Live from Sydney Writers’ Festival 2011: part one

I’m sitting by the waterfront – Sydney Harbour. Sunstruck. That is, struck by this sunshine. Ill-equipped, in my wool dress. I’ve just seen Geordie Williamson interview David Mitchell, and I was going to go to another session (French Kissing – ooh la la) but the line for it was around the block and I was too late. So I’m fighting the glare on the screen, the temptation to simply stare at the water – winking at me – to write you a quick missive.

David Mitchell is the author of five novels, the latest being The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m currently reading Cloud Atlas – I’m three stories and three eras in. Geordie Williamson interviewed Mitchell with fanboy aplomb, praising and providing intelligent capsule descriptions of Mitchell’s novels. One thing that’s striking about Mitchell’s work, said Williamson, is the ‘extraordinary variation’ between the works. Mitchell said this is partly due to a ‘fear of turning into REM’ – where there hasn’t been enough space between albums. He scraps things if, while writing, he realises he’s already done them. Early drafting is ‘working out what style the novel wants to be written in’. But it’s the characters he cares about, and the possibility of bad things happening to them: something ‘dangled’ in front of the reader.

De Zoet took Mitchell four years, and in the process he jettisoned about two years work, trying to get the style right. He had to come up with a language that isn’t all historical, or all contemporary – but a balance: ‘bygonese’. He first wrote it in a researched, historical mode, ‘and it was perfect – but it was Blackadder’, he said. But he couldn’t ignore the historical altogether, as it would end up sounding like Seinfeld. Language is hard, he admitted, humbly.

What is food for Mitchell’s imagination? He basically said that he collects ‘stuff’, like the image of a man at Circular Quay playing ‘Ring of Fire’, badly, on a ukulele. ‘You write and you need “stuff”’, from memory, from experience, or ‘piped in’ from the environment. As another example he said he was walking with a friend this morning and though ‘the sea looked unironed’. He liked the description, so it went in his bank of ‘stuff’. ‘Often the “found stuff” is the best stuff’, he said. He also referred to those moments (like the ukulele ‘Ring of Fire’) as ‘delicious little stem cells’. He writes them down as ‘textual photographs’, things that often seem ‘unfoldable’. The process of ‘unfolding’ includes wondering about the character and story around the image, moment or incident. Stories emerge.

Every compliment from Williamson or an audience member elicited a very humble thanks from Mitchell. The whole conversation sparkled (like the sea, here) with this humility, and enthusiasm. Some other moments, taken out of context because a headache is coming on (I’m becoming less ‘struck’ and more ‘blanched’ by the sun):

‘You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you… It’s everywhere.’ – DM

‘The world is a web, that’s what makes it so fascinating.’ – DM

Williamson said that Mitchell’s first novel precedes Google, and ‘almost anticipates it’. ‘Think about it… a random website generator’.

When writing, Mitchell said, ‘you can trust the reader within. The reader within is probably the reason you start to write in the first place’.

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