The Books Interview: David Mitchell

Your new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is a historical novel set in Nagasaki. How did you research it?
I had some background knowledge of Japan because I've been interested in the country for much of my adult life. For everyday period details which history books tend to omit, sources like the Lone Wolf and Cub graphic novels were useful, for example how interiors were lit at night: pig tallow candles were cheap, but stunk and made your eyes water. Whale oil lanterns were best, but you needed money for that. Often you get stuck midway through a sentence - a character may be shaving, and you don't know if shaving cream was invented then or not - and you have to go away and spend a couple of hours figuring out what, if anything, he put on his face. A professor at the University of Leiden kindly provided me with translated transcripts of the Chief Residents' log books from the 1780s and 1790s to help research the Dutch trading "island" of Dejima.

How has living in Japan influenced your writing?
I never know how to answer this. It was a roll of the dice that sent me to Hiroshima: it could have been Santiago or Berlin or Shanghai. I spent eight formative years there, from age 24 to 32, and although two of my five novels (the Murakami-drenched number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) would never have been written without those years in Japan, I don't really see much of Mishima or Tanizaki or Kawabata in how I write. In my daily life I try to remember what I understand Zen Buddhism to teach about the mind (though God knows how often I forget), and perhaps this informs my characters. More directly, being married to a Japanese woman reminds me not to exoticize the Mysterious Orient, or have meek submissive geishas losing their hearts to dashing blue-eyed Westerners. My wife would poison my noodles.

Now you live in Ireland. Did you deliberately avoid returning to the UK?
No: we moved to West Cork because it's beautiful and relatively affordable; because it's healthy in an international marriage to live in a neutral country; and because the Irish government was fiscally-friendly to novelists, filmmakers and musicians. We stay in West Cork because the place is our home now. This is where I feel 5 kg lighter when I step off the plane.

Many of your characters appear in more than one of your novels. Do you see the world as similarly connected through coincidence?
Originally, I re-used characters because of the throb of enjoyment you experience when you meet someone from another book. Then I read accounts of Internet networking and its impact on social dynamics in books like Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and now some of this theory is feeding back into my fiction. It does seem that patterns get repeated in our lives, and that certain faces reappear, improbably and unexpectedly. This isn't mysticism: it's just that the world is a vast pinball machine whose workings no one mind can grasp. A novel is a little pinball machine, whose workings are more graspable.

Many of your novels feature colonialism, slavery or other injustices. What interests you about exploitation?
It's not so much that I'm interested in exploitation - though I am - it's that exploitation is not just a Conradian, colonial phenomenon: it's one of the universal constants. Any relationship entails power, few relationships are absolutely equal, and where the inequality is extreme, we're sure to find exploitation and injustice. To wade in this human mud is the business of fiction. This is also why underdogs make such sympathetic characters: most of us are underdogs, for more of the time than we might like to admit.

Do you try to balance this with optimism?
I must: it's my job. Who wants to spend a tenner on 400 pages of unmitigated misery? Depressive nihilism leads nowhere, and is not the whole picture: that's why it never catches on, except as a fashion accessory. Human beings also do humour and redemption (I like to imagine us big-brained primates actually evolving humour as a sort of natural Prozac against the depressing viciousness of the world, whilst our more 'realist' evolutionary competitors chucked themselves off the Rift Valley cliff-tops.) The Wire, for instance, is an unflinching map of downward spirals, but it's so brilliant and human and lifelike (not to mention successful) because of its flashes of compassion and redemption and even farce. Don't hire Doctor Pangloss as a life-coach, but don't hire Eeyore either.

Is your writing political?
Václav Havel famously said "my heart [is] left of centre" and mine is too - which is not to say that the periodic swing of British politics from left to right doesn't prune excess sometimes. All fiction is political, because life is political: what area of human activity doesn't politics touch? What's in your wallet, who you can sleep with, how you dress, what's in your fridge, whether or not you have a fridge, whether or not you are able to read a publication like the New Statesman: if it isn't politics dictating these things, it's economics, and if we've learnt anything since the great banking meltdown, it's that politics and economics are wedded and bedded.

Who are you reading at the moment?
I'm not a monogamous reader: I've got Jake Arnott's The Devil's Paintbrush, Thackeray's Vanity Fair and The Voyage of Saint Brendan on the go at the moment. Recently I've read Andrew Miller's One Morning Like a Bird, Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck and Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes. Books which bled into the The Thousand Autumns included Shusaku Endo's Silence, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard. (All three are superb historical novels.)

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is published by Sceptre (£18.99)