Interviews with David Mitchell

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.

On reincarnation:

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

On optimism:

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.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Finished reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet today. I had a “OH NO!!” reaction to the ending at first, calmed down, and then realized it was the only possible ending, considering the circumstances of the people involved. Even though I love David Mitchell, I dreaded reading this book at first – oh god, white guy goes to the Orient, falls in love with and rescues a damsel-in-distress – not again. But it doesn’t really turn out that way, because of the limitations imposed by Japan on foreigners at the time (1799), Jacob is quite helpless and unable to dash around saving anyone; Orito could have escaped her imprisonment through her own effort, but turned back at the last minute because it would mean abandoning the other women there who needed her skills as a mid-wife. Some of my favorite passages from the book:

You shall go back, Orito thinks, only if you choose to.
She imagines Master Suzaku, helpless, as Yayoi’s screams scald the air.
The bell could be a trick, she considers, to lure you back.
Far, far below, the Ariake sea is burnished by the moonlight …
What may be a trick tonight will be the truth tomorrow night, or very soon
“The liberty of Aibagawa Orito,” Orito speaks out loud, “is more important than the life of Yayoi and her twins.” She examines the truth of the statement.

“I know what you don’t believe in, Doctor: what do you believe?”
“Oh, Descartes’ methodology, Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, the efficacy of Jesuits’ bark … So little is actually worthy of either belief or disbelief. Better to strive to co-exist, than seek to disprove …”

Jacob contemplates the details and the devils plants a seed.
What if this engine of bones, the seed germinates, is a man’s entirety?
Wind wallops the walls like a dozen tree-trunks tumbling.
and Divine Love is a mere means of extracting baby engines of bones?
Jacob thinks about Abbot Enamoto’s questions at their one meeting.
“Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?”
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”
“Then where …” Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton “… is it?”
“The soul is a verb,” he impales a lit candle on a spike, “not a noun.”

“It is not even Miss Aibagawa after whom you lust, in truth. It is the genus, “The Oriental Women” who so infatuates you. Yes, yes, the mysterious eyes, the camellias in her hair, what you perceive as meekness. How many hundreds of you besotted white men have I seen mired in the same syrupy hole?”
“You are wrong, for once, Doctor. There’s no -”
“Naturally, I am wrong: Domburger‘s adoration for his Pearl of the East is based on chivalry: behold the disfigured damsel, spurned by her own race! Behold our Occidental Knight, who alone divines her inner beauty!”

“So Miss Aibagawa must suffer – suffer the unendurable for the rest of her life?”
Uzaemon hesitates. “A friend, in Nagasaki, wish to help … with directness.”
De Zoet is no fool. “You plan a rescue? Can you hope to succeed?”
Uzaemon hesitates again. “Not he and I alone. I … purchase assistance.”
“Mercenaries are risky allies, as we Dutch know well.” De Zoet’s mind works an abacus of implications. “But how could you return to Dejima afterwards? And she would just be recaptured. You’d have to go into hiding – permanently – and – so why – why sacrifice so much – everything? Unless … oh.”
Momentarily, the two men are unable to look each other in the eye.
So now you know, the interpreter thinks, I love her too.
“I am a fool.” The Dutchman rubs his green eyes. “A myopic, holy fool …”

Naozumi takes the ivory carving and holds it against his eye.
Shiroyama does not gather his son into his arms and breathe in his sweet smell.
“Thank you, Father.” Kawasemi angles the boy’s head to imitate a bow.
Naozumi leaps away with his prize, jumping from mat to mat to door.
At the door he turns to look at his father, and Shiroyama thinks, Now.
Then the boy’s footfalls carry him away for ever.
Lusts trick babies from their parents, thinks Shiroyama, mishap, duty
Marigolds in the vase are the precise shade of summer, remembered.
but perhaps the luckiest are those born from an unthought thought: that the intolerable gulf between lovers can be bridged only by the bones and cartilage of a new being.

Ben Whishaw and Literary/Real World Characters

Just noticed this, since his role as Keith Richards in Stoned (2005), almost all of the characters Ben Whishaw played in movies are either based on a real person (Keith Richards in Stoned, Bob Dylan in I’m not There, John Keats in Bright Star), or characters from a book or a play (Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume, Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Ariel in The Tempest, Q in Skyfall,  Robert Frobisher+unknown other characters in Cloud Atlas). The exception is his cameo in Tom Tykwer’s The International. Not sure what this means, if anything.

As Keith Richards in Stoned (2005). The movie is not actually a biopic of the Rolling Stones, as I originally thought, but revolves around the life and death of Rolling Stones’ co-founder Brian Jones.

As Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Perfume: The Story of a Murdereer (2006), based on the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind. I heard a radio interview with Jane Campion (the director of Bright Star) a while ago about Whishaw’s audition for Bright Star. Apparently Whishaw’s agent or management had originally sent Campion photos and clips from his role as Grenouille. Campion took one look at the photos and immediately said no, not this guy. (Yeah, no kidding, this does not scream Keats’ material at all. What was his agent thinking?) Fortunately, Campion changed her mind once she saw Whishaw read for the part.

Credited as “Arthur”, but really, he’s playing Bob Dylan, in I’m Not There (2007).  

As Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited (2008), based on the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I really wanted to like this movie, but aside from Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon, everyone else is a disappointment. Even Whishaw seemed unsure and a little bit out of his depth as Sebastian.

As the poet John Keats in Bright Star (2009). I love this movie, and his performance in it, without reservation.

As Ariel in The Tempest (2010). I haven’t seen this one.

As Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas (2012), based on the novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m curious what other characters he will be playing in the movie, but this is the main one. To be honest, I’m not too thrilled with the whole “everyone will play multiple roles, with gender-bending and race-bending” thing. That could so easily turn into an excuse to hire mostly just a bunch of white guys.  

I Read Stuff

Finally finished John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. Not on par with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or Smiley’s People, but not bad for a le Carre’s book not starring George Smiley. What I will remember most years later about the story probably won’t be the perfidy of the phrmaceutical company at the heart of the novel’s plot, but Justin Quayle’s doubts and uncertainties about his wife, and his guilt about those doubts and uncertainties after her death.

“And you didn’t know anything about the great crime,” Lesley resumed, unwilling to be persuaded. “Nothing. What it was about, who the victims and the main players were. They kept it all from you. Bluhm and Tessa together, and you stuck out there in the cold.”
“I gave them their distance,” Justin confirmed doggedly.
“I just don’t see how you could survive like that,” Lesley insists, putting down her notebook and opening her hands. “Apart, but together – the way you describe it – it’s like – not being on speaking terms – worse.”
We didn’t survive,” Justin reminds her simply. “Tessa’s dead.”

Increased my Henry James’ count to a grand total of three with The Wings of the Dove (the other two are, predictably, The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw). I saw the movie version starring Helena Bonham Carter years ago as a teenager and was not impressed with the story – a bunch of scheming, unpleasant people taking advantage of a wimpy sick woman, I thought. Maybe the book is just so much better, maybe it’s also partly a function of age, but I have a lot more sympathy for these people now, especially Kate Croy. She knows she’s lost Merton to Milly, he will never forget her now, and whatever she ends up deciding about Milly’s money is beside the point.

Strange it was for him then that she stood in his own rooms doing it, while, with an intensity now beyond any that had ever made his breath come slow, he waited for her act. “There’s but one thing that can save you from my choice.”
“From your choice of my surrender to you?”
“Yes”- and she gave a nod at the long envelope on the table -“your surrender of that.”
“What is it then?”
“Your word of honour that you’re not in love with her memory.”
“Oh – her memory!”
“Ah” – she made a high gesture – “don’t speak of it as if you couldn’t be. i could in your place; and you’re one for whom it will do. Her memory’s your love. You WANT no other.”
He heard her out in stillness, watching her face but not moving. Then he only said: “I’ll marry you, mind you, in an hour.”
“As we were?”
“As we were.”
But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. “We shall never be again as we were!”

Reread Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (it’s been years). I’m definitely Team Miss Marple and NOT Team Hercule Poirot, heh. I’ve forgotten what a condescending a** Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West is.

Currently reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I was really excited about this when it came out, but was waiting for the paperback version, and then completely forgot about it! I’m only about a hundred pages in, so far so good, historical fiction is not my favorite genre, but Mitchell has a way of making things come alive as if they are happening right this instance.

‘It is not even Miss Aibagawa after whom you lust, in truth. It is the genus, “The Oriental Women” who so infatuates you. Yes, yes, the mysterious eyes, the camellias in her hair, what you perceive as meekness. How many hundreds of you besotted white men have I seen mired in the same syrupy hole?’
‘You are wrong, for once, Doctor. There’s no -‘
‘Naturally, I am wrong: Domburger‘s adoration for his Pearl of the East is based on chivalry: behold the disfigured damsel, spurned by her own race! Behold our Occidental Knight, who alone divines her inner beauty!’

Cloud Atlas – The Movie

Hmmm, I’m not sure what to make of this photo of Bae Doona as Sonmi451 in Cloud Atlas. The Wachowskis (who’s directing the futuristic sections of the book) are making her look like a futuristic cyber punk warrior, and that’s not really who Sonmi is in the book. Maybe I just have a different idea of what a clone working as a server in a McDonald-like restaurant living in a dystopian near-future society should look like. Oh well, let’s just wait and see.

This is supposedly the “concept art” for the movie. I really, really hope that this is metaphorical and Tom Tykwer and The Wachowkis are not making a movie where Adam Ewing’s ship from the first story sailed into sonmi’s near-future Korea. Cloud Atlas the book is about a lot of things, but it is emphatically NOT about time-traveling. There’s a hint of souls traveling through time (the reincarnation motive with the main character of each story sharing the same comet-shaped birthmark) but not actual, physical time travel of the sort depicted in this photo. The connections between stories are more subtle, a character from one story reading a journal or letters written by a character in a previous story, for example, not the characters actually meeting each other because they can time travel. I’m starting to sound like a cranky purist, so I’ll just stop here. Still looking forward to the movie, if only to see Ben Whishaw as Frobisher.   

Photo source:

Cloud Atlas – “Revolutionary or Gimmicky”?

“Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor, in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?”

This is how Robert Frobisher, the main character in Letters from Zedelghem section of Cloud Atlas described his latest composition. But it’s also the description of the structure of Cloud Atlas itself, which contains six stories, two set in the past, two set in the present, and two set in the future. And yes, each story is presented in different style of writing, or genre, if you prefer that term (“its own language of key, scale and color”) – 19th century fiction, science fiction, post-apocalyptic narrative, airport thriller etc etc. Each story is presented about halfway through, where it is then interrupted by the next story, and so on, until we reach the sixth story, which is presented in full. The sequence is 123456-654321. Is it revolutionary or gimmicky? I don’t know, but I do know that re-reading the book in a different way as six separate stories recently (i.e. reading each story from start to finish, before moving on to the next story), with the exception of the Luisa Rey Mystery (the airport thriller), the stories held up remarkably well as interesting piece of fiction, even without the complicated structure.

 There are some drawbacks to reading them as six separate stories – for one, if I had read it like this the first time around, I would have been denied the pleasure of being extremely shocked when Frobisher (his story is the second one in the book) casually revealed a HUGE plot spoiler from the first story, which the reader is ignorant of because they have not read the second half of the first story at this point. Or Timothy Cavendish foreshadowing the climax of An Orison of Sonmi451 when he yelled out “Soylent Green is people”. In the end it’s probably neither revolutionary nor gimmicky. The structure made it a more pleasurable read, but the individual stories stand up on their own just as well.









I’ve read two different types of criticism about David Mitchell putting the quoted paragraph in Cloud Atlas. The first criticism is that he’s being condescending to the readers, i.e. he thinks we’re not smart enough to figure out the structure of the book on our own, so he’s telling us what it is, disguised as a musical composition. I don’t really buy this criticism, from reading his interviews, Mitchell doesn’t strike me as someone who underestimates or looks down on his readers. The second type of criticism is that he’s being too clever by half, that it’s all a big post-modern wink. Could be true – he got his MA on Postmodern Fiction after all – but so what? It’s still a good book, and if the author wants to amuse himself a bit, I won’t begrudge him that.