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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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