Friday, April 21, 2006

Chronicle: David Mitchell Rocks the House

Yesterday was a big red-letter day on the Book Nerd calendar: David Mitchell reading at Three Lives! I may have mentioned my slavering fanhood of the author of BLACK SWAN GREEN (see my January 16 post) – his previous visit on the book tour for CLOUD ATLAS was one of the highlights of my bookselling life. Mitchell is, unlikely as it sounds, exactly what you'd want an author to be – as kind and witty and compassionate and funny as his books, and so self-deprecating you wonder if he realizes how good he really is.

The day's coolness started early for me, as Mitchell and his publicist, Gynne (pronounced like the alcohol, and she's just as refreshing) stopped by my bookstore to sign stock. I introduced myself as a former Three Lives employee who'd met him a few years back, and he not only remembered me but was up on my career. I told him I'd see him at the reading, since my former boss had asked me to help out with what was sure to be a big crowd, and we joked about being a "floating bookseller."

I was able to introduce Mitchell to my boss, who's in the middle of reading CLOUD ATLAS for the first time. "I don't know how all of this came out of your one head!" she exclaimed (a newly converted fan). He claimed he divided himself up into six personalities and let them each do their thing, hoping eventually they'd come back together. After signing stacks of books and chatting, author and publicist had lunch in our café.

My coworkers were a little amused by my obvious starstruckness – I rang up a customer wrong and kept forgetting things that are part of the normal routine. "It's like meeting a rock star," I tried to explain. They were impressed that I was meeting my Favorite Living Author, and a couple turned over BLACK SWAN GREEN with new interest.

After my regular shift, I hurried uptown to Three Lives (after getting on the wrong subway once in my haste and distraction). The place was already filling up, and the boss had water bottles in the cooler as bulwark against the rising heat in the tiny shop. While selling dozens of copies of the new book, I said hi to a number of familiar customers and former coworkers, united in our common enthusiasm for this author and this place.

Shortly after 7, David Mitchell and Gynne arrived. T, the boss, installed him in the reading spot and introduced him as one of our favorite authors. Suddenly I felt like kicking myself for not having brought my digital camera, or much better, a tape recorder – David Mitchell speaks like writing, thinks in metaphors and says hundreds of things you wish you'd thought of and try to recall later. I'll fill in such as I can remember.

He expressed his joy at being again at Three Lives, "one of those places that reminds you that the world does not all look like the inside of a car." (Later he described the bookstore as "one of the spiritual homelands of New York.) He revealed that he'd come from the bar, and expressed the hope that the pint he'd drank was "just enough to dampen the nerves," but not so much that he'd have no idea what he was saying. Fearing that he might trail off into quiet or start babbling drivel, he requested that the crowd let him know by shouting "Speak up!" or alternately, "Drivel!"

Then he read from BLACK SWAN GREEN: first the passage where 13-year-old Jason Taylor describes his stammer, which he thinks of as a sinister character called Hangman who throttles him when he comes to certain words; then a later passage where Jason witnesses local hero Tom Yew having sex with his girlfriend in the woods, a passage that he seemed both pleased and embarrassed by. Mitchell interrupted himself with any number of silly interjections; once on reading a passage where the girlfriend says something so silly that the two have to stop snogging (which I think means kissing, though my British English knowledge sucks), he stopped, astonished with realization, and admitted, "If she'd said something, they would have stopped snogging already. The Random House copyeditors missed that one – I've defeated them again."

Finishing up to applause which was very loud in that small space, Mitchell allowed as how he'd take some questions, which came fast and furious (though he took his time answering each one), and this was where I really wished I'd had a tape recorder. He answered a question about his writing process by trying different metaphors: it's like a journey where you have to hit these three towns, and you have to figure out the best route between each one, sometimes abandoning the original plan as you see an attractive subplot you'd like to visit or skipping to the end to write your final destination. Asked whether BSG is a deliberate move away from the structural experimentation of his earlier books, he responded "It's a deep question, and the trapdoor into the depths of the question is the word 'deliberate.'" (It may not have been deliberate, but some synonym – curses on my shifty memory). Intentionality was part of it, he said, but mostly in the sense that this was the project that made him the most curious, and he thought it was important to avoid growing bored by taking on projects he wasn't yet sure he could do.

My favorite answer was to a fellow Brit asked why he'd chosen the age 13 for a coming-of-age novel, since they're usually older or younger. Mitchell answered with his definition of the novel, as opposed to something like BEOWULF, which is that the character(s) grow and change from the beginning to the end. What people call a coming of age novel, he suggested, is really just that character progression happening in a young person. The term coming of age novel is now used just as a neutral one, and sometimes as a -- he searched for the word, and I stage whispered "pejorative." "Pejorative!" he said, pointing to me. (I got an affectionate ruffle of the hair from the boss for that one.)

What he was interested in, he went on, was finding the originality inside the cliché. "I don't believe originality is out there orbiting Pluto, the 10th or 11th planet or whatever. I think it's more like deeper inside, inside the cliché, and I want to find it there." As good a description as I've heard of the Mitchell project: all the genre stories, all the old school Dickensian/Murakamian plot and action, all strikingly new and in the service of a larger project of truth and beauty.

As the temperature reached unbearable heights the questions were cut short, so I never got to ask my astonishingly insightful question (something about whether it was agonizing or cathartic to write the clearly autobiographical and sometimes painful elements of the story, but it sounded so good when I had strung it all out into a sentence that took so long to formulate that the question session ended.) We opened the doors wide and passed out water bottles, and David Mitchell proceeded to chat with every single person who approached the signing table. His affability and genuine interest in each fan made the signing drag on a little, but nobody begrudged anything one bit.

I took the opportunity to chat with his editor David, agent Doug, publicist Gynne, and sales rep Karen – the cream of the Random House crowd, and all big fans of their author, as a writer and as a person. David talked about the universally glowing reviews for BSG (the writer of one of them, author Nell Freudenberger, was in the audience, though she slipped away before I could thank her for her for really getting it in her Sunday Times review). We admitted that there was part of us that didn't entirely want his fame to grow outside of a cult audience, like the great band that you're always telling people about but you don't exactly want to become the "It" band – though then we admitted that that was totally selfish and the more readers of Mitchell the better.

As the customers finally trickled away, the other booksellers and I approached to get our books signed (after we'd trucked out about five boxes of stock for signature). Everyone got a little swan drawing, and some inscription specific to themselves. I got "To Jessica, the Joyful Alumni," and some kind words about how nice it was to see me twice in a day. After he signed my books, he stood up and asked "Any chance of a hug?" So then I got to hug my Favorite Living Author. "Thank you for this book," I said. "Thank you for your enthusiasm," he said.

Afterward, a glittering crowd were adjourning to Kettle of Fish for drinking and chatting, including author Gary Shteyngart, some media folks, and the Random House brass, and T invited me to join them. But I'd been neglecting the ALP a bit lately due to excessive social obligations, and I decided it was time to go home. David Mitchell may be my favorite author, but the ALP is my favorite person. We ate cookies and watched the tail end of a movie before retiring for the evening. It was pretty much the perfect ending to a rather extraordinary day in the life of a book nerd.

P.S. Mitchell has one more reading in New York, on April 25 at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. Need I tell you I recommend attending?

4 comments:

zan said...

Thanks for this write-up; I stumbled across your site doing a search for "David Mitchell + Three Lives". I was there too; it's good to hear that someone else was as weak in the knees as I was. How do we resist following him around the world like groupies?

And you hit the nail on the head with your sentiment about not wanting his fame to grow outside of a cult audience. Ever since I picked up Ghostwritten 5 years ago (literally picked off the shelf because of its My Bloody Valentine-esque cover), I've felt like he was this great thing I'd discovered all for myself. At first I only recommended him to people I thought were deserving. But more and more, now, I tend to recommend his books to everyone I know out of sheer giddiness for the guy and his writing.

Thanks again... see you at the next one.

Stuart said...

It was the first reading I'd been to, and it was phenomenal - I am a big fan of David Mitchell and I've only read Cloud Atlas - I'm waiting for my wife to finish BSG so I can start! This is a great write-up of the reading - thanks!

Krissa said...

This is Stuart's wife. I'm done, I'm done! And I'll be reviewing it for gothamist.com on Sunday, so keep an eye out.

Also, you were right, the word was "deliberate".

Book Nerd said...

So great to hear from other fans -- I'm glad I'm not the only swooning DM fan out there. I'm so glad you guys all came to the reading -- how cool to connect afterward! I'll look for that review at Gothamist -- hope you enjoy it, Stuart!