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Birnbaum v.

David Mitchell

Author and 2005 Rooster winner David Mitchell talks about his new novel, Black Swan Green, the appeal of Bill Evans, and the differences between sex and writing.

Readers of The Morning News should be no strangers to the name David Mitchell, as his third novel, Cloud Atlas, battled fierce competition to win the inaugural Tournament of Books in 2005. And the book pages of major dailies have contributed a near tidal wave of review attention for his latest opus, Black Swan Green, which confirms his burgeoning popularity—as American newspapers are (tragically) invested in being cultural weathermen. Even my octogenarian mother has read Mitchell, although she complains about his postmodernist tendencies.

David Mitchell was born in England and educated at the University of Kent, studying for a degree in English and American literature, followed by an master’s in comparative literature. He lived for a year in Sicily, and eight in Hiroshima, Japan, where he taught English to technical students. He currently lives in Cork, Ireland, though this spring he is doing a writing residency in Holland. Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best work of British literature written by an author under 35 and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. His two subsequent novels, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were both short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. In 2003, he was selected as one of Granta’s 20 best young British novelists.

In the fall of 2000 I sat down with Mitchell after reading, with great gusto, his debut, Ghostwritten—the tape of which conversation I promptly “misplaced” in the labyrinth of what I call my archives. (Having recently recovered another “lost” tape, of my chat with Alberto Manguel, I have hope that my first recorded session with Mitchell will resurface, hopefully while we are both living.) This second dialogue covers subjects as diverse as autobiography in first novels, Bill Evans, the Falklands War, having fun, Jynne Martin, his strong feelings about writing, Michael Silverblatt, his next novel, stuttering and stammering, and so on.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: It’s been a while since we have spoken. You’re on your fourth novel. Usually writers get their autobiographical bow out of the way early, but it strikes me that Black Swan Green seems to resonate with material from your youth.

David Mitchell: Oh, certainly. The stage is the same. The time is the same, clothes, language are the same. Me and Jason, we share—we’re the same age. Maybe a third of the mental DNA we share. My family didn’t get divorced or split up the way Jason’s does, so that is fictional. But it is certainly my—

RB: I’m not that concerned with the specific details as much the sensibility and the sensitivity of a 13-year-old boy going through the pains of adolescence, especially in junior high school. So, was writing about a year in the life of boys taking a risk?

DM: Um, [long pause] risks are good. Because you don’t know if you can make it work and that’s the kind of writing that’s interesting. There is no point in writing something you know you can write before you have a go.

RB: So you feel that way about all your writing?

DM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

RB: It’s all sort of—

Mitchell, copyright 2006 Robert BirnbaumDM: If it’s not edgy in some way, if it’s not at the outer limits of your ability, then there is no point in starting, I think. I have no willpower. I am an ill-disciplined person. I write feverishly, simply because I love it. I never need to motivate myself at all. I have to motivate myself to stop writing.

RB: There is a name for that condition.

DM: [laughs] Yeah, it’s explored in Stephen King’s The Shining, isn’t it?

RB: I am thinking of Alice Flaherty, who is a neurologist who wrote The Midnight Disease [The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain], and who explored hypergraphia and writer’s block, various afflictions of the writerly sort.

DM: I only have it, at least, when I am working on something that’s interesting—and interesting because of the problems and complexities and difficulties in writing it.

RB: The risk I am thinking that you took is that I wonder if many readers might not care about the life of a 13-year-old. Do adults read Catcher in the Rye? Or Lord of the Flies, though that was more clearly a parable.

DM: I live with the greatest respect for people who may or may not read what I write. I can’t afford to care about audience and readership when I am working on it. My curiosity dictates that this is the book that I want to do next.

RB: So it’s an idea, and then you pursue that without concerning yourself about readership expectations?

DM: It’s not my job. It will have direct effects on whether or not I will be able to continue to support myself doing my job. I understand why you make your suggestion but I also think people respond to truth and beauty, whatever that is—but there is so much that is fake and superficial, so much flim-flam in the world, that whatever form your book takes, if it is written with truth and honesty, then at least I hope—I choose to believe that people respond to it.

RB: Well, there is a lot of truth to that, but I must confess it’s rare that I will read a book in which adolescents are the main characters. The last one I read was Jim Shepard’s Project X—about two boys plotting some kind of attack on their school. Nonetheless, given my lack of interest in this kind of character, I guess ultimately you are right. I did read the book with some pleasure—not unhappy doing so. Still, I think it’s a legitimate position to say that “David Mitchell is a fine writer but this is not my kind of story.”

DM: They are being true to themselves and if that’s an honest reaction, then I wouldn’t question it for a moment.

RB: The more precise question is if you recognize that every reader may not care about a year in the life of a 13-year-old, is there anything that you think about embellishing in that story to make it more accessible, more attractive—does it matter?

DM: Uh, I think to do so would make it less a book, not a greater book. I am afraid a logical consequence of your suggestion might be that—

RB: You start pandering?

DM: You start pandering and also questions of scale. No disrespect intended, but helicopters and explosions make a better movie, but—

RB: Give me more sex, more flesh!

DM: The book wanted to be a sequence of miniatures. And in many ways, because of that, it is a quiet book.

RB: That’s not what I am suggesting when I offer that there may be readers indifferent to that story. I am not saying that it is a lack of adventure and novelty. My favorite section is with the old woman. That’s quite wonderful. And I thought that the town meeting about the Gypsies was a kind of sardonic set piece about racism—they aren’t called Gypsies.

We could have relocated every inhabitant of the Falklands and made them millionaires for a fraction of the money that was spent on getting the islands back.DM: It’s become politically incorrect to call them Gypsies. [It’s] travelers or Romanies.

RB: So there are parts of a boy’s life and his interaction with a larger world that are compelling. On the other hand, the terrible ordeals of unpopularity and being bullied in one form or another—it’s a familiar story.

DM: I am sure that’s very true. If the book were nothing more than mimesis, just a recreation of that, then, well, I don’t think I’d have written it. It would have seemed very slight.

RB: OK, tell me why you wrote it.

DM: [longish pause] OK, I wanted to map what I think is an interesting kind of a gap here between boyhood and adolescence. You called him an adolescent earlier. I argue it’s an in-between time he is in. He isn’t an adolescent yet. But he is no longer a boy, and the strategies you need for either of those stages don’t work. I wrote the book because I wanted to take a photograph of England, where I am from—in a way the place made me, for better or for worse. In what to me was an interesting time, the end of the long, slow death of agrarian England. There are now no farmers. The ‘80s was about the last time when you’d go to a village like that and find almost a majority of people working in agriculture. I kind of wanted to get that, too. The Falklands was a really kind of interesting event in my youth and I wanted to recreate just the fervor and mass insanity—

RB: My sense of [the war] was that the British straight-out won and that Argentina was a ridiculously inept opponent. In your telling of it, there were some junctures where the outcome was in doubt.

DM: We only just straight-out won.

RB: Not the impression I got here in the U.S., as much (or as little) coverage as there was.

DM: If a lot of the Argentine Exercets [air-to-surface missiles] which had penetrated British hulls had exploded, there would have been no Navy left.

RB: Faulty missiles sold to them by the U.S.?

DM: They were French, actually. The popular concept was exactly that—it was a wonderful football match and we hammered them. That impression exists because it was possibly the world’s last unambiguous war. You either got the islands back or you didn’t—won or loss. None of this peacekeeping, holding-the-borders malarky. Which has since confounded the adage, “To win an election, you go to war and win it.” That’s why it has gone down at least for the time being in popular global memory as an unambiguous loss. It was ruinously expensive. For islands that had no economic value either before or since.

RB: To send a fleet and an army thousands of miles into the South Atlantic—

DM: We could have relocated every inhabitant of the Falklands and made them millionaires for a fraction of the money that was spent on getting the islands back. And what for? There isn’t even any oil there. So that’s a reason I wrote the book. I wanted to look at stammering and speech impediments. It’s not a very discussed thing—people who have the affliction or impediment sometimes literally can’t talk about it. Even as an adult, well-meaning friends don’t ask me about it because they don’t want to touch raw nerves. It’s much easier to find out what it’s like to be blind than to find out what it’s like to have a speech impediment. I do, and I wanted to look at that.

RB: Do you know David Shields’s book Dead Languages? He was also speech-impeded and Dead Languages is his novel about that. Ed Hoagland has written about his own stuttering in his memoir. I interviewed him and listening to the tape later was quite painful—

DM: Exactly, it’s quite painful, so people don’t ask. I half-wish I had read those and am half-glad I didn’t read these books before. There is a good essay by John Updike somewhere [that] I read, but that was all. So I wanted to write the book for that reason as well. Some people will think I have succeeded and some will think I have failed, but I wanted to see if I could do that semi-formulaic first-novel genre-type of a book, but in a non-formulaic way. And to not make it ordinary. Inevitably some will think it’s not that extraordinary a book, but I hope at least that between the gaps it isn’t an ordinary first novel. You learn more every book you write, more about writing, and maybe that’s the ultimate aim, even more than finishing a book and exploring a theme. It’s actually to learn more about writing. I have, I now have the lesson of four novels under my belt. Whereas necessarily, for most people’s first novels, they have none of that knowledge about writing. You never finish learning, incidentally. I don’t regard myself as a vast depository of knowledge about writing. The point is to kind of acquire as much as I can in one lifetime.

RB: Do you approach writing a novel as weaving episodes and vignettes and stringing them together? I don’t mean that in a haphazard way—that is, connect them, not necessarily sequentially but in some manner that they become a unified whole.

DM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

RB: That’s the way you write, or do you sit down and write a novel from start to finish in sequence?

DM: I think all novels are actually compounded short stories. It’s just the borders get so porous and so squished up that you no longer see them, but I think they are there. And I do structure my novels in that way. One of the commandments of Black Swan Green was to write a novel made of chapters that are theoretically extractable short stories.

RB: January Man was originally a short story.

DM: It was, yes. And the second chapter, about a visit to a speech therapist, was also a separately published chapter. I also quietly published, quietly placed the one about the walk up the bridal way in a magazine for a festival that I was attending. By that point, my editor quietly reminded me that maybe serializing my novel before it appeared wasn’t such a good idea.

RB: Your British editor?

DM: Yeah. Apart from the 12th and 13th chapter, that you couldn’t really do it for, I stayed true to that for the first 11. Short stories have a background white noise that creates the illusion that the world is much bigger than the mere 10 or 15 pages, and I wanted to see if I could sync up the white noise of the background of short stories. And another model for the novel, which I indulge myself by trying to sneak into all of my books, is provided by the postcards Jason buys at the tourist shop, the 13 postcards—

RB: Of the dinosaurs.

DM: Yeah, and when you put them end-to-end, the background is one continuous whole. That’s the village and the background plots happening in Black Swan Green, yet the foreground dinosaurs are the themes of each separate, individual story.

RB: Is it simply a matter of playfulness that you reprise certain characters, certain names from past writings?

DM: It’s playfulness. It’s fun, and if writing isn’t fun, then—it has to be other things as well, but also—if [long pause] Falstaff hadn’t already appeared in the history plays and you only met him in Merry Wives of Windsor he wouldn’t, though that is a playful play, he wouldn’t have that background depth. If you have history with a person, as I sense you have with Maggie [a friend whose office I use], then a brief encounter just has so much more depth and echoes, and you can make the same effect with the reader.

RB: I agree, but every once in while you feel deficiency—some writers, when you pick up their mid-career books and you read that this work has many references to past work, one feels a little bereft. I feel like I have missed something significant.

DM: You have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t matter, that it works fine—that it excels as a standalone.

RB: Have you thought about coming back to this character at some other point?

DM: Yeah, but—there’s a “but.” Um, twice a year I’m writing a short story narrated by one of the characters in Black Swan Green in the present day. When I am in my mid-40s I’ll have enough for a book of them.

RB: Twice a year on an assigned date?

I think all novels are actually compounded short stories. It’s just the borders get so porous and so squished up that you no longer see them.DM: No, just, I want to produce two a year. So that it doesn’t interrupt what ever else I’m doing. When me and Jason are in our mid-40s, he will be old enough to have a 13-year-old son. And the one exception to this narrative rule—narrating in the first person—will be this one: I would like to do the Jason from the viewpoint of his 13-year-old son.

RB: The beginning of an infinite regress. Or a funhouse mirror, an Escher image.

DM: Or like the bit in Lolita when you realize that Humbert really needs help—when he starts fantasizing about having a daughter by Lolita, who the becomes the next Lolita—there is something really dark at work there.

RB: So this is an open-ended story that may reverberate—Jason may continue to reverberate through the rest of your writing?

DM: He will be reprised once in about 10 years, eight years.

RB: You say that with certainty. Are there other things you have said with the same authority that you have later modified? That you can remember?

DM: [chuckles] We all, even people with weak memories like myself, do tend to excel in eradicating our mistakes.

RB: Changing your mind is not necessarily a mistake.

DM: Absolutely not. And it’s annoying how one politician will level an accusation at another politician…of course people should change their minds, the world is changing. How could you not change your mind about major issues? As if this is an indication of spinelessness. However, when you write you have to change your mind all the time. Within the confines of one book you could have what feels like a great idea in your head—if it’s a lousy idea once it’s down on paper, you cripple yourself by not changing your mind about it and getting rid of it. There is a lot of that in one book.

RB: When I met you six years ago, you were living in Japan. Was that to be your home for some long indefinite time?

DM: With life plans you have intentions and plans, and maybe you can say intentions with authority, but [long pause] causality has counter plans.

RB: Life intervenes, yeah.

DM: I don’t think I have fixed plans beyond two or three years.

RB: Let me check my recall. You were living in rural Japan?

DM: Relatively rural. On the outskirts of Hiroshima.

RB: You were living with the woman who became your wife?

DM: I was with her, yeah.

RB: And your children were born in Japan?

DM: One was conceived there and the plan was to give birth there, but we went back to England at the last moment.

RB: And from England you decided to live in Ireland?

DM: Yes.

RB: You are currently living in Ireland but doing a writer-in-residence in Holland? And by now everyone in the world knows your plan is to go back to Japan to finish the novel you are working on now? Everyone who cares. [both laugh]

DM: The internet never forgets. [My current project is] a Dutch-Japanese historical novel.

RB: Can you speak any Dutch?

DM: A little bit.

RB: Apparently the Dutch flummoxed the Nazis during WWII because there are words that only the Dutch could pronounce—thus making infiltration of their underground almost impossible.

DM: They used the name of a town that’s on the coast, that we [outsiders] can only approximate. [Mitchell attempts it with incomprehensible results. We believe he was trying to pronounce “Scheveningen”—ed.]

RB: Yeah, good luck. My mouth hurts hearing that.

DM: It’s as though in the back of the throat there are lips. And they can manipulate the sounds like lips. They do it twice, like some fish have two eyelids.




Mitchell, copyright 2006 Robert Birnbaum


RB: How did you come to a residency in Holland? A wonderful country.

DM: I mentioned to my Dutch publisher the possibility of doing this book and they of course—

RB: The history of the Dutch in Japan?

DM: A window of Dutch history which corresponds to the Napoleonic era in Europe.

RB: At the time the Dutch had access to Japan, they were the only Westerners allowed in?

DM: In general that’s true. From the 1640s through to the 1840s—over two centuries. The Dutch were gifted in realpolitik in the window when it really mattered and were able to use influence to demonize the Spanish and Portuguese who were there first.

RB: I imagine that wasn’t hard to do. They were demonic.

DM: All the European colonial powers have their dirty laundry—all states have. Empires do tend to carry the dirtiest type of laundry, it’s true.

RB: You are already well into the book?

DM: I’m into the research. I need to do a lot before I can really start. I had a very productive flight over. I got a—but, your question?

RB: Do you see this as a different approach to writing a novel for you?

DM: Certainly, yeah, yeah. I want to not repeat myself for a number of reasons—one, it does demand freshness of me each time. And it’s annoying to have to reject a perfectly good idea because you have already used something too close to it before. But it also allows me to continue to be learning. Also, there are many more writers in their 30s than in their 60s—now why is that? Where do they all go to? What I fear is the case they kind of end up repeating themselves and saying things that they have already said better when they were younger.

RB: It may be harder to have a 30-year career now.

DM: Because—

RB: The middle-list author more and more has trouble getting published—was that what you were thinking?

DM: I’m thinking that people might be insufficiently omnivorous in what they read and the experiences that they extract from life to inform their writing and ultimately what they write.

RB: There is that old saw about how some writers keep writing the same book over and over again and maybe even do it really well. Other writers attempt to do something different.

DM: Maybe that’s true. But I’m firmly in the latter camp. Chiefly because it’s who I am, but also I think it might be necessary to do this in order to continue to write into my 60s or 70s—until the day I die. Which is my only real ambition. I am unemployable [chuckles] in any other field.

RB: No hod-carrying for you? One other piece of your biography may be coming back to me: Is it the case that when you met your wife, you did not speak Japanese and she spoke no English?

DM: No.

RB: Why did I think that?

DM: I had a Japanese girlfriend some years before who didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Japanese at that point, so perhaps that got conflated.

RB: Maybe I am confusing you with Pico Iyer? Maybe that was his story?

DM: Yeah, yeah. It is.

RB: So sitting here in your youthful late 30s, you have scoped ahead in your life to think that your writing is—everyone says they can’t do anything else.

DM: No I really can’t. I know everyone else says “I really can’t do anything else” as well, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

RB: Everybody doesn’t say that. Is it hard for you?

DM: No. Yes and no. No, in that nothing is more fulfilling. Maybe I enjoy sex more. But that only lasts for an hour or so.

RB: Good for you.

DM: Writing is existentially, supremely fulfilling. I love it. I love it.

RB: Have you ever failed as a writer?

DM: I get the odd bad review.

RB: I don’t mean that. I mean in your own mind. Have you started things that you couldn’t finish?

The most intense pleasure for Bill Evans was listening. Not playing, but listening. Doesn’t that make sense in the context of his music? He plays like a listener. How cool?DM: I wrote one short story that I don’t think was very good, but that’s because it’s a different art. But other than that, no. I wrote an apprentice piece, a novel before my first one, Ghostwritten, that was not good and unpublishable, but I still had to write that to learn.

RB: No long extracts, or manuscripts lying around on your hard drive? Do you use a computer?

DM: I start with notebooks and then when it coagulates sufficiently I get impatient and—

RB: No text buried wherever one might bury a text?

DM: No. If you can work out why something isn’t working and put it in that cold clinical prose, then that is itself the answer. And it’s usually that you are not being honest. Because you are in love with an idea that has no place in what you are writing.

RB: Do you think writing is important?

DM: That’s a big question for a little mind.

RB: [laughs] Which, mine or yours?

DM: [laughs] Mine, mine. No, no, no. You were described to me as an East-Coast Mike Silverblatt, which I hope you take as a compliment.

RB: Sure. I have great respect and admiration for him.

DM: My media escort Lynne said, “I don’t actually know who Mike Silverblatt is.” I said, “He’s a West-Coast Robert Birnbaum.” Is literature important to the world? I have no idea. It’s important to individuals who—actually I’ll stop being coy. Yes. It is.

RB: There you go.

DM: It reminds people that the world can be—the world is always a fascinating and often a beautiful place. And the way we live our lives tends and obliges us to forget that fact.

RB: We tend to compact and localize our experiences and reading. Storytelling is a presentation of the infinite possibilities of life, which resonates with a sense of hopefulness and joyfulness that life is not already written.

DM: It stops life from feeling like the inside of a car.

RB: Good one. It’s funny how reluctant people are to take the stand that literature is important. There is an odd and perhaps misplaced humility that presents itself. I’m happy to argue that literature is important. That this is important work.

DM: Self-importance is bad for writers, because no one gives their stories to an asshole. And it cuts you off from something very important.

RB: Plus, we don’t want to create a hierarchy where a writer is more important than a plumber or a farmer.

DM: Absolutely not.

RB: Do you read a lot?

DM: Depends how close I am to the end of a deadline. But quite a lot. But a fraction of what the Birnbaums and Silverblatts of the world [read].

RB: Well, if I were writing novels, my reading habits would probably be different. I just rediscovered an interview I did with Alberto Manguel and talked about something I very much identified with—he came to writing from being a reader who wrote to come to resolution about certain issues and problems.

DM: Many writers just get this first—they’ll get something like a sexual attraction. It’s that real. The lust to write. My experience of wanting to do to people what our favorite writer has done to you. You will see that. But what you said also echoes what Bill Evans says on the back of a CD somewhere, that the most intense pleasure for him was listening. Not playing, but listening. Doesn’t that make sense in the context of his music? He plays like a listener. How cool? [laughs]

RB: He was very cool. Although I was sorry he succumbed to playing the electric piano—well, I don’t like anyone playing the electric piano.

DM: On the whole, I agree with you, but there are times and places where it really does work. The opening of “Something So Right” by Paul Simon is an example of an electric piano where an acoustic simply wouldn’t do the job. And since we are on Evans, “Jesus’s Last Ballad”—he has an album called, [that] he did with Toots Theilmans, it’s called Affinity.

RB: Duets like he did with Jim Hall?

DM: There is a bass and drums as well. But it’s their album—Evans and Theilmans.

RB: Does Toots whistle on it?

DM: Harmonica. But don’t say—or, I respectfully suggest that you don’t write off all of his electric piano music until you’ve digested that. It’s elegiac and beautiful and absolutely and ineffably right—“Jesus’s Last Ballad.” Please look for it.

RB: I will. If you’ve had a long diet of Evans going back to playing with Miles Davis and—do you know an album called The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson?

DM: No.

RB: It contains a great, great tune called “Stolen Moments”—it’s the equal of Kind of Blue in its power and haunting—Eric Dolphy, Paul Chambers, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Haynes.

DM: Can it be found in the Bill Evans sections at record/music stores?

RB: Probably not. Would Kind of Blue be?

DM: [laughs] Good point. Whose section would it be in?

RB: Good question. I wonder if it is still available? It was on Impulse records in that label’s heyday.

DM: They keep their backlist in pretty good order.

RB: I think MCA or Universal now owns the catalog.

DM: I’ll go to Amazon—

RB: So it’s understandable that you wouldn’t be doing that much non-required reading when you are writing, but given my sense of your burgeoning popularity—you have been short-listed for the Booker Prize twice?

DM: Yeah.

RB: And IMPAC too?

DM: Uh, yeah, I’m short-listed this year.

RB: That would seem to put you in the thick of European literary culture.

DM: I don’t think about it.

RB: Do you have friends who are writers?

DM: Inevitably. We spend time at festivals and events—but not many.

RB: The festivals seem to be a different kind of thing than what we have here in the States. The big metro newspapers sometimes have them—in L.A., the Los Angeles Times has one, but literary festivals are not a big thing here.

DM: It’s true. But there’s enough worldwide. If you didn’t watch out, you could quite happily spend half the year just going around and never getting any work done.

RB: What are they—author gatherings?

DM: Often it’s just events at bookstores. Most festivals are compacted and compounded versions of author events at bookstores, but in an art center somewhere. And sort of like a speaking weekend newspaper—instead of people reading an article by Richard Dawkins or reading an article by Jared Diamond, you go instead to hear him speak. And the same for authors—there are question-and-answer sessions at the end. Big municipalities like to assert their importance by arts funding and budgets are made available for these things, in the same way countries will make money available for airlines—it’s almost a civic badge. And, I’m not knocking them; in part it’s the hand that feeds me.

RB: They pay you?

DM: Not much, but its exposure, which—even though I insist that the writer I am needs to not think about these things, the author does need to earn a livelihood from the writer and this allows the author to do that. It gets people reading, hopefully gets people thinking. And these aren’t bad aspirations.

RB: Are you interested in teaching?

DM: I enjoyed teaching when I taught in Japan. I taught English. I enjoyed it very much but it’s not my vocation. And I believe writing is. Teaching writing isn’t something I have a financial need to do at the moment. So I wouldn’t until such times as I did.

RB: I am noticing a growing trend in writers’ acknowledgments, acknowledging and thanking their publicists [laughs]: in our case, Jynne Martin.

DM: It seems weird not to—when I’m acknowledging the proofreader and the editor as well.

RB: Maybe so, but, let’s say 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen that, if the acknowledgments were being published as they are now those have taken on a certain life.

DM: I wrote a story—the first of the Black Swan Green stories was called “Acknowledgments.” It’s in the form—the whole story is in the form of acknowledgements. It’s a whole story [laughs] as this acknowledgments section gets out of hand.

RB: That’s brilliant.

DM: I don’t know if the story is, but I did my best. Well, there is more publicity then there was 10 years ago, isn’t there?

RB: Probably. Certainly the book tour has become a kind of Frankenstein. And certainly more writers are touring and the whole idea of marketing writers seems to have grown exponentially. You become something else. I am not singling you out: I have seen a number of authors mentioning their publicists. More to the point, it used to be that the editor shepherded a book and was the recipient of the author’s endless gratitude. Now publicists are devoted to certain books and authors and champion them.

DM: They work damn hard, as far as I can see. They really do. And often they are the human interface with the publisher. It depends on the type of writer, but I view it as a professional necessity to hand in as perfect a manuscript as I possibly can, and give the editor as little as possible to do.

RB: Black Swan Green is being published in the U.S. first?

DM: Yeah, by a couple of weeks.

RB: Who had the first crack at it?

DM: My U.K. publisher.

RB: But Random House in the U.S. is publishing it first? I guess a week doesn’t matter much. And who is your editor at Random House?

DM: David Eberschoff.

RB: Also a novelist. Are there different edits for different markets? I am told that some Australians have three edits for the three different types of English.

DM: Oh, sure—the spellings are adjusted. That’s all. Between Australia and British and English I’m not sure. I don’t think there are any adjustments, at least for Black Swan Green. Or any of my other books. One or two pages were shaved for a section in Cloud Atlas at the request of my U.S. editor and I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t think he was right. I said I wanted to hand in as complete a manuscript as possible. I also wished and hoped for two percent of the scenes in the book to be clipped or smartened up or tightened up a bit. I value that and that is a necessary part of it—I would be kind of suspicious if that didn’t happen. I would suddenly be a lot better than I think I am.

RB: What happens when your editor goes past the two or three percent you allocate?

DM: It hasn’t happened.

RB: So apparently music is your artistic recreation?

DM: Listening, I don’t play anything, yeah. That’s why I relate to Bill Evans’s remark on a personal level—there is so much fulfillment just from listening. I want to focus my energies on writing.

RB: Do you listen to music when you write?

Mitchell, copyright 2006 Robert BirnbaumDM: Yeah, I start out and then notice that the CD ended an hour ago. And then put something else on—something instrumental or in a language that I have no knowledge of. Perhaps if I am doing a final polish I can listen to music in English. It also needs to be interesting enough to stimulate you when you zone into it and zone out of your book, but not so busy that it won’t let you zone back into the book. So Bill Evans is perfect.

RB: Do you know Brad Mehldau?

DM: No. I don’t know the name.

RB: A fairly young piano player.

DM: Your recommendations have weight, so when I am next in a music store I’ll look. There is a wonderful music store in San Francisco, vast warehouses like Borgesian universes of CDs—I forget the name.

RB: I spend a lot of time listening to 30 or 40 years of collected whatever. I let my younger colleagues keep me current on the pop stuff. I don’t go to see music anymore.

DM: I kind of feel the same about books in a way. I’d rather let time be my censor. If something is still in print after 20 years it will probably have something going for it. And maybe 50.

RB: I am starting to see the wisdom of that. But also think about how when you are in high school and asked to read Moby Dick or Crime and Punishment—really, what’s one’s experiential connection?

DM: That is not a student-led need. It is a Ministry of Education-led need. We have the agenda, too, and you have to say it in a stuffy old English voice introducing [loudly, in a stentorian voice] “the classics” to youth, and if you don’t do that, then the feeling is that education is failing. But you put people off and its very counterproductive.

RB: So much of American education is miseducation. You have two daughters, yes?

DM: A daughter and now we have a boy.

RB: Oh. What are your thoughts, as a father, doing what you do?

DM: I want the world to last longer. [long pause] It’s hard to link the way I look at the world and with what I do in the context of being a father. That’s one node too many for my present brain. So I’ll just stick with the first part, really being a father. I need the world to last longer. I need the world to be secure and safe. My kids teach me about humanity so much. And the necessity of patience—you either go crazy or you learn to be more patient. There’s no middle way here. And going crazy never helps, so you learn to be more patient than you have ever been.

RB: I have come to love and understand [Cuban poet and man of letters] Jose Marti’s quip, “I am the son of my son.”

DM: That’s a beautiful line, a little more elegant than Graham Nash’s “Teach your children well.” But, nonetheless, the same neck of the woods isn’t it?

RB: So you are running a gauntlet of how many cities on your tour?

DM: Eight or nine. But I do need to get back and be a dad again. So the shortness [of the tour] was a compromise.

RB: Where will you send your kids to school?

DM: We’ll see how Japan goes next year. I think the elementary schools in Japan are pretty good—my wife is not so sure. We haven’t decided yet. There is a really good school in Ireland that we have Hannah registered for, but we like Holland.

RB: It’s very clean and the people are very nice. [laughs]

DM: And it’s multiethnic, so it’s easy for my wife. And their multilingualism is also astounding. It’s great for kids.

RB: Well, thanks so much.

DM: Thanks, Robert.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum