How David Mitchell Brings Historical Fiction To Life

David Mitchell i i

David Mitchell's previous novels include Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten. He lives in Ireland. Paul Stuart hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Stuart
David Mitchell

David Mitchell's previous novels include Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten. He lives in Ireland.

Paul Stuart

Novelist David Mitchell is considered a virtuoso of complex plot and intricate language, wry humor, dense history and indelible characters.  His latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a historical novel set in Japan in 1799 — at a time when a few Dutch traders were allowed to briefly and lightly attach themselves to isolated feudal Japanese society.

He talks with NPR's Scott Simon about his story, packed with samurai, crocodiles, courtesans — and accountants.

Accidental Inspiration

Mitchell was first inspired to write the book during a teaching stint in Nagasaki in 1994. He was backpacking through the west of Japan and was looking for a cheap lunch when he stumbled upon the Dejima museum.

Dejima, a small artificial island, was where the Dutch East India Company was permitted to establish a very limited trading post. A small handful of Europeans, mostly Dutch, lived on the island — and weren't allowed off. Only three types of people — merchants, translators and very expensive prostitutes — were allowed access to the Europeans on the island, Mitchell explains.

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

"I never did get the lunch that day," Mitchell says of his time at the Dejima museum. "But I filled a notebook with information about this place I'd never heard of and resolved one day to write about it."

The novel's main character is Jacob de Zoet, an accountant who discovers that not everyone is as honest as he is. De Zoet falls in love with Orito, a midwife, who is spirited away to a sinister nunnery in order to settle her father's debts.

"Everyone has their own agenda," Mitchell says. "[De Zoet] finds himself an honest man in a nest of vipers."

Crafting The Details

Mitchell doesn't just tell a story in A Thousand Autumns — he also re-creates what it was like to be alive in 1799 Japan. And that took a lot of research. Mitchell divides his research methods into two categories: hard research and soft research.

The hard research involved going through archives and finding items such as the journals kept by the employees of the Dutch East India Company. It also involved seeking out history professors and persuading them to — as Mitchell describes it — "spend a couple of hours answering my rather undergraduate-level questions."

Meanwhile, the soft research was something that continued until the day Mitchell finished his manuscript.  While writing a scene in which a character was shaving, suddenly Mitchell needed to know: Did they have shaving cream in those days? Would it have been affordable to a middle-ranking clerk?  Or in a scene at night: How would the room have been lit?  By candle? Or by oil lantern?

"You have to know all of that," Mitchell says. "Sometimes you can't finish a sentence without spending half a morning going away and finding it out."

While it was important to understand the intricacies of 18th century life, Mitchell says he also had to be careful to "hide" this knowledge so that it wouldn't be a distraction: "Otherwise you get ridiculous sentences where the servant walks in and says, 'Is it going to be the pig tallow candles, my Lord, or would you prefer the sperm whale oil lantern?' "

Mitchell says he also faced the question of how much he should date the language. A perfect reproduction of 18th century speech — based on the language found in old novels and letters — could be incomprehensible to modern readers. But having a character walk into a room and speak like a modern-day character would have been equally distracting.

"It was tough," Mitchell says of this work of historical fiction. "It took me four years.  It almost finished me off before I finished it off."

Mitchell, who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has also been named one of Time's Most Influential People. Although he finds such honors gratifying, he says accolades are not a reason to write. While on his book tour, Mitchell sometimes meets people who describe how they have connected to certain pieces of writing.

"And truly, that's worth more than any Booker," he says.

Excerpt: 'The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet'

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House
List price: $26

"Miss Kawasemi?" Orito kneels on a stale and sticky futon. "Can you hear me?"

In the rice paddy beyond the garden, a cacophony of frogs detonates.

Orito dabs the concubine's sweat-drenched face with a damp cloth.

"She's barely spoken"-the maid holds the lamp-"for hours and hours. . . ."

"Miss Kawasemi, I'm Aibagawa. I'm a midwife. I want to help."

Kawasemi's eyes flicker open. She manages a frail sigh. Her eyes shut.

She is too exhausted, Orito thinks, even to fear dying tonight.

Dr. Maeno whispers through the muslin curtain. "I wanted to examine the child's presentation myself, but . . ." The elderly scholar chooses his words with care. "But this is prohibited, it seems."

"My orders are clear," states the chamberlain. "No man may touch her."

Orito lifts the bloodied sheet and finds, as warned, the fetus's limp arm, up to the shoulder, protruding from Kawasemi's vagina.

"Have you ever seen such a presentation?" asks Dr. Maeno.

"Yes: in an engraving, from the Dutch text Father was translating."

"This is what I prayed to hear! The Observations of William Smellie?"

"Yes: Dr. Smellie terms it," Orito uses the Dutch, " 'Prolapse of the Arm.' "

Orito clasps the fetus's mucus-smeared wrist to search for a pulse.

Maeno now asks her in Dutch, "What are your opinions?"

There is no pulse. "The baby is dead," Orito answers, in the same language, "and the mother will die soon, if the child is not delivered." She places her fingertips on Kawasemi's distended belly and probes the bulge around the inverted navel. "It was a boy." She kneels between Kawasemi's parted legs, noting the narrow pelvis, and sniffs the bulging labia: she detects the malty mixture of grumous blood and excrement, but not the stench of a rotted fetus. "He died one or two hours ago."

Orito asks the maid, "When did the waters break?"

The maid is still mute with astonishment at hearing a foreign language.

"Yesterday morning, during the Hour of the Dragon," says the stony- voiced housekeeper. "Our lady entered labor soon after."

"And when was the last time that the baby kicked?"

"The last kick would have been around noon today."

"Dr. Maeno, would you agree the infant is in"-she uses the Dutch term-"the 'transverse breech position' "

"Maybe," the doctor answers in their code tongue, "but without an examination . . ."

"The baby is twenty days late, or more. It should have been turned."

"Baby's resting," the maid assures her mistress. "Isn't that so, Dr. Maeno?"

"What you say"-the honest doctor wavers-"may well be true."

"My father told me," Orito says, "Dr. Uragami was overseeing the birth."

"So he was," grunts Maeno, "from the comfort of his consulting rooms. After the baby stopped kicking, Uragami ascertained that, for geomantic reasons discernible to men of his genius, the child's spirit is reluctant to be born. The birth henceforth depends on the mother's willpower." The rogue, Maeno needs not add, dares not bruise his reputation by presiding over the stillbirth of such an estimable man's child. "Chamberlain Tomine then persuaded the magistrate to summon me. When I saw the arm, I recalled your doctor of Scotland and requested your help."

"My father and I are both deeply honored by your trust," says Orito . . .

. . . and curse Uragami, she thinks, for his lethal reluctance to lose face.

Abruptly, the frogs stop croaking and, as though a curtain of noise falls away, the sound of Nagasaki can be heard, celebrating the safe arrival of the Dutch ship.

"If the child is dead," says Maeno in Dutch, "we must remove it now."

"I agree." Orito asks the housekeeper for warm water and strips of linen and uncorks a bottle of Leiden salts under the concubine's nose to win her a few moments' lucidity. "Miss Kawasemi, we are going to deliver your child in the next few minutes. First, may I feel inside you?"

The concubine is seized by the next contraction and loses her ability to answer.

warm water is delivered in two copper pans as the agony subsides. "We should confess," Dr. Maeno proposes to Orito in Dutch, "the baby is dead. Then amputate the arm to deliver the body."

"First, I wish to insert my hand to learn whether the body is in a convex lie or concave lie."

"If you can discover that without cutting the arm"-Maeno means "amputate"-"do so."

Orito lubricates her right hand with rapeseed oil and addresses the maid: "Fold one linen strip into a thick pad . . . yes, like so. Be ready to wedge it between your mistress's teeth; otherwise she might bite off her tongue. Leave spaces at the sides, so she can breathe. Dr. Maeno, my inspection is beginning."

"You are my eyes and ears, Miss Aibagawa," says the doctor.

Orito works her fingers between the fetus's biceps and its mother's ruptured labia until half her wrist is inside Kawasemi's vagina. The concubine shivers and groans. "Sorry," says Orito, "sorry . . ." Her fingers slide between warm membranes and skin and muscle still wet with amniotic fluid, and the midwife pictures an engraving from that enlightened and barbaric realm, Europe . . .

If the transverse lie is convex, recalls Orito, where the fetus's spine is arched backward so acutely that its head appears between its shins like a Chinese acrobat, she must amputate the fetus's arm, dismember its corpse with toothed forceps, and extract it, piece by grisly piece. Dr. Smellie warns that any remnant left in the womb will fester and may kill the mother. If the transverse lie is concave, however, Orito has read, where the fetus's knees are pressed against its chest, she may saw off the arm, rotate the fetus, insert crotchets into the eye sockets, and extract the whole body, headfirst. The midwife's index finger locates the child's knobbly spine, traces its midriff between its lowest rib and its pelvic bone, and encounters a minute ear; a nostril; a mouth; the umbilical cord; and a prawn-sized penis. "Breech is concave," Orito reports to Dr. Maeno, "but the cord is around the neck."

"Do you think the cord can be released?" Maeno forgets to speak Dutch.

"Well, I must try. Insert the cloth," Orito tells the maid, "now, please."

When the linen wad is secured between Kawasemi's teeth, Orito pushes her hand in deeper, hooks her thumb around the embryo's cord, sinks four fingers into the underside of the fetus's jaw, pushes back his head, and slides the cord over his face, forehead, and crown. Kawasemi screams, hot urine trickles down Orito's forearm, but the procedure works first time: the noose is released. She withdraws her hand and reports, "The cord is freed. Might the doctor have his"-there is no Japanese word-"forceps?"

"I brought them along," Maeno taps his medical box, "in case."

"We might try to deliver the child"-she switches to Dutch-"without amputating the arm. Less blood is always better. But I need your help."

Dr. Maeno addresses the chamberlain: "To help save Miss Kawasemi's life, I must disregard the magistrate's orders and join the midwife inside the curtain."

Chamberlain Tomine is caught in a dangerous quandary.

"You may blame me," Maeno suggests, "for disobeying the magistrate."

"The choice is mine," decides the chamberlain. "Do what you must, Doctor."

The spry old man crawls under the muslin, holding his curved tongs.

When the maid sees the foreign contraption, she exclaims in alarm.

" 'Forceps,' " the doctor replies, with no further explanation.

The housekeeper lifts the muslin to see. "No, I don't like the look of that! Foreigners may chop, slice, and call it 'medicine,' but it is quite unthinkable that-"

"Do I advise the housekeeper," growls Maeno, "on where to buy fish?"

"Forceps," explains Orito, "don't cut-they turn and pull, just like a midwife's fingers but with a stronger grip . . ." She uses her Leiden salts again. "Miss Kawasemi, I'm going to use this instrument"-she holds up the forceps-"to deliver your baby. Don't be afraid, and don't resist. Europeans use them routinely-even for princesses and queens. We'll pull your baby out, gently and firmly."

"Do so . . ." Kawasemi's voice is a smothered rattle. "Do so . . ."

"Thank you, and when I ask Miss Kawasemi to push . . ."

"Push . . ." She is fatigued almost beyond caring. "Push . . ."

"How often," Tomine peers in, "have you used that implement?"

Orito notices the chamberlain's crushed nose for the first time: it is as severe a disfigurement as her own burn. "Often, and no patient ever suffered." Only Maeno and his pupil know that these "patients" were hollowed-out melons whose babies were oiled gourds. For the final time, if all goes well, she works her hand inside Kawasemi's womb. Her fingers find the fetus's throat, rotate his head toward the cervix, slip, gain a surer purchase, and swivel the awkward corpse through a third turn. "Now, please, Doctor."

Excerpted from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell Copyright 2010 by David Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc.

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