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Archive for May 21st, 2011

Session #191: ‘The Big Reading’: Mitchell, Cunningham, Obreht, Miller, Abdolah: 

Just a short post on this afternoon’s ‘Big Reading’ – a SWF stalwart session.  This year was a real cavalcade of literary luminaries: in reading order:

1. Kei Miller: reading from The Same Earth – not his most recent work, but his debut novel.  A charming section describing a peculiar ‘countdown’ naming convention used by a family of 6 – which started with a boy who became known as ‘Five’ and then subsequent siblings right down to ‘Zero’, a simple boy who witnessed something horrific, something that changes him forever. 

2: David Mitchell: reading something from his next novel!   It’s part set in the future – a very dystopic future by the look of things! – and the main theme of the piece he read out was ageism.  Not surprisingly for Mitchell, there are more than one narrative strand – one set in this future world, another set in the ‘Land of Youth’ … very intriguing and wonderful to hear something fresh.  Kudos to him. 

3. Tea Obreht: reading part of the chapter from her acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife (see my review here) which introduces us to her wonderful – and much loved – character: ‘The Deathless Man’. 

4. Kader Abdolah: easily the most moving of tonight’s stories: Kader told an autobiographical story.  He is from Iran and fled as a refugee, in the process letting down his father because he left him behind.  He ended up in The Netherlands and then tried several quite humorous (and heartbreaking) times to get into the USA.  He learnt Dutch and now writes in Dutch (even translating the Koran into Dutch too).  To get up and speak as he did about his life in English was brilliant.  He then read us a few brief lines from his book The House of the Mosque.  He said the book was his way of travelling home to Iran, the place he can only go now in the imagination.  Wonderful. 

5. Michael Cunningham: he of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours fame, followed in David’s steps by reading us a chapter called The Snow Princess from his next novel, which focussed on the body of a woman who has been dead a week, her body frozen in death in the snow, how she was in a state of ‘in between’ – some of which he had written only last night!  (He said he gets a little weary of reading from what are for him ‘old’ novels.)  Another very exciting glimpse into the stories that will be hitting bookshelves, kindles, i-pads, etc, etc, in the (hopefully) not-to-distant future.  I dare say Cunningham fans will not be disappointed. 

Enjoyed it immensely and will be looking out for Miller and Abdolah’s work, which I’ve not yet read.

The D!

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Session #145: ‘The Vagabonds’: David Mitchell and Daniel Swift in Conversation with Louise Adler

Bomber County is Daniel Swift’s first book.  It was, in part, an attempt to trace what happened to his grandfather who flew in British bombers in WWII and was shot down.  It also looks at the people who were being bombed, what it was like for them, and so the book links the loss of his grandfather with a much greater story of loss.  It is part memoir, part history. 

David Mitchell needs no introduction! 

Both authors were asked about the research in writing historical works, fiction and non-fiction, and how they know when it’s time to stop.  Daniel said you know when to stop things become familiar.  He interviewed many Germans and those who knew his grandfather.  When their stories began to come together – when he started to hear ‘echoes’ between stories – he knew he was near the end.  One of his interests in the telling of history is those things which are left unsaid.  Sometimes it’s not best to know everything in its purest form.  He talked of how the letters airmen wrote home were bland, ‘nothing happened today’-sort of notes, but when he looked at their flight logs for that day they’d been flying over some German city and dropping bombs.  This gap intrigued him.  Bomber County also examines the poetry of WWII. 

David Mitchell came at things from the other end, starting with nothing.  He said there are two forms of research: hard and soft.  The hard research is ‘the girders of history’ – the facts and interconnections (a recurring theme for him) – and where in history a novel might be positioned.  For him, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was placed within the Napoleonic period because he saw it as this tectonic shift which generated its own conflict in which the story could be grounded.  Then the ‘soft’ research commences when you start writing – those ‘1,001 ways human needs are met or not met’ – things like, ‘If you’re sick, what do you do?’ and ‘If you’re hungry…’ and so on.  You do this research, know it, then hide it.  He gave a very humourous account of how not to ‘hide’ the research, describing at length the lighting of a sperm oil lamp or a tallow candle.  He said it might be funny now, but it’s horrible when it was written!  Research operates on the iceberg principle – the 90% needs to be there, hidden, otherwise the top sinks without a trace.  It took him four years to write the book. 

Daniel was asked about the morality of the bombing Dresden.  He talked of how difficult it is, how risky for us, to pass judgement. 

David was asked about the structure of Autumns – why he moved us off Dejima and away to the temple.  He said the structure of a book reveals itself – the book will tell you how it should be written.  The walled island, he felt, could really only sustain part of the story rather than a whole one.  He said he needed to leave Dejima before it became boring.  (I’m not so sure about that, I’m sure he could have pulled it off, and for me, the middle part of the story didn’t quite work as well as the Dejima sections). 

He was asked about the midwife character – and he talked about how she came to be a midwife.  He had to ask himself, how do I get a woman onto the island, when there were only traders and prostitutes and spies allowed there?  ‘You wade through a minefield of implausibility until something works.’  A midwife ‘bends’ but doesn’t break, it’s plausible.  Writing, he said, is an ‘act of escapology’.  I really like this, and it ties in with what Markus Zusak said in yessterday when he said ‘I don’t have a good imagination, I just have a lot of problems.’  It’s fascinating that many authors feel this way. 

There was a very interesting discussion about the intersection of non-fiction and fiction.  David talked about the end of movies like Platoon – those images set the terms for people’s understanding of that period of history.  He called it ‘the Oliver Stone Syndrome’!  The border between fiction and nonfiction is ‘unfenced and unpatrolled’.  History isn’t always a matter of what happened, it’s what we think now about what happened.  Fiction, in many ways almost stands in for fact.  Is this a good thing?  He obfuscated a little here, saying he didn’t like the idea of all that power in the hands on one person.  He added that writing has an ethical dimension.  If writers ignore the ethical dimension, it makes writing soulless.  (If only we had Kate Grenville to chime in wither her thoughts here given all the fuss The Secret River and the so-called ‘History Wars’!)

When asked for tips on research, Daniel said that while archives and libraries are good start, other sources are often as good.  He said reading a natural history text on animals in London from 1946 told him a lot about the time.  David’s 2 tips: do the background research, but don’t do the background to the background.  Otherwise 4 years might become 14!  Secondly, stay receptive to happenstance – sometimes the way in is not through the front door.  He then talked about how living in Holland made him aware that a Dutch snowflake is different to an English one.  Found objects, like this piece of knowledge, are often the best, so ‘stay open’.  Beyond that, do what you can, make it up and ‘get your wife to read it’!  He gave a wonderful description of how he tests how good a piece of writing is: he gives it to his wife on the night that it’s her turn to cook and if she has time to prepare a feast then he knows the manuscript is boring, but if dinner is thrown together and a mess, then he knows he’s onto something good!  (I love that – fantastic!) 

A very entertaining session and very interesting for those of us who dabble in research projects from time to time. 

The D!

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Session #109: The Thousand Styles of David Mitchell

Geordie Williams who was in conversation with David Mitchell introduced the session by saying that it was the one that sold out the quickest of all sessions at this year’s SWF. 

Daivd Mitchell is well known for his varied styles, the great shifts he has between each in terms of form, setting, and themes.  He actually started by giving us a reading of a short story that was just over 900 words long, called An Inside Job.  It was a measure of his skill that so much story was packed into such a short length. 

David talked about why it is that he seeks a departure from what has come before when he writes a new novel.  He said if something is the same it has been done, so why do it again?  That being said, there are common threads through his novels in the form of characters who pop up in more than one book.  Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that Ghostwritten, his first ‘book’, is a series of 9 inter-weaving narratives in which characters pop up in different stories, even if in oblique ways.  (I’m just about through Ghostwritten and it is a lot of fun; the links are both obvious and more subtle, but they are all fun – it’s like finding a little gem in a field of rubble and when you see the links and how the characters fit together it gives you a little thrill.) 

David talked about the the five elements of a novel: plot, character, themes/ideas, structure, and style.  (He made an interesting aside here when he said that someone had once asked him about ‘place’ – and he said that he felt it present but not a main element of the overall scheme.  It is interesting to me that in my reading of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the descriptions of place seemed to be ‘dropped in’ and did not quite have the same ‘grounding’ in place as say Tim Winton, or many other Australian authors.  Having said that, some of his sense of place in Ghostwritten is very good, the ‘London’ story, for instance, had great descriptions in it and covers a lot of the city.) 

Style is an ellusive thing for Mitchell.  Part of writing a novel is working out what style the novel wants to be written in.  Always, the narrative – the sense of story – is the most important thing. 

He gave a very funny account of the challenges of writing historical fiction in terms of getting the language / dialogue right.  Language is the tricky thing, he said, you can’t win.  He read a lot of old authors to ‘ingest’ the period language, such as Smollett Fielding Richardson, and wrote for six months and had something that was ‘perfect’ but was baiscally ‘Blackadder’!  Go the other way to being too modern and you sound like Seinfeld.  You need to find the least worst option, waht he calls ‘Bygone-ese’ – ‘how we think they talk back when if we don’t think too much!  Then there’s all the different Bygoneese he needed: for Dutch, English, Japanese, for high-class, ‘oinks’ and so on.  So it was a lot of work.  Four years work. 

He’d always been interested in Dejima – the ‘catflap’ between two worlds, how there was extreme xenophobia on the one hand in Japanese closing off the outside world, but also how they knew the Dutch brought with them all sorts o fwonderful things, which can be encapsulated in the ‘Enlightenment’. 

He spoke briefly about Black Swan Green his book prior to Jacob but not in any great detail, saying that he and the narrator share quite a lot of DNA. 

The best stuff for an author is found ‘stuff’.  Those things you can’t make up.  The place you’re in seeps into you and informs your writing.  He’s very interested in the sense of interdependence, again not surprising considering his practice of using characters more than once.  He spoke about how this is not a new idea of course, Shakespeare had Falstaff appear in more than one play and it makes our understanding of The Merry Winves of Windsor because we know what happens to him in King Henry IV.  The reasons he likes doing this is one, because it amuses him – and there are many moments in his writing where it is clear to us as readers that he is having a lot of fun (as we are too) – and, second, because it transfers ‘concreteness’ from one story to another, i.e., it transfers a sense of reality from story to story.  He was asked why he hadn’t done it for Jacob but answered that he had!  There are four examples of this transferrence, two of which he forgot.  One is a sea Captain who appears at the end, and another is a cat that was also in Black Swan Green(!) 

Mitchell has a great sense of humour and though at times I felt Geordie Williamson might not have got the best out of him today, there are of course only so many minutes in an hour and it was still a lot of fun and very interesting.   

That’s it for Friday.  Bring on Saturday! 

The D! 🙂

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