Last night, while we were waiting for the Wheeler Centre’s David Mitchell talk to start, my friend and I were talking about geeks who come full circle. That is, when they’re at school or whatever, they’re not really comfortable in their skin – their geekiness is like an itch or something that they try to hide – but when they grow up they become one with their geekiness, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
I came to this talk with almost zero knowledge of Mitchell. In general, going to author’s talks when you haven’t read the book is highly recommended – it’s more surprising. I have a copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet on my floor, and am now burning to read it.
The predominant mood last night was Swoon. Michael Gawenda, the Wheeler Centre guy, almost seemed a bit fluttery and stuttery himself when he introduced Mitchell, although that could have been for other reasons. And Jenny Niven, the Program Manager at the Melbourne Writers Festival, who has this beautiful, lilting, Scottish accent, was gazing at him almost lovingly the whole time. You got the feeling that she had devoured his whole oeuvre, and was just dying to ask something like, ‘You know, I still can’t understand why you killed off that minor character in page 500 of your unpublished manuscript, the one that nobody else has read yet, and yet it worked so perfectly?’
Mitchell seemed like a bit of a blank canvas when he first emerged from behind the curtain – storky, with a sticking-up fringe, cotton slacks, and daggy lace-ups. Like, he could have gone either way – been kookily funny; quiet, serious, and academic; or completely disengaged.
Mitchell said that the decision to write about late 18th century Dejima, a tiny island of Dutch traders in the bay of Nagasaki, was a mistake. Why? Novels thrive on coincidences and chance meetings, and the Japanese government’s policy of strict segregation between the Japanese and the Dutch was completely antithetical to that. Only a very select group of Japanese families were allowed to mix with the Dutch, and they weren’t even allowed to learn each others’ languages. But in the end, after thinking about elaborate plot contrivances to bring the two together, he realised that the solution lay within the problem. ‘Memo to self,’ he said, ‘The solution lies within the problem.’ A useful dictum, methinks, but what the solution was in this case, I’m not sure – I’ll have to read the book.
Figuring out what happened in the 18th century required both hard research – what were the major historical events of the time – and soft research – how was a room lit, how did they heat themselves, how did they shave, how did they bath, what did they eat? So you’ve got to work all this stuff out, he said, and then hide it, otherwise you’ll have a sentence like, ‘Jacob, I’m not sure if we should use the whale oil lamp, because that might be very expensive… maybe we should use the pig fat candle.’ It’s not easy to write a novel, he pointed out, when you have to check Wikipedia every time you write a sentence. He also had to think carefully about language. At first he thought it needed to be completely archaic, but after writing a few pages of that ‘slew,’ he realised it sounded like Black Adder and nobody was going to want to read it. Eventually, he realised he had to create his own ‘bygonese’ — an inaccurate but plausible language – with a different type of bygonese for the Japanese and the Dutch. Anyway, here’s an essay he wrote about writing historical fiction – have a read if you’re interested.
At first, I thought Mitchell’s disarmingness was incidental, and then I realised this guy was actually quite self-aware, conscious of his need to entertain the audience. When asked about his elaborately constructed plots, he said it was really an atomistic process, and then rejected this terminology, ‘It’s too late in the night for that kind of language… ok, it’s more like Lego.’ He’d started as a short story writer, and then gradually built up from there. Did he plan his novels? No, ‘life’s too short to plan a Lego cathedral.’
Mitchell’s stutter seemed almost cultivated, as it usually preceded some selection of the perfect adjective or a cracking metaphor. He fielded quite a few sycophantic questions from the audience, like ‘in XXX novel, which hasn’t been mentioned enough tonight I don’t think, there are so many great ideas in each chapter. Aren’t you concerned about using up all your good ideas at once?’ There was a little pause, a nod of the head, and then he’d be fluently expounding about how when he first started writing, he was dead-scared of committing the novelist’s cardinal sin of being boring, so he tried to fit in as many ideas as he could. Now, he was content to really work hard on developing the one plot and set of characters. ‘Now I’m growing a pumpkin whereas before I was….popping doughnuts.’ A look of glee at the marvellous metaphor he’d selected and then he mimed making doughnuts with his fingers.
They’re making a film out of Cloud Atlas, with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, and Nevin asked Mitchell something along the lines of whether he was concerned if it was capable of fully realising the potential of the book. He said that that was really up to them, and he didn’t mind as long as they paid him the money – but at the same time, he’d read the script and was really excited about it, ‘I think it could be at least a good a film as my book is a book, however good you think that is.’ He was quite pleased with his own quip, deeming it the quote of the night.
It was really quite lovely, sitting and listening to Mitchell in the cosy, elaborate, Athenaeum theatre with its mellow lighting and all the other like-minded audience members in their woollen scarfs. Almost like meditating, I could just focus on his voice, his beautiful constantly gesticulating hands, and the warm, lilting, interjections from his interviewee. A welcome end to a day in which I’d had a spate with my colleague at work, whom I’ll dub Lolly Boy (origin of the nickname is another story), because he’d call me ‘Young Lady’ one too many times. Removing distractions, turning your phone off, and absorbing interesting thoughts and conversations, without having to participate, is a welcome reprieve from the grinding mundanities of the office day.
At the end of the show, there was this mile-long line of fans trying to get their book signed, so my friend and I decided to get a sneaky glass of red wine and then come back. Serendipitously, when we returned to the Athenaeum, there were only three people left in the line. It was this young girl, the one who had asked Mitchell an earnest, kind-of-cheesy but still cute question about whether it was lonely being a writer. She was with her mum, and the mum was being kind-of-embarrassing in a way I recognised. We could hear something along the lines of, ‘My daughter taught English in Japan and she really.. and it’s really…’ and this just went on for ages. Mitchell, of course, was being really interested and polite and warm. When the mum finally retreated, he said to the girl, ‘Your mum’s lovely. Kind of intense, but worth having.’
Then my friend went up to get her book signed. I just hovered behind her, trying to look cool and all-knowing, but not desperate. Mitchell said sympathetically, ‘You guys must have been waiting for ages.’ ‘Actually, we just popped off to get a drink,’ we said, feeling pretty shiny. Mitchell wrote flourishingly with a black texta all over the inside cover page, and I commented, trying to be cool again, ‘That’s a pretty flamboyant signature.’ My friend gushed about how good his book was, and I think he tuned out until she said, ‘I had to take a few deep breaths after I finished it,’ at which point he re-engaged and smiled at her thankfully. We left, and his Wheeler Centre minders swooped in on him, looking concerned that the signing had gone on for so long. They were probably, like, ‘David, are you OK? It’s been a long night,’ whereas I think he was loving it.