David Mitchell, the writer
A book-signing event in a beautifully renovated church in an exclusive part of central Amsterdam, this was how it began. A room full of strangers, all speaking English, it reminded me of my conferencing days.
There was an atmosphere of great expectation in the air. I approached a bright-eyed man in his 40's and asked whether he was also a journalist.
"Oh no," he smiled. "I'm just a fan. I read his latest book Cloud Atlas and then bought his second book number9dreams. He's great. Have you read his books?"
"Not yet. I hope to read Cloud Atlas. But first I want to see what he is like. Which famous writer does he write like?"
"Hmmm, I can't think of any other writer. He is unique."
"Is that so?" I asked skeptically. "He must be tremendously motivated to write fiction and to get his books published."
"I can't describe his style. He changes his style in the same book. You'll have to read them. Let me know what you think after his talk." Later in the evening, I learned that his name was Steve.
David Mitchell. The name sounds familiar. Who is he? Is he the new novelist my roommate on the Arvon Foundation writing course told me about? The one who lives in Cork where she also lives? And why did he set his second novel, number9dream, in Japan? Did he live there? My mind was full of questions as I listened to him read from his latest book and answer questions from the audience.
In the long queue for his autograph, I struck up a conversation with a Dutch lawyer before me. Not much taller than me, he belonged to an informal book club whose members take turns selecting a book for all to buy and read in three months. Thereafter they discuss it. He took out a hardcover edition of "Cloud Atlas," to which I exclaimed that he must be a serious reader to invest in hardcovers. Personally I try to avoid buying or owning books, thus the reason for writing reviews rather than letting books sit on the shelf ---- invaluable lessons from my recent decluttering feat.
I hardly noticed the queue taking a long time to wane as I immersed myself deep into conversation with him. When his turn came up, I tried to eavesdrop.
"What's your name?" asked David Mitchell.
"Alexander," he replied.
Working on his next novel, David Mitchell plans to take up a literary residency in a village near Leiden for five months to research the East India Company (VOC). I couldn't hear what Alexander was saying, but I discovered why the queue was taking so long. David Mitchell didn't just ask for the name and sign it. He found out about his readers so that he could write something meaningful.
It was my turn. Mitchell looked at me in the eye. I could see he was exhausted from paying attention and engaging in so many conversations before me. I didn't want to take up his time since I hadn't read any of his three books or reviews of his books for that matter. With a slight sense of guilt, I told him that I reviewed books and I was here for that purpose.
"You must be very motivated to write fiction," I said. I wanted to test my hypothesis from my earlier conversation with Steve.
"Well, I suppose initially," Mitchell answered. "But after awhile, you just do it. I mean, if you love ice cream you don't have to be motivated to eat it when you're given ice cream, do you?"
His comment caused me to pause for reflection. I have the reverse problem, trying to find time to play piano and do all those things I love, including writing. So I suppose he's right. If you love something very much, you don't have to be motivated to do it but you might have the opposite problem --- how to stop once you get started.
Since he had worked and lived in Japan, I revealed that I had lived in Okinawa. "Naha," he recalled. He had been to the capital of Okinawa.
Later I remembered not the entire conversation but the way he looked at me openly, attentively and unassumingly.
He said in his talk, "readers spend ten to fifteen hours of their lives reading my book. I feel honoured." He had shown a mastery of words, a sense of humour, and modesty in the talk --- a truly likable and approachable person. How many people would read his books on that basis? I would.
Although it was a publicity event and all he had to do was to sign his name, he took time getting to know his readers. I suppose that's what it takes to be a writer --- not superficiality but involvement. It reminded me of all those times that I was too busy to really listen to someone who wanted my attention and all those times I wanted attention but didn't get it.
On the way home, I spoke to a man named Michael who had raised an interesting point in the talk. "English is spoken more by non-native speakers than native speakers." It was a topic which deserved another 30 minutes. David Mitchell had responded that the English gave the language to the world and while resisting the changes by non-native speakers (such as simplification of grammar) they will eventually have to give up gracefully. Meanwhile, writing (publishing) in English serves a greater market than in Dutch. [Having said this, his works have been translated to Dutch.]
Now I need to find the time to read the pink paperback "Cloud Atlas," which is about six characters dispersed across the earth and across time, seemingly unrelated. Some clues: the same birthmark. Could it be about reincarnation?
28 January 2005 Friday
British Literature, author talks in Amsterdam
Interview with David Mitchell by The Independent