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How David Mitchell Brings Historical Fiction To Life

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.

"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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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