in those sort of book-to-book terms in terms of where I’m going and how I’m evolving or not as a writer. It’s much more within the confines of one book; it’s the question “What can I do to make this book work?” Looking back, the answer to that question for some books has meant a relatively formal complex structure. Actually, the only answer to “How do I make the book work?”, in structural terms, with Thousand Autumns, was by default blended in. Three longish books, 13 chapters each; one narrative head in Book One, two narrative heads in Book Two, three narrative heads in Book Three—each of the narrative heads being different from the section that came before. That was the only structure I could concoct to do what I wanted to do getting in, and then letting the book work. So it’s a book-by-book proposal.
AVC: You do seem to continue looking at exploitation, inequality, and people kept in place by their lack of economic and social power. Is it safe to say that’s an ongoing theme in your work?
DM: It’s a fair notation.
AVC: It certainly isn’t a theme that’s going to lose relevance anytime soon.
DM: [Laughs.] That’s true. I’m trying to think of a sophisticated answer, but I’m not sure I can! As you said, for one, it’s universal—the theme of power, or lack of it. If the human condition were the periodic table, maybe love would be hydrogen at No. 1. Death would be helium at No. 2. Power, I reckon, would be where oxygen is. And it just times very well with what fiction is, with what narrative is. I’m not the first to notice—I think Aristotle was onto it first—but in narrative, you need two people, and they want opposing things. One will win, and the other won’t, or there’ll be a sophisticated kind of a draw. That’s the lowest common denominator of narrative, the conflict of wills. Maybe if I’d been a super-privileged, Etonian/Cambridge/Ivy League guy with a very rich background, who’d never had to worry about how to pay the electricity bill, or had to work in a supermarket or wherever, these themes wouldn’t occur in my work. But I’ve had to do both! I’ve had to worry about bills, and fear to see envelopes with windows in them because that meant they were from banks. I’ve had those times in my life, and I’m glad I did, because that’s how most people live. Hopefully it’s just a temporary period in most of our lives, but it’s still a very universal human experience to not quite have enough.
AVC: There’s a line near the end of the book, by the Captain—“Power is a man’s means of composing the future, but the composition has a way of composing itself”—that really brought that out.
DM: What you say reminds me of something British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked: Who or what was in charge of the world, who made the big decisions in national and international political life? Harold answered: “Events, dear boy, events.” [Laughs.] Events are in charge! Isn’t that a great thing to say? It’s the health bill, it’s the invasion of Kuwait, it’s North Korea rattling its possible nuclear saber. It’s a war here, it’s an earthquake there—it’s events that are in charge.
AVC: One of the strengths of your books is their ability to convey emotional power, but for many writers, the process of writing itself is a cold, intellectual act—the selection of the right word, the proper order of the story, the construction of sentences can be bloodless. Do you feel that writing itself is an emotional process for you, or do you approach it intellectually and hope that it has the emotional content you intend?
DM: Oh, good one. Good one. Of course, it’s actually both. Different writers do it in different ways, as you note. There’s a lot of what, in terms of your question, what you’d call cold, calculated intellectual decision that goes into the composition, and thousands of decisions per page that you’re not even consciously aware of. Here, should you be using “maybe,” or “perhaps”? What do you want to reveal in this sentence? Should you enter into a long series of semicolons, or make it a more formal list? Or disguise the fact that it’s a list, or make it a more stream-of-consciousness thing, coming out in diarrhea form, or whatever? Yeah, there’s thousands of these decisions per page. Sometimes you just go by hunch or by instinct, so you’re not even aware you’ve made the decision. Other times, you’re quite aware of it: You think about a character, and say “I hope it works that he uses this particular word,” or “This word seems awfully new, maybe a bit too slangy for this character. Or is it? Would recent developments in his life discourage slang, or would he knowingly drop in a slang word to show what an acrobatic user of words he is?” That’s all the cold intellectual stuff.
Now, added to all that, if the material isn’t creating an emotional response in the depths of the reader, in the heart of the reader, then for me, it’s sterile. It doesn’t matter how good it is. It could have Nabokov-style narrative tricks all the way to next Thursday; it doesn’t matter. If you don’t care about the character, if there’s no reason to care about the character, and the writer isn’t giving you one—nope. No good. Out it goes. Start again. You can maybe salvage some of the week’s work and get something from it, but you’ve got to try again. I think of a tired mum with two kids and not enough sleep—that’s the reader. I’m modifying my answer to your first question, but that’s the reader I think of, and that reader really engineers your theme, and can appreciate a good, glorious style for what it is, but compared to the meat and potatoes of plot and character—caring about someone, worrying if something bad is going to happen to them—compared to the latter, the former cannot hold a candle in terms of importance. Theme and style are important, but to me, they’re subservient to plot and character. Especially character, because it’s character we relate to as human beings.
Sometimes, comics will make the observation that it’s not jokes that are funny, it’s characters that are funny. And isn’t that true! That’s why I always kill jokes. I’m terrible at them, because I get the joke right, but I can’t get the character right, and it just goes down like a lead balloon. It’s really not even plot—it’s characters that really pull you into a novel, that make you forget what page number you’re on, and the hours just fly by until it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and you find you’ve finished. At the end of the novel, it’s characters that we relate to emotionally. I like plot—I can get lost in a plot that’s like a maze, and I admire style. I’m gripped by themes and clever ideas, books that are thoughtful and well thought out. But you don’t fall in love with these things. You fall in love with character. I’m preoccupied by character, by someone’s loathsome aspects or beautiful aspects. It’s all about the who, and not at all about the what, and not even particularly about the how. It all goes back to the who. Like Pete Townshend.
AVC: In your books, you have such a broad interest in the human condition; everything about people seems to fascinate you. Is it ever difficult to focus on just one story to tell?
DM: Imagine you’re in the giant food hall of a very, very top-end five-star department store, and everything in that food hall appeals to you. Do you think it’s difficult to decide, you know, it’s going to be oysters this evening, or how about those mangoes dipped in white sugar, or duck confit, or what about those apricots soaked in brandy? It’s not, really. It’s quite natural: you look at something and say “That looks delicious—I’m going to eat that.” Or, to ruin the metaphor, “I’m going to write about that.” No, it’s not difficult—I’m just grateful that there’s so much else that I still want to do and still want to try.