Birnbaum v. David Mitchell

Mr. Birnbaum has another interview posted over at The Morning News. This time it is David Mitchell. As always read the whole thing, but here are a couple of snippets I found interesting.

In case you are wondering about Mitchell’s latest book, Birnbaum gets right to the heart of the matter::

RB: OK, tell me why you wrote it [Black Swan Green].

DM: [longish pause] OK, I wanted to map what I think is an interesting kind of a gap here between boyhood and adolescence. You called him an adolescent earlier. I argue it’s an in-between time he is in. He isn’t an adolescent yet. But he is no longer a boy, and the strategies you need for either of those stages don’t work. I wrote the book because I wanted to take a photograph of England, where I am from—in a way the place made me, for better or for worse. In what to me was an interesting time, the end of the long, slow death of agrarian England. There are now no farmers. The ‘80s was about the last time when you’d go to a village like that and find almost a majority of people working in agriculture. I kind of wanted to get that, too. The Falklands was a really kind of interesting event in my youth and I wanted to recreate just the fervor and mass insanity—

Here is an interesting discussion of the many challenges Mitchell set out for himself when writing the novel:

RB: Do you approach writing a novel as weaving episodes and vignettes and stringing them together? I don’t mean that in a haphazard way—that is, connect them, not necessarily sequentially but in some manner that they become a unified whole.

DM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.

RB: That’s the way you write, or do you sit down and write a novel from start to finish in sequence?

DM: I think all novels are actually compounded short stories. It’s just the borders get so porous and so squished up that you no longer see them, but I think they are there. And I do structure my novels in that way. One of the commandments of Black Swan Green was to write a novel made of chapters that are theoretically extractable short stories.

RB: January Man was originally a short story.

DM: It was, yes. And the second chapter, about a visit to a speech therapist, was also a separately published chapter. I also quietly published, quietly placed the one about the walk up the bridal way in a magazine for a festival that I was attending. By that point, my editor quietly reminded me that maybe serializing my novel before it appeared wasn’t such a good idea.

RB: Your British editor?

DM: Yeah. Apart from the 12th and 13th chapter, that you couldn’t really do it for, I stayed true to that for the first 11. Short stories have a background white noise that creates the illusion that the world is much bigger than the mere 10 or 15 pages, and I wanted to see if I could sync up the white noise of the background of short stories. And another model for the novel, which I indulge myself by trying to sneak into all of my books, is provided by the postcards Jason buys at the tourist shop, the 13 postcards—

RB: Of the dinosaurs.

DM: Yeah, and when you put them end-to-end, the background is one continuous whole. That’s the village and the background plots happening in Black Swan Green, yet the foreground dinosaurs are the themes of each separate, individual story.

Interesting, no? As I said, be sure to check out the whole interview.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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