The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is now available in paperback. This interview was originally broadcast on Aug. 5, 2010.
David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is set in the year 1799, on an island called Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor.
At the time, Dejima was the Japanese Empire's only trading post where Europeans could trade with Japan, a concept Mitchell says he found absolutely fascinating.
"[They traded] goods [and] materials but also ideas and knowledge on what was happening in the rest of the world," Mitchell tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[It was] a little bit like [the way] North Korea is closed off to the world now. ... Much more so, in fact, because there wouldn't have been any smuggled-out footage for YouTube or anything like that."
Mitchell, who has twice been short-listed for the Booker Prize, writes about a young clerk named Jacob de Zoet who travels to Dejima from Batavia to work for several years as a bookkeeper, after which he plans to return to Europe and marry his wealthy fiancee. But when he arrives on the island, de Zoet falls in love with a Japanese midwife who has been disfigured in a terrible accident.
The novel, Mitchell's fifth, is a departure from his earlier, more experimental works such as Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream. He explains that the choice to work with historical fiction was deliberate — a departure from the experimental fiction he wrote earlier in his career.
"I think it's natural for youth to be drawn to newness: The world is still new for them," Mitchell says. "There's a feeling that you can take part in shaping it and turning it into something new in your image. But then you age, inevitably, and ... these sort of messy, human, muddy scenes become much more interesting. And you also realize that structure and originality and innovation is not actually a story: they're useful ingredients in art, but it's not art itself."
David Mitchell's previous novels include Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream and Ghostwritten. He lives in Ireland.
On the dilemma faced by his character Jacob de Zoet
"At this point in Japanese history, whenever a European came ashore to man the trading post, any Christian artifact [that they had in their possession] ... they were supposed to surrender them to the Japanese authorities. They'd be sealed in a barrel for the duration of the visitor's stay and only [returned] on their departure. For Jacob, who's a pious, God-fearing young man, this is tantamount to apostasy. He's never broken a rule in his life. And he can't obey this rule. It would be like spitting on an image of Jesus and he just can't do it. So he has to smuggle this [religious] songbook to shore, amidst his other books, and he's just hoping that it won't be noticed because if it is, he doesn't really know what will happen to him."
On writing fiction
"I'm certainly a plot and character man. Themes, structure, style — they're valid components of a novel and you can't complete the book without them. But I think what propels me as a reader is plot and character. I think we think in terms of stories. I think the story is the most ancient form of human entertainment. I think it's through stories that we perceive the world. Through stories that we communicate with one another."