Read a few interviews David Mitchell (author of Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) did after the publication of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He came across as thoughtful, but not neurotic or overly self-involved.
Interview with the Paris Review.
On creating an evil character:
Was it painful to get into the mind of someone like Quasar, who had killed so many people?
It would be now, but younger writers are often less interested in Should I do it? than Can I do it? and I was no different. I was chasing that prize of Let’s see if I can do this! Let’s see if I can do the murderer! I have a crime-writer friend who became unstuck one day by asking herself, Jesus, what am I doing, writing about these atrocious, soul-mincing events? and now I understand her dilemma. If your work is to be true, and not a vapid parlor game, and if your work is trying to shine light in the human psyche’s deepest, darkest, illest places, then you have to go there, and be it, and that’s no casual undertaking.
On Nabokov’s Lolita:
Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages. Somebody call the cops!
On predacity as a recurrent theme in his work:
Cannibalism features prominently in Cloud Atlas—and it reappears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
A writer only has a relatively small family of themes, and however hard you try to write about something else, they reemerge like indestructible whack-a-moles. One of my serial-repeating themes is predacity—and cannibalism is an ancient and primal manifestation of predacity. I remember watching an animal documentary in school, where a cheetah successfully pursued an antelope. As the cheetah ripped the antelope to shreds, a cute girl called Angela said, Oh Miss, that’s cruel. The teacher answered, Yes, Angela, but nature is cruel.
That was an early encounter with ethical relativism. Yes, an innocent antelope got ripped to shreds—but what about poor Mrs. Cheetah and her six adorable cheetah cubs? Did I want them to get so thin and hungry that the hyenas pick them off one by one? Then what about the poor baby hyenas? And on we go . . . arriving, eventually, at questions like, What is cruelty? and not long after, What is evil? As a novelist I want answers in order to motivate, plausibly, the antagonists who bedevil my protagonists.
You’re evidently interested in reincarnation—in Cloud Atlas there’s the suggestion that each new chapter contains a character from a previous chapter reborn in a later era. And in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, there’s the suggestion that one of the principal characters, Dr. Marinus, has been reborn again and again. Do you actually believe in reincarnation?
I would love to believe in reincarnation, but the answer is no. There is solace, however, in the carbon cycle, in the nitrogen cycle. Biochemically, at least, reincarnation is a fact. Donate your ashes to a fruit farmer.
On Joseph Conrad, and romanticizing the East
What about Joseph Conrad?
His story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.
Interview with New Statesman
Do you try to balance this with optimism?
I must: it’s my job. Who wants to spend a tenner on 400 pages of unmitigated misery? Depressive nihilism leads nowhere, and is not the whole picture: that’s why it never catches on, except as a fashion accessory. Human beings also do humour and redemption (I like to imagine us big-brained primates actually evolving humour as a sort of natural Prozac against the depressing viciousness of the world, whilst our more ‘realist’ evolutionary competitors chucked themselves off the Rift Valley cliff-tops.) The Wire, for instance, is an unflinching map of downward spirals, but it’s so brilliant and human and lifelike (not to mention successful) because of its flashes of compassion and redemption and even farce. Don’t hire Doctor Pangloss as a life-coach, but don’t hire Eeyore either.
Interview with Vanity Fair.
On literary classification, and the future of the novel:
James Wood in the New Yorker was describing your books and he jokingly came up with the phrase post-postmodernism. If there were such a thing as post-postmodern literature, what do you think that might be?
Oddly enough, I’m not sure if novelists are the best people to ask whither-the-novel questions. For me, it’s a little like I’m a duckbilled platypus and I’m being asked a question about taxonomy. You won’t get much of an answer out of a platypus because they’re busy going about their business digging tunnels, catching fish, and having sex. You really have to ask a critic, or a taxonomist. I feel like I should have a pithy answer because I’m a novelist and you’re asking a question about the future of the novel, but the biggest question I ever get to is, “How can I make this damned book work?” I rarely ever put my head above the rampart and see where this big lumbering behemoth called global literature is going
Radio interview on NPR (Fresh Air)
On the difficulty of language in a historical fiction:
Language, that was the biggest baddest mistake really, Terry. What language are these people speaking? If you try to get it right, if you try to get authentic 18th century speech you end up sounding like “Black Adder,” you end up sounding like pastiche. If, on the other hand, you don’t, you don’t convince your reader that the language, you know, smells authentic, then – bubble of fiction is popped because the reader’s thinking, hang on, this sounds like speech that could have been from a sitcom I saw last week. So you have to sort of create what I came to think of as a bygone-ese kind of dialect, which is not in fact completely plausible. It doesn’t really work if you have characters using the word harken, for example. But which still smells and has the right texture of 18th century speech. And it’s tough to do that. It’s tough to work out exactly how to do it.