The brainy British novelist David Mitchell is a member of that elite club of living writers—Pynchon, Coetzee—who have spawned an obscene amount of critical adoration. The author of only five novels—Ghostwritten, Number9Dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and now The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet —Mitchell already has a conference named after him, held at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a bestseller in the UK and the USA. The list of prizes he’s been awarded is freakishly looooooong. God only knows how many Mitchell-based Ph.D. theses are currently in the works. Oh, yeah: and Time magazine anointed him one of the “Most Influential People in the World.” Not bad for a novelist.
Given his incomparable literary curriculum vitae, you might expect that Mitchell’s prose would be overwrought and inaccessible: “postmodern,” “experimental.” Yet, somehow, as the legion of his overzealous fans well know, Mitchell’s books are fun, fast-paced page-turners—language-drunk, sure, but open any at random and you’ll find sentences like this: “Ross Wilcox’s breath smelt like a bag of ham.” Or this: “Witchy trees bent before the enormous sky.” Or even: “A lanky, zitty foreigner.” Or, from his magisterial new novel: “The snow is scabby and ruckled underfoot.”
Mitchell and I met one muggy evening last month to chat about Jacob de Zoet, grammatical geekery, the blind bravado of the juvenile writer, “difficult” fiction, and the perils of communication. Despite his lofty literary accolades, in person Mitchell is mild-mannered, charming, exceedingly modest, and frightfully funny—for an Englishman.
The Rumpus: When I was reading your new novel, I kept wondering whether it was really difficult to do. Not just the research but finding the novel’s voice. I mean, compared with Black Swan Green, in which you’re writing in a language you’re presumably somewhat familiar with.
David Mitchell: It’s a bit hard, writing books, isn’t it? I’m not sure I can compare the books. When you’re making them work they are fulfilling, and that fulfillment is not a quantifiable quality—it simply is. Chekov could have written a better book, but he couldn’t have written a better sentence—there’s nothing wrong with it. Isn’t that great when that happens?
Rumpus: That makes me think of what Don DeLillo said about the pleasure of writing, putting sentences together on a page. Something along those lines.
Mitchell: If they’re good words. If they’re dense words, you’re damned. There’s nothing wrong with the sentence—that’s what you write toward. It’s quirky if it needs to be quirky, it’s prosaic if it needs to be prosaic. When it’s fit for purpose—supremely fit for purpose—then that’s when I polish stuff up. But first you have to get stuff out to polish. When you’re sixteen and writing, you think you know everything about everything, and the older you get the more familiar you become with your own ignorance. Your writing, hopefully, has more spontaneity and verve as you age. When you’re 27, you’re more apt to be like: “Oh God, I need to do this two-thousand-page scene before I go to bed.” “OK, well. Let’s do it, then.” And you do it.
Rumpus: And you think it’s brilliant and you don’t want to change a word.
Mitchell: Precisely. Now it can take painstaking weeks—God knows—to excrete a single sentence. It can be like having a hemorrhage, but one hopes the quality is superior the greater the excretion. Hemorrhaged books sometimes work, in a youthful kind of a way. On the Road, for instance, is a classic hemorrhaged book.
Rumpus: Is that how you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—sentence by painstaking sentence?
Mitchell: I got the scene out first, even if I knew it was a bit rubbish. I used three hashes a lot to let myself know when something needed a lot of work. At the end of a scene, I circled back to the treble hash marks and polished it up. Perhaps by then everything had changed. Books are made of changes of minds. The actual writing of the book, I’ve found, teaches you how you should have written the book.
Rumpus: So you’re an obsessive reviser, then?
Mitchell: I can’t leave a book alone. I need very patient people at the printers and the typesetters—I always find things that begin to work themselves out when I’m writing, or rather after I’ve written. “Maybe” or “perhaps”—or perhaps “possibly?” They’re all quite different, though, aren’t they? The same word, but one glance of the eyeball and sometimes it needs to be “maybe” and other times it needs to be “perhaps.” I don’t quite know why, but you do have a sense when you’re in the voice.
Rumpus: You’re one of those writers whose work always attracts an enormous amount of critical and academic attention. I don’t want to think about how many Ph.D. theses are being written about your oeuvre right this very minute.
Mitchell: The best critics perform an important function, but it’s not one I’m hard-wired to do. I just find it exhausting having to marshal arguments and defend them against possible objectors. An analogy I often use is that writers are like duck-billed platypuses and critics are taxonomists, and to us duck-billed platypuses the question of whether we should be considered as an egg-laying mammal or what is a pointless exercise. A duck-billed platypus is interested in swimming, finding food, having sex, laying eggs. A novelist’s job is to write a novel, not worry about how it fits into one’s oeuvre or whether it captures the postmodern experience or whatnot. It might be my own ignorance. Perhaps there are writers who consider such things, but I’m really just interested in finding out where a story goes and helping it get there. There are beautiful, magical descriptions of the nighttime in the beginning of Huck Finn—I’ve never wanted to dissect that magic, I just want to read it and experience it.
Rumpus: Your writing is highly enjoyable, but if you put a gun to my head and told me I had to write something critical about your work, I’d focus on the stammer. In Black Swan Green, specifically, but also in the new novel, there’s a fascination with language and communication—
Mitchell: Or uncommunication, as it were. But yes, exactly.
Rumpus: Jacob’s an interpreter, but he can’t always communicate with who he wants to communicate with.
Mitchell: There’s always the problem of getting what you’re thinking out into the world, isn’t there? I think possibly genes and certainly environment makes us a walking bundle of archetypes, and as a human and as a writer one of my major preoccupations is incommunication. Isn’t it true how everything contains its opposite? How can you have a knowledge of beauty without knowing what ugliness is? Or, or—do you know what I mean? A phenomenon contains its opposite. To have a knowledge of phenomenon is, by default, to know about the opposite. This leads, among other things, to a fascination with words. We aspire to be master communicators, right? But that must also mean we are deeply versed in non-communication, in fluffing it, in getting it wrong, in duff sentences, in not saying quite what you mean and the consequences of that. Stammering makes me an expert in that. I’ve obviously thought about this link a lot, because one of the questions people ask me a lot is “If you hadn’t stammered, would you be a writer?” I think I would have been, but I would have been a different writer. I wouldn’t have had this theme of incommunication. I can identify at least three ways in which they are related. One is—
Rumpus: Stuttering and writing?
Mitchell: You scan the sentences ahead and you see the danger words, the words you won’t be able to say, and then you re-engineer the sentence to be able to go around it. That’s a practical crash course in sentence construction. That, in turn, leads to a practical crash course in register. If you realize you can’t get out the second syllable “less” in the word “useless,” you substitute “futile.” That might fix the vocal problem, but it creates another problem. If you’re amongst a bunch of thirteen-year-old boys, you can’t say a word like “futile.” Everyone will think you’re mad. But again, it’s bloody useful stuff for a writer. You learn your registers. I mean, there they are, all these fancy words, some of them on high registers and others on less educated registers. If you’re a writer and you use a word like “autodidacticism” to describe a character, it completely saves you from having to mention that that character went to college. As a consequence, you develop a higher vocabulary, because you need substitutes.
Rumpus: You need four different words if you can’t say one, for example.
Mitchell: Precisely. I think—I can’t prove it, but I suspect our interior voices are far richer than our spoken voice. If you are one of those people who speak in perfectly mellifluous, complex sentences, I would humbly suggest you think them instead of saying them. It is, of course, impossible to be able to compare a writer’s inner voice and his spoken voice in the quality of the diction and the grammar, but I like to think that stammerers’ inner voices are going to be far more articulate and sharper than someone who isn’t affected by a speech impediment.
Rumpus: Stammering, then, clearly seems to have contributed to your fluency with different voices. Is that why you’re such an apt literary ventriloquist?
Mitchell: I hear what you’re saying, and here’s a new thought for me: perhaps it’s a craftily manifested wish fulfillment on my part. The times I’ve thought I wish I could speak like that guy, or I wish I could chat somebody up unstutteringly. I wish, I wish, I wish—I wonder if that “I wish” is fuel or a kind of power.
Rumpus: Is that why so much of your writing is about being an alien among natives?
Mitchell: Possibly novelists are all aliens among natives. We should all wear little signs around our necks that mark us as aliens. It happened a few weeks ago, where I completely lost it and I was sobbing my eyes out. I happened to glance and there was a mirror in the corner of the room. I stopped crying and looked in the mirror—oh, so that’s what grief looks like. That’s something only a novelist would do—or an alien. But to get back to what you said… I would say one must be someone else to a certain degree to portray that character convincingly, his voice and his thoughts. The implication of your question is that one needs to escape oneself. I don’t think that is the case for me.
Rumpus: One of the really interesting things, which I’m guessing is related to the issue of stammering, were the dialogue interruptions. For instance, in the middle of a line of dialogue, the narrator will interrupt with a haiku-like description.
Mitchell: There are different types of interruption, but in general I just think that’s how people speak. We’re not virtuoso language users and never have been, and I think we like to recognize when other people have little verbal tics, because we do it, and we like to read people who say the wrong word. For me, it’s oh, you as well. I’m not so lonely. I’m not so alienated in the world. Specifically with Jacob de Zoet, there were a couple of ground rules I wanted to abide by. One was that I wanted the reader to read quickly. If you have a lot of one sentence paragraphs, then your eye is moving down the page instead of across it, and I wanted to achieve that. I also liked the idea of having two sentences going concurrently—you’re reading one and then another comes in and interrupts. Another ground rule I abided was compression. I wanted a verbal compression on the page. There are relatively few communication verbs in Jacob de Zoet, and this is because when you have speech marks you already have the verb said. Conventionally we do it, but in a book where I wanted to achieve this dense compression, I couldn’t allow myself any tautologies. Instead of wasting a verb saying that someone said something, I wanted to convey more information that was needful. The last thing I wanted to do was to take out the business of who is saying what and where and when. I wanted to convey that information in spoken dialogue whenever possible.
Rumpus: How did you harness all the different voices in the book? I mean, it’s 1799 when the book starts and it’s not like you can put an LP on and hear how people speak.
Mitchell: You’ve got what you want to say, and then you translate that into speech. For instance, natural language plus education level plus gender. I often used passive verbs to denote when a Japanese woman is speaking, so I could avoid them saying “I.” I thought it was a bit too pushy and upfront for a Japanese woman of the Edo-era to begin a sentence with the word “I.” If the pronoun is omitted, then you wonder if she is referring to herself or to someone else. “Shall” instead of “will” gives a more antiquated feel. “If” is really a twentieth-century construction. “If I hadn’t eaten that oyster, I wouldn’t have vomited” would become, “Had I but not eaten that oyster…” The educated Dutch were allowed to speak pretty much like we do in an English idiom, with the exception of, “Oh, that’s not my cup of tea;” whereas the British speakers can say something like that. That’s how you do it.
Rumpus: You make it sound easy. Which is interesting, I think, considering that your books are often described as “difficult”—and I mean that in the good sense.
Mitchell: Why write easy to write books? If it’s well-written, it shouldn’t be like trying to lug a freezer up eight flights of stairs. I think really good writing is not easy to read, but also not overly taxing. All I know is that I love reading books, and when I write I want my books to be like the books I love: solid, thoughtful, cliché-less, and both mindful of the ugliness of the world and also the beauty of being alive.
Rumpus original art by André Eamiello