Saradha Koirala

Category: Readings

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

the-lonely-cityA couple of months ago I was looking up my book, Lonesome When You Go (as you do), and was directed to a Loneliness Quiz. It was the end of a tough year having moved to a new country and struggled to make meaningful connections or feel at home. I scored very highly on the quiz and my results suggested I should be concerned for my well-being. It made me feel even sadder, but prompted me to really examine the issue – what is it that makes me such a solitary creature? Am I okay with it? Will it pass? And why, in this huge city full of writers, musicians, artists and people with similar backgrounds to me have I continued to find connection and friendship so elusive and difficult?

During that tough year I found myself reading about all sorts of things, from Synchronicity to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; books on Mastery, depression, loss, love. Both fiction and non-fiction books seemed to be all about searching for meaning and understanding ourselves and our relationship to others.

Most pertinent of all of these was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. With the subtitle ‘Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ and a purple night sky cover (a similar image to my phone’s background: the sky I snapped on my 35th birthday, as it happens), this book was already a favourite.

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Lonesome Moon: The night sky on Saradha’s 35th birthday

Laing ruminates poetically on some of my own queries and, in particular, the nature of loneliness through her own experience of living heartbroken in New York in her mid-thirties. She ponders the way society views loneliness and questions the belief that “our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession.” I often hear it said that humans are social creatures, our purpose is to connect with others and thus be fully realised ourselves. The fact that this isn’t always possible can be troubling, but I found comfort in Laing’s acceptance of this state and discussion on how it can serve a purpose of its own. She asks “What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?”

Quoting Virginia Woolf, Laing writes, “Woolf described an inner loneliness that she thought might be illuminating to analyse, adding: ‘If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.’” Suggesting that there’s more to this feeling than a lack of something. It can perhaps be used to enhance our experience of reality.

Through her solo exploration of New York City, Laing focuses on the artists who have walked and documented the same streets. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all feature heavily and are connected through their shared experience of difficult childhoods, being outsiders and making art that examines loneliness felt amid a crowded city. The link between art and loneliness is strong and Laing’s fascination turns it into an art form itself.

Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel better about being the you you are. Just as Susan Cain’s Quiet cemented my understanding of my own introversion some years ago, The Lonely City made me feel remarkably less alone; less worried about a state that, whether or not it’s fundamental to my very personality, will come and go and always lead to something creative or examinable. I’ve definitely been working on it, but see it now as less a failure to experience and more an experience all of its own.

(I just did the quiz again and have gone down from extreme loneliness, to moderate loneliness. I’ll be okay.)

 

“To be alive and to be a ‘writer’ is enough.” (Katherine Mansfield)

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Saradha as Virginia Woolf

It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.

I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.

I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.

My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.

But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.

There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.

Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.

So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.

Digging – Writing, Work and Sci-fi Stereotypes.

At the start of last year I was sifting through some old posters in the English department, trying to make the classroom walls less grim, and found a laminated copy of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging.’ Perhaps a poem about potato farming wasn’t quite the thing to liven up the walls, but it was a nice reminder of my love for the work of the poet who had just died a year and a half earlier. I felt strongly it was a poem I needed to share with my classes.  It was my tenth year of teaching (a fact I found many opportunities to proclaim with both pride and astonishment) and, as it turned out, my last. For now at least. Teaching is hard work.

I’ve used the word “work” twice there very deliberately, of course. And I’ve been thinking about Digging again. There is such respect in Heaney’s poem for the hard labour of his father and grandfather, who “cut more turf in a day/ Than any other man on Toner’s bog.” It’s not the kind of work the poet will do, but it’s purposeful, necessary and skillful work nonetheless “Nicking and slicing neatly,” – there’s a craft to it.

The comparison between physical labour and intellectual / creative pursuits is pronounced in this poem and it’s easy to feel defensive of the latter as equally worthy, even if the results are not always as palpable.

Recent Netflixing of Sci-fi films brought up a discussion point in our house that the scientists, analysts, intellectuals and academics in movies are often portrayed as either very rigid in their thinking or a little bit unhinged. They have social anxieties and neuroses and we could attribute their obsessive interest in their particular field back to some childhood incident that needs resolving, rather than a sheer love of it. There’s little respect for curiosity and wonder.

Meanwhile, the ‘heroes’ of the films tend to be the working class – soldiers, tradespeople, the deep-core drillers who are the only ones who can save the world from an in-coming asteroid with their highly-trained and specific skills. They are physically, not intellectually, strong and they’ll need to be – combat is key to world-saving. It’s a triumphant uprising of the blue-collar as sparked by 90s Hollywood. These characters have hardships too, but they toil, construct and contribute. Science is both mocked and idealised as the final victory lies with the most ordinary, humble and unassuming character who’s just doing his job the best he can. Albeit with highly sophisticated, carefully researched, meticulously designed technologies.

Of course Sci-fi films are known for their extremes and Hollywood notorious for unrealistic and unfair portrayals of all kinds of members of society. It almost seems pointless to even bring it up, except that it feels like a constant and powerful theme.

Perhaps this is partly why I often find myself trying to justify the importance and effort involved in the work of the writer and end up reading all sorts of reassuring articles about writing, such as these ‘non-rules’ for writing by Elizabeth Percer. The third of her rules seems to fit nicely with what I’ve been thinking (daydreaming, wondering, lying around contemplating): The idea that writing work looks different to other kinds of work. Percer says,

About 80 percent of the writing I do looks nothing like writing. It looks like reading, or daydreaming, or driving, or drawing, or listening to music, or lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.

Many other authors have discussed their ideas about writing as work (e.g. Ford, Eugenides) and often approach it as a desk job or nine-to-five. But to Heaney’s father it must not have looked like he was very busy at all, with much of what he did being possible from the same seat all day and hardly sweat-raising stuff.

As my students read Heaney’s poetry last year they discussed ideas about the importance of writing especially during difficult times, as Heaney was doing; writing as a craft or calling as worthy as potato digging when potato digging needs to be done; and that constant voice in our heads trying to tell us that what we want and do is just as valid as what anyone else is wanting or doing with their time on this earth. It was a fine moment for an English teacher to ‘retire’ on.

Heaney ends his poem with the decisive lines, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. /I’ll dig with it.” It moves me every time.

When so much in the world is Hollywood constructed, media-manipulated, target marketing and just plain inauthentic, to find moments where people are doing what they do because they genuinely love and believe in the value of it – well, it keeps me digging, “down and down / For the good turf.”

‘Sylvie the Second’ Blog Tour – Interview with Kaeli Baker

sylvie cover copy.jpgSYLVIE THE SECOND is a daring new YA novel from Wellington publishers Makaro Press (Submarine imprint). Like Sylvie, it’s finding its way to being more visible and has even been spotted on the shelves at Whitcoulls next to teen favourites Johns Green and Boyne!

The book deals with some difficult but important issues that also need to be made much more visible in our society. I hope it will start some good discussions with young people and their families about what they experience and how they cope with the pressures and expectations of growing up.

 

I talked to author Kaeli Baker about teenagers, writing in airports and her own hopes for Sylvie:

SK: This novel tackles tough but very real teenage issues. What kind of reader did you have in mind for this book?

KB: I guess I was aiming for teens, particularly girls, who are struggling a little with finding their way, their voice, their values… So, basically teenage girls in general! Being a teenager is hard enough and then when you add extra stress to the mix (and everybody has extra stress in one way or another), it can become even more difficult.

SK: But there are some positive moments in this book too and the ending was particularly heartening. What do you hope readers will take away from it?

KB: Most of all I hope that readers will put the book down after the last chapter with a renewed sense of hope and faith in friendships, a clearer sense of how they are willing to be treated by their peers and where their limits are, and a little more confidence in seeking support if they need it.

SK: There must have been some difficulties in writing this – trying to give a sense of hope and ‘normalcy’ to Sylvie’s life, but not underplaying the very damaging and traumatic events she is experiencing. How did you handle this balance?

KB: I think Belle and Adam were significant for keeping the balance of normalcy and hope in Sylvie’s life. I felt like it was important to confront Sylvie’s hardships and trauma, but also give a nod to her resilience. Even when things are going wrong she gets up every day and has a goal in mind – to get through it. It’s just that some of the ways she learns to cope aren’t healthy. I think that if she didn’t have such a loyal friend in Belle, especially, things could’ve been much worse.

The brief interactions with strangers was another way in which I tried to weave some hopefulness into the equation. The woman on the bus, the little girl and the guy on Christmas day… Even Alannah, the doctor. Often we influence other people without even realising it. Our interactions can be so valuable and we give away pieces of wisdom all the time without realising that anyone’s heard it. I wanted to convey that, and also provide some faith in humanity – there are a lot of nasty people in Sylvie’s life, for whatever reasons, and I felt like it was important to remind the reader that most people are good, and not out to hurt them. As a teenager, as a woman, and in fact just as a human being, it can be hard to trust that sometimes.

SK: What other difficulties did you come across?

KB: The self-harm was something I thought a lot about. I didn’t want to glamourise it, or offer it as an effective strategy for Sylvie to cope with her distress, but I did want to address it head on since it’s a real method that some people use. I guess I wanted to write about it fearlessly but sensitively at the same time. Sylvie’s regret is clear throughout – she knows it’s not a solution for her. In saying that, I was cautious not to come off as preachy. I found it one of the most difficult things to balance.

SK: Belle is a lovely character and, as you say, a strong support for Sylvie. Is there a “Belle” out there for all of us when times are tough?

KB: I definitely think there is, in some form or other. She might be found in the shape of a friend, a family member, a counsellor, a voice at the end of a helpline or someone’s personal faith. It’s really important to remember that even when we feel like we have no one, there are still people who will help us, and things to hold on to.

SK: One thing that worried me about Sylvie was how easily she was able to get close to someone after what happened at Chris’ party. I wondered if this was her dealing with or failing to deal with things?

KB: Such a good question! It’s absolutely a sensitive situation, and everyone who has been through an experience similar to Sylvie’s will process it in different ways. So I think the answer to this question is really up to the reader’s interpretation.

Adam is an important person in Sylvie’s story in that he represents the good guy. It’s so easy to believe after you’ve been hurt that everyone is bad, and I wanted to put forward the idea that that’s not the case. Whether Sylvie letting him get close to her is a mark of dealing or not dealing is up for debate.

SK: What do you think the main differences are for this generation of teenagers compared to previous generations? Do these worry you or give you hope?

KB: I think one of the biggest differences is social media, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great at keeping people connected and it’s such a good platform for change. On the other hand it can be difficult not to compare yourself to other people’s seemingly perfect lives, and there are more social pressures, covert but constant bullying, sexting … I think it can lull people into thinking they’re in control, but social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat keep all of your photos – and so can the person you sent them to. It really worries me.

Having said that, I celebrate the fact that society is now better at having difficult conversations around mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other topics that are real and relevant but have historically been brushed under the carpet. There are so many amazing organisations working to help people experiencing these problems and encouraging society to keep the conversations going. Young people’s voices are being heard more now. That gives me a lot of hope.

SK: Your current work with teenagers has no doubt informed the themes of this novel, but have you always been a writer too?

KB: I didn’t set out to be a writer, but it’s always been something I enjoyed and did a lot of. I wasn’t great at a lot of subjects at school, but right from my primary school days I have memories of teachers raving about the stories I wrote. I also have journals full of poems that I’ve written throughout the years. 85% of them are absolutely terrible! It’s quite funny and also extremely cringe-worthy reading them now.

SK: And how did this novel come into being?

KB: The idea came to me one day and I immediately sat down and began writing furiously. It was like Sylvie had been waiting to tell her story for ages. It took me about a year to write the whole thing, usually after work in the middle of the night with many cups of tea.

Once I learned it had been accepted for publication the editing process was pretty full on. There were huge chunks taken out that were slowing the whole thing down and more dialogue added. It took a long time.

A lot of it was actually edited while I was overseas. I remember sitting in an airport in Birmingham editing it as a bunch of extremely heavily armed police traipsed past. That was an unnerving moment… I also did a lot of the editing in Wales, in this little stone cottage near Hay on Wye. It was quite a well travelled manuscript!

SK: Are you working on other writing projects you can tell us about at the moment?

KB: I’ve just finished up a collection of short stories and have started writing something new – a bit of historical fiction. I also have another story that I’m always adding to when the inspiration hits. I’m really never not writing. Except when I’m sleeping. And eating.

SK: What are your hopes for Sylvie – the book and the character – now?

KB: I hope that the book reaches someone who needs it. That’s all I can really ask for.

For Sylvie herself, I hope that she continues navigating bridges and finding her way. And I hope that she and Belle are old ladies sitting together on the front porch one day. With lots of cats.

Sylvie is on a blog tour! Check out these other blogs and dates for more reviews and interviews:

Mon 14 March: beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com
Tues 15 March: kidsbooksnz.blogspot.co.nz

Thur 17 March: booksellersnz.wordpress.com
Fri 18 March: bestfriendsarebooks.com
Sat 19 March: msblairrecommends.blogspot.co.nz

And leave a comment for your chance to receive a bookmark and copy of Sylvie the Second.

2012 Honoured New Zealand Writer: Maurice Gee – Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

As a 70th birthday present to himself ten years ago, Maurice Gee promised he wouldn’t have to do any more of these festivals, so appearing as the honoured guest at this year’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival was a big deal for all of us. This is a new initiative devised to celebrate New Zealand’s most accomplished writers, and festival director Anne O’Brien tells us there was no argument that Gee should be the first of these. Gee thought it would be churlish not to accept.

In conversation with Geoff Walker, Gee talks about his childhood and the huge influence of his grandparents and mother on his writing. He recalls his mother warming her feet in the fire while writing stories, some of which went on to be published in the magazines ‘Mirror’ and ‘Women Today’. Her proudest but final literary achievement was having a story selected by Frank Sargeson for publication in an anthology, and Gee believes she could have continued to become a well-known New Zealand author, if life hadn’t got in the way.

Although he’s never been interested in writing an autobiography in the past, Gee admits he is now working on a memoir. His first reading is from this and recalls his early introduction to literature by an elderly friend, Ben Hart. As a young boy, Gee was fascinated by the characters and adventures created by Zane Grey and says he must have read over 40 of his Old West novels. However, as he describes in his reading, he slowly fell in love with Dickens –it took a page to or two to get into.

Walker points out that many of Gee’s novels are in the style of an older person looking back on their life – Plumb of course being the great example of this. It’s well known that the character of George Plumb is heavily based on Gee’s own Grandfather, though he says the first half of Plumb’s life is the same but the second half is fictionalised. Gee had great admiration for his Grandfather as he does for his character. He says that old people have “whole lives” to look back on while they still continue living in the present. He likes to put characters into a situation where something causes them to reflect on the past, while simultaneously having an ordeal to confront in the present. Gee was expecting a question on this and had charmingly prepared a written answer.

The other question he anticipated with written notes was about the sense of darkness in his writing: “People always ask about that.” Having authored over thirty novels for both adults and children, the sense of darkness has emerged again and again for Gee. He sites Browning’s poem “Childe Roland” as a starting point for this fascination, particularly the end where Childe Roland blows the horn from the top of the tower, leaving the reader to decide what is being summoned. Gee says he read this as calling up the darkness that exists within everyone and pictured Childe Roland doing battle with his own sinister self.

The second reading is from Maurice Gee’s own favourite novel, Prowlers (1987). He says of all his older characters, Noel Papps is the most likeable. He reads with vigour the passage after Kate Adams has left with her tape-recorder; Papps both disgusted and fascinated by her.

Historian Rachel Barrowman is currently working with Gee to write his biography. Gee says he’s enjoying this process and is adamant that nothing will be left out. This is intriguing for a man who so rarely appears in public and who until now we have had to piece together through his characters – Jack Skeat of Going West being the closest to an autobiography as we’ve seen. He even requested no audience questions for this event, and admitted to being nervous in public.

But Gee is content and feels a sense of completion. He says that although he maintains a capacity for invention, he feels in his fiction he is now just inventing the same old things over and over and that it’s perhaps imagination that’s lacking. He accepts that Access Road, published in 2009 is his last novel and says “I look back on 30 or so novels and think “that’s ok”.”

Why I write – George Orwell

This is Orwell’s answer to that question all writers attempt to answer at some point. It is almost a biography of Orwell’s writing life and interestingly was published a couple of years before his highly influential Ninety Eighty-four.

It’s charming to think of the young Orwell knowing he would grow up to be a writer and spending lonely days making up stories and imagining conversations. Although he can’t quite seem to put his finger on the cause of his compulsion to write as child, he does say “Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

He mentions a love of words, which perhaps one must have to be able to work with them, but then in a very Orwellian way, sets out the four great motives that he believes every writer has to some degree:

1. Sheer egoism.

2. Aesthetic enthusiasm.

3.Historical impulse.

4. Political purpose.

No prizes for guessing which was Orwell’s greatest motivation. He elaborates on each of these with reasonable conviction.

The first is about having a desire to prove one’s cleverness and be known and remembered. A desire to live beyond your years, “to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.”

The second motivation is my favourite. Orwell explains aesthetic enthusiasm as taking pleasure in “the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.” I feel like this should be a strong motivation to write – especially perhaps poetry – but Orwell says “The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or a writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons.” !

The historical impulse is about collecting facts, finding out the truth and storing them for posterity. Political purpose, Orwell suggests, is the desire to “push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Orwell of course was starting to do this already, and went on to have a huge impact on the way people thought about society, manipulation and control with Nineteen Eighty-four. He was clearly thinking a great deal about these concepts in this essay: “I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”

Orwell ends his essay somewhat harshly:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

Reading ‘The History of Love’ – by Nicole Krauss

I didn’t have any destination in mind. It started to get dark but I persevered. When I saw a Starbucks I went in and bought a coffee because I felt like a coffee, not because I wanted anyone to notice me. Normally I would have made a big production Give me a Grande Vente, I mean a Tall Grande, Give me a Chai Super Vente Grande, or do I want a Short Frappe? and then for punctuation, I would’ve had a small mishap at the milk station. Not this time. I poured the milk like a normal person, a citizen of the world, and sat down in an easy chair across from a man reading the newspaper. I wrapped my hands around the coffee. The warmth felt good. The next table over there was a girl with blue hair leaning over a notebook chewing on a ballpoint pen, and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. I felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!

Writing off the Subject – Richard Hugo (from ‘The Triggering Town’)

One thing I really liked about this essay was the idea that whatever images or ideas evolve as a poem is being written will be connected together purely because they have come from the same mind. Hugo says:

When you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there…The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.

This seemed useful, as I often write poems by collecting images until I see a poem in them, meaning they don’t necessarily follow or tell the same story.

Hugo also wrote about ‘the truth’ and its place in poetry. I liked the idea that if the subject is yellow but it would sound better in the poem if it were black, then those facts can be changed for the sake of the poem. “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.”

This leads into the idea of using words for the sake of sound and ‘getting off the subject’, which Hugo suggests often gets in the way of actually writing the poem. Sometimes a connection can be made for meaning, even if the original choice of words was sound based.

Hugo also talks about writing without the reader in mind. “There is no reader.” And we talked about this as a class. I think this is an especially hard thing to remember in the context of a workshop, as we are all aware that we do have an audience and we know exactly who that audience is! It’s very different from writing and thinking ‘maybe no one will ever read this’, which I admit is quite freeing.

‘An Hour with David Mitchell’ Auckland Writers and Readers Festival– 14th May 2011

“Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the marketplace and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike topped walls and treble-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule-drivers, mules and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunch-backed makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nakashima River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges. … over the roof of a painter withdrawn first from the world, then his family, and down into a masterpiece that has, in the end, withdrawn from its creator; and around again, where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of the Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

David Mitchell starts his hour with us by reading this passage from chapter XXXIX of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Having not yet made it to this part of the book myself, I instantly grow determined to persevere with what I’m finding to be a demanding yet rewarding read.

I’ve flown up from Wellington with a clammy handful of questions to ask about writing, narrative and genre but also with acceptance that being in the same room as a literary master will be inspiring enough.

There’s little time to linger on the last line of his first reading, but enough to make the connection that Mitchell is far too humble to ever suggest he his creating masterpieces. He lets us applaud and release our held breath before confessing he’s completely sick of his latest book and wants to read us something entirely new.

A short story, An Inside Job, which he says is also an excerpt from the novel he’s writing at the moment. It appears to be a return to family oriented stories with a split marriage, jealous father and somewhat precocious-sounding young son. It also seems to be set in Worcestershire – perhaps a return to Black Swan Green?

Emily Perkins asks the thoughtful questions of a well-read Mitchell fan and the audience quickly tune into the humour and humility of our guest. He talks a lot about The Thousand Autumns, which – as a historical novel – sounds like a huge amount of work went into researching and crafting a sense of authenticity. As the novel explores different cultures and language, Mitchell says the great difficulty came in creating a plausible voice for all his characters that wasn’t “too authentic.” Twenty-first Century readers need to believe in the language of the characters but if it’s too real it starts to “sound like Blackadder.” Instead, Mitchell had to create what he called a kind of “bygonese” – language that we accept to be of a certain era.

Again and again David Mitchell shows us that he loves to talk about writing but in no way does he at all assume we’ve read his work. A fair assumption it would have been too, given the size and calibre of the crowd.

When asked about his writing process, Mitchell describes his ideas for novels as always there circling “like aircraft in holding patterns, waiting for their turn to land.” So no writer’s block then? He says he became anxious to finish The Thousand Autumns so he could get on with the next two novels, which he has a clear sense of already.

Perhaps the opposite of writer’s block then? A flood-gate of sorts. He admits that he is “wildly over-ambitious” with all his writing ideas, creating “literary cathedrals” that collapse under their own weight. The novels themselves come out of the “rubble” or the bits and pieces that survive the crash, “palimpsests” echoes and memories of the grand ideas they began as. Surely a self-deprecating remark but it does seem likely when looking at the structure of all his work: pieces stacked and rebuilt, connected by tough thread. He quotes Alan Bennett’s “Style is the sum of one’s imperfections,” suggesting that any mistakes he makes, he makes his own.

Hearing writers talk about the writing process is enlightening. As a reader and teacher of David Mitchell’s books (my Year 13 class are studying Black Swan Green as we speak), unpacking the creative mind is not necessary to the enjoyment of the novels but it certainly adds to it. Mitchell says, of the five elements of a novel – plot, character, structure, style, theme – he always starts with the plot and character; ideas evolve as he writes. He says it’s important to get plot and character right, but novels need to have ideas too. For example, the idea of ‘miscommunication’ became interesting as he researched and wrote The Thousand Autumns, but it was not where he started. He says all novels end up having a few “default themes” such as ‘memory’ or ‘freewill’, even if that’s not what they’re trying to be about. ‘Story’ is always about remembering and trying to pin down a kind of truth and when creating characters it’s inevitable to start thinking about who’s really in control.

But the idea of ‘miscommunication’ is pertinent and seems to run through many of his novels: Jason in Black Swan Green stammers and can only really express himself secretly in his poetry; Ghostwritten has a transmigrating soul trying to be heard, as well as characters who hide, are blind or are merely voice. In Cloud Atlas, miscommunications are deadly. Perhaps this comes from Mitchell’s own speech impediment and the effort he has had to go to to communicate. As a stammerer, he has said he must think further ahead in the conversation than most people to see what words he will need to replace, resulting in him having a deeper understanding of language and speech than other writers. His most self-assured moment comes when he admits he is very good at writing dialogue and creating convincing character voices.

Mitchell’s reasons for writing seem to be standard, and maybe we shouldn’t ask people who do something so brilliantly why they do it. It certainly sounds as though he has to write – with so many ideas circling above his airport-brain, but, like many writers, he is fascinated by the power of story and how dependent we are on narrative to help us make sense of the world. However, when asked about his own story, he says he’s never been that interested in it but more the “common denominators between all our stories” which therefore becomes “the human story.” This might explain why his first three novels do not hint at his own life at all and he says he didn’t want to write about himself until he started his own family and became more interested in domestic life. Black Swan Green was written as Mitchell became fascinated by the constant “changing gear shifts of marriage” and started to think about his own beginnings.

When asked about his influences, Mitchell says he also writes because he “aches” to make people feel the way he has felt reading some of his favourite writers. However, he dismisses these as influences and spoke more of an aspiration to be as good as the writers he loved as a kid.

The hour is up before I get to ask my own question, but I feel he’s answered so much more. It’s not just being in the presence of a great mind that’s awe-inspiring, it’s being part of the conversation, adding to our collective human story.

The Poet and “I”

…the lyric poet’s images are nothing but the poet himself, and only different objectifications of himself, which is why, as the moving centre of that world, he is able to say “I”: this self is not that of the waking, empirically real man, however, but rather the sole, truly existing and eternal self that dwells at the base of being, through whose depictions the lyric genius sees right through to the very basis of being
– Nietzsche

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape these things
– T.S Eliot