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Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself.

On Thursday night, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner signed a new deal with AMC to create at least two more seasons of the Emmy-winning drama. On today's Fresh Air, actor Jon Hamm talks about playing the character Don Draper and details how he auditioned for the role.

Season four of 'Mad Men' has just been released on DVD. This interview was originally broadcast on Sept, 16, 2010.

21:08

Other segments from the episode on April 1, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 1, 2011: Interview with John Hamm; Interview with David Mitchell; Review of films "Source Code" and "Insidious."

Transcript

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Jon Hamm: Mad Men's Don Draper Redefines Himself

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

"Mad Men," the Emmy-winning AMC drama about a Madison Avenue advertising
executive in the 1960s, won't be presenting new episodes until next year, but
it will be back for a season 5. The network and the show's creator just agreed
to terms which will continue "Mad Men" through its seventh and final season.

Our guest, Jon Hamm, stars as Don Draper, a creative director at the
advertising agency who epitomizes the creative, troubled, handsome, sexist,
cigarette-smoking, liquor-drinking man of the 1960s. But in the most recent
season, which just came out this week on DVD, he's gone off the rails.

He's started a new agency, ended his marriage and done an awful lot of
drinking, and not just during the film's legendary three-martini business
lunches. In this scene, Don has just won a Cleo Award, the ad-world equivalent
of an Emmy or Oscar, and after the celebratory party, holds an ad-hoc meeting
with a potential client, the representatives of Life Business Cereal.

The meeting had been canceled earlier in the day, but Don takes the opportunity
to pitch them anyway, and when they reject his first concept, the obviously
inebriated Don Draper tries, tries again.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As Draper) How about: Life is just a bowl of Life
cereal? Life is sweet. Enjoy the rest of your Life cereal.

Mr. VINCENT KARTHEISER (Actor): (As Pete) Don, they're not expecting you to do
this right now.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Give me a second. Life, the reason you get out of bed in
the morning. Life, the cure for the common breakfast. Life, it's sweetness
never ends. Life, eat it by the bowlful.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Oh, oh, there you go: cure for the
common breakfast. Love it. It's got the health angle. Life makes you feel
better. It's got protein. Very nice. That dog'll hunt. Wonderful.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) We'll get that put together for
you.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Jon Hamm, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is really wonderful to have you here.

This has been such a transformative season for your character, Don Draper. This
season, oh man, it's been a rough season. Don Draper has become an out-and-out
alcoholic and...

Mr. HAMM: Well, a less-functioning alcoholic.

GROSS: A less-functioning alcoholic, exactly, exactly. And you've been blowing
it at pitch meetings. And what makes Don Draper's behavior even worse in that
scene is that the slogan that the clients from Life Cereal like best is one
that Draper actually lifted from the portfolio of a job candidate. And he's so
drunk, he doesn't even realize he did that.

Mr. HAMM: Unconsciously.

GROSS: Yeah. So Jon Hamm, did you have to rethink your whole portrayal this
season of who Don Draper is? And this season starts with a journalist saying to
Don Draper: Who is Don Draper? And the whole season has been basically asking
that question.

Mr. HAMM: You know, I think yes and no. I think the character has and is
evolving, and certainly circumstances in Don Draper's life have changed. Don's
getting older. The country is moving through a significant period of change.

GROSS: His wife has left him. She'd remarried. He's living alone in Greenwich
Village. Even - he's propositioned, well, he slept with his secretary, which
was a terrible thing to do, and then kind of ditches her and fires her. And
then...

Mr. HAMM: To be fair, she resigns.

GROSS: She resigns, okay. Who would stay under those circumstances? And then
also, I mean, even, like, you've even lost your touch with women. I mean,
things are kind of getting back to an even keel. But, like, you've
propositioned who've turned you down. It's kind of rough.

Mr. HAMM: Well, I think, what - again, as I say, this character is evolving.
And what is happening is, in my opinion, and I think Matt Weiner, the show's
creator, would agree with me, is that Don is sort of losing touch with not only
his life but with the world around him.

And as the world is changing, as he is getting older, as his circumstances are
shifting, the old paradigms aren't working so much anymore.

But it definitely is a season about redefining who you are when all of that
stuff gets stripped away, when you're no longer, when you no longer have the
perfect wife and the perfect family and the perfect job and the perfect
approach to every problem.

When all of that stuff gets stripped away, who are you at the foundation? And
as we know about Don Draper, he isn't, he's not honest with the world, about
who he is. And so, you know, his fundamental dishonesty needs to be addressed
before any sort of real growth can happen, and it remains to be seen if he's
strong enough to do that.

GROSS: There was recently on "Mad Men" a real turning-point scene. It's the
scene where you basically reach bottom. You bottom out. And it's after this
scene that you realize something has to change in your life, and you try to
start cutting back on the alcohol.

But this is a scene where you've gotten so drunk after someone who was very
important to you has died that Peggy, one of the women you work with, basically
has to drag you into the restroom, where you're kneeling in front of the toilet
and just heaving and heaving.

And when you come out of it, there's even, like, a yellow puke stain on your
shirt. And so it's like, we are seeing you at your lowest. And everybody who
has just thought of Don Draper as this, like, you know, handsome guy and
everything, we're seeing the consequences of all of Don Draper's actions play
out.

And I just wonder what it was like for you to shoot that scene where he is at
his lowest.

Mr. HAMM: It was a tremendously kind of exciting and cathartic and sad and
wonderful scene to film. And, you know, Matt, very early on in the series
states...

GROSS: This is Matt Weiner, the creator of the series.

Mr. HAMM: Matt Weiner, yes, sorry, the writer and creator, executive producer
of the show, stated early on that one of the driving principles of the show is
that actions have consequences.

And I think some of the early criticism of the show was like, well, these
actions don't have consequences, like, this guy gets away with everything. He's
a liar, he cheats on his wife, nothing ever happens, blah, blah, blah.

And what we're now finding out is, well, they don't necessarily have to have
consequences on the same day or in the same episode or in the same hour of
television, but they will have consequences. And we are seeing the consequences
of three seasons of behavior kind of come to a head in this particular episode.

GROSS: At what point did you find out that your character, Don Draper, was
going to undergo this transformational change and that the consequences would
catch up with him this season?

Mr. HAMM: Well, I trusted in Matt to tell the story the way he wanted to tell
the story and to be honest about it. And again, as I said, very early on, he
said actions will have consequences. So I imagined that this would come about
at some point.

We don't really talk in specifics about how the show is going to progress
episode to episode and season-long arcs. So - and we're not really allowed in
the writers' room to go sort of peek and see where our people are going and
what's going to happen.

And I honestly really don't like knowing, like, what's going to come down the
pike, for fear of somehow subconsciously playing the end of the story or
playing information that my character shouldn't have.

That said, Matt and I sit at the beginning of every season, and we talk about
what the season is going to bring and what the arc of the season could be or
should be or might be. But this is well before anything is written, and we talk
in very, very general terms and themes and feelings and ideas.

GROSS: Now, you auditioned for the part of Don Draper six times, at least
that's what I read. So when you were doing the audition, you had to portray a
Don Draper confidence. But because you hadn't landed a really big role before,
you were probably, as many actors are, insecure at the time of the audition.
You were still a waiter, weren't you?

Mr. HAMM: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so you probably didn't have quite the confidence that you had to
convey. Or maybe you did. But I'm wondering how confidence came into play
during the audition.

Mr. HAMM: Well, you have to, I mean, as any actor, you have to - and this is
successful, unsuccessful, working, non-working - you have to portray a sense of
confidence. And if you have to manufacture it, if you have to fake it, if you
have to drum it up from somewhere in your subconscious, you have to do it.

So I was - I had worked as an actor and was on a television show and had a lot
of experience. So I wasn't coming in fresh off the turnip truck, so to speak.

But auditioning is a terrifying process. And it's a really soul-crushing
process sometimes because essentially what people are saying is not necessarily
that we don't like your acting but we don't like you. And that's hard to take.
But I really wanted to do this part, and I really felt a relationship to it,
and...

GROSS: Why? Why did you feel a relationship to it?

Mr. HAMM: I've said it in other interviews, but this character very much
reminded me of my father. And he - my dad would have been 27 years old in 1960,
when we start the show. So he would have been a little younger than Don Draper,
but he was a very powerful businessman, you know, in St. Louis, Missouri, where
I grew up.

And he had a lot of friends and knew a lot of people and had a lot of power and
had a lot of connections and was a pretty sad guy not because he subsumed
somebody's identity and had a basic, you know, fundamental lie that he was
living, but he, you know, my father was twice widowed and had a tough time.

And so it was interesting. It just resonated for me in that respect. So I
really wanted to do it. And I thought the writing was excellent, as has been
borne out, and I wanted to make the best of the opportunity. So I feel like I
did represent confidence walking into the room, and the next seven times I had
to walk into the room, I tried to be as confident as I could coming back.

BIANCULLI: Jon Hamm, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with Jon Hamm, the star of
the AMC drama series "Mad Men." Hamm has been nominated as best dramatic sctor
for every season he's starred on "Mad Men," but he also performs on comedy
shows, such as "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock."

GROSS: You were very funny in "30 Rock," playing a doctor who was dating Tina
Fey. And because you're so handsome, when you go to a restaurant together women
send over drinks, and the waitress gives you free food, the mayor comes over
and wants to dance with you.

And Alec Baldwin explains to Tina Fey that this is because beautiful people are
treated differently than moderately plain looking people. They live in a
bubble, and the bubble is a world of free drinks, kindness and outdoor sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I want to play a scene after Alec Baldwin explains that. And you and
Tina Fey are in a restaurant, and you want to order something off the menu, and
Tina Fey says no, I'm going to order for you. And she covers your face with the
menu so that the waitress can't see how handsome you are and then she orders.
Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "30 Rock")

Ms. TINA FEY (Actor): (As Liz Lemon) Let me order that for you. Excuse me, we
will have a turkey burger deluxe and a catfish po boy with a diet raspberry
Fanta.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) I'm going to come back in five
minutes. You try to order off the menu again, I will smack those glasses off of
your face.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Okay. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: (as character) You're welcome.

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) What was that? Why didn't she call you sweetheart? And
where's the complimentary app sampler? What's going on?

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Okay, Drew, this is how most people live. See, because
of your whole, you know, Disney prince thing...

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) Actually, they used footage of me from my high school swim
team to draw Prince Eric.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Right. Because of that, you live in a bubble where
people do what you want and tell you what you want to hear.

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) Oh, I don't think that's true.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Drew, I'm going to tell you this for your own good, you
can't put Gatorade on salmon.

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) Oh, yes you can. That hot Italian lady from the Food
Network told me so.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Did she say it on TV?

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) No. She said it to me when she jumped escalators to try to
talk - oh. Well, I don't want to live that way. I don't want you to treat me
that way.

Ms. FEY: (As Liz Lemon) Are you sure?

Mr. HAMM: (As Drew) Yeah. Liz, I'm an adult. You can be honest with me. I can
take it.

GROSS: Well, you can't really take it, as it turns out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So do you ever feel like you live in that bubble, the bubble of
beautiful people?

Mr. HAMM: I certainly don't. I don't consider myself some sort of beautiful
person by any stretch of the imagination. But I do think that our culture sort
of does that in a certain sense with celebrities in some capacity.

It is, I think, that that is the larger point of that whole storyline is a
comment on that: how our culture is sort of obsessed with the beautiful people
and treating them just so because you desperately want to be part of that
group. I don't feel that way. I have enough self-loathing and cynicism in me to
autocorrect at any particular time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you're very funny at satirizing, you know, Don Draper and perceptions
of you. You hosted "Saturday Night Live" a couple of times, and on one of those
episodes you did a sketch called "Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women." I
just want to play some of that.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Hello, I'm Don Draper and I've been fortunate enough
to have affairs with many women. Some say, boy, Don, how do you do it? Well,
it's simple. And you can do it, too, if you follow my four easy steps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Step one, when in doubt, remain absolutely silent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KRISTEN WIIG (Actor): (As Jessica) Hi, I'm Jessica.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WIIG: (As Jessica) We're shy, aren't we?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WIIG: (As Jessica) Marry me. I want to have your children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) See? Step two, when asked about your past, give
vague, open-ended answers.

Ms. CASEY WILSON (Actor): (As character) So, Don, tell me about your family.
Any brothers and sisters?

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) There was a man with bright, shiny shoes. I saw him
dancing until the accident.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILSON: (As character) Oh, how mysterious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Step three: have a great name.

(Soundbite of giggling)

Mr. FRED ARMISEN (Actor): (As Nathaniel Snerpus): Hi. I'm Nathaniel Snerpus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMY POEHLER: (As character) Well, hello.

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) Don Draper.

Ms. POEHLER: (As character) Let's get me out of this skirt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) And finally, step four. Look fantastic in a suit.
Look fantastic in casual wear. Look fantastic in anything. Sound good. Smell
good. Kiss good. Strut around with supreme confidence. Be uncannily successful
at your job. Blow people away every time you say anything. Take six-hour
lunches. Disappear for weeks at a time. Lie to everyone about everything.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) And drink and smoke constantly. Basically, be Don
Draper.

(Soundbite of bell)

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheering)

GROSS: That's my guest, Jon Hamm, on "Saturday Night Live."

Who wrote that sketch?

Mr. HAMM: I don't know who wrote that one. I'm not sure, honestly. The
interesting thing about that, and I haven't heard that clip in quite some time,
is that you can hear Matt Weiner laughing in the crowd reactions. He has a very
particular laugh.

GROSS: Seriously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HAMM: Yes. I could...

GROSS: He was in the audience?

Mr. HAMM: He was in the audience that night. That was the first time I hosted,
and quite a few of our cast and crew were in attendance. And, yeah, I could
pick it out. I could hear it. It's very funny.

GROSS: Were you confident in your dating years?

Mr. HAMM: Not particularly. I was sort of a late bloomer and was not really
necessarily one of the cool kids and - not really. I mean, I was just kind of
like the sort of weird kid that didn't do much of anything, actually.

GROSS: Now...

Mr. HAMM: That should be enough to show you how awkward I was when I was
dating. I can't even talk about it.

GROSS: Now, earlier in our interview, you said that the portrayal of Don Draper
is based in part on your father, who was a businessman, who was a very
successful businessman but also very sad. Do you mean depression or...

Mr. HAMM: Well, he had a sad life in a lot of ways. You know, his first wife...

GROSS: Your mother.

Mr. HAMM: No.

GROSS: No? Oh.

Mr. HAMM: His first wife. My mother was his second wife.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. HAMM: His first wife was - he had two daughters with, and she died of a
brain aneurism very suddenly and very tragically, leaving him to sort of take
care of these two little girls. And that was difficult for him.

He then met and married my mother, who was much younger than he was, and had me
and then got divorced. And my mother was out of that relationship pretty quick.
So then had, you know, three kids and no wife and was ended up sort of back
home living with his mom.

And then when my mother passed away when I was 10, I then had to move back in
with my dad and my grandmother, his mother. So, yeah, he was a sad guy. You
know, he had a lot of - I think he probably had a lot of regret in his life.
And yeah, it was a - the best way I could describe it is that it was a tricky
situation.

GROSS: A lot of people start off in their path toward adulthood on the path
that their parents want them to take, whether that means, you know, going to
college when they didn't want to or, you know, going into business when they
prefer to be artist or, you know, whatever.

But since you lost your mother when you were young, and your father died when
you were 20, when you were 20, you no longer had parents to either displease or
please. So, like, they no longer had any say. And I'm wondering how that
affected, if at all, your decision to give acting a shot, which is a very, very
risky decision.

Mr. HAMM: I'm sure it had some effect. I'm virtually certain - 100 percent -
that had both my parents been around, I probably would've done something
completely different with my life. But, you know, I think all performers come
from a place of sort of self doubt and pain.

And, you know, Ray Romano said once, very accurately and hilariously, that if
his dad would've spent more time with him he probably would've become an
accountant instead of a comedian. So I think that anybody that wants to get up
on stage and tell jokes or do plays or sing songs has some sort of, at a
fundamental level, desire to be paid attention to, and I am no different.

But my mother, very early on, instilled in me an incredible desire to learn and
an incredible curiosity about the world and an incredible joy in achieving
things. And so that's probably the - and she also put me in creative writing
classes and acting classes when I was a little kid and encouraged me to do - to
do stuff. And so that's probably the biggest influence in what got me here.

GROSS: Well, John Hamm, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HAMM: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Jon Hamm, speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. The latest season of "Mad
Men" came out on DVD this week, and the next season will begin on AMC early
next year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Mitchell: On Bringing 'Thousand Autumns' To Life

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Our next guest David Mitchell was recently described by Dave Eggers as one of
the more fascinating and fearless writers alive. Mitchell is the author of the
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," the historical novel that is now out
in paperback. It's a bestseller in America, topped the bestseller list in
England and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious
literary award. The novel is Mitchell's first foray into historical fiction and
it came as a surprise to readers who are used to his postmodern experimental
novels.

The narrative of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" begins in 1799. De
Zoet has left his home in Amsterdam to work on a small island in Japan as a
bookkeeper for the Dutch Indies Trading Company. The island is called Dejima.

Terry Gross spoke with David Mitchell last year.

TERRY GROSS: David Mitchell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to start with a
reading from your new book "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

Mr. DAVID MITCHELL (Author): With pleasure. It's the morning of July the 26th
1799.

GROSS: And where are we in the story at this point?

Mr. MITCHELL: We are just at the beginning of the novel when the protagonist,
Jacob de Zoet, is about to depart from the ship, the Shenandoah, that's brought
him all the way from Batavia, which is modern-day Jakarta, to Nagasaki. He's
sitting on the small boat that will take him from the ship to the island of
Dejima, a manmade island in Nagasaki Harbor that serves as the Dutch East
Indies trading post.

GROSS: Okay. Now for the reading.

Mr. MITCHELL: (Reading) Hatless and broiling in his blue dress coat, Jacob de
Zoet is thinking of a day 10 months ago, when a vengeful North Sea charged the
dikes at Domburg, and spindrift tumbled along Church Street, past the parsonage
where his uncle presented him with an oiled canvas bag. It contained a scarred
psalm book bound in deer skin and Jacob can more or less reconstruct his
uncle's speech from memory.

Well, heavens knows nephew, you've heard this book's history often enough. Your
great-great grandfather was in Venice when the plague arrived. His body erupted
in buboes the size of frogs, but he prayed from the psalm book and God cured
him.

Fifty years ago, your grandfather Tys was soldiering in the Palatine when
ambushers surprised his regiment. This psalm book stopped this musket ball - he
fingers the leaden bullet, still in its crater - from shredding his heart. It's
a little truth that I, your father, and you and your sister Geertje owe this
book our very existences.

Now we're not Papists. We do not ascribe magical powers to bent nails or old
rags, but you understand how this sacred book is, by our faith, bound to our
bloodline. It is a gift from your ancestors and a loan from your descendants.
Whatever befalls you in the years ahead, never forget, this psalm book - he
touches the canvas bag - this is your passport home.

David's Psalms are a Bible within the Bible. Pray from it. Heed its teachings
and you shall not stray. Protect it with your life that it may nourish your
soul. Go now, Jacob and God go with you. Protect it with your life, Jacob
mutters under his breath - which is, he thinks, the crux of my dilemma.

GROSS: Why is that the crux of Jacob's dilemma?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, the dilemma is that at this point in Japanese history,
whenever a European came ashore to man the trading post, any Christian
artifact, the crucifix or St. Christopher or Bible or indeed, a psalm book,
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 on Dejima and only
handed back on their departure.

For Jacob, who's a pious God-fearing young man, this is tantamount to apostasy.
And even though he's a very honest man who's never broken a law in his life
under ordinary circumstances, he can't obey this law. It would be like spitting
on an image of Jesus and he just can't do it. So he's having to smuggle this
psalm book ashore amongst 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.

GROSS: Why did the Japanese not allow Christian artifacts of any sort onto the
island that you write about?

Mr. MITCHELL: That's a deep historical question, Terry. They had a fear and
loathing of the Christian religion. In the 17th century, Spanish and the
Portuguese Jesuits and Franciscans were very active in proselytizing in Japan
and converted certainly a low number of millions of Japanese people to the
religion.

There was an uprising, the peasants' rebellion, and this quickly acquired the
hue of a Christian revolution, really. And from that point on the Edo
authorities realized that this foreign religion would be threatening the status
quo, which they were very happy with. And so, increasingly, there were anti-
Christian laws passed culminating, in fact, in the closure of the country to
all foreigners except a handful of people working for the Dutch East Indies
Company, hence the novel.

GROSS: Why did you want to set your novel on this island?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it seemed fascinating to me. People do know Japan was
closed on the whole. If they've seen James Clavell's "Shogun" or something like
that, that's fairly common knowledge. But it isn't widely known that actually,
it wasn't. That there was this little keyhole that was kept open all of the
time.

For 250 years, Dejima was the only trading post through which Europeans could
trade with Japan, specifically the Dutch East Indies Company. And through it
passed, obviously, goods, materials, but also ideas and knowledge - knowledge
about Europe and, indeed, what was happening in the rest of the world could
enter Japan, and knowledge about this mysterious kingdom that was closed to the
outside world.

It's a place where the two cultures could meet - the only place where Western
culture and Japanese society could meet. The Dutch were very circumscribed,
however. They weren't allowed to leave Dejima. And the only three types of
people allowed on were merchants and courtesans and translators who were a
father-to-son kind of business.

And this confinement was attractive. If there's no way off. If there's no way
out of the situation, then human neuroses have no choice but to bloom and bear
their own dramatic fruit. So yeah, there were a lot of baits that attracted me
as a novelist that made my curiosity say, this is your next book.

GROSS: So why did you want to write a historical novel?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, really, because I found Dejima and Dejima hasn't existed
for 160 years as a working trading post. And so, to do justice to that theme, I
had to go back in time. I thought it would be relatively straightforward. I
thought historical fiction was just one more genre, but little did I know. I
went wrong twice and had to throw aside about 18 months worth of work at one
point. But eventually, by going wrong, I slowly began to work out how I could
go right and this historical novel grew out of that.

GROSS: What was one of the mistakes that you made when you went wrong?

Mr. MITCHELL: Language, that was the biggest, baddest mistake really, Terry.
What language are these people speaking? If you try to get it right, if you try
to get authentic 18th century speech you end up sounding like "Black Adder,"
you end up sounding like pastiche. If, on the other hand, you don't, you don't
convince your reader that the language, you know, smells authentic, then a
bubble of fiction is popped because the reader's thinking, hang on, this sounds
like speech that could have been from a sitcom I saw last week.

So you have to sort of create what I came to think of as a bygone-ese kind of
dialect, which is not in fact completely plausible. It doesn't really work if
you have characters using the word harken, for example. But which still smells
and has the right texture of 18th century speech. And it's tough to do that.
It's tough to work out exactly how to do it.

GROSS: And then you have to be consistent once you've figured it out.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, you have to be consistent. And then, of course, you have to
avoid the trap where my rather large cast in this book - I think someone worked
out there's about 150 speaking parts in it - they mustn't all sound the same
because that also pricks the bubble of fiction. That also makes the reader
think, well, why are all these people speaking the same voice? That doesn't
happen in life. So you have to work out bygone-ese but then subdivide it
amongst the Dutch, the Japanese, the British.

GROSS: It sounds like you really made life hard for yourself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I did. I do. But, of course, it's those strictures, it's that
straitjacket. The better-tied straitjacket, the more spectacular the act of
escapology has to be to get out of the straitjacket. The better-tied
straitjacket, the more spectacular the act of escapology has to be to get out
of the straitjacket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: And maybe that's what originality is. It's the confinements that
you choose at the beginning, rather like the confinements that the Dutch were
under on Dejima, in fact.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought up originality because, you know, early on
you were playing with conventional narrative in your novels. Did you start to
feel at some point that the attempt to be original was kind of hopeless because
everything's been tried, every experiment's been done and at some point what
you want to do is just be really, really good at whatever...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...whatever it is you're doing?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, I do aspire to be that. It's a lifelong job, though, before
you're worthy to sweep up the crumbs under the table of the masters.

GROSS: But do you know what I mean? I mean sometimes, like when I was in my
early 20s, I guess, I got so excited by avant-garde music, by new music by the
avant-garde end of classical music and, because they were playing with
structure in a way that I found so thrilling and also you didn't have to know
everything about classical music to get what they were doing. Maybe if I knew
more I would've gotten more of it. But at some point I wanted, like I wanted
more melody in my life and more...

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...more harmony in my life.

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. You want to be able to hum the tune, don't you?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah. I think it's natural for youth to be drawn to newness
because the world is still new for them and there's a feeling that you can take
part in shaping it and changing it and turning it into something new in your
image. But then you age, inevitably. I look in the mirror now and I think wow,
it's Dad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: And I am a dad. And I am a husband. And these sort of messy human
muddy themes become much more interesting. And you also realize that structure,
originality and innovation is not actually a story. They're useful ingredients
for art but it's not art itself. Not really. You might be able to admire it,
but you certainly can't fall in love with it as a piece of music or as a piece
of narrative.

Yeah, you go back in a way to older, more traditional forms. You also come to
accept that actually, Shakespeare cleaned everything up. There's no new turf
after him, really. All the postmodern themes, the play-within-the-play,
metafiction, it's already been done in the 17th century. You can't win. But art
isn't the what. Art is the how. Lowell said this really well: If you try to
write about the universe, you'll end up staring at the bricks at the bottom of
your garden. But if you start with those bricks, you may well end up writing
something new about the universe.

Start with the people. People are why I fall in love with a book. If you start
there, then you can kind of allow ideas and maybe allow innovation and a new
structure to sort of grow organically from these stem cells of people. But I
think you need to start with the people and how they interact, which is your
plot.

BIANCULLI: David Mitchell, speaking to Terry Gross last year.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry’s 2010 interview with author David Mitchell.
His historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is now out in
paperback.

GROSS: You've written about how as a boy you had a very bad stammer.

Mr. MITCHELL: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And there's still, I guess, elements of that left, but...

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, sure. Sure.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MITCHELL: It's my lifelong companion

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You write something I thought was very funny and very true. You wrote:
The willpower myth maintains that a stammerer is analogous to a newly
wheelchair-bound character in a heartwarming American film. The doctor says
he'll never walk again, but his gritty determination proves them wrong. This
myth, you say, cost me angry years of believing that I stammered because I
wasn't trying hard enough not to stammer.

Would you describe what you tried to do during those angry years?

Mr. MITCHELL: Firstly, I should apologize for the adjective American in that
sentence, because the British also are equally capable of making such films.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. MITCHELL: What I went through in those years: sort of a state of civil war
with myself, really. It took a long, long time to understand that a stammer is
more like a kind of a force field, and the more you throw at it, the more it
throws back at you. You sort of have to outwit it rather than outfight it. And,
in a way, not even outwit it. You sort of - I think of it now as a kind of a
companion. It's a part of me. It has a right to exist, as I do, and I need to
sort of come to a working accommodation with it.

And this involves certain strategies and techniques that you can sort of
encrypt into how you speak so that I'm able to do this interview, for example,
which 20 years ago would've been unthinkable. And in the end, these strategies
can become so well-integrated into who you are and how you speak that they
become behavior and speech patterns rather than techniques.

GROSS: It must've been so frustrating because you're Mr. Language. You know, I
mean you're all about...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...language and when you opened your mouth it wouldn't come out
smoothly. Yet, I'm sure you were writing even as a teenager and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Frustrating, yes.

GROSS: So people would make fun of you because of your stammer, yet you
probably knew so much more about language and were so much more facile with
language than the people who were mocking you.

Mr. MITCHELL: In part, yes, because of my stammer. This is why I view my
stammer now as a companion and not an enemy. I might've been a writer without
it, but I certainly wouldn't have been this writer. One of the strategies I was
referring to, which you meet quite early on in your career as a stammerer, is
you autocue sentences ahead of time. You see what words are coming up, and say
right now, I'd have difficulties with words beginning with S. If I, certainly
as a younger person, if I saw an S word was approaching then I would try and
reengineer that sentence to avoid needing that S word. And this teaches you how
language can be employed many, many different ways to say the same thing.

GROSS: Now you lived for eight years in Japan and taught English there, to
Japanese students.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: But from what I've read of your personal essays, you never really spoke
fluent Japanese and you always felt a little challenged by that. So how did
that affect your stammer, being - like, having to really think what word was
before you said it because it wasn't your language? Did that make the stammer
any better or worse?

Mr. MITCHELL: I think the practical problems of learning Japanese would
probably, sort of trump, by this point, the problems that my stammer would
cause me. So, not particularly. You do stammer in a foreign language, by the
way. People sometimes think you don't, but you do. You don't stammer when
you're singing or talking to animals or speaking on your own in a room, but you
do stammer in a foreign language.

GROSS: You don't stammer when you're talking to animals?

Mr. MITCHELL: No. No. You see, it's all to do with...

GROSS: Why is that?

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, I've thought about this a lot. But I think, and you may have
some speech therapists listening to this program who could have a different
point of view, but it's to do with what you think is going on in the listener's
head. If you can have a certain militancy about it, if you can think that, you
know, I frankly don't care if I'm about to stammer or not. I don't care if this
person thinks I'm weird. I don't care if this person thinks any less of me,
then miraculously, kind of the fingers of the stammer loosen, and suddenly,
you're more fluent again. Obviously, an animal isn't thinking in these terms.
So when you're speaking to an animal, you don't stammer.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking, you have this problem with a stammer, so
speaking has always had obstacles and the threat of failure, right

Mr. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And you're a writer. Like language is your thing, so what do you do? You
spend eight years living in a country whose language is so different from
yours...

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...setting up yet another set of obstacles for communicating, verbally,
through language. It almost seems like the stammer wasn't enough. You had to
set up more obstacles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You had to make it a little bit harder.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, maybe so. Maybe so. Maybe I thrive on obstacles. Yeah.
Yeah, there might be something in that. But I think originality needs it.

A book that's easily written, you know, you can always tell. You can always
tell when the writer hasn't broken out in a sweat trying to land this book. And
maybe - maybe something of the same can be said in life.

If life is obstacleless(ph), if you're just coasting along without
responsibilities, without duties, without sort of having to take care of an
elderly relative or an offspring with special needs, or whatever, well,
perhaps, that's what existential malaise is. Maybe that's sort of when you
start to drift and have problems of another type. Maybe your problems and your
obstacles, rather like your stammer, is in fact, a kind of friend in disguise
for you. I don't know if we're venturing into self-help territory too much
here, but it's something that I kind of believe in.

GROSS: Well, David Mitchell, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, it's my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me on your
program.

BIANCULLI: Author David Mitchell speaking to Terry Gross in 2010. His
bestselling historical novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is now
out in paperback.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews two new movies, “Source Code”
and “Insidious.”

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Source Code' And 'Insidious': Two Twisty Thrillers

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Film critic David Edelstein looks at two new movies opening today, the sci-fi
thriller “Source Code” and a haunted house horror flick “Insidious.” Here are
his reviews.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: As a critic, I've been accused of giving away plot turns,
which I try not to do. I know how much fun it is to be surprised by where a
movie goes, which is why I refuse to watch coming attractions. But sometimes
even spelling out the premise of a movie is a kind of spoiler. The less you
know about two new popcorn movies, “Source Code” and “Insidious, the better:
Some of the air goes out when at last you get your bearings.

“Source Code” is a thriller - that you know from the poster - and it's shot and
edited for maximum discombobulation. The protagonist, played by Jake
Gyllenhaal, is as disoriented as we are. He wakes up from a nap on what appears
to be a Chicago commuter train and is either a yuppie named Sean or an Afghan-
based soldier named Colter. He's sitting opposite a lovely stranger played by
Michelle Monaghan who appears to know him.

Director Duncan Jones made a sci-fi picture called “Moon” that was both twisty
and poignant, and the tone is similar in “Source Code.” Both films seem
inspired by Philip K. Dick's time-bending, mind-bending paranoid thrillers, in
which the government has the means to take away your memories or give you false
ones - to put your very identity in doubt. There's a touch here, too, of the
great Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day,” in which a man experiences, over and
over, a fixed segment of time, gathering new information with each loop.

Eventually, Gyllenhaal's Sean-or-maybe-Colter trusts the woman sitting opposite
him enough to take her into his confidence.

(Soundbite of movie, “Source Code”)

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (as Sean) How well do you know me?

Ms. MICHELLE MONAGHAN (Actor): (as Christina Warren) Not that well, apparently.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (as Sean) Do you know me well enough that if it gets inevitably
a little too strange and it was maybe even a little bit dangerous, I told you
to trust me anyway that you could do that?

Ms. MONAGHAN: (as Christina Warren) No.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (as Sean) Wow. That was honest. You’re beautiful, you’re kind
and you're painfully honest.

Ms. MONAGHAN: (as Christina Warren) Who are you? What did you do with Sean
Fentress?

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (as Sean) If you knew me...

EDELSTEIN: And Gyllenhaal and Monaghan have wonderful chemistry - he with his
huge unblinking baby blues, and she with her irrepressible glow. You really
want them to be together, even if they've only just met.

When the revelations eventually come, they're preposterous, and the denouement
is both cornball and a cheat - but “Source Code” is so dazzlingly staged and
shot, and has so much emotional heft, that it never loses that exhilarating
jitter.

The chiller “Insidious,” alas, does lose a lot in the final half hour, but
until then it's very unnerving. It's the work of the director James Wan and
writer Leigh Whannell, who gave the world the torture-porn “Saw” franchise and
have now joined forces with the producers of the low-tech haunted-house
“Paranormal Activity” franchise.

In “Insidious,” they're going for that “Paranormal Activity” feel - a lot of
bumps and thumps and entities half-glimpsed - but with glossier production
values and louder music. Early on, a couple played by Patrick Wilson and Rose
Byrne hears the cries of their little boy, Dalton, who has wandered into the
attic of their new, old house.

(Soundbite of movie, “Insidious”)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Ms. ROSE BRYNE (Actor): (as Renai Lambert) Dalton. Honey, where are you?

Mr. PATRICK WILSON (Actor): (as Josh Lambert) Stay here. Foster, stay with your
sister.

(Soundbite of running)

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Dalton?

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) Dalton?

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Dalton?

(Soundbite of Dalton screaming)

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Hey?

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) What?

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Hey? Hey, hey, hey. Hey.

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) What happened?

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) What? Did you fall? Did you fall from the ladder?
Did you fall down.

Mr. TY SIMPKINS (Actor): (as Dalton) Yeah.

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Are you okay?

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) What are you doing climbing the ladder?

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Honey.

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) All right. Are you okay? What hurts? What hurts?

Mr. SIMPKINS: (as Dalton) My leg.

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) All right. Can you move it? Can you move your
leg? Is that okay?

Mr. SIMPKINS: (as Dalton) Yeah.

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) Okay. Oh, man. What happened to your head. Oh
gosh.

Mr. SIMPKINS: (as Dalton) Scraped it.

Mr. WILSON: (as Josh Lambert) Okay.

Ms. BRYNE: (as Renai Lambert) Honey, you cannot come up here, okay? Do not
explore anymore. It’s very dangerous, okay, it’s off limits now.

EDELSTEIN: That's one of the scariest scenes in “Insidious.” We don't know what
happened to Dalton in that attic. And when he suddenly goes into a coma, we
don't know if he's possessed or if his spirit is now far away in some
nightmarish other realm.

I'm a sucker for those bumps in the night and flickering lights, and simple,
no-effects scenes like the one in which Byrne locks the front door, checks
another room and returns to see that front door wide open. But then a trio of
ghost hunters arrives, and with them, an explanation for what's happening. And
then come the splashy special effects reminiscent of “Poltergeist” and a
feeling of deja vu: been-there, been-bombarded-by-that.

People complain about critics giving spoilers, but what about movies that tell
you too much too soon and spoil themselves?

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is one critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you
can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. (Soundbite of music)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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