Wednesday, 10 October 2012

David Mitchell

David MitchellInterview by JJ Marsh, with Perry Iles. Photography by Libby O’Loghlin

David Mitchell is widely renowned as one of the greatest British novelists of his generation, garnering comparisons to Tolstoy, Twain, DeLillo and Pynchon among others. He has won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the South Bank Show Literature Prize and the Richard and Judy Best read of the Year prize. He has also been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, the Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize and the Costa Book Award. He has also written the libretto for the opera Wake, which debuted at the Nationale Reisopera in 2010 to great acclaim. Born in 1969, David grew up in Worcestershire and, after several years teaching in Japan, he now lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children. His novel Cloud Atlas has been adapted into a film by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. You can watch the extended trailer here.  

David Mitchell came to Zürich as part of his promotional tour for the German translation of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Up a cobbled alleyway of the Old Town, in a discreet restaurant, he shared his thoughts on half-full glasses, John Lennon and Transferrable Reality Concreteness.

David Mitchell JJ Marsh

How hard was it for you to find representation given the genre-defying nature and structural originality of Ghostwritten? How did you sell it to an agent?
I was armed with pristine naïvete. I was living in Japan and just did what I heard you were supposed to do – send three chapters and a summary to an agent. I picked one, Mike Shaw at Curtis Brown, because he had the only non-posh name that a bog-standard, state comp-educated kid wasn’t intimidated by. He sounded like he could be a character off Eastenders. I sent him my first novel. Big sections of it were rubbish and I’m now profoundly grateful it wasn’t published. But on the back of that, Mike said, maybe not this time but if you want to send me the next thing you work on ... So I did and that was Ghostwritten. I got a very off-the-rack, unastronomical two-book deal, but it was amazing. This was in the days of fax machines and I still remember the excitement of that fax coming through. It was one of my best ever days. And it’s been like that ever since. Same agency, same publisher and my editor, Carole Welch has been with me since book two.  

And Jonny Geller’s your agent now. I interviewed him last year and found his passion for his authors very impressive. Yes, after Mike retired, Jonny took over. And all of his authors have a hard time believing he represents anyone else. We really think he spends all day thinking about us. He’s a very hard-working man.  

Two of my favourite books now have cinematic adaptations. Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s creative influence on the film was immense. What about your relationship with the Wachowskis and Tykwer? How much involvement did you have?
Almost none. The desire for my approval for an early form of the script I do believe was genuine. We met in Cork, and that’s when they discussed foregrounding the reincarnational theme by having the same actor play different ethnicities and genders at points in time. Which you can only do in film. You can’t have actors’ faces in books.  

You were happy with that? Absolutely. John le Carré, speaking about the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, said what I wanted to say. The biggest compliment you can pay is to take the book and interpret it your way. What’s the point in making an audiobook with moving pictures? I want it to be disassembled and reassembled. And they’ve altered some plot lines, to make the Tom Hanks/Halle Berry relationship evolve over time, and that’s fine. It has its own, pure internal logic. It was very hard for the Wachowskis and Tykwer, but my first Hollywood experience has been unusually lucky. They really are artists. With people like that, it’s an honour to be adapted. I wouldn’t be voluntarily praising the film as much as I do if I didn’t respect them and what they’ve done.  

And you have a cameo role? Blink and you’ll miss it. I’m in two scenes, and people who think deeply will eventually work it out. When you get the logic, you can work out that I’m a kind of Svengali, a behind-the-scenes manipulator. It’s a sweetly placed cameo for an author.  

What sort of fiction do you read? Good fiction (laughs). Sometimes I read work written by friends, it’s getting socially awkward not to. I have a big list of classics to catch up with. And I read things I can use, such as James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. It’s about a war correspondent, and I’m thinking about a character who might overlap.  

Characters from your previous pieces turn up regularly in your other books and short stories. Are these thematically representative, or are you just fond of these guys? I’m fond of them; it’s fun. And I like the idea of writing an über-novel and all of my books are chapters in it. And linked with that is my theory of Transferrable Reality Concreteness. If you’ve spent time with a character in work A, and you felt that was a very real place, then when they appear in work B, they bring with them the conviction that any world they appear in is real. Shakespeare did this in the history plays, and Falstaff appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There’s even a literary word for this: metalepsis. Sprinkle that one into conversation when you can, then make friends and influence people. So when I bring back characters, it’s like meeting someone you’ve known for years, you have history, you remember where you were when you met them.  

Yes, that’s true. It was lovely to meet Jason Taylor again in your short story, Earth calling Taylor. Thank you very much. In my next book, I’ve got Hugo Lamb, who was Jason’s awful cousin, a kind of malign Ferris Bueller. He’s got quite a big part in the new book.  

The references and motifs in your work are often musical; Paul Auster’s Music of Chance; Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher; the title of Cloud Atlas itself as a piece by Toshi Ichiyanagi; and two references to Neil Young; the formality of composition and returning to chords, tones and melodic riffs – what’s your relationship with music and literature?
Music is a big part of the world, and I want to put the world into my books. Musicality is a different thing. Language has a musicality, most audibly so when you don’t speak it and you’re undistracted by meaning. Two Turkish ladies talking this morning on the train here from Stuttgart ­– I don’t speak a word so I heard it more purely. There’s a musicality to individual words, which you do consider when choosing them. Because there’s a difference to when words are spoken and when they’re read.  

Like me, you were an English teacher for many years. What did you learn? And how much did that feed your work?
It’s so helpful. It gives you a practical working knowledge where a native speaker only has an unconscious knowledge. It also means you can write non-native speakers a whole lot better, which for me is essential.

Can we talk about cultural influences? I’m especially intrigued by the subtle layers of cultural (mis)understandings and interpretations in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Japanese, the most indirect of languages, as opposed to Dutch, one of the most direct. And you render all this in English. It’s a conjuring trick.
 It was a nightmare, to be honest. I had about eight different dialects to signify language, class and gender. Most languages have a passive voice, and I used that for the Japanese to eliminate the pronouns. We use that when we want to evade responsibility. I wrote a short grammatical constitution, for the Dutch, English, Japanese, educated, pleb and female Japanese. Each has three or four rules, for example, the Japanese don’t contract, or at least not in my book. The Dutch don’t use ‘will’, it’s always ‘shall’, which gives it an archaic patina. And all the time you’re writing under the confining umbrella of historical fiction, so neologisms are out. I discovered the hard way, by reading whole load of Smollett and applying his usages, that it sounds like Blackadder. If you get it right, it sounds patently absurd. You could do it for a few pages but then forget it. So you have to insinuate that they’re speaking as we would have done a hundred years ago. I call this the ‘lest/in case’ dilemma. ‘In case’ is pretty new, so I pushed the Dutch more in a ‘lest’ direction, as we spend more time with them and they’re foreigners to the Anglophone ear. Whereas the English tend to use ‘in case’. But it was a huge problem. Thumping great novel, huge cast and after a while, the reader’s going to think, ‘Hang on, they all have the same voice. Ah, it’s a novel, it’s not real’. Then pop goes the bubble and you’ve lost it.

 One of your most astounding achievements is structure. Not just over one book, but your entire canon. Do you choose to break from convention or is the choice of framework more visceral, organic?
With the exception of Cloud Atlas which was there already, they emerge and evolve as the only possible way to get the damn book written.

When you say Cloud Atlas was there already, you’re referring to Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller?
 Yes, exactly. With that mirror at the end of it so you go backwards. But you know, Calvino is now best loved now for works like The Baron in the Trees. That’s a lovely idea, lovely story, no tricks. My work is relatively new, so time as the ultimate test has not yet been applied. I’m not sure how these clever postmodern experiments now look or will look in the future.  

Are you wary of writers who call themselves postmodernists?
 I think there is a danger in buying into a way of writing as cleanly labelled and distinct as postmodernism was in the 80s. The danger is that you’ll age quicker. On the other hand, Midnight’s Children still reads really well. But is that really what we call postmodernist? It has flecks of magical realism and in other ways is quite Dickensian, which I mean as a huge compliment.  

Half full or half empty? Pessimism seems to play a great part in your take on the human condition, but it appears to go hand-in-hand with some kind of spiritual redemption on a higher level. Where are we bound?
No dark, no light; no light, no dark. Redemption is important. Over lunch, we talked about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I remember watching that as a twelve-year old, expecting something like Close Encounters. I really enjoyed it but at the end, he’s strapped to a chair, he’s delusional and he’s having this awful screaming nightmare about what the film has been. I remember thinking ‘Thank you so much. Not.’ If a thick book, in which you invest many hours of your art-consuming life, ends up sledge-hammering your skull in with bleakness and a total lack of redemption and then expects you to admire the brutality of its honesty, I feel cheated and I want my money back. I know it’s grim up north, and it’s pretty grim down south too, but just gimme some hope. That’s a Lennon quote. Again.  

The Number 9 Dream connection?
Yes, as you mentioned, Cloud Atlas is actually a piece by Yoko Ono’s second husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Not many people know Number 9 Dream, because it doesn’t feature on the Greatest Hits, but is on the Walls and Bridges album. It’s absolutely glorious, a very superior pop song.  

Finally, what have you learned from writing?
More about how to write. An infinite job. Did you read that piece by Julian Barnes, My Life as a Bibliophile? At the end, he talks about the symbiosis between reading and life. He talks about an aphorism; ‘Some people think that life is the thing, but I prefer reading’. He criticises it as slick and meretricious. The more you live, the more intense your reading experience becomes. And vice versa, the more you read about non-existent people, the better potential you have to understand existent people. As for reading, so for writing. To write a consistent character, you need to formulate the laws of consistency in real human beings. And if you can’t find them, at least you need to fumble in the right direction. So to get the writing right, I’ve had to think more deeply about people and what drives our miraculous, bonkers, paradoxical species.      

Monday, 8 October 2012

A Tale of York Gardens Library

By Catriona Troth, the Library Cat.

In the October issue of Words with Jam, I have written about a number of community groups either fighting for the survival of their libraries or now actively involved in running them.  Here is another story to go with those:  York Gardens Library in Wandsworth who, in one of the poorest wards in London, face an eye-watering target for fundraising to keep their library going.

Thea Sherer from The Friends of York Gardens Library, tells me:
"In 2010 York Gardens Library and Community Centre was threatened with closure, as a result of local government cuts. Nearby residents and civic groups came together to campaign against the decision and support came from across the borough, including from many people who had never visited this library but recognised its value to the local community. As a result of a concerted campaign, a compromise was reached to allow the library to remain open with support from community stakeholders and volunteers.
Story Time at York Gardens

“The library and associated community centre remains open as a Direct Service Organisation (DSO) pilot project, with a reduced staff supported by volunteers. The local community will contribute to the management and day-to-day running of the library, thus reducing the cost burden on Wandsworth Borough Council.

“Part of the role of the volunteer group is to raise a significant amount of funds (more than £70K per annum) to contribute to the operational costs of the building and services. Wandsworth still provides around £100K per year of funding, including (reduced) staffing costs. Volunteers support work in the library. They also develop and run community projects which run in the community rooms and promote the library and centre."

£70k might sound like an extraordinary amount for any  community to have to raise, but the scale of the challenge facing the Friends of York Gardens is made even more apparent if you consider that 60% of residents on the neighbouring estate are unemployed and more than 40% do not have English as their first language. Incidents of hidden homelessness and overcrowding are five times more likely in this ward than the national average. The area is associated with issues of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Of course what this means is that the need for library services is greater than ever, and it is this awareness that is driving the Friends .  Access to books and IT at home are both significantly lower than average and the library is especially important to children and minority groups.

“The need for library services here is unquestionable,” Sherer says, “but the way these services are used may be unconventional. Several volunteer run projects are bringing more and more children into the library in a number of innovative ways. The drama club, capoeira group and craft club are all well attended. A volunteer-run GCSE tutoring course, run for free for local teenagers, has been really successful. These activities provide great things to do for local children but also increase footfall in the library itself.”

The £70k per annum fundraising challenge will be met in part by charitable fundraising and in part through letting of community rooms.

“Staff and volunteers are working very hard to increase room bookings which will help a lot. The volunteers in the Friends group are all rather stretched and so committing a lot of time to fundraising activities is a real challenge,” says Sherer. “Major library functions are all still completed by council library staff. And some very dedicated individual volunteers have been tremendously supportive, particularly when it comes to running community projects. But getting enough volunteers with sufficient commitment to assist in the library on an ongoing basis has proved a challenge.”

The group has also has to manage its partnership with Wandsworth Borough Council.

“The first twelve months were difficult while we found the best ways of working together,” Sherer says. “There were many operational aspects related to the library and the building where it was unclear, or where there was disagreement, on whether the council had decision making power or the volunteer/Friends group.

“For example, the setting of the charges for the community to hire out rooms within the building has always been set by the council and were uncompetitive and too high for community groups. Some flexibility has now been added, which has eased the situation and allowed more community organisations to use the rooms. However, the Friends group believe that more power to set these charges needs to be given to the volunteer organisation. It also took significantly longer than originally planned for the council to employ a new library manager. The project has been given significant impetus since the manager was appointed. “

In spite of everything, Sherer remains upbeat. And the dedication of determination of the Friends of York Gardens Library is unquestionable.  But it is hard not to conclude that this is a community that has been forced into an impossible position.  As Sherer says, “It will remain to be seen whether the fundraising target is really achievable and how the council will respond if it is not met.”

In the main article in the magazine, I interview Jim Brooks of the Friends of Little Chalfont Library , who has advised so many community groups around the country . Brooks suspects that some Councils may be setting community libraries up to fail. “They’ve worked out that closing libraries will lose them votes,” he says. “So they set a bunch of volunteers up with a building that’s falling apart, starve them of key resources and then when the libraries fail, they will be able to say – well, we tried the volunteer route but it didn’t work.”

Let’s hope Wandsworth and York Gardens don’t fall into this trap.

To read the main article in the October issue of Words with Jam, go to our website and subscribe FREE to the online edition.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Writing the Landscape

by Catriona Troth

A few weeks ago, I wandered, more or less by chance, into the Writing Britain exhibition at the British Library.  From their vast collection of books, manuscripts, audio and photographs, the Library had assembled a panoramic view of how writers from the Middle Ages to the present day have represented the British landscape.

It began by evoking rural, agricultural landscapes - from ancient stories of the Green Man to a recording of Stella Gibbons' talking about Cold Comfort Farm and a hand drawn map of the locations in Winifred Holtby's South Riding.  From there, you moved on to the section entitled 'Dark Satanic Mills,' the literature of factories and labour from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, set in the early days of the industrial revolution to Ted Hughes' collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin, charting the decay of the old mills and chimneys.

The ‘Wild Places’ section of the exhibition was screened with panels of white fabric marked with steep contour lines.  Here were manuscripts from the Romantic Poets, a copy Lorna Doone and a recording of Daphne du Maurier describing how she first stumbled on Jamaica Inn on her horse, seeking shelter from a storm.

‘Beyond the City’ celebrated suburbia in books such as The Rotters Club, Metroland and The Buddha of Suburbia.  In the section on London, detailed street maps covered surfaces around the exhibits and hung from baffles above your head.  The most immersive experience of all was in ‘Waterlands’, where video screens showed images of coasts, rivers and lakes, and you were surrounded by the sound of lapping waves.

All this made me think about books that evoke the British landscape for me.  I was born in Scotland, but I grew up in Canada, so for many years my images of Britain were almost entirely drawn from what I read.  

It began, I suppose, with The Borrowers.  I never really understood why I adored Mary Norton's stories so completely, until as an adult I bought an omnibus edition with a foreword in the form of a letter she had once written to a young fan.  In it she described growing up as the short-sighted sister of three long-sighted brothers, forever focused on the tiny details of the Leicestershire hedgerows as her brothers vainly tried to show her hawks wheeling in the sky.  I had grown up as the short-sighted daughter of a long-sighted mother, and I knew exactly what she meant.

After The Borrowers came Swallows and Amazons.  I fell in love with Ransome's Wild Cat Island and Katchenjunga ten years before I ever set foot in the Lake District, and I still get a thrill when I catch a glimpse the steamer on Windermere that is recognisably Captain Flint's Houseboat.

Unlike his Lake District, which is a conflation of Lake Windermere and Coniston Water, Ransome's portrayal of the Norfolk Broads is so accurate you can follow the adventures of the Coot Club step by step on a map.  My husband would have done well to have read about Tom's narrow escape passing through Yarmouth as the tide was running out before he attempted the same with some friends from university.  I have never been to the salt marshes around Harwich, but from Secret Water, I have a vivid image of the 'Mastadon' paddling over the soft mud flats wearing something like flat wooden snow shoes, and of Titty, Roger and Bridget almost trapped on the Wade as the tide sweeps back in.

I live not that far from the Thames now, but before I ever set foot in them, I knew Marlow and Maidenhead, Cookham and Goring from the lyrical descriptions in Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (which he would immediately undermine with some piece of grumpy absurdity that would have me howling with laughter).

We went through Maidenhead quickly, and then eased up, and took leisurely that grand reach beyond Boulter’s and Cookham locks. Cliveden Woods still wore their dainty dress of spring, and rose up, from the water’s edge, in one long harmony of blended shades of fairy green. In its unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river, and lingeringly we slowly drew our little boat away from its deep peace.

Oxford was painted for me by Dorothy Sayers in Gaudy Night (in colours that were probably idealised even in 1935).  

Mornings in Bodley, drowsing among the browns and tarnished gilding of Duke humphrey, snuffing the faint, must odour of slowly perishing leater, hearing only the tippety-tap of Agag-feet along the padded floor; long afternoons, taking an outrigger up the Cher, feeling the kiss of the sculls on unaccostomed palms…

There are places I have never been, or only passed through, that have been made real for me through the pages of a book.  There can surely be no better evocation of Eastern Scotland than William Grassic Gibbons' Sunset Song (which is surely impossible to read without hearing it in a soft, Aberdeenshire accent). 

But for days now the wind had been in the south, it shook and played in the moors and went dandering up the sleeping Grampians, the rushes pecked and quivered about the loch when its hand was upon them, but it brought more heat than cold, and all the parks were fair parched, sucked dry, the red clay soil of Blawearie gaping open for the rain that seemed never-coming.

The Clean Air Act came in a few years after I was born, so I never experienced the London Peasoupers that blighted my father's childhood.  But I've lived through them in the opening passages of Dickens' Bleak House.

Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers...

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…

Books shape the way we remember too.  I was born in Edinburgh, but today the city for me is a joint creation of Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.  My mother was transported back to Anglesey, the home she left more than sixty years ago, by the descriptions in Gillian Hamer's Charter.  And nothing, but nothing, has brought back what it felt like to arrive back in Britain from North America in the mid-seventies than the opening chapter of Bill Bryson's Small Island.

Surprisingly, a writer does not have to be a native or even long-term resident to be able to conjure a time and place to vivid life.  The author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society only ever spent one day stranded by fog on the island.  Sarah Waters' The Night Watch helped me to understand, as nothing else had, the realities of living through the London Blitz, though she was born in twenty years after the War ended. Michel Faber’s portrayal of the seamier side of Victorian London in The Crimson Petal and the White is as beguiling as Dickens’.

I guess the lesson for writers here is – write about the places you love, yes; make others love them too.  But don’t be afraid to set your imagination free. The landscapes of the mind are the best ones of all.