Sunday 18 July 2010

Bookphilia meets David Mitchell and lives to tell the tale

This past Wednesday, hubby and I went to see author David Mitchell give a talk & read at the Toronto Reference Library. We got there well early and grabbed good seats and enjoyed the air conditioning. Brook calmly read the Guy Gavriel Kay novel he had on the go (but which he abandoned the next day as it was so badly written); I tried to read my book, Gogol's short fiction, but simply couldn't concentrate even though it's very compelling. I felt, perhaps, like what crazed Michael Jackson fans used to feel at the prospect of going to one of the King of Pop's concerts. I am joking, but only a little.

If you've been reading Bookphilia for awhile, you'll know that Mitchell is my favourite writer, and Cloud Atlas my favourite novel. I love novels generally and many in particular, but for me nothing comes close to this one. I generally kick earnestness dead in the face here but find myself being earnest and even sometimes quite emotional about this book. It's totally illogical, as was my starstruck near-hyperventilating at the event on Wednesday, but knowing I was being/am irrational about Mitchell's work doesn't seem to enable me not to be so. I have seen many movie stars and met a few and they leave me cold; authors I really like make me go a little funny in the head it seems; several years ago, I met Rohinton Mistry and was totally tongue-tied.

He read, we listened
Now, while I was feeling really quite shockingly illogical and weird even before he came in, I don't think I made an irredeemable fool of myself when I eventually met him and talked with him for a few moments. But before that happened, Mitchell read a few pages from new the book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and they were entirely engaging - in part because they were written by David Mitchell, but also because of the way he kept interrupting himself to tell amusing anecdotes or give a little background on something the characters say or, in one notable example of his increasingly famous and charming humility, he criticized some of his word choices ("guard" and "garden" being in too close proximity in one passage) and then jokingly lamented how there'd have to be a global recall of the book so he could fix that.

He talked with someone on stage, we continued to listen
Next, Mitchell treated the crowd to a conversation with a local novelist and professor whose name I can't recall. Most of the interviewer's questions were about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which makes sense but he didn't try hard enough not to give away plot spoilers so I felt a little like punching him in the neck. His questions were good though, and Mitchell's answers, of course, great - by now it'd become clear that his reputation for being charming and funny and seemingly very nice was well earned and it was all extremely entertaining and comfortable.

People asked questions, he answered
I'm afraid I couldn't gather the scattered bits of my brain sufficiently to come up with anything to ask him although I did, of course, think of something later; I wish I'd had the wherewithal to ask him which part of Cloud Atlas was "born" first in his brain and how everything else grew out of it. There were the usual questions about how to write, but a few interesting ones including what he thought of creative writing programs (way to put someone on the spot!) and what his future writing plans are.

The latter question invoked a very interesting and thoughtful meditation on why great writers seem to reach their peak in middle age and then degrade until the end of their careers; I confess I couldn't think of an exception to this, only examples that confirmed it (Gabriel Garcia Marquez being the example that jumped out most in my brain). His theory was basically a better articulated and more deeply considered version of what I've historically called The Haruki Murakami Syndrome, the result of which is the degradation described above and the causes being: 1) Re-writing the same book over and over again*; 2) Believing the hype about yourself and ceasing to try hard enough to write really good stuff; 3) Having one's editor also get complacent and not taking the hatchet to the new stuff, knowing that it'll sell based on the author's name and fame alone. Mitchell had clearly thought a great deal about this; that this is so gives me hope that he won't fall into the same trap.

I think one of the things that likely makes him such a good writer, and so thoughtful about his writing future, is that he is a really good reader. I've been to a number of author talks in my lifetime but I've never heard an author talk so much about what he reads and crucially, about the emotional, gut-level importance it has to him. Perhaps because he's such an incorrigible bibliophile he'll be able to maintain enough readerly perspective on his own work enough to not start allowing shit with his name on it to get out there.

He signed books, while I and many others stood in line and waited
The line-up took forever because Mitchell took the time to talk to every single person, which I think was a very fine thing to do. In the meantime, hubby and I inched forward slowly and eavesdropped on this loud-ish pair behind us. The following hilarious anecdote was dropped not for our secret edification. I can't do it justice; suffice to say that I was laughing so hard that I was crying in an effort to keep from roaring very loudly with the laughs in a Roddy Doyle-esque way.
"So, we're driving along in New Brunswick and I saw the sign for the Potato Museum and totally made my friend pull off the highway so we could go. But when we got there, it was like TEN BUCKS to get in...just to see, like, a frigging plow in a field! So I didn't go in. I bought an apple juice and sat in the cafeteria and drank it. But I kind of wish I'd gone in after all because I heard later that you get fries at the end."
I mean, what? These two kept us quite entertained until it was our turn to get our books signed and then I blurted out questions all over the place, about what he's reading now (A Confederacy of Dunces - awesome!), what he thinks of Hilary Mantel (he loves her work, good man), and I forget what else but he graciously said yes when I asked if I could get a photo of us for this here bloggy. So here it is:

I know, my smile looks fake and crazy but by this point, I was no longer feeling weird; it just takes our cheap digital camera approximately half a lifetime to take photos, so I was trying not to blink or otherwise make myself look like a gimp. Mitchell handled it with much more style and verve than I did, clearly.

As for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I've decided to wait till Fall to read it. It's really much too hot and horrible for such a title right now.

AND I just found video of the event on the YouTube. The interviewer's name is Randy Boyagoda, which amusingly keeps showing up on screen in front of...David Mitchell. Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.

*I think only two writers have been able entirely to get away with this - Shakespeare and Wodehouse. Shakespeare, obviously, because his language was so very compelling on its own and Wodehouse because he's for fun and mental frolicking and not for deep thoughts. Frolicking is often more frolicsome when it's a repeat frolic rather than a new one; why else would people go to Cuba every year, year after year, or watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show ad infinitum? Frolicking at its best bears repeating and no one frolics on the page like Wodehouse does; but more on that anon.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Authors who did not degrade, and were at peaks at the ends of their careers:

Rousseau, Goethe, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Aksakov, Dickens, Theodor Storm, Theodor Fontane, Hardy, Yeats, Walter Savage Landor, Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Henry James, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lampedusa, Svevo, Montaigne, Cervantes, Racine, Molière, Mark Twain, Machado de Assis.

We could define some terms more precisely and clear off some of those names, but, fundamentally, I don't buy the premise. Many writers, many patterns.

Mitchell is almost exactly my age, which niggles at me for some reason. What a fine encounter with an author.

raych said...

*hypeventilates a little with jealousy*

AND, ALSO, I have a review draft sitting in my draft folder RIGHT NOW that says, and I quote, 'It is too damned hot for all these Dutch names.'

So, you are correct. Save that shit for stormy weather.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: All those authors are 19th century and before, I notice: I don't recall if Mitchell qualified his statement chronologically but I realize now *I* was thinking only of later 20th/21st-century writers when I named The Haruki Murakami Syndrome. Different relationship with the public and editors maybe? A different sense of responsibility when it comes to authorship? Certainly a different relationship with the money coming out of writing; George Eliot didn't have anyone paying her scads of cash for the rights to the film version of Romola!

An interview with him this morning in the Globe & Mail, in which he makes reference to the idea, but but not in nearly as much detail as he did in person:

Also, I can't tell you how happy you've made me by indicating that Balzac remains awesome throughout his career!!!!

Raych: He'll be in Portland tomorrow night if you can make a road trip! Vancouver on Oct. 23 at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

You don't want the 20th century list, too, do you? 'Cause I can do that. I mean the longer 20th century list - I included eight 20th century authors already.

(Cormac McCarthy? Alice Munro? Robertson Davies?)

Mitchell's own anxiety is understandable, and his self-awareness (in that interview) is admirable. His peak, at this point, came out when he was 35. It's got to make a guy nervous - is it all downhill from there? If so, just how far downhill?

nicole said...

Aw, I think it's a cute picture, and sounds like a good reading. Also, despite it's autumnal title, a ton of the book does take place in the summer and I remember lots of passages about people being hot and sweaty.

Actually, that might be an even better reason not to read it in this heat.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: You've picked three authors I loathe to convince me, so not an effective tactic. :)

Nicole: Good point. I'm hot and sweaty enough as it is.

Heidenkind said...

Lucky you! Most of the people who wrote my favorite books are either dead or really old. :P

Anonymous said...

Argh, I'm so jealous that you managed to overcome your tongue-tiedness and actually ask David Mitchell questions. When I met him in May in London I just stood there like a lemon with goggly eyes. I couldn't say a word.

Trapunto said...


David Mitchell is not my favorite author, but he might be if I didn't have prior loyalties. I would not say this anywhere but on the blog of someone who is clearly a fan but...he has a sweet, sweet soul. And how often does that come together with that kind of ability as a novelist?

I often worry about the degrading author thing. Though sometimes they have a renaissance in old age, if they don't die first; maybe it is more of a 45-60 slump. And sometimes they are so good, even their lesser books have something new to offer--new ideas at the very least--even if they are no longer writing at the top of their form.

Stefanie said...

What a fun evening! I've only read Cloud Atlas but I did like it very much and from interviews and other things I have read about Mitchell he seems like a really good person too, something that is always nice to know about a writer especially as in your case he is your favorite.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: As most of my favourite authors are dead as well, this was indeed a treat.

chasingbawa: Oh no, poor you! Well, I'm sure you'll get to meet him again - Ireland is much closer to England than it is to Canada. :)

Trapunto: I'm intrigued - where do your prior loyalties lay?

Stefanie: Yes. I will look for your blog post on Cloud Atlas, assuming you have archives.

Trapunto said...

I have different loyalties for different categories. If I put Mitchell in the "living novelists writing in English who treat moral and gender issues with enviable artistry" category--Ursula Le Guin. Maureen Mc Hugh are and Geoff Ryman are stiff competition, though they don't write with the same scope. Actually neither does Le Guin. Mitchell is closer to a John Crowley, that way, but they they are so different... It's really hard to compare authors!

Do you have a runner up, after Mitchell?

verbivore said...

whoa - I am super jealous. I also undestand your excitement and nervousness. I'm impressed you managed to ask any questions and for a photo. I would NOT have been able to do that, i would have done something very silly I'm sure.

That he is a serious reader will save him, I hope, from the almost unavoidable degradation that comes from being so famous, so young. I never know whether to blame it on the editors (the book will sell, they work harder on less established writers) or the writers (who start to believe all the compliments they're given instead of reading, reading, reading).

Bookphilia said...

Trapunto: Yes, it is hard to compare authors. I've read only one Crowley novel (Little, Big) but was very impressed.

For me, Peter Carey used to be my first loyalty - because of Oscar & Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, primarily. But since then, his work has had no oomph or something and he's no longer one of my favourite authors, although these two novels are among my favourite books. If Hilary Mantel's other novels compare in quality to Wolf Hall, then Mitchell may have some competition there. Wolf Hall is truly astounding.

verbivore: I think I was just lucky. In retrospect, I don't know how I managed not to make a complete fool of myself. But I think in terms of reading constantly, Mitchell is safe. As for his editor? Who knows? We can only hope. :)

Unknown said...

I hate him.

But then, I believe I may already have mentioned that at some point ;)

J.G. said...

Oh, I think Cloud Atlas is a masterwork of a book, although I spent the first third of it with a bit of "Huh?" in my brain. Once I got it, I was hooked.

So I would have been screaming at the reading barricades like a Beatles fan. I think you behaved rather well. :-)