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(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest David Mitchell was recently described by Dave Eggers as one of the more fascinating and fearless writers alive. Mitchell is the author of the new historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." It's a bestseller in America. It topped the bestseller list in England and was recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. This novel is Mitchell's first foray into historical fiction and it came as a surprise to his readers, who are used to his postmodern experimental novels.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" begins in 1799. De Zoet has left his home in Amsterdam to work on a tiny island in Japan as a bookkeeper for the Dutch Indies Trading Company. Because he's a foreigner, he's not allowed off the island. He intends to stay for five years and then return to Amsterdam with enough money to be worthy of his wealthy fiancee but on the island, he falls in love with a midwife who is considered unmarriageable because of her scarred face.

David Mitchell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a reading from your new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

Mr. DAVID MITCHELL (Author): With pleasure. It's the morning of July the 26th 1799.

GROSS: And where are we in the story at this point?

Mr. MITCHELL: We are just at the beginning of the novel when the protagonist, Jacob de Zoet, is about to depart from the ship, the Shenandoah, that's brought him all the way from Batavia, which is modern-day Jakarta, to Nagasaki. He's sitting on the small boat that will take him from the ship to the island of Dejima, a manmade island in Nagasaki Harbor that serves as the Dutch East Indies trading post.

GROSS: Okay. Now for the reading.

Mr. MITCHELL: (Reading) Hatless and broiling in his blue dress coat, Jacob de Zoet is thinking of a day 10 months ago, when a vengeful North Sea charged the dikes at Domburg, and spindrift tumbled along Church Street, past the parsonage where his uncle presented him with an oiled canvas bag. It contained a scarred psalmbook bound in deer skin and Jacob can more or less reconstruct his uncle's speech from memory.

Well, heavens knows nephew, you've heard this book's history often enough. Your great-great grandfather was in Venice when the plague arrived. His body erupted in buboes the size of frogs, but he prayed from the psalmbook and God cured him.

Fifty years ago, your grandfather Tys was soldiering in the Palatine when ambushers surprised his regiment. This psalmbook stopped this musket ball - he fingers the leaden bullet, still in its crater - from shredding his heart. It's a little truth that I, your father, and you and your sister Geertje owe this book our very existences.

Now we're not Papists. We do not ascribe magical powers to bent nails or old rags, but you understand how this sacred book is, by our faith, bound to our bloodline. It is a gift from your ancestors and a loan from your descendants. Whatever befalls you in the years ahead, never forget, this psalmbook - he touches the canvas bag - this is your passport home.

David's Psalms are a Bible within the Bible. Pray from it. Heed its teachings and you shall not stray. Protect it with your life that it may nourish your soul. Go now, Jacob and God go with you. Protect it with your life, Jacob mutters under his breath - which is, he thinks, the crux of my dilemma.

GROSS: Why is that the crux of Jacob's dilemma?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, the dilemma is that at this point in Japanese history, whenever a European came ashore to man the trading post, any Christian artifact, the crucifix or St. Christopher or Bible or indeed, a psalmbook, they were supposed to surrender them to the Japanese authorities. They'd be sealed in a barrel for the duration of the visitor's stay on Dejima and only handed back on their departure.

For Jacob, who's a pious God-fearing young man, this is tantamount to apostasy. And even though he's a very honest man who's never broken a rule in his life under ordinary circumstances, he can't obey this law. It would be like spitting on an image of Jesus and he just can't do it. So he's having to smuggle this psalm book ashore amongst his other books and he's just hoping that it won't be noticed because if it is, he doesn't really know what will happen to him.

GROSS: Why did the Japanese not allow Christian artifacts of any sort onto the island that you write about?

Mr. MITCHELL: That's a deep historical question, Terry. They had a fear and loathing of the Christian religion. In the 17th century, Spanish and the Portuguese Jesuits and Franciscans were very active in proseletizing in Japan and converted certainly a low number of millions of Japanese people to the religion.

There was an uprising, a peasants' rebellion, and this quickly acquired the hue of a Christian revolution, really. And from that point on the Edo authorities realized that this foreign religion would be threatening the status quo, which they were very happy with. And so, increasingly, there were anti-Christian laws passed culminating, in fact, in the closure of the country to all foreigners except a handful of people working for the Dutch East Indies Company, hence the novel.

GROSS: Would you describe the island of Dejima, that part of your novel is set on and its place in history?

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. Well, the island of Dejima was very small. That's the first thing to say about it. Probably a third of an acre, maybe half an acre, space for 15-20 warehouses, a garden and a long street. It was in the shape of a flipped-opened fan with a short bridge connecting it to the mainland. Its place in Japanese history is very interesting. For 250 years, Dejima was the only trading post through which Europeans could trade with Japan, specifically the Dutch East Indies Company. And through it passed, obviously, goods, materials, but also ideas and knowledge - knowledge about Europe and, indeed, what was happening in the rest of the world could enter Japan, and knowledge about this mysterious kingdom that was closed to the outside world. A little bit like North Korea is closed to the world now, but I think much more so, in fact, because there would have been no smuggled out footage for YouTube or anything back in those days.

GROSS: Why did you want to set your novel on this island?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it seemed fascinating to me. People do know Japan was closed on the whole. If they've seen James Clavell's "Shogun" or something like that, that's fairly common knowledge. But it isn't widely known that actually, it wasn't. There was this little keyhole that was kept open all of the time.

It's a place where the two cultures could meet - the only place where Western culture and Japanese society could meet. The Dutch were very circumscribed, however. They weren't allowed to leave Dejima. And the only three types of people allowed on were merchants and courtesans and translators who were a father-to-son kind of business.

And this confinement was attractive. If there's no way off. If there's no way out of the situation, then human neuroses have no choice but to bloom and bear their own dramatic fruit. So yeah, there were a lot of baits that attracted me as a novelist that made my curiosity say, this is your next book.

GROSS: It must've been so difficult to live in such a small place and not be allowed off it. It's almost like being on a penal island.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, indeed. Yeah. It was. And contemporary accounts say how mind-bendingly tedious the days were, especially out of the trading season. So the ship would arrive beginning of the trading season, which would've been June, July, and it had to be away before the seas became dangerous towards the end of autumn.

And between those times, there was really not very much to do there for the Dutchmen. They spent a lot of money on prostitutes, men being men. But the isolation would've been quite incredible, I think. It would be hard for us to grasp it now. No phones, no letters, no email, obviously. Nothing. And no guarantee, of course, the ship would be arriving safe and sound at the beginning of the next trading season.

In fact, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British were merrily seizing Dutch shipping all over the world, the Dutch were stranded there for five or six years, not sure why, no word from the outside world, not knowing if they'd ever see home again. Of course, what was very hard for them is very attractive to a novelist at the beginning of the 21st century. So these circumstances were another reason that drew me to the book.

(Break)

GROSS: You made your reputation as an experimental writer, experimenting with form and language. And so this is a historical novel and it's, you know, it's pretty straightforwardly told. The midwife in this novel at one point thinks: the belly craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves loves and the mind craves stories. And she thinks, stories make life tolerable - at least make her life, which is very difficult, tolerable. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to write a historical novel, just to tell a really good story?

Mr. MITCHELL: I'm certainly a plot and character man. Themes, structures, style, they're valid components of the novel and you can't complete a book without them. But I think what propels me as a reader, the meat and potatoes, if you will, of plot and character.

I think we think in terms of stories. I think the story is sort of the most ancient form of human entertainment. I think it's through stories that we perceive the world. It's through stories that we communicate with one another, whether it's in the somewhat refined form of the novel or just a joke that you tell a friend in a bar. I think we are narrative animals. I think that's what Homo sapiens is.

GROSS: So why did you want to write a historical novel?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, really, because I found Dejima and Dejima hasn't existed for 160 years as a working trading post. And so, to do justice to that theme, I had to go back in time. I thought it would be relatively straightforward. I thought historical fiction was just one more genre, but little did I know. I went wrong twice and had to throw aside about 18 months worth of work at one point. But eventually, by going wrong, I slowly began to work out how I could go right and this historical novel grew out of that.

GROSS: What was one of the mistakes that you made when you went wrong?

Mr. MITCHELL: Language, that was the biggest baddest mistake really, Terry. What language are these people speaking? If you try to get it right, if you try to get authentic 18th century speech you end up sounding like "Black Adder," you end up sounding like pastiche. If, on the other hand, you don't, you don't convince your reader that the language, you know, smells authentic, then - bubble of fiction is popped because the reader's thinking, hang on, this sounds like speech that could have been from a sitcom I saw last week.

So you have to sort of create what I came to think of as a bygone-ese kind of dialect, which is not in fact completely plausible. It doesn't really work if you have characters using the word harken, for example. But which still smells and has the right texture of 18th century speech. And it's tough to do that. It's tough to work out exactly how to do it.

GROSS: And then you have to be consistent once you've figured it out.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, you have to be consistent. And then, of course, you have to avoid the trap where my rather large cast in this book - I think someone worked out there's about 150 speaking parts in it - they mustn't all sound the same because that also pricks the bubble of fiction. That also makes the reader think, well, why are all these people speaking the same voice? That doesn't happen in life. So you have to work out bygone-ese but then subdivide it amongst the Dutch, the Japanese, the British.

GROSS: It sounds like you really made life hard for yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I did. I do. But, of course, it's those strictures, it's that straitjacket. The better-tied straitjacket, the more spectacular the act of escapology has to be to get out of the straitjacket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: And maybe that's what originality is. It's the confinements that you choose at the beginning, rather like the confinements that the Dutch were under on Dejima, in fact.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought up originality because, you know, early on you were playing with conventional narrative in your novels. Did you start to feel at some point that the attempt to be original was kind of hopeless because everything's been tried, every experiment's been done and at some point what you want to do is just be really, really good at whatever...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...whatever it is you're doing?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I do aspire to be that. It's a lifelong job, though, before you're worthy to sweep up the crumbs under the table of the masters.

GROSS: But do you know what I mean? I mean sometimes, like when I was in my early 20s, I guess, I got so excited by avant-garde music, by new music by the avant-garde end of classical music and, because they were playing with structure in a way that I found so thrilling and also you didn't have to know everything about classical music to get what they were doing. Maybe if I knew more I would've gotten more of it. But at some point I wanted, like I wanted more melody in my life and more...

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...more harmony in my life.

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. You want to be able to hum the tune, don't you?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah. I think it's natural for youth to be drawn to newness because the world is still new for them and there's a feeling that you can take part in shaping it and changing it and turning it into something new in your image. But then you age, inevitably. I look in the mirror now and I think wow, it's Dad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: And I am a dad. And I am a husband. And these sort of messy human muddy themes become much more interesting. And you also realize that structure, originality and innovation is not actually a story. They're useful ingredients for art but it's not art itself. Not really. You might be able to admire it, but you certainly can't fall in love with it as a piece of music or as a piece of narrative.

Yeah, you go back in a way to older, more traditional forms. You also come to accept that actually, Shakespeare cleaned everything up. There's no new turf after him, really. All the postmodern themes, the play-within-the-play, metafiction, it's already been done in the 17th century. You can't win. But art isn't the what. Art is the how. Lowell said this really well: If you try to write about the universe, you'll end up staring at the bricks at the bottom of your garden. But if you start with those bricks, you may well end up writing something new about the universe.

Start with the people. People are why I fall in love with a book. If you start there, then you can kind of allow ideas and maybe allow innovation and a new structure to sort of grow organically from these stem cells of people. But I think you need to start with the people and how they interact, which is your plot.

(Break)

GROSS: You've written about how as a boy you had a very bad stammer.

Mr. MITCHELL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's still, I guess, elements of that left, but...

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, sure. Sure.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MITCHELL: It's my lifelong companion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You write something I thought was very funny and very true. You wrote: The willpower myth maintains that a stammerer is analogous to a newly wheelchair-bound character in a heartwarming American film. The doctor says he'll never walk again, but his gritty determination proves them wrong. This myth, you say, cost me angry years of believing that I stammered because I wasn't trying hard enough not to stammer.

Would you describe what you tried to do during those angry years?

Mr. MITCHELL: Firstly, I should apologize for the adjective American in that sentence, because the British also are equally capable of making such films.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. MITCHELL: What I went through in those years: sort of a state of civil war with myself, really. It took a long, long time to understand that a stammer is more like a kind of a force field, and the more you throw at it, the more it throws back at you. You sort of have to outwit it rather than outfight it. And, in a way, not even outwit it. You sort of - I think of it now as a kind of a companion. It's a part of me. It has a right to exist as I do and I need to sort of come to a working accommodation with it.

A friend who was an alcoholic once said to me that an alcoholic never stops being an alcoholic. He may - but what you have to aspire to be is a teetotal alcoholic. And in the same way a stammerer, I think, certainly in my case, will never not be a stammerer but you have to aspire to becoming a non-stammering stammerer. And this involves certain strategies and techniques that you can sort of encrypt into how you speak so that I'm able to do this interview, for example, which 20 years ago would've been unthinkable. And in the end, these strategies can become so well-integrated into who you are and how you speak that they become behavior and speech patterns rather than techniques.

GROSS: So do you find it's better for you to say up front to people, yeah, I've got a stammer, so that's the way it's going to be.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, much, much more so. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MITCHELL: It's a huge weight off your shoulders. Yeah.

GROSS: Was that something you had to hide - try to hide when you were young?

Mr. MITCHELL: Most certainly. All the time. Being a teenager is hard enough at the best of times. But if you're a stammering teenager, then - and it's, if it's known and if you're sort of exposed as a stammering teenager, then it's really tough. So I spent a lot of energy and a lot of angst and a lot of stress trying to hide it, and throughout my 20s as well. But in the long run, it's much, much better for me at least to be upfront about it.

GROSS: It must've been so frustrating because you're Mr. Language. You know, I mean you're all about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...language and when you opened your mouth it wouldn't come out smoothly. Yet, I'm sure you were writing even as a teenager and...

Mr. MITCHELL: Frustrating, yes.

GROSS: So people would make fun of you because of your stammer, yet you probably knew so much more about language and were so much more facile with language than the people who were mocking you.

Mr. MITCHELL: In part yes, because of my stammer. This is why I view my stammer now as a companion and not an enemy. I might've been a writer without it, but I certainly wouldn't have been this writer. One of the strategies I was referring to, which you meet quite early on in your career as a stammerer, is you autocue sentences ahead of time. You see what words are coming up, and say right now I'd have difficulties with words beginning with S. If I, certainly as a younger person, if I saw an S word was approaching then I would try and reengineer that sentence to avoid needing that S word. And this teaches you how language can be employed many, many different ways to say the same thing.

GROSS: Now you lived for eight years in Japan and taught English there to Japanese students.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: But from what I've read of your personal essays, you never really spoke fluent Japanese and you always felt a little challenged by that. So how did that affect your stammer, being - like, having to really think what word was before you said it because it wasn't your language? Did that make the stammer any better or worse?

Mr. MITCHELL: I think the practical problems of learning Japanese would probably sort of trump, by this point, the problems that my stammer would cause me, so not particularly. You do stammer in a foreign language, by the way. People sometimes think you don't, but you do. You don't stammer when you're singing or talking to animals or speaking on your own in a room but you do stammer in a foreign language.

GROSS: You don't stammer when you're talking to animals?

Mr. MITCHELL: No. No. You see, it's all to do with...

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I've thought about this a lot. But I think, and you may have some speech therapists listening to this program who could have a different point of view, but it's to do with what you think is going on in the listener's head. If you can have a certain militancy about it, if you can think that, you know, I frankly don't care if I'm about to stammer or not. I don't care if this person thinks I'm weird. I don't care if this person thinks any less of me, then miraculously, kind of the fingers of the stammer loosen and suddenly, you're more fluent again. Obviously, an animal isn't thinking in these terms. So when you're speaking to an animal you don't stammer.

This is also why it's good to be upfront about it. If there's no question before you start that, hey I am a stammerer, it's out in the open and I may well stammer in this conversation, if that's there before the conversation starts, then as often as not, the stammer will be a lot lighter and looser in that conversation.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking, you have this problem with a stammer, so speaking has always had obstacles and the threat of failure, right?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're a writer. Like language is your thing, so what do you do? You spend eight years living in a country whose language is so different from yours...

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...setting up yet another set of obstacles for communicating verbally through language. It almost seems like the stammer wasn't enough. You had to set up more obstacles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You had to make it a little bit harder.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, maybe so. Maybe so. Maybe I thrive on obstacles. Yeah. Yeah, there might be something in that. But I think originality needs it.

A book that's easily written, you know, you can always tell. You can always tell when the writer hasn't broken out in a sweat trying to land this book. And maybe - maybe something of the same can be said in life.

If life is obstacleless, if you're just coasting along without responsibilities, without duties, without sort of having to take care of an elderly relative or an offspring with special needs or whatever, well, perhaps, that's what existential malaise is. Maybe that's sort of when you start to drift and have problems of another type. Maybe your problems and your obstacles, rather like your stammer, is in fact, a kind of friend in disguise for you. I don't know if we're venturing into self-help territory too much here, but it's something that I kind of believe in.

GROSS: Well, David Mitchell, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, it's my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me on your program.

GROSS: David Mitchell is the author of the novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." You can read an excerpt of the book and Maureen Corrigan's review of it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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