Birnbaum v.

Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Mitchell Redux

Ten years after their first conversation, author David Mitchell and our man in Boston discuss 18th-century Japan, shoplifting from other novels, and Mitchell’s annual Christmas party.

On the basis of five novels in the span of about a decade, David Mitchell has established himself as a significant and important novelist. As to be expected, his new opus, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, has garnered attention and praise from all points of the literary compass.

And as has been the case in Mitchell’s past novels, nothing of the new work resembles the existing oeuvre. Thousand Autumns is set in 18th-century Japan and is a relatively straightforward narrative account of a Dutch shipping clerk and the daughter of an influential Japanese magistrate.

In this, our third or fourth conversation, David Mitchell talks about the job of writing, the joys of living in the Irish countryside, and an annual holiday office party for he and his office-less friends. Mitchell and I fully expect to resume this chat in four or five years—any uncovered terrain will be charted then.


* * *

Robert Birnbaum: We have, by now, a long-term acquaintanceship.

David Mitchell: We do.

RB: It was 2000 when we first met in Boston. But the last time we met, it came up that you were listening to a lot of solo piano music. What are you listening to these days?

DM: Still solo piano, and anonymous 16th- and 17th-century choral music, obviously European. There is a wonderful record label called Helios and really, anything they produce that looks interesting is good.

RB: No doubt recorded in various obscure cathedrals—or are they recorded in studios?

DM: I’m afraid I don’t know.

RB: I imagine that the makers of this music are obscure, devoted musicians—perhaps monks—who are singing these 500-year-old compositions.

DM: I think your idea is much more romantic and appealing than the reality.

RB: [laughs] Yeah, it’s a group of studio musicians who do this stuff when they are not recording jingles.

DM: [laughs] What are we doing this week? Monastic again? No, there are ensembles of singers who specialize in it and live and breathe and love it. They are true keepers of the flame, and they do a great job.

RB: I remember speaking to Louis de Bernieres, who had moved south of London, and one of his favorite pastimes was to play with an ensemble that featured older compositions, and found it great fun. I could see that dedicated amateurs keep lots of culture alive that would otherwise disappear—keepers of the flame, yeah. Anyway, how is it possible to immerse yourself into a period of time, so distant from what you experience every day, and then reemerge into this real (more or less) world? Is that a difficult transition?

If I don’t leave the 18th century right now and sweep it up then it’s hospital and bleeding children.DM: A difficult question to answer. One, you do because you have to. I want to write about Dejima, and this means a historical novel whether I like it or not. And the metaphor that feels best is the cocoon—you spin it slowly and it slowly gets thicker and thicker and more fully realized, and you have to do this or your book will smack of inauthenticity, and then there’s a call from downstairs, and a bottle of something has been smashed, and my wife is there covered in orange juice, and there’s broken glass, and if I don’t leave the 18th century right now and sweep it up then it’s hospital and bleeding children. So you do that, and you go back, and if I don’t get back into the 18th century pretty instantly then the rest of the day is gone. So you develop this ambidextrousness—or you can’t write your book.

RB: That makes sense. Emergencies have the quality of making us focus. When you travel to all types of place and times when people have different values, different belief systems, and then you come across people in your life whose behavior and beliefs are baffling? Does wandering in a made-up world help in dealing with human beings?

DM: Good question.

RB: Here’s a simpler question—there is a matter that comes up in this story that I can’t resolve: why Captain Penhaligon suddenly reverses course.

DM: He suddenly realizes that he is opening fire on his son. And he can’t do that. So off he goes. What would he do that for? It would be for vindictiveness. It won’t now make any difference—he’s failed in his mission. And, up to that point, that vindictiveness was helping him scratch the itch of failure.

RB: Didn’t he also realize that the pain in his foot, the suffering from his gout, was driving his decisions? Is that also right?

DM: Yeah. Much of that was stopping him from thinking clearly, which amounts to the same thing.

RB: I had pseudo-gout once, which was nothing as you describe. Certainly a very vivid part of your book was your description of the English captain’s pain—

DM: Thank you very much.

RB: Do you know anyone who has gout?

DM: Uh, a gentleman who drives me to the airport in Cork has had it in the past.

RB: What does he do for it? Drink?

DM: No, he does whatever his doctor says to make sure it will never come back. I learned about gout from a book by Roy Porter. A social historian.

RB: [laughs] I know who he is.

DM: You do—good on you. A great book about gout, and also a social history of medicine and how certain ailments took on a whole raft of associations, and the way we think about disease. I got a lot of the descriptions from that book.

RB: I find an amazing thing about the study of history in the past few decades—this plethora of historical monographs about unlikely subjects. Garbage in 17th-century London, burial rites in middle Europe, hygiene in the 18th century. Not obvious subjects, but there is meaning there.

DM: Certainly—where is garbage put? Who takes it out?

RB: What was considered garbage or to be gotten rid of?

DM: Some people think it’s high art, these days. Sounds like a great book.

RB: This ability to very vividly and convincingly describe this disease and its effects you got out of a book?

DM: That’s our job.

RB: [laughs heartily]

DM: There is a professional paradox involved to get the job done—

RB: Take the truth into untruth—

DM: Fake personal-life experiences. In order to get the job done, you have to hole yourself up a long time and, in a way, not experience much life—compared to, say, a policeman who is going out every night ingesting incredible quantities of real life—

RB: This is your cocoon metaphor at play—or suspended animation.

DM: Yeah. Therefore, you don’t get a lot of it firsthand. Therefore, you have to evolve the knack of assimilating other people’s firsthand experiences and presenting them as firsthand experiences.

RB: Did Roy Porter ever have gout? Perhaps that’s what moved him to write about it?

DM: He was interested in illness, interested in medicine, and it was always a fascinating scaffold for him around which to intellectually construct. And it was a life well spent.

RB: As a historian—I wonder if you asked reasonably educated people if they could name five historians. Or even three?

DM: I don’t think U.K. people could. There is a kind of T.V. historian that’s doing very well these days.

RB: You mean the presenters on BBC documentary series?

DM: Yeah, yeah.

RB: Or the talking heads on current-events shows analyzing current situations.

DM: They are given large budgets to make accessible history on T.V.

RB: Like Simon Schama.

DM: He would be about the most famous.

RB: Robert McCrum did a history of the English language for the BBC, hence, his recent book Globish, which reiterates that history and more. How do you like living in Ireland?

DM: Oh, I love it. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

RB: You lived in Japan for some time?

DM: I lived there for nine years altogether. But Ireland is home now.

RB: And you lived in Holland for a little while?

DM: In order to do research for the last book.

RB: Meaning The Thousand Autumns?

DM: Yes.

RB: What makes Ireland so congenial?

DM: Space and a low-density population. [long pause] And the people. More so than other places I have lived in, it’s normal to be human.

RB: Hmmm.

DM: To stop and pass the time of day. It’s normal to say “hello” when you walk past someone on the street without expecting something or wanting something—

RB: [laughs]

DM: It’s even normal if you are driving home and you see a friend driving on the other side of the narrow lane, to both stop in the middle of the road, wind down the window and have a little chat. And if someone comes up behind you—and this is a really special thing—they don’t blast the horn. You have about 30 to 45 seconds—

RB: [laughs]

DM: After 45 seconds—not quite a minute—it starts getting rude. But until then, fine. You can’t put value on that—it’s wonderful. We live in a nice spot on a hill above the sea. I have a daily walk, and see the seasons change, and meet three or four other people doing the same.

Whenever I want to, there is a portable flotation tank—I can do it now, if you like, and just space out for the rest of the interview.RB: I saw you in 2005 or so when you were touring the States for Black Swan Green—had you already been working on The Thousand Autumns novel?

DM: Really, at some level—even if just collecting possible future source material—I have been working on it for 15 years, really. I really started working on it in a disciplined way in Holland.

RB: Can you work on two pieces of fiction at the same time?

DM: No.

RB: So the Japan novel was grinding along in the background—did I speak to you for your very first book?

DM: I think you did—

RB: How is it, now that you are an accomplished author? [laughs]

DM: Um, I don’t think about it.

RB: Good.

DM: Yeah, I just try to work out how to make the next book work.

RB: Can you imagine living in Manhattan?

DM: In idle moments I may, but I immediately see that I would never get any work done. So at that point I stop idling. It’s not easy to not think about it too much, just because of the work, the next book. Whenever I want to, there is a portable flotation tank—I can do it now, if you like, and just space out for the rest of the interview.

RB: OK, I’ll just talk and you go ahead and relax—

DM: [laughs] I am so interested in the puzzles, and I am identifying the problems of what is making it not work right now, and these can be dealt with and ameliorated and rejiggled so that it will work. It’s deeply interesting to me, and so much so that I can do it at will, at any point in the day. Before I fall asleep or the first thing in the morning—

RB: That’s a gift. How are you with talking to people who live in New York—why are you looking at me like that? [laughs]

DM: No, no, no—it has no meaning.

RB: For instance, how do you talk to your editor at Random House, David Ebershoff?

DM: We exchange e-mails—I try the best I can to be a low-maintenance author. David understands that. He understands I don’t want to know who was saying what at what meeting, etc. etc.

RB: [laughs]

Marilynne Robinson has a new book out, you don’t not read it.DM: There is mutual authorial respect there—he has a lightness of touch, anyway. He is a believer activating you rather than doing the work for you. I like to edit myself—sometimes I need guidance from him. Especially if I have been writing something for four years and I can’t see the woods from the trees. That’s when he comes in. We don’t really discuss the construction of books until they are over—

RB: Is there a British edition of this book?

DM: Yes, there is—

RB: So you have a British editor?

DM: Yes.

RB: Which is published first?

DM: My home base is my U.K. publisher.

RB: Does David see the book before it is published in the U.K.?

DM: He is happy enough with it to get to the next stage—and Michael Schellenberg, my Canadian publisher also, they see it at the same time—

RB: And an Australian editor? [laughs]

DM: Actually, in this case, my Dutch editor, because she had been so helpful with Dutch stuff.

RB: A Japanese edition?

DM: No, I don’t have one.

RB: That would make some kind of conference call.

DM: A Dejima-like conference call…

RB: I just saw Ebershoff in Gary Shteyngart’s trailer for his new book—hilarious.

DM: I read it.

RB: The trailer is hilarious. I just received the book.

DM: He is a charismatic man with a sharp sense of humor.

RB: At one point, someone comments in the trailer that Shteyngart has benefited greatly from never having read anything—anyway. Is there a trailer for your book?

DM: Yeah, the British did something—uh, uh—

RB: You don’t pay attention.

DM: Actually, no. No.

RB: You do read contemporary writing, or not?

DM: A little.

RB: How does it get to you?

DM: Editors have their ways and I receive much, much more than I have a chance of reading. Especially around now, I’ll be getting five books a week.

RB: “Oh yeah, David Mitchell.” Suddenly people remember you again…Is it like that you are somewhat under the radar for a long time, and then you have a new book, and the spotlight hits you?

DM: Yeah, there are noticeable peaks and troughs, depending where you are in the publishing cycle. But even in off-peak times I get more books and such than I will ever have a chance of reading. But that’s—the world uses paper in an unnecessary way.

RB: What do you do with all the books and galleys?

DM: At the moment they accumulate…how many do you get a week?

RB: A lot.

DM: How many do you read?

RB: Not a lot. But I try to look carefully at each, reading a sampling. Or reading the author’s note or acknowledgement. Or inspecting the index. Seeing who designed the cover or contributed the cover art…or other small details. I guess I have found it rewarding to enter books from different portals. I have gotten better at judging the promise of a book for me from reading a number of pages. Or even blurbs by certain writers will influence my choices. It’s bracing, though—getting fair amount of books and seeing how difficult it is for writers to get noticed, much less fairly judged. Book publishing is more like roulette—

One in 20, one in 30, I’ll turn the pages and have the urge to shoplift.DM: You kind of have to pay your dues. I like to think that in the end that quality will be discovered.

RB: Publishers do make that claim—no great works go undiscovered. I don’t know how you prove that. It’s a nice sentiment.

DM: I can think of famous exceptions—but that’s why they are famous—A Confederacy of Dunces.

RB: Of the books that you end up reading, how do you decide?

DM: It can be the name—Marilynne Robinson has a new book out, you don’t not read it. If it’s just something that has arrived, I try to look at it and one in 20, one in 30, I’ll turn the pages and have the urge to shoplift—

RB: [laughs]

DM: If I’m reading something that has bearing on something I am writing, or trying to write, then there is a good artisan-level reason to read it. But I probably spend more time among the classics—there are so many that I have never read. If something has been in print for over 100 years, that’s not hype.

RB: I hope that I am able to find my way back to classics. Maybe I’m trying not hard enough, but I haven’t read anything written before 1950—except for The Great Gatsby—for probably 20 or 30 years. I do no longer feel obliged to read all of a book. I stopped reading American Pastoral when I found a passage so crystalline-ly correct.

DM: You didn’t feel that’s a conversation broken off halfway through?

RB: Uh, no. I could see how that might be, but in this case I didn’t. I have come to take a classicist view—I don’t mind fragments and shards, and they have significant meaning. And because information seems to be fractured or interrupted or overshadowed, the bits and pieces one is left with may be all one gets—one doesn’t always get the full narrative. There are lots of great books—not necessarily great for 469 pages. Yours is an exception.

DM: [laughs] Thank you very much;

RB: [laughs] The Thousand Autumns—it ends on such a solid powerful note of finality—so complete.

I was working in my hotel this morning—to remind myself I am a writer and not a strange traveling salesman.DM: What you said is quite interesting—not needing to read the whole book. In cases like Huckleberry Finn, it’s got imperishable, brilliant, crystalline long sections. There’s not a word out of place, nothing—except for that awful mawkish bit at the end where Huck makes Jim pretend to be a slave and suddenly, “Ouch, why did you do that?”

RB: That also speaks to an acceptable sloppiness of the novel, as opposed to short fiction.

DM: Yeah.

RB: One allows for all sorts of spillage and loose ends and infelicitous elements, whereas in a short piece anything out of place really stands out.

DM. That’s right, that’s right. I still feel vexed by incompleteness and I didn’t read the whole of—

RB: I’m older than you—I didn’t arrive at this tolerance of incompleteness and fragmentation early in my life—only in the last few years when my mortality makes it clear that I am not going to read all the books that are coming at me. Why I am talking about this? Did you ask me a question?

DM: We are on a mutual voyage of exploration.

RB: Yes, we are. So what do you do now, as the publicity initiative for the new novel winds down?

DM: I work—I was working in my hotel this morning—to remind myself I am a writer and not a strange traveling salesman. And, yeah, I am working on something that I do not know will work or not. And that is really exciting.

RB: How is it to be unaffiliated? Meaning you are not an employee or a member of a large organization or guild, or a player in a sport—you may have a contract here or there but—

DM: My unaffiliated status is my life and I can’t really imagine another. I get increasingly unemployable in any other field as I age—and as long as I can support my family from the writing, then I feel a privileged man.

RB: Do you teach?

DM: I just did it once, sort of for research purposes in Toronto last year. And it was—I enjoyed the interaction with the students but I would be afraid to take it on. It sapped my resources for the writing, which I still regard as what I am here for.

RB: You took teaching seriously?

DM: Yeah, yeah—they paid good money.

RB: I understand.

DM: I couldn’t look them in the face—

RB: Some people just call it in or posture or set some kind of automatic pilot—I think.

DM: Yeah, you are right.

RB: What do you think of Barack Obama, by the way?

DM: I admire him and I wish him very well—it’s very good for the world and the United States to see someone who isn’t white. That’s very good for Earth. And my heart is more towards the left as well, and so I am always pleased when a Democrat wins.

RB: One problem is that politicians are more and more adept at disguising themselves—increasingly, the Democrats have moved to the right. And, increasingly, political conversations and discourse are irrational exchanges of provocations. I don’t see the governing class as having many distinctions. American politics seems to be at a very bad place.

DM: Can you elaborate?

RB: There is certainly a progressive left in the U.S.A. that is vocal, but the power continues to accrue to the moneyed oligarchy and its intellectual henchmen, and carny barkers and demagogues. And even now, there is a sense that the midterm elections will swing the Congress right.

DM: Americans seem to believe in different narratives or different interpretations than you—

RB: It was famously reported during the Bush presidency—allegedly Karl Rove said it—that the Bushists felt that they controlled reality, that the facts were what they said they were. And that, of course, is very scary. Remember “Mission Accomplished?”

DM: In a way, dominant novelists are actually political—politicians.

RB: Give me an example.

DM: I wasn’t clear enough. I mean, novelists are in the business of creating fictional narratives. Politicians also are in the business of creating narratives and then convincing the largest group of people that these narratives—not the other guy’s—are true.

RB: The difference, I think, is that the novelist strives for coherence and plausibility in storytelling. Politicians and political zealots and other hucksters construct a series of informational bits and images—a montage that may not or does not depend on a logical sequence to be convincing.

DM: Quite true.

RB: You wouldn’t normally mistake them as functioning narratives, except perhaps as the internal ramblings of an insane mind.

DM: [laughs] The story has to work when you read it—if you take them week by week by week they don’t have to be consistent over a long period of time.

I don’t know any of the few novelists in my area. It’s not that I avoid them, but I lead a quiet life, a very quiet life, and meet very few new people.RB: Right, and if you present certain pictures in a clever sequence—it seems clearly to be manipulation. Most of your life you have models of other people’s lives to give you a sense of what to expect. As you get older, that doesn’t pertain and lives become much more specific and individually unique. It’s why I asked you about how you can keep contact with reality in a community of high-functioning, dysfunctional people. If you are able to function in such a community, then what are you? There was a time when R.D. Laing made it respectable to argue a rational response to a deranged world was insanity.

DM: A rational response to a deranged world was insanity? I don’t know but I would be afraid to live in a place where the rational response to insanity is not to identify it, but to join in with it—what would that look like.

RB: Joining in with it is not what I think Laing was referring to—the pathology was more like catatonia or schizophrenia—people who become utterly disconnected.

DM: I see.

RB: Oh my, we got into craziness—we were taking about affiliation. You are onto your next project and you are very excited by it—

DM: That’s my affiliation.

RB: A project or some piece of work?

DM: Yes.

RB: How do you explain that outside of the world of literature?

DM: I don’t need to.

RB: You don’t need to in Ireland.

DM: Everyone is pretty weird in West Cork, in a way. My friend Xavier is a renewable energies consultant. And my friend Sean is a painter, and my friend Jean-Luc is a photographer. And my friend Ben writes English language textbooks. And I happen to be a novelist, and no explanations are necessary. Quite a few of the people in West Cork are self-employed and they have loose affiliations. We have an office Christmas party—

RB: [laughs]

DM: None of us have offices.

RB: If you lived in the States and you went to a party—you would be asked what you do and some explanations would be expected.

DM: Why?

RB: What have you written? Would I have read anything you have written? What does a writer do? I have written a few things, would you read something I wrote—

DM: Where is the door? Well, I haven’t been to a cocktail party—

RB: Do Irish have cocktail parties?

DM: I doubt it, maybe in some circles in Dublin. I’ve never been to one. I don’t know any of the few novelists in my area. It’s not that I avoid them, but I lead a quiet life, a very quiet life, and meet very few new people.

RB: Watch television?

DM: No.

RB: Listen to the radio?

DM: Yes.

[Lynn Cannici, Mitchell’s escort, signals for the end of our conversation]

RB: We have to stop meeting like this—I don’t have a last question. Maybe we’ll meet again in five years.

DM: With pleasure.