Well, I braved boiling temperatures, chugged endless water bottles and crowded into a near-bursting bookshop in a sweat-drenched t-shirt to see David Mitchell Sunday afternoon, the culmination of a literary pilgrimage that took me to a baking stretch of 10th Avenue in Manhattan.
Mitchell, British novelist and author of “Cloud Atlas”, chose the independent bookstore 192 Books in Chelsea to read from his newest novel, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” (pronounced “de Zoot”, not “de Zo-et”, as I learned). The crammed bookshop fairly swelled with the author’s fans, many clutching copies of his novels along with their water and tote bags.
I confess to being a bit of a“Mitchell Geek”, as his fans are called, having admired his work since I first picked up his semi-autobiographical novel “Black Swan Green” four years ago. Mitchell’s writing tends to inspire devoted enthusiasm in his fans, and I admit to succumbing to a similar sort of fervor prior to the event.
Mitchell arrived with little fanfare via taxi, pulling up outside the bookshop where a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. Several of the fans waiting outside had already cracked open the spine of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”; bookshop attendants rounded the sidewalk with cool paper cups of water to lessen the heat’s sting.
I was lucky; at the head of a long waiting list to get inside for the reading, I managed to squeeze, standing, into a corner near the window, between a young couple and a woman who continually fanned herself against the muggy heat.
It’s always curious to see someone you’ve only previously known from book jacket photos and newspaper portraits in the flesh; Mitchell, in person, is tall, soft-voiced and animated, laughs easily and jokes often, mostly at his own expense. He read a passage from the beginning of “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet”, a chapter in which the Japanese island of Dejima, where the book is set, crackles and blisters beneath an August heat (appropriately). As he read, Mitchell lapsed easily into the voices of each character, trading accents and expertly capturing the pitfalls of miscommunication between the Japanese and Dutch speakers in the book.
The novel — which I’m currently a nail-biting three-quarters of the way through — takes place at the cusp of the 19th century, when Japan was completely closed to outsiders, save for Dejima, the small island that teemed with Dutch traders, officials and sailors: ambassadors of the waning Dutch sea empire.
Jacob de Zoet is a pious clerk amidst a fatted stew of corruption, intent at his arrival on straightening out the crooked books that catalog the transactions carried out on the island. Of course, nothing among the Dutch or the Japanese is quite as it seems — particularly not Jacob’s besotted pursuit of Miss Aibagawa, the beautiful, scarred Japanese midwife. Jacob’s love for her is forbidden by social conventions, by Japanese law, by his own fiancée in the Netherlands and by Miss Aibagawa’s past and present life.
I absolutely love the book so far; few novels since my childhood diet of the Harry Potter series have made my heart race or my fingers turn the pages as quickly as “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” (though I’ve been slowing down, to savor it). David Mitchell is a profoundly unusual writer, not just in the way that he structures his novels, but also in the writing of them. His metaphors slide subtly onto the page, his sentences catch you with their beauty before your mind has even had time to comprehend them. He gives his characters extraordinarily rich voices that remain in your head long after you’ve finished the books (and have remained in my head for years). And, perhaps the simplest yet most important aspect of his writing, Mitchell knows how to tell a gripping story without sacrificing style, how to pull the reader into that story with a few sentences, and yet make those sentences dazzling pieces of literary writing. It’s a remarkably uncommon feat in modern fiction.
At 192 Books, Mitchell described how he’d come across the old island of Dejima during his years living in Japan, and how the place spent over a decade in his head, germinating ideas that would become “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.” He joked about the difference between Chelsea in London and Chelsea in New York (“Do they really sell bottled New York tap water here?”). And, he explained the tricky nature of historical novels, how to leave “the big stuff” of history alone (like the outcome of the Napoleonic wars, for instance), invent the smaller details, and slightly tweak whatever lies in between.
“But ‘flag your tweaks’,” Mitchell said with a smile.
The author had a plane to catch directly after the reading, but he lingered a bit to sign copies of his book for the crowd. I approached, somewhat nervously (this was, after all, the first real live literary author I’d ever met). Of course, I made the classic meeting-a-famous-person mistakes, turning bright red and blurting something about how much I admired his work and how I’m a writer (i.e. the standard response of 10 million other bibliophile youths). I remembered (too late) something Mitchell himself had written about his own 21-year-old self, meeting author Angela Carter: “Happily, I was too nervous to tell Angela Carter how I, too, wanted to be a novelist some day.” Oh, no! I’d messed it up already. But Mitchell was kind enough and understanding enough (I hope) not to judge — he didn’t laugh, he didn’t even hide a knowing smile, or say “Oh, how nice for you,” or “Really? How original.” He paused in signing my book, and spoke to me without a trace of condescension. He talked of revisions in writing, and how something you’ve put on paper often seems brilliant at the time, but morphs into truly awful prose that crawls sheepishly off the page three months later (to which I heartily agreed — this happens to me constantly).
“Don’t get discouraged,” Mitchell told me. “The only way to learn how to write fiction is to write fiction.”
But of course. I walked away from the bookshop feeling thrilled with that advice, and only noticed once I had gotten back on the train home what Mitchell had written in my book. Under my name and above his sprawling signature were the small, clearly inked words: “Good luck.”
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A few days before he spoke in New York, David Mitchell held an event at the Toronto Public Library, in which he reads a portion of his new book and discusses elements of the story and how it was written. Here is the first section of the five-part discussion – the whole thing is quite enjoyable to listen to, as I found.