“Without Any Jiggery-Pokery” — David Mitchell on Writing His Novel Black Swan Green

David Mitchell talks about writing his novel Black Swan Green in his 2010 Paris Review interview

MITCHELL

I’d actually started Black Swan Green years earlier. In 2003, while I was finishing Cloud Atlas, Granta asked for an unpublished story, and all I had were a few sketches about the world I grew up in. I didn’t want to be overly distracted from the end of Cloud Atlas, so I decided to knock one of the sketches into a publishable story. In doing so, I began my next novel.

INTERVIEWER

Did you, like Jason, write poetry under a pseudonym for the parish newsletter?

MITCHELL

I did.

INTERVIEWER

Was your pseudonym the same as Jason’s: Eliot Bolivar?

MITCHELL

James Bolivar—after a character created by an American science-fiction writer, Harry Harrison. I’ve never told anyone that before. You can see why.

INTERVIEWER

And, like Jason, did you go see a speech therapist?

MITCHELL

Just the same, aged about thirteen. Like Jason, I would go, and my stammer would vanish in the presence of the therapist, but come the next day, I’d be stammering again. One very pleasing result of Black Swan Green is that the book now appears on course syllabi for speech therapists in the UK. I hope that the book is useful for anyone wanting to understand an insider’s account of disfluency. For most of my life, the subject was a source of paralyzing shame, scrupulously avoided by family and friends. They were being kind, but to do something about a problem it must be named, discussed, and thought about. After writing the second chapter of Black Swan Green I realized, This is true, real, and liberating. I felt a little like how I imagine a gay man feels when he comes out. Thank God—well, thank me actually—that I don’t have to pretend anymore. Now I’m more able to feel that if people have a problem with my stammer, that problem is theirs and not mine. Almost a militancy. If Jason comes back in a future book, he’ll be an adult speech therapist.

INTERVIEWER

When you were creating Jason Taylor, did you ask yourself, What was David Mitchell like at that age?

MITCHELL

It was largely that, yes. Arguably, the act of memory is an act of fiction—and much in the act of fiction draws on acts of memory. Despite the fact that Jason’s and my pubescent voices are close, his wasn’t the easiest to crack because it had to be both plausible and interesting for adult readers.

INTERVIEWER

It was perverse of you to write a first novel after having written three others.

MITCHELL

When I started out on this head-banging vocation, my own background simply didn’t attract me enough to write about it. An island boy looking for his father in Tokyo; sarin-gas attackers; decayed future civilizations in the middle of the Pacific—these were what attracted me. It took me three books to realize that any subject under the sun is interesting, so long as the writing is good. Chekhov makes muddy, disappointed tedium utterly beguiling.

INTERVIEWER

Black Swan Green is very carefully structured.

MITCHELL

Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing. Make your structure original and you may end up with a novel that looks unlike any other. So yes, Black Swan Green is carefully structured—like all halfway decent books—but simply structured too, with one story per month for thirteen months. After Cloud Atlas I wanted a holiday from complexity. I was reading Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Alice Munro—all three great No Tricks merchants. After doing a half Chinese-box, half Russian-doll sort of a novel, I wanted to see if I could write a compelling book about an outwardly unremarkable boy stuck in an outwardly unremarkable time and place without any jiggery-pokery, without fireworks—just old-school.

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