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Mitchell's 'Thousand Autumns' On A Man-Made Island.

Post-modern writer David Mitchell pulls off an old-fashioned yet action-packed tale in his fifth novel, The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet. The story follows Jacob, a bookkeeper at an outpost of the Dutch East Indies Company, as he falls for a local midwife in early 19th century Japan.

27:09

Other segments from the episode on August 5, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 5, 2010: Interview with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay; Interview with David Mitchell.

Transcript

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Will Ferrell, Adam McKay Celebrate 'The Other Guys'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guests are Will Ferrell, who's starring in the new cop comedy "The Other
Guys," and Adam McKay, who directed and co-wrote the film. They first teamed up
when Ferrell was a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and McKay was a writer.
They also worked together on the film comedies "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights"
and "Step Brothers." And they co-founded the comedy website "Funny or Die."

Their new film is a satire of buddy cop movies and action films. It's about the
cops who aren't the action heroes of the police force. Will Farrell and Mark
Wahlberg play cops assigned to desk duty. Ferrell's character is a forensic
accountant who actually likes paperwork, but Wahlberg, who was demoted to desk
duty, wants to be back where the action is.

When the film opens, two daring members of the police force, played by Samuel
Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, become the heroes of the city after
getting the bad guys in an action-packed chase.

In this scene, they return triumphantly to police headquarters, where they're
welcomed with a round of applause. Then they make brief statements. Wahlberg
looks jealous and resentful, Ferrell is cheerfully taking pictures. We'll hear
Ferrell at the end of the clip. Samuel Jackson speaks first.

(Soundbite of film, "The Other Guys")

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SAMUEL JACKSON (Actor): (As P.K. Highsmith) We know, we know, we know. All
right, all right, all right, listen up, listen up. We're having a celebration
tonight at Butter(ph). Brody Jenner's going to be there, and most of you are on
the list. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Let me say something right now. We
couldn't do our job if it weren't for you guys doing all the paperwork,
answering the phones...

Mr. JACKSON: (As Highsmith) All the gunfights, all the car chases, all the sex
we don't want to have with women but we have to, all due to what you guys do.

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (As Allen Gamble) And we'd do it again and again.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Highsmith) Hey, hey, you shut your face. If we want to hear
you talk, I will work your mouth like a puppet, you hear me? Cash bar.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Adam McKay,
what made you think about doing a film about cops who aren't the rock stars and
who don't get to see the action?

Mr. ADAM McKAY (Director): It was somewhat inspired by the guy who caught
Bernie Madoff like eight years before he really got deep into his Ponzi scheme.
And everyone sort of ignored him and treated him like he was a nerd and a
noodge(ph). And it was sort of that idea, the idea that there's new types of
heroes, and that's sort of a little bit what informed Will's character, a guy
who loves, you know, being a paper-pusher, Alan Gamble.

GROSS: And did you write the part for Will Ferrell?

Mr. McKAY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, Will had input on it. Will was working on another
movie. So we didn't directly write the first script together, but he was
sending us ideas in, and he came up with the idea of a guy who loves to be a
paper-pusher, actually relishes it.

GROSS: And Will Ferrell, if you were a cop, which you would not be, I'm sure...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't think you're probably quite cut out for that.

Mr. FERRELL: No, right, right, right.

GROSS: But if you were a cop, would you be one of those cops, one of the paper-
pusher cops?

Mr. FERRELL: I probably would be, yeah, because I kind of – I probably would've
been the guy who was like, hey, this office work needs to get done, and that's
where the real glory is. Why would you want to risk being shot at out in the
field when you can actually get this legitimate, crucial work done? So that's –
that whole angle seemed so funny to us.

Mr. McKAY: Will's a little bit like that even as an actor in Hollywood. He's
very involved in all the release forms, all the paperwork, the contracts.

Mr. FERRELL: A lot of times, the line producer will use me to facilitate a lot
of the paperwork throughout a film.

Mr. McKAY: You'll come in at night, after you've done shooting all day with
Will, and he'll just be in the office just looking through documents. He has a
notary that follows him around 24 hours a day.

Mr. FERRELL: Sure.

GROSS: Okay, you're kidding me now, okay.

Mr. McKAY: Yes, I'm kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought you were for real. That's terrible. Okay, all right, all
right. So, no, I love the opening scene. It's a great satire of the obligatory
opening car-chase scene in cop movies. Now, there's the bullet flying in slow
motion before it hits its target. The cars crashing, cars flying through the
air, cars crashing through glass windows. One of the cops jumps onto the hood
of a moving car. Innocent bystanders are watching in horror. And it's also
quickly edited that you can't follow what's going on or who's doing what to
who.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what are some of the elements that you really wanted to parody in the
opening?

Mr. McKAY: Well, the idea was the gross excess of the whole sort of modern-day
heroes as they're kind of perceived through movies and TV, just how sort of
ridiculously over the top they are.

And, you know, the real truth is cops had to stop doing high-speed chases
because they were doing too much property damage. So it was an agreement with
most police that they go, okay, let's back off and eventually, we'll catch the
guy.

And so the end of our giant chase, of course, you find out that it was all over
a quarter pound of marijuana and that they destroyed 40 vehicles and blew up a
building.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, we actually went on a couple ride-alongs with NYPD
detectives. And I kept asking the guy I was with, like, do you have any crazy
chase stories? And they basically said, no, we kind of lay back and know that
they'll probably come back again. So don't try to be a hero. If you want to be
a hero, join the fire department.

So it's funny to kind of make fun of the, like Adam said, the gross excess.

GROSS: One of the other things you make fun of, too, is how in cop movies, the
cops are always making – well, not always, but in a certain kind of cop movie,
the cops are always making witty retorts just as their lives are most at risk.
So can you talk about trying to write the best retorts?

Mr. McKAY: We actually wrote some that, it might have been a little too inside
for the audience, but at one point, Samuel Jackson and Dwayne Johnson crash
through a bus in their car, and there's just sort of a beat where they're in
the bus, and obviously, he's supposed to say a funny line.

At one point, we had him say a line like, man, I feel a lot of pressure to say
something clever right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: And that really made us laugh, but I think it was – like, it's
funny. You make fun of it, but you also want it to be a little funny for the
audience, and that one got dead silence.

GROSS: Is that why you cut it out because it didn't test?

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, you know, if something's on the fence, we'll certainly put it
in, even if it doesn't play, but when it completely dies and sort of stops the
energy of the movie, we will actually heed the advice of the audience in those
cases.

GROSS: So did you both watch cop films for inspiration in the writing and the
directing and performance?

Mr. McKAY: Did you watch any, Will?

Mr. FERRELL: You know what, I don't know if you recall, I had mentioned to you,
oh, I should watch some more kind of buddy cop movies. And Adam actually said
no, don't. I actually don't want you to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And Adam's point was I kind of want your ideas to come from an
unfiltered place of just randomness. So, yeah, so I purposely and lazily didn't
watch anything and just kind of – and that's where, you know, I kind of, I
emailed Adam the idea for the scene of where my character gets convinced that
he can shoot his weapon in the office.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And that was just a random, you know, obviously the fact that I
didn't have a great knowledge of all these kind of buddy cop movies, something
like that was able to just pop into my head.

GROSS: Will Ferrell, would you describe your look as the cop who likes to do
the paperwork and the forensic accounting?

Mr. FERRELL: I hate to sound so simplistic in that I knew that my character
would wear glasses, but that was kind of a key element, and once I found kind
of the right glasses for this guy, it kind of set the character off.

But he's a guy who's very kind of well-put-together, but all of his suits are
probably bought at the next step below like a Men's Warehouse, not quite a
Men's Warehouse.

Mr. McKAY: Marshalls?

Mr. FERRELL: Maybe a Marshalls. And so he's very sensible, very prudent with
his finances, and yeah, so we try to embody that character in the look.

Mr. McKAY: We said a little bit, it was like Keith Olbermann with a gun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: Sort of the vibe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You mentioned the eyeglasses, and they're kind of like the '80s version
of aviator glasses.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, they're not – they're just a little off.

GROSS: Those wire-rimmed aviator glasses.

Mr. FERRELL: As soon as I found them, we forwarded pictures to Adam, and Adam
was like, that's it. That's the look.

GROSS: How did you look for them?

Mr. FERRELL: Just with the prop master and just kind of looked through a sea of
glasses, and...

GROSS: The prop master brings it in. You don't go to, like, LensCrafters and
say, give me something very '80s.

Mr. FERRELL: Right. No, I didn't do that. But I did go to a – I wanted to give
myself a standard-issue haircut, and I did go to a Supercuts in the San
Fernando Valley and just walked in and got a standard haircut, and I then
forwarded the pictures to Adam. And you kind of were shocked. You...

Mr. McKAY: It was a thing where we heard Will was going to do it, and in
theory, it sounded like such a great idea, but you know, you have to remember,
when you're about to go into a movie, that look is what you carry for the whole
movie. So...

Mr. FERRELL: I think your quote was: We still want you to look good on camera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: But the haircut was – was perfectly bad, in a way, and we kind of
had to reshape it.

GROSS: Did the haircutter not know who you were?

Mr. FERRELL: She cut my hair for 15 minutes, and then halfway – she didn't say
a word, and then finally, towards the end of the haircut, she's like, you're
one of the "Step Brothers," aren't you? And I said yes. And then that's all we
mentioned it. We didn't talk anymore. So that was, it was kind of funny.

GROSS: And you didn't say, I came here expressly for a bad haircut.

Mr. FERRELL: No, no. I just – in fact, very few words were spoken.

Mr. McKAY: So it was an awkward silence in the room?

Mr. FERRELL: It kind of was. It was an awkward haircut.

Mr. McKAY: Was there a dog barking in the distance?

Mr. FERRELL: There should've been.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, "The Other Guys" is rated PG-13, and one of the things that's
missing from this film, Will Ferrell, is your traditional nude scene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

GROSS: How come? Was it to get the rating or because it would've been too –
what's the word I'm looking for?

Mr. FERRELL: Upsetting?

GROSS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Scarring?

Mr. McKAY: There's actually a new law from the MPAA that if Will just shows
even his naked chest, it's an automatic R.

Mr. FERRELL: In some cases, NC-17.

Mr. McKAY: NC-17, yeah.

Mr. FERRELL: No, you know what, that – it dawned on us later that we basically
had Mark Wahlberg, who's famous for being shirtless for different reasons than
me, that we probably missed that opportunity to have two iconic shirtless
people not take their shirts off.

So no, I – it just didn't happen. We don't really have an explanation.

GROSS: Now, there's times when Mark Wahlberg, who plays your partner, looks
like he's on the verge of laughing. And I'm wondering if there's times when,
Will Ferrell, you improvise something that Mark Wahlberg wasn't prepared for,
and it was hard for him to get through a scene.

Mr. FERRELL: There's one scene towards the kind of beginning of the movie that
stands out in that way, which is, it's kind of our opening salvos with each
other to kind of establish the dynamic that he has no respect for me and
doesn't think I'm a real cop and...

GROSS: Or a real man, for that matter.

Mr. FERRELL: A real man, exactly, and goes into this whole monologue about how
if he was a lion and I was in a different food group, if I was a tuna, he would
swim out into the ocean and eat me. That's how much he hates me.

And then we just improvised this whole second – Adam kind of threw up this idea
of the fact that I'm a tuna who then figures out how to get back on land and
use my resources with my tuna friends to now actively hunt lions. And that was
- anyways, it's this long rant that reverses his kind of aggressive posture in
a way where I all of a sudden get the upper hand.

And that was completely improvised, and you can – there's one bit of coverage
where you can see Mark's on the verge of losing it.

Mr. McKAY: There's a great moment actually in the end of the movie where
Michael Keaton gets Will...

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

Mr. McKAY: Where he says, he's leaning over Will, after Will's been shot, and
he says, I'm going to go check on Mark's character. Hold on, I got a bad knee.
And he braces himself by putting his hand on Will's face to stand up.

And we literally cut it to the frame, the last frame before Will laughs because
he does break. So when you see it in the movie, it's down to the millisecond
before he cracks.

GROSS: My guests are Adam McKay, who directed and co-wrote the new comedy "The
Other Guys," and Will Ferrell, the star of the film. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Will Ferrell, who stars in the
new cop comedy "The Other Guys," which opens Friday, and Adam McKay, who
directed and co-wrote the film. And they also worked together on "Anchorman,"
"Talladega Nights" and "Step Brothers" and started to work together on
"Saturday Night Live," back when Adam McKay was a writer and Will Ferrell was a
member of the cast.

Now, "The Other Guys" may be a comedy, but the explosions in it have to look
real. They have to look as real as a real cop film would. And so what are some
of the things you each had to learn in order to pull off the explosions and the
stunts?

You know, like, you know, there's like, a wrecking ball that smashes into a car
and then into a building, and there's cars crashing into each other. There's
explosions.

Mr. McKAY: We were actually pretty thrifty with this movie because, you know,
we had to shoot in New York. It was a pretty big movie. So all told, we only
crashed, like, destroyed, like, four cars.

Mr. FERRELL: Right.

Mr. McKAY: And we were doubling a lot of cars. And that's kind of what we
learned is that even though these movies look big and excessive, our second
unit guys were very thrifty with it. And when we would shoot our stuff, we
really had to plan when we were going to break something because didn't have
doubles on it.

It wasn't like a $200 million movie, where you just do whatever you want. So
that was a little surprising to us. And then the rest of it is just a lot of
planning, like a lot of storyboarding. You go over it and over it, and you do
safety checks.

And, I mean, some of this stuff's pretty scary, what they do. I mean, we have a
car that shoots into a building that explodes at one point and jumps another
car. And sort of halfway through, you're like oh my God, like, if anyone got
hurt because of this, it's just a comedy. You know, so I think it's about as
far as we would ever go with those kinds of stunts.

Did you learn anything, Will? Did you have a moment of inner knowledge?

Mr. FERRELL: I, unfortunately, Mark's character has to do – well not –
unfortunately for Mark, not for me, Mark has to do a lot of the action, and I
stand there and say, watch out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And we should probably run. So my action consisted of running from
Point A to Point B, even though – I guess the hardest thing I had to do was
there's a scene – we do a take on the good-cop bad-cop scene in a buddy cop
movie, but my character misunderstands and thinks that Terry(ph) says bad-cop
bad-cop.

So Mark starts in with his interrogation, and then I get even crazier, and I
basically in one take, maybe it was two takes, but two long takes, destroy,
wrestle Steve Coogan and destroy his office. And so that was the toughest bit
of action I had to do.

GROSS: So you said, Adam McKay, that you had to double cars because you didn't
have a big budget. What does that mean?

Mr. McKAY: It means you crash into one, and you wreck the right side of it, and
then in another scene, you turn it around so you only see the left side, and
you wreck that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: It's real tricky stuff like that. But, yeah, they do it. They re-use
it. Or if there's not a whole lot of damage to it, sometimes they'll fix it in
their own shop, our second unit, and – I mean, these guys are super crafty.
They know what they're doing. So we got a lot of use out of a lot of things.

Mr. FERRELL: But to speak to what you were initially bringing up, Terry, the –
I think it is so funny because the action does look so real, and we never wink
at any of that.

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, there's actually a couple scenes that are pretty cool, like
the slow-motion shootout in the office and in the Gehry Building. And, I mean,
that was kind of our goal. Like, if you're going to do – it's the same thing we
do with "Talladega." If you're going to have race scenes, let's at least make
them cool.

So we did our best. We did our darnedest with them, and I think a few times, we
get off some pretty cool moments.

GROSS: So even though it's a comedy, you know...

Mr. McKAY: Why didn't you agree with my statement...

GROSS: Oh, no, I agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I was going to start describing it, but I figured how much of the movie
should I be giving away.

Mr. McKAY: We're very insecure.

GROSS: No, I love the part where Mark Wahlberg is kind of – he seems to be on
some kind of, like, roller cart or something because he's kind of shooting and
rolling backwards at the same time.

Mr. McKAY: That's all we needed.

GROSS: (Unintelligible), but yeah, yeah, I won't give it away.

Mr. McKAY: That's all we needed, Terry, just affirmation like that. We work
hard. We're very vulnerable.

GROSS: So again, you know, these – it's a comedy, but the stunts had to look
real, and you used the same kind of stuff that the real action movies do. So,
Adam McKay, that meant you had the real responsibility of making sure no one
got hurt. Not the kind of thing you'd have to worry about as much in something
like "Anchorman."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But - so was that a lot to carry around?

Mr. McKAY: Well, you know, all you can really do as director is really set a
tone. And the tone I tried to set was I just constantly said safety first.
Don't do anything that's risky. I constantly checked with, you know,
Conrad(ph), our second unit director, and Brad Martin(ph), our stunt
coordinator, and is there anything that's edgy? Please don't do it. Don't do
it. It's not worth it.

And I just kept saying that over and over again. Fortunately, you know, Conrad
and Brad are, like, consummate pros. So they were super safety conscious. And,
you know, we had, you know, there's always a couple close calls, but you know,
knock on wood, thank God, no one was seriously injured, and you get through it.

But it's crazy. It's a part of filmmaking people don't often think about that
people do get hurt doing these insane stunts, and so that's the only thing you
can do. There's some, you know, some people shoot a little looser from the hip
and say, just get it done. And I just tried not to do that and over and over
again said be safe. And our producers said the same thing.

Will, on the other hand, had a whole different attitude about it.

Mr. FERRELL: I would then behind Adam's back tell everyone don't listen to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: We got to get this shot, and you're fired if you don't. So between
the two approaches, I think it came out pretty good.

Mr. McKAY: I wasn't happy with what he was doing, and it undermined a lot of my
credibility as a director, but the movie did work out and no one was injured.
And what are you going to do? You know, Will wants the movie to be good.

GROSS: Now, there's also, like, a financial crisis, financial scam, reform
theme through the movie because the main villains are involved with financial
misdeeds. And, you know, there's references to the Federal Reserve. There's a
few, like, Federal Reserve and SEC jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like, what's it like to write jokes like that and not worry that people
won't get it?

Mr. McKAY: Well, you know, there's nothing the people love more than a Federal
Reserve joke.

GROSS: Now, don't I know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, I mean, you can tour the Midwest for years based on prime
rates and actuarial jokes, and yeah. No, we thought that was kind of a cool
thing with – the reason you could do a cop buddy movie was because crime has
changed so much.

You have a guy like Bernie Madoff literally steal $80 billion, you know, AIG
steal hundreds of billions, Goldman Sachs. Crime has changed so much, and to
really do a movie with, like, drug dealers or drug smugglers is kind of almost
quaint at this point.

So we wanted to have that sort of laced throughout it and yet, you know, not be
too didactic or boring about it. And it fit in pretty nicely. It doesn't tend
to stop the rhythm. And I think people can feel the stakes of it, too. They
know that it relates to all of us. It actually is high crime. So you, you know,
it's a comedy, but you somewhat care what they're doing.

GROSS: So do you have another project that you're going to be working on
together now that "The Other Guys" is finished?

Mr. McKAY: We actually want to do the FRESH AIR movie.

GROSS: Oh, of course. Of course you should.

Mr. FERRELL: We just need you to sign a release, Terry.

Mr. McKAY: You've been very difficult through all the legal proceedings.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, I'm happy to play myself. It's an adventure film, right?
It's an adventure film where I sit in a chair reading all day. But it's
exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: It's going to be for IMAX. It's going to be 3-D.

Mr. FERRELL: It's a 500-day shoot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the new one. Thanks so much for coming back to
FRESH AIR.

Mr. McKAY: Thank you so much Terry, it's a pleasure.

Mr. FERRELL: Thanks, Terry, thanks for having us.

GROSS: Will Ferrell stars in the new comedy "The Other Guys." Adam McKay
directed and co-wrote it. The film opens tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.
..COST:
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..INDX:
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*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
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Fresh Air
..TIME:
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..NIEL:
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..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Mitchell's 'Thousand Autumns' On A Man-Made Island

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

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

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" begins in 1799. De Zoet has left his
home in Amsterdam to work on a tiny island in Japan as a bookkeeper for the
Dutch Indies Trading Company. Because he's a foreigner, he's not allowed off
the island. He intends to stay for five years and then return to Amsterdam with
enough money to be worthy of his wealthy fiance but on the island, he falls in
love with a midwife who is considered unmarriageable because of her scarred
face.

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 man-made 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
dykes 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 Tyse(ph) 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 Kretia(ph) 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 canvass bag, this is your passport home.

David, 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 bowel 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 rule 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 proseletizing in Japan
and converted certainly a low number of millions of Japanese people to the
religion.

There was an uprising of the peasant's rebellion and this quickly acquired the
hue of a Christian revolution, really. And from that point on the
(unintelligible) 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: Would you describe the island of Dejima, that part of your novel is set
on and its place in history?

Mr. MITCHELL: Sure. Well, the island of Dejima was very small. That's the first
thing to say about it. Probably a third of an acre, maybe half an acre, space
for 15-20 warehouses, a garden at a long street. It was in the shape of a
flipped opened fan with a short bridge connecting it the mainland. Its place in
Japanese history is very interesting. 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 past 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 close to the outside world. A little bit like North
Korea is closed to the world now, but I think much more so, in fact, because
there would have been no smuggled out footage for YouTube or anything back in
those days.

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 and actually,
it wasn't. But there was this little keyhole that was kept open all of the
time.

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 circumscribe,
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: It must've been so difficult to live in such a small place and not be
allowed off it. It's almost like being on a penal island.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah, indeed. Yeah. It was. And contemporary accounts say how
mind-bendingly tedious the days were, especially out of the trading season. So
the ship would arrive beginning of the trading season, which would've been
June, July, and it had to be away before the seas became dangerous towards the
end of autumn.

And between those times, there was really not very much to do there for the
Dutchmen. They spent a lot of money on prostitutes, men being men. But the
isolation would've been quite incredible, I think. It would be hard for us to
grasp it now. No phones, no letters, no email, obviously. Nothing. And no
guarantee, of course, the ship would be arriving safe and sound at the
beginning of the next trading season.

In fact, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British were merrily seizing
Dutch shipping all over the world, the Dutch were stranded there for five or
six years, not sure why, no word from the outside world, not knowing if they'd
ever see home again. Of course, what was very hard for them is very attractive
to novelists at the beginning of the 21st century. So these circumstances were
another reason that drew me to the book.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Mitchell. He's the author
of the new novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Mitchell. His new novel
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is on the American bestseller list for
one week, it was number one on the U.K. bestseller list. And it is now
nominated, one of 13 books nominated for the Booker Prize in the U.K.

You made your reputation as an experimental writer, experimenting with form and
language. And so this is a historical novel and it's, you know, it's pretty
straightforwardly told. The midwife in this novel at one point thinks the belly
craves food, the tongue craves water, the heart craves loves and the mind
craves stories. And she thinks stories make life tolerable - at least make her
life, which is very difficult, tolerable. Is that one of the reasons why you
wanted to write a historical novel, just to tell a really good story?

Mr. MITCHELL: I'm certainly a plot and character man. Themes, structures,
style, they're valid components of the novel and you can't complete the book
without them. But I think what propels me as a reader, the meat and potatoes,
if you will, of plot and character.

I think we think in terms of stories. I think this story is sort of the most
ancient form of human entertainment. I think it's through stories that we
perceive the world. It's through stories that we communicate with one another,
whether it's in the somewhat refined form of the novel or just a joke that you
tell a friend in a bar. I think we are narrative animals. I think that's what
Homo sapiens is.

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 at 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 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 bygonese(ph) 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 bygonese 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
straightjacket. The better tied straightjacket, the more spectacular the act of
escapology has to be to get out of the straightjacket.

(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 life-long 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 and 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 anyway, 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 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 finding
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 sort 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.

GROSS: My guest is David Mitchell. His new historical novel is called "The
Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is David Mitchell, the author of the bestselling historical
novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet." It's nominated for Britain's
top literary award, the Man Booker Prize.

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 life-long 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.

A friend who was an alcoholic once said to me that an alcoholic never stops
being an alcoholic. He may - but what you have to aspire to be is a teetotal
alcoholic. And in the same way a stammerer, I think, certainly in my case, will
never not be a stammerer but you have to aspire to becoming a non-stammering
stammerer. 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 be 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: So do you find it's better for you to say up front to people yeah, I've
got a stammer, so that's the way it's going to be.

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, much, much more so. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MITCHELL: It's a huge weight off your shoulders. Yeah.

GROSS: Was that something you had to hide - try to hide when you were young?

Mr. MITCHELL: Most certainly. All the time. Being a teenager is hard enough at
the best of times. But if you're a stammering teenager, then I noticed if it's
known and if you're sort of exposed as a stammering teenager then it's really
tough. So I spent a lot of energy and a lot of angst and a lot of stress trying
to hide it and throughout my 20s as well. But in the long run, it's much, much
better for me at least to be upfront about it.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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 trumped, 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 listeners
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 stammerer 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.

This is also why it's good to be upfront about it. If there's no question
before you start that, hey I am a stammerer, it's out in the open and I may
well stammer in this conversation, if that's there before the conversation
starts, then as often as not, the stammer will be a lot lighter and looser in
that conversation.

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, 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.

GROSS: David Mitchell is the author of the novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob
de Zoet." You can read an excerpt of the book and Maureen Corrigan's review of
it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of
our show.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
128872438

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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