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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