Video of David Mitchell in Melbourne
In his only Melbourne appearance on his recent Australian tour, acclaimed author David Mitchell revealed the inspiration for his most recent novel - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - was a rumbling stomach in Nagasaki.
In this video of the event, the lanky Englishman begins with a reading from his fifth novel — last year’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell describes his initial drafts as ungratifying but necessary: ‘I have to write a piece of a dog’s dinner of a first manuscript to see what the problems really are, and then work out how to fix them.’ Similarly, he recounts that the writing he once filled his Moleskine notebook with was ‘laughable’ and ‘awful’.
Turning to the topic of historical fiction, he explains that the genre is easier to write in the third person. In striving to balance authenticity with readability, he employs an invented writerly language called ‘Bygonese’, which is ‘not totally accurate, but it’s plausible’.
It’s clear that Mitchell enjoys his research — so it’s pertinent that he shares his advice for tempering the ever-deepening hunger for knowledge as that process unfolds. Similarly, he discusses (with humour) how important it is to then resist the urge to demonstrate all this new knowledge in one’s prose.
As the session progresses, the writer’s penchant for the non sequitur increases. He refers to the ‘inconspicuously complex’ structure of his novels, which he says he assembles ‘atomistically’ — before happening upon a much simpler, Lego-centric explanation. And on the subject of Cloud Atlas‘ forthcoming filmic adaptation, he offers: 'if the film was as good as the script looks to me, then it could at least be as good a film as the book is a book, however good the book is.’
Responding to questions from the floor, he reveals that his writing style is motivated by a fear of being boring and explains why, since his first three books, he’s ‘more of a pumpkin grower than a doughnut maker’.
Concluding, Mitchell explains that while writing is in some ways a lonely pursuit (and one which moves him to envy musicians), there is a strange comfort in the company of his characters. He expresses his gratitude to his readers, and insists that writers have no right to be self-pitying about their profession.
David Mitchell appeared as a guest of The Wheeler Centre and Melbourne Writers' Festival.