How David Mitchell Brings A 'Thousand' Historical Details To Life The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a complex, historical novel set on a Dutch trading post in late 18th century Japan. Author David Mitchell explains the extensive research that went into re-creating a bygone era.

How David Mitchell Brings Historical Fiction To Life

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We could mention all the awards that David Mitchell has won for his novels, and might. For the moment, lets leave it at this: He is the one contemporary novelist who's mentioned in the same breath as Nabokov and Tolstoy. He's considered a virtuoso of complex plot and intricate language, wry humor, dense history and indelible characters.

David Mitchell's latest book is a historical novel set in Japan in 1799, when a few Dutch traders are allowed to briefly and lightly attach themselves onto isolated feudal Japanese society.

His book is "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet."

David Mitchell joins us. He's on tour now, and he's out at member station KQED in San Francisco.�

Mr. Mitchell, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID MITCHELL (Author, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet"): Oh, thank you very much for having me on your program, Scott. And thanks for that lovely introduction as well. I've recorded it and will play it back to myself on bad days. So thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So you were, what, teaching in Nagasaki in 1994 when something - the spirit of this book first entered your mind?

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. I was backpacking in the west of Japan. As usual, I had no money and I was looking for a cheap lunch in Chinatown, but I couldn't read the streetcar signs. So quite by chance stumbled across what looked like a couple of elegant, beautiful white warehouses from a much earlier historical period (unintelligible) the city. And that was Dejima Museum. And I never did get to lunch that day, but I filled a notebook with information about this place I'd never heard of and resolved one day to write about it.

SIMON: And the Dejima was where the Dutch East India Company was permitted to briefly and lightly attach themself to Japan.

Mr. MITCHELL: That's correct. Yes. It was a trading post on a very small artificial island, about a third of an acre, half an acre maybe. Year around, probably 10, 12, at most 15 Europeans - mostly, but not exclusively, Dutch -were obliged to live on the island. They weren't allowed off.

So this wasn't one of those trading posts that the British established in India or the Dutch in Java which slowly turned into a full-blown colony. The Japanese remained very much in control.

And the only three types of people allowed on were merchants and translators and apparently very, very expensive prostitutes, proving that then as now perhaps the Japanese recognize a captive market when they see one.

SIMON: And Jacob de Zoet is, if you please, a clerk, an accountant who arrives there. And the Dutch are confined and he discovers that not everybody's as honest as he is.

Mr. MITCHELL: No. He got the job on the coattails of a patron, a man called Vorstenbosch, who in turn was appointed this very lucrative position on the understanding that he would take a broom to the place and sweep out the corruption, the sort of goings-on that would make anyone blush.

Jacob soon discovers that even his patron Vorstenbosch has his own agenda. Everyone has their own agenda, really. And he finds himself an honest man in a nest of vipers.

SIMON: We don't want to give away too much of the intricate plot, but Jacob de Zoet falls in love with a midwife, Orito - hope I'm pronouncing that correctly.

Mr. MITCHELL: That's perfect.

SIMON: But she has - how do we say this - gotten to a nunnery to settle her father's debts.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yes. Yes. That's the case. And it's not just an ordinary nunnery either. It's rather darker than that. How dark I think might not say here now.

SIMON: It is a nunnery, but not in the Audrey Hepburn movie sense.

Mr. MITCHELL: Not at all. No. More in the "Black Narcissus" sense maybe.

SIMON: One of the pleasures of a historical novel, and especially your version of the historical novel, is the lush recreation of the details of what it was to be alive in 1799. How do you acquire that level of detail?

Mr. MITCHELL: I think of the research in terms of hard research and soft research. The hard research is where you go through archives and find, in this case, journals that the chief residents of the Dutch East Indies Company kept. It's also persuading history lecturers, in this case, again, at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, to spend a couple of hours answering my rather undergraduate level questions.

And then there's soft research, which really goes on until the day you finish the manuscript.

Say I'm writing a scene where some back-story's being delivered in the frame of my character having a shave. Immediately you hit this question: Did they have shaving foam in those days? If so, was it affordable to a middle ranking clerk? Or if you're writing a scene at night: How's the room lit? Is it going to be pig tallow candles or sperm whale oil lanterns? Which give off a nice, bright light, but it's very expensive.

You have to know all of that. And sometimes you can't finish a sentence without spending half a morning going away and finding it out.

And then, of course, you do have to hide it. Otherwise you get ridiculous sentences where the servant walks in and says, Is it going to be pig tallow candles, my Lord, or would you prefer the sperm whale oil lantern? Which, of course, makes you laugh and kills fiction.

And I haven't even begun to discuss language. To what degree do you date the language? If you get it absolutely right, if you troll through 18th century novels and letters and write it all down and reproduce it perfectly, it's almost comic pastiche.

But then if you ignore the fact we're in the past and you have an 18th century character flouncing into the room, like a character from "Scrubs" or "Friends," saying, You know, that's just so not what I meant...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: ...the bubble of the illusion is pricked and it's gone and you're left with a horrible mess.

SIMON: So you're writing in English about people speaking in Dutch and Japanese a novel that must be read and understood in the 21st century that is set in the 18th.

Mr. MITCHELL: It is so, it is so. It's quite a tall order. Yes, it was tough. It took me four years and it almost finished me off before I finished it off.

SIMON: We sort of agreed not to mention all the awards you've had. Let's just say you've been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Granta Best Young Novelist, one of Time's most influential people.

Mr. MITCHELL: How my wife laughed when she heard that. She said, you're not even the fourth most influential person in the house. You're number five after the washing machine. It's true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: It's true.

SIMON: (Unintelligible) never influential in his own family...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, that's nice to know it's true in other men's households as well. Of course it's very gratifying and any writer is happy to hear that other people are responding positively to his or her writing. But it also has to not matter. It also has to not be why you write. I meet people on this book tour and they explain why their writing has made a connection with their lives sometimes, and truly that's worth more than any Booker.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Mitchell, a real pleasure. Good luck.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thank you very much indeed, Scott. It's been great speaking with you.

SIMON: David Mitchell. His new novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.