DAVID PIKE/THE VARSITY

Reading interviews David Mitchell has given over the years, there emerge at least three preoccupations he has with himself as a writer.

He is in this for the long haul: he wants to be a writer for a long time and worries about one day fizzling out “as some writers can do writing variations of the same novel”; he tries to not write the same book twice.

Consequently, he is constantly pushing himself into new forms to see what they can do. He is a structure wonk in a world lonely for structure wonks, and finds many a work by other authors to be stylistically spot-on but structurally sloppy.

“I think that structure’s a little underdone,” he said at an International Festival of Authors event in October. “There’s many books where the style might be brilliant but it’s shapeless. If the five elements of the novel might be plot, character, theme/idea, style, and structure, structure’s the one that’s perhaps still a bit of a virgin territory. There’s space for new turf you can stake out on.”

All of his books use structure, in some works more overtly than in others, to try the bounds of storytelling. His chosen structure for a book will create new problems to be resolved, and in resolving them, he covers new ground. As Mitchell summarized at the IFOA event, “Why write an easy book, hey?”

This concentrated experimentation leads to his third preoccupation. All writers suffer from this, but Mitchell seems to feel it acutely, because again and again in interviews he complains about infinity: his books could go anywhere, be anything — take on the perspective of a bodiless soul, say, or write from the pen of Goatwriter, the storytelling goat — but any single book can’t be everything.

“The big enemy when you start out a new book is infinity,” he said at Harbourfront, where he was co-headlining a talk with William Gibson. “Every writer has different techniques to filter out infinity, reduce all the possible Borgesian books from the library of a book. You have to get rid of all the others to get to the one: ‘That’s what I’m writing.’ The first-person narrator is one such filter … keeping out the Orcs of Infinity. Structure is also a kind of scaffolding.”

Gibson agreed. “The appeal of structure is profound when one is embarking on a book,” he said.

“It’s like the fiddle-maker who said that he starts with a block of wood and he removes all the parts that aren’t a fiddle. Writing novels feels like that to me: the trick is to find the fiddle. You’ve just described the process of how one can do that. Once you start to have a sense of what it uniquely is, you’re able to reject all those things which are not it and really working in an infinity of things that might be it. … That’s another way of saying you need boundaries. No matter how wild or crazy your imagination is going to go, it’s going to be wasted without those boundaries: it’s like trying to boil water with the lid off the pot.”

Where does Mitchell’s latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, fit into all this? Published earlier this year, de Zoet is Mitchell’s first wholly historical novel and on the surface, it doesn’t have the same whiz-bang pyrotechnics of his earlier books. There are no confessions of soon-to-be executed fabricants, though one storyline does go for a loop through speculative fiction territory. The experimentation is subtler, less showy, more controlled. As he reveals in this interview, the author views the 480 pages as “tightly disciplined,” adding, “I cut off far more fat from the book than there is left of it.”

With de Zoet the author returns to Japan, the setting of many of his earlier stories and the country where he made his home for several years. The book opens in 1799 during the Tokugawa shogunate. The country is hermetically sealed from outside influences except at the trading post of Dejima, a tiny, walled, artificial island in Nagasaki Harbour operated by the ailing Dutch East Indies Company and closely watched by Japanese authorities. The dozen or so traders on the island are as good as prisoners. Among these is Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has joined the Company hoping to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart, Anna, back home. But once on the island, Orito, the daughter of a samurai doctor, catches his eye.

The Varsity sat down with David Mitchell at the office of his publisher in Toronto.

I thought, ‘What have I done? Of course! It’s an engine designed to keep out the accidental. So this is why no one’s ever done a Dejima novel before.’

THE VARSITY

I heard that you visited the island.

DAVID MITCHELL

Dejima, yeah.

THE VARSITY

Several years ago, I suppose, when you first discovered the place.

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah, it was ’96? Then went through again — oh, about four times I’ve been there, most recently in 2006 when we lived in Hagi, Yamaguchi. Have you ever been to Japan?

THE VARSITY

No, I haven’t.

DAVID MITCHELL

You should go one day.

THE VARSITY

It’s on the list. So tell me what it was about Dejima that inspired you. I take it that the place itself was the inspiration for the novel.

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah. It’s a historical anomaly, and anomalies are good news for novelists because an anomaly is already a cliché-buster. Yes, everyone knows from James Clavell’s book and film that Japan was shut for 240 years and that’s a well known fact. But anomalously, it wasn’t quite: the door was very very very slightly ajar at Nagasaki, where the Dutch were permitted to operate a trading post. And what a trading post! Not just another one in the empire where white guys could come in and rule the local roost. They were confined on this little island. Only translators and prostitutes and merchants allowed on; they [the Dutch] were almost never allowed off. They were spied on, cheated. The arrangements were quite cut-throat and designed to keep them in a state of subjugation. And there were scholars gathered in Nagasaki hungry for this trickle of Enlightenment knowledge, rather like a UFO landing somewhere outside Edmonton containing a group of people who know how to cure cancer in an afternoon or how to solve the energy crisis or the big puzzles that perplex our finest brains — they have the answers — it’s a little like Dejima. Now, if I can’t find a halfway decent novel in that, I’m not much of a writer.

THE VARSITY

Having these characters who can never leave this space unless under very specific circumstances: did that pose issues as you were writing?

DAVID MITCHELL

You bet! Yes, I thought, “What have I done? Of course! It’s an engine designed to keep out the accidental. Okay, so this is why no one’s ever done a Dejima novel before. Now I get it. Everyone’s spied on and they can’t speak this language at all well — what are you going to do with dialogue? The only women allowed are geisha — oh no, that’s a big bad cliché, especially in Nagasaki. Madame Butterfly, thank you.” Yeah. I thought, “What have I done? This is awful. Okay, better restructure it.” That’s why, really, only one third of the novel actually takes place on Dejima — the first third. It’s a meaty third, maybe the meatiest, but of course — how do you get a relationship going? The chance encounters that relationships, even real ones, need to ignite in the beginning, they can’t happen there. It’s designed to stop them. It’s designed to stop interaction. “Damn!” I thought, yes.

Novels need walls, otherwise they spill over. It keeps out infinity and keeps you focused on the story and the cast of characters at hand. Dejima and the ship and the weird nunnery have ready-made walls. 

THE VARSITY

The other two locales of the novel are a ship — also very
confined —

DAVID MITCHELL

And the weird nunnery.

THE VARSITY

And the weird nunnery. Was that confinement something that you ended up just constantly having to work around? Because the story escapes the island, but you still end up in these —

DAVID MITCHELL

Confined places.

THE VARSITY

Confined places.

DAVID MITCHELL

Early on, I identified it as a sort of theme, because some books bring their own themes to the party whether you want them to or not, and confinement is one, almost one I can’t take the credit for. It’s like, writing about Dejima, you write about confinement whether you like it or not. Novels need walls, otherwise they spill over — even TV series need walls. Stories need walls. It keeps out infinity and keeps you focused on the story and a relatively small cast of characters at hand. So Dejima and the ship and the weird nunnery have ready-made walls. [squints, thinking] The third thing I would say is … I’ve forgotten the third thing I was going to say. Um, sorry.

THE VARSITY

That’s okay. The theme presented itself, a novel needs walls, and …

DAVID MITCHELL

It’s almost there. [high voice] What was I going to say?

[Both laugh]

I can’t believe it. It’s jet lag actually.

THE VARSITY

Well, why don’t we talk about the nunnery, and if the third point comes to you —

DAVID MITCHELL

Sure. It probably will. It’ll bug me now.

THE VARSITY

Shout. So Dejima has its basis in historical reality …

DAVID MITCHELL

Certainly. Absolutely.

THE VARSITY

What about the nunnery?

DAVID MITCHELL

Not so far as I know.

THE VARSITY

No?

DAVID MITCHELL

Earlier draft: Orito was just going to go there and we weren’t going to see her and we weren’t going to go inside that place. My friend said, “That’s really rich, you really put that in. The art and light, the Christian guy.” I could see the shotguns of accusations of misogyny lined up there. Also, I had to make it work. It’s got to be awful enough for us to want Orito to get out, but not so awful that the women there just end up hanging themselves instantly rather than having to submit to it. That’s a hard line to walk … [face lights up, throws arms in the air] I remember what I was going to say!

THE VARSITY

[laughs]

Thank you thank you: historical authenticity.

THE VARSITY

Okay!

DAVID MITCHELL

We swing around the world with our lights and our human rights and the bill of freedoms our forefathers in unions, etcetera, pried from the traditional holders of power down the centuries and we think are ours. We can go anywhere, we can say what we want and not be arrested, especially if you’re in a lucky country like the British Isles or North America. But for most of human history, not at all: we’ve led hugely confined lives. Easily nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine out of ten thousand of our forebears would have been indentured labourers or slaves or serfs or peasants or factory workers. You didn’t have more than the barest whisper of a say about how our lives would be conducted. Our time was not our own. Our money wasn’t our own, our labour wasn’t our own, nothing was our own, except our bodies, and very often for women their bodies weren’t their own. So what looks weird and strange and odd in a historical novel, it was simply normal, and has been normal for most of homo sapiens’ experience up to, what, the 1930s, the 1940s or so.

Rebels are easy and also quite lazy to do. But a character who you identify with as much as you might James Dean, who is not at all James Deanish in his outlook: THAT is more of a challenge. 

THE VARSITY

Also these constraints of morality and social convention.

DAVID MITCHELL

That goes up and down. There have been times in the past — think of a few: at many points in the Roman empire, a rich, aristocratic woman in Japan, even, in the 12th century, in the time of Shōgun and The Pillow Book — there’ve been times which make our liberal, progressive era look downright conservative. So I think the progressive liberal thing doesn’t necessarily follow as smooth an identifiable track as, say, the rise of technology. It doesn’t accommodate with modernity that closely. And you can find places in supposedly very progressive, liberal North America that really make the 18th century look puritanical.

THE VARSITY

I’m thinking of morality and social convention because once you do have Jacob meet Orito, they still have this friction to the relationship that Jacob wants to start because there are certain conventions he feels he can’t trespass.

DAVID MITCHELL

Or if he does, he knows that you have to pay a fine when you trespass.

[both laugh]

It won’t be free. Yeah! Well, he has a pious background. I wanted to write an uncool, pious character, because that’s more of a challenge than writing a casual, cool — I mean, rebels are easy to do, and they’re also quite lazy to do. But a character who you identify with as much as you might identify with a James Deanish kind of character, who is not at all James Deanish in his outlook: that is more of a challenge, that’s a harder trick to pull off. But why do anything easy? Readers know when you’ve done something easy. They know when you haven’t sweated and agonized over.

THE VARSITY

I found something in Jacob of Adam Ewing from Cloud Atlas.

DAVID MITCHELL

Oh yeah: both somewhat naive. Possibly Jacob’s got more grit at his core, but certainly on the surface they’re both a little passive, or even more than a little passive. Fair comment.

A tricky one, language. It’s hard to get right in a historical novel anyway. Make it too authentic, it sounds like Blackadder. 

THE VARSITY

When you have these three confined spaces of the island, the nunnery and the ship, the power of translators is immense.

DAVID MITCHELL

Absolutely, yeah.

THE VARSITY

You have these characters whose languages are Japanese and Dutch, for the most part, and you’re writing in English.

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah, I did my head in. And you have to keep the voices different, because otherwise people all speak the same, and do all that in English. I was crazy to take this book on.

THE VARSITY

The language still felt very natural, but every once in a while you would throw in a little phrase, you know, “so-and-so said, in perfect Dutch.”

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah, I remind you that we’re speaking Dutch here. Yes, a tricky one, language. It’s hard to get right in a historical novel anyway. If you make it too authentic — well, no, if you speak as we would have spoken 200 years ago, it sounds like Blackadder

THE VARSITY

[laughs]

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah, it does, and there goes your suspension of disbelief, you’re laughing, and you do when you read it. Gadzooks, you laugh! But then, if it’s littered with neologisms, if you have a word like brinksmanship in it — “Did people say that then? No, they didn’t.” So you always have to consult Webster’s Online Etymological Dictionary to find the first usage. And then there’s, say, words that didn’t exist back then: brushstroke is really late, it’s like 1880, 1890 —

THE VARSITY

Really?

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah! Really late, but when you’ve got Japanese people, you’ve got to use the word brushstroke, there’s nothing else — [mimes making a brushstroke on the desk] — you can do! Caligraphics? No, it’s got to be brushstroke! So you have to be wrong to be right. So every sentence you submit before the court and, like the judge, you have to weigh historical authenticity, its effect on the modern eyeball, tone, everything, everything. Really tough to get right, the language.

THE VARSITY

Is it slower to write a historical novel?

DAVID MITCHELL

Oh yes. You bet. You have a character who’s having a shave: you’ve got to go away and discover when shaving cream was invented or, if it was, could a middle-class clerk have bought it or was it for the toffs back then or what? That’s an hour gone.

THE VARSITY

Do you generally work that way? You’ll determine what direction you want a sentence, a chapter to go, and then you’ll do a bit of research then and figure out can this actually work? Or do you do a lot of research first and then carry forward from there?

DAVID MITCHELL

Depends on how far the deadline is.

[both laugh]

You do a big lump at the beginning so you’ve got a formed idea of the world — enough to construct a plot, anyway. And then you get to work on the plot, break that down into scenes, and scenes need their own staging and costumes and background stuff to break up the dialogue. Otherwise, it’s a film script. So if someone’s having a shave, they have to have a mirror. Fine, good, men would have needed to shave — but how? It was cheap, unbreakable copper mirrors? Or silver oxide mirrors? How much money have they got? Maybe it got broken — maybe a little bit of a mirror — probably, yeah, it’ve gotten broken easy on ships, but they’re too valuable, they’d have sold the fragments depending on size, say. Then you have to conceal the fact that you did all this research, otherwise it looks like you’re showing off and that also pricks the bubble of fiction. So the big stuff you research ahead of time, but the costume and background — just the papier-mâché of each scene, the poly-filler for each scene, you have to research on the hoof as you go through the scene, otherwise you start with a stupid, big, practical list of all the things you have to — no no no no, you can’t do everything like that ahead of time.

I don’t succeed as much as I’d like to, but I want to do that. Aspiration to omnivoracity of output as a writer: this really enhances my life.

Fastening clothes! That’s a big one. Buttons — because there’s no zippers, there’s no Velcro. Buttons cost money, they were expensive — this was before plastics. You needed wood — but then, if you’re a captain, you can’t be seen with wooden buttons, it’s got to be brass, metal, and that’s expensive stuff! Horn, ivory — interesting, isn’t it?

THE VARSITY

Yeah!

DAVID MITCHELL

Really interesting. Medicine: when do people get ill? Is it the cold? How did they deal with it? Was it medicine likely to kill you? Because a lot of 18th-century medicine was. You’ve got to know all this stuff. Not for the faint-hearted, a lot if it, it’s really not.

THE VARSITY

It’s been said that each of your books is unlike those that preceded it. As the person who’s writing these books, do you find that’s true?

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah.

THE VARSITY

Yeah?

DAVID MITCHELL

It’s a conscious aspiration. I don’t succeed as much as I’d like to, but yeah, I want to do that. Not sure why. [laughs]

THE VARSITY

The challenge?

DAVID MITCHELL

Partly. It makes you a more omnivorous writer. Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It makes life great. Lack of it makes life intolerable. Omnivoracity of diet as a reader and aspiration to omnivoracity of output as a writer: this really enhances my life. I get to be really interested in clothes fastenings. It’s great.

DAVID PIKE/THE VARSITY

THE VARSITY

And then you get to start something new.

DAVID MITCHELL

And then I can write something else. Might help my chance for being able to be a writer for the long haul as well: not fizzle out as some writers can do writing variations of the same novel.

THE VARSITY

This is the first novel, I think, where you write in the third person. Is that right?

DAVID MITCHELL

Mm-hm. There’s a bit, the Louisa Rey sections of Cloud Atlas in the third person, but yes, it was. I tried doing it in the first person at first but I couldn’t get it right.

THE VARSITY

Do you naturally go to the first person when you start writing?

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah. It’s safe, it’s what I’ve always done, and I know I can make it work.

THE VARSITY

Safe because you know you can make it work?

DAVID MITCHELL

Mm-hm. And it’s an infinity filter. “Who are you?” Get that worked out, and everything will fall into place. Who is this person? What’s their relationship with work, money, sex, God, other characters in the book, childhood, language. Got to get language right: are they mellifluous speakers or are they kind of a, sort of, you know, “It’s words, innit?” It’s just like that, and then you get them to write you a letter in their own words, and then you know what they’re going to do — got plot taken care of — you know how they’re going to speak — that’s dialogue taken care of. That’s a really good way to get going. Third person, you don’t have any of that. It’s you who has to decide — you the writer, not you the character. And that’s scarier.

Only when I thought, ‘Come on, grasp the nettle. Third person, here we go!’ and I worked out my rule about thought, only then did the novel really come to life. 

THE VARSITY

How did you get around that, then?

DAVID MITCHELL

I had some good advice. There’s a spectrum of third-person narrators. On the one hand you have the type that the great narrative sods of the 18th century would construct — so Fielding’s narrators or Sterne’s or Richardson’s: “Hellooo, dear Reader! Come into my novel. We’re going to have a nice stagecoach ride. We’re going to go on a journey, you and I. Now, I’m going to tell you a story about this chap Tom Jones … ” He knows everything, he interjects. It briefly flourished during postmodernism, actually, but it’s gotten quite rare, that.

Then there’s the other end, [up-whistles] where the person narrating is basically first, but you just say “he” or “she” instead of “I.”

You have to work out thought: that’s the big challenge. What do you do about thought? Are you going to hear other people’s thoughts? Are you going to hear this person’s thoughts and this person’s thoughts alone, or what? It’s also why it didn’t work in the first person here. I could just about work out the speech, how to make an 18th-century Japanese midwife speak Dutch in English — I could just about get my head wrapped around that and work out how I could do that. But thinking: how is that woman going to think? What language are you possibly going to represent her thoughts in? Ugh. I couldn’t do it. Just too — [reaches across the desk with one hand, grasping] — it’s just not a place I could reach and make it work on the page, because you can be right, but how it hits the eyeball is another thing altogether. That’s got to work. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how clever everything else is. If it’s just horrible to read, then it’s a horrible book.

So only when I thought, “Come on, grasp the nettle. Third person, here we go!” and I worked out my rules about thought, only then did the novel really come to life.

THE VARSITY

So what were your rules about thought?

DAVID MITCHELL

My rules about thought are that you have a Thought Hat, and one character per chapter wears the Thought Hat, and only the character who wears the Thought Hat’s thoughts can the reader hear. Thirteen chapters in each section. Except for the last two, which are two epilogues, really. First book: one character, Jacob, one and one alone wears the Thought Hat. Book Two: two characters, two and two alone wear the Thought Hat — that’s Orito and Ogawa, the translator. Book three: three characters and three alone wear the Thought Hat in succeeding chapters: Jacob and the magistrate and the English captain.

However, each book also has a guest: the first prologue chapter where the character who does not wear the Thought Hat in the rest of that book wears the Thought Hat. So it’s Orito in the birth scene at the beginning of the novel. Book two, it’s the Christian woman, the herbalist woman, she wears the Thought Hat for the prologue chapter. Then, for Book Three, I wanted to get a slave in, because they’re the people really off the historical record of Dejima. The Dutch were going to have to submit to all these rules of the Japanese, but they damn well weren’t going to wash their own underwear, so they brought some slaves from Indonesia. Couldn’t write, no historical record. That’s the very last chapter I wrote, actually, because I was just putting it off, putting it off, [in worried voice] “I don’t know what to do!” The only historical record you get are the best and earliest ones, the abolitionists, what was done for the abolitionist effort by American negroes from the colonies or from the Caribbean.

THE VARSITY

Why did you have the guests?

DAVID MITCHELL

I wanted to get them in, I wanted to get their stories. The thing about the structure is it looks simple, but it goes from being a one-stroke engine to a two-stroke engine: ta, ta — then Book Two — ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta — then Book Three — ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta — you know, it accelerates. The guests are there — the Christians: fascinating, fascinating stage of the empire when in the early 1860s Japan was embarrassed into promulgating freedom of religion and 20 thousand, 30 thousand Christians sort of emerged from nowhere! Despite — up to that point, it was the world’s greatest attempt at a totalitarian state, the Tokugawa Shogun, they invented the police state, amazingly ruthless power — even they couldn’t stamp it out.

THE VARSITY

It’s almost comparable to North Korea.

DAVID MITCHELL

I’ve used that comparison myself often. Without YouTube footage, without all the facts we know about North Korea, without Google Earth.

THE VARSITY

There was a specific passage I wanted to ask you about. It really struck me as being different from the rest of the book. It’s this opening —

DAVID MITCHELL

Description of Nagasaki?

THE VARSITY

Yeah, this one here.

DAVID MITCHELL

I worked many afternoons on that.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

 

FROM THE VERANDA OF THE ROOM OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM, AT THE MAGISTRACY

 

The ninth day of the ninth month

 

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. Gulls fly through clouds of steam from laundries’ vats; over kites unthreading corpses of cats; over scholars glimpsing truth in fragile patterns; over bathhouse adulterers; heartbroken slatterns; fishwives dismembering lobsters and crabs; their husbands gutting mackerel on slabs; woodcutters’ sons sharpening axes; candlemakers rolling waxes; flint-eyed officials milking taxes; etiolated lacquerers; mottled-skinned dryers; imprecise soothsayers; unblinking liars; weavers of mats; cutters of rushes; ink-lipped calligraphers dipping brushes; booksellers ruined by unsold books; ladies-in waiting; tasters; dressers; filching page boys; runny-nosed cooks; sunless attic nooks where seamstresses prick calloused fingers; limping malingers; swineherds; swindlers …

THE VARSITY

The cadence has this nursery rhyme quality to it.

DAVID MITCHELL

Yeah. It scans, I subsequently discovered, almost the same as “Night Mail” by Auden.

Dawn freshens, Her climb is done

Down towards Glasgow she descends,

Towards the steam tugs yelping down a glade of cranes

Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces

Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.

News circumstantial, news financial,

Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,

Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,

Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,

Letters to Scotland from the South of France

Thousands are still asleep,

Dreaming of terrifying monsters

Or of friendly tea beside the band in Cranston’s or Crawford’s

from “Night Mail” by WH Auden

It’s fun. It’s an explosion of the rule that prose mustn’t accidentally rhyme. It’s a piece of self-indulgence in what I think of as quite a tightly disciplined book. It’s baggy and long. All novels are baggy, but I cut off far far more fat from the book than there is left of it. Most important, it’s — are you old enough to have seen something for what you know will be the last time? A place?

THE VARSITY

[thinks for a few seconds]

No.

No, probably not. It’s probably ahead of you. Or — yeah, a person who you won’t see again.

THE VARSITY

Yeah.

DAVID MITCHELL

When you see something consciously for the last time, it’s like seeing something for the first time but you see how it works, you see how it works. So if it’s a person dying in hospital, you see, just with x-ray perfect clarity, the nature of your relationship. Everything is revealed. It’s a little gift in a way. When you see the city for the last time, this cacophonous, chaotic mess that is a city, you see: this is how it works.

THE VARSITY

It’s all there.

DAVID MITCHELL

That’s why the world’s this masterpiece. It’s the only one that matters. And it’ll eat you up, too.

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