Accidental inspiration — it’s something we writers all cherish and long for. An overheard phrase, a few lines in a footnote, a piece of music, a fleeting image, an old childhood tale, a chance conversation — anything and everything can be the seed of a story. For David Mitchell, looking for lunch while he was backpacking in Japan led him to discover a small museum about the Dutch presence in Japan. Instead of eating, he spent a few hours taking notes which ultimately turned into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a marvellous historical novel set in 18th century Japan.
Weighing in at almost 500 pages, the richly imagined novel recreating a fascinating period in Japanese history took David almost four years to write. A master of artfully conveyed historical detail and twisting plots, he’s been compared to Nabokov and Tolstoy — surely, not a bad duo to be associated with!
How does a Westerner — even one who spent almost a decade in Japan — capture the flavor of life from Japanese, Dutch, English, slave, and sailors’ perspectives? Lots of time spent sifting and digging. David divides his fact-finding into “hard” and “soft” research. The “hard” type involves ferreting out journals kept by Dutch employees and long interviews with professors to get a big-picture sense of the times. The “soft” type has to do with getting the historical details of a sentence just right. Was a room lit by candles or oil lamps? Did the Dutch use shaving cream? Sometimes David found he couldn’t finish a sentence without spending an afternoon chasing down a choice tidbit of information. This kind of accuracy doesn’t come easily, but it’s key to creating a long-lost world and building the illusion of being in another time and place.
What matters most to David isn’t literary prizes, it’s connecting with his readers. When someone tells him on a book tour that something he’s written has made a difference to them, he feels he’s won something more valuable than an ward. As he puts it, “…truly, that’s worth more than any Booker.” Write on, David!