If the writer David Mitchell comes to town, attend. I went last night to his reading at Powells, a tour stop to promote his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet. I expected a calm and sort of serious and intellectual author, based on the intricacies of structure in his earlier books (I’ve read number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and Black Swan Green) and his careful weaving of historical detail, character, style, and plot.
Instead, we got a skinny, boyish, enthusiastic 41 year old cross between Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, and Neil Gaiman (without the black clothing), in t-shirt and jeans, overly caffeinated, jet lagged, giddy from meeting Ursula Le Guin just prior to the reading (which was packed to overflowing), and my god funny. I called Debby afterward and told her I wished she’d been able to attend–no previous experience with his work was required to enjoy the hell out of the evening. He was also very sweet to a woman with a crying baby, insisting almost desperately that she stay–partially because he loved babies and partially because he missed his own very much.
It was also a lesson in reading performance. He started out slow, a little stuttery (he described himself as a “stuttering English introvert”), but the longer he read, the more he fell into character with believable Dutch and Japanese accents. (He lived in Japan for 8 years and Holland for several years.) He joked that his worst accent was American English and that he sometimes has to speak in caricature to be understood.
By being himself and by charming the audience, he probably does more for his book sales than most PR campaigns.
Of course there were people asking about his writing process, which had him scratching his head, then coming up with practical if not roundabout answers, including a comparison between writing a first novel and losing one’s virginity–where you look back on it and wonder what the fuss was all about. In response to a question about how the structure of his novels have steadily simplified, he described an index of style from Murakami to Marilynne Robinson, from the more clinical and highly structured to “human mud,” and that the story of human mud (relationships and emotional turmoil) did not need or want complex structure. His stories were steadily becoming less about (multidimensional) castles and more about mud.
A few quotes:
He saw Powells as “this great Borgesian City with little outposts of Portland attached.”
“The soul is a verb, not a noun.” Paraphrased from a Japanese character in his latest work.
“Real people’s misery is what novelists eat, really.”
“This cup of tea was kindly made for me about 2 hours ago–it has 2 tea bags in it–it’s like Guinness now.” (followed by smacking his lips)
About research and detail: “Novelists require a magpie mind.”
In summing up part of UKLG’s intro to the revised edition of Left Hand of Darkness, on writing for readers (which he read), he said, “I think this means, the [reader’s] Eyeball has an Eardrum.”
He would make a great Dr. Who.