May 17, 2011

David Mitchell at AWRF 2011

Most people I know who love reading admire David Mitchell, who possesses a wonderful talent for infusing his novels with both original ideas and narrative drive, as with his latest, The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. So it's not surprising that he was one of the hottest attractions at this edition of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Zoë Colling from Central Library was one of a number of us who attended "An hour with David Mitchell" in which he was interviewed by Emily Perkins, and she came away enthusiastic. Now if I could just get her to change her name to Zoë de Zoet. Would that not be a fantastic name for a librarian? For anyone? In the meantime, here's her description:
Sounding like a modest rapper delivering a controlled, detailed and sharp spiel, David Mitchell's first reading was a passage from near the end of his latest novel The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It was a poetic prelude to his warm, entertaining talk. In his introduction he mentioned he finished The thousand autumns sixteen months ago and loudly, with a touch of tongue-in-cheek, proclaimed he was sick of it. The second reading was from a new short story that may turn into his next book. Hand gestures, facial expressions, pauses and the sound of his voice all changed as we were introduced to characters involved in an inside job, a hundred miles away from the last conjured realm.

Having not read Mitchell's latest novel, but a firm fan from falling into previous ones, it was exciting hearing about how he accidentally stumbled across Dejima when he was intending to find an inexpensive mountain of food in Chinatown. Dejima was once a tiny island and a trading post for an incredibly closed off Japan. When he came across this place and the museum there, he recognised from an internal Geiger counter of his imagination that this was a splendid spot for a story. Mitchell spoke charmingly about the challenges of writing an historical novel. How themes appear in his work after characters and plots have been figured out. Ideas concerning language, translation, miscommunication and language learning in The thousand autumns were discussed. He spoke about the difficulty of writing authentic-sounding dialogue for people from another era, who speak or are prevented from speaking a number of languages. The solution to this? Make up a language with a plausible name: 'Bygonese'.

The audience questions revealed some insightful information. Yes, he has been to the Chatham Islands and Mongolia! He uses Google Earth as a writing tool - what better way of discovering teetering, cliff-top monasteries? The gripping "imaginatively intelligent" worlds of Ursula Le Guin were recalled from his childhood as an early and enduring influence. Mitchell was very open at times. He talked about how his writing had changed since he had become a parent. His loss of interest in Trans-Siberian escapades as plot devices and his new fascination with "muddy" characters and their relationships that evolve when certain events occur or with passing time.

Mitchell made a number of light-hearted comments about himself during the hour, so it seemed inevitable the talk ended on a self-deprecating note. Perkins read out a line from his first reading – “This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself” - and praised him by asserting the audience would argue against this point. The last word went to Mitchell though, stating the line was not his but Leonard Cohen’s. Quietly mentioning he had slightly re-engineered the words. This manages to make writing delightful sentences, and novels, sound as simple as remembering a line one has heard somewhere and then modifying the line, like magic. A fittingly polite end.

-- Zoë Colling

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 03:00


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