An interview with David Mitchell

Lee Yew Leong, Dolan Morgan and Florian Duijsens

Photograph by Murdo Macleod

A ghost, a Belgian composer, a kamikaze pilot, a stuttering teenager, a Dutch accountant—there seems to be no character David Mitchell cannot fully inhabit and weave into tightly plotted books that are as hefty as they are miraculous. His debut novel, Ghostwritten (1999), hops from character to character and from place to place, apparent coincidences linking each chapter. The crystallization of these geographically disparate elements into one heart-stopping narrative was the first indication that Mitchell was in the business of building worlds. The book that followed, Number9dream (2001), named after the John Lennon song, narrowed Mitchell's focus but not its scope. The quest at the heart of the novel, a young man's search for his father, alternates between the realist and the fantastic; an oscillation that will ultimately become the decisive battle of the man's young life. It was Mitchell's third book, however, that flexed the true extent of his powers as a narrator and stylist; each section of Cloud Atlas (2004) is set in a radically different era and takes on a tone entirely its own, from the journal of a young American notary on the Chatham Islands in 1850, to the thrilling tale of an investigative reporter in 1970s California and an interview with a clone in a dystopian Korea. So dazzling is its philosophical and narrative range, it was no wonder silver-screen fabulists the Wachowskis (the Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) turned it into an epic-length film in 2012.

The next two books would scale down their stories but not their storytelling:
Black Swan Green (2006) is an autobiographically inspired coming-of-age story about a boy who stammers, set in Worcestershire, England, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) tells of the Dutch East India Company's remarkable relationship to Japan as the only foreign power trading with the isolated island state at the end of the eighteenth century. In a way, these last two books beautifully set the stage for The Reason I Jump, a memoir by then 13-year-old Naoki Higashida and now translated from the Japanese by Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. This is their first translation. As a portrait of a boy whose 'disability' inhibits his communication with the outside world, this slim work is unparalleled, and though its aims may be humble and small in scale (to help explain the reasons why Higashida, and by extension other, similarly autistic people, do the things they do), the revelation of a previously illegible mind suddenly legible on the page is not.

The below interview was conducted via email, bridging the first-time translator's keyboard in Ireland with Asymptote's in Taipei, Brooklyn, and Berlin in true Mitchellian fashion.

—Florian Duijsens

How did you first encounter this book?

My wife was browsing Amazon Japan one night and came across it. She ordered it, read it, and read out sections to me. Our own son has autism, but we didn't feel usefully served by the books we had found in English—they were either academically slanted, or written by people with autism who are very high functioning (and therefore relatively sorted) or by 'therapy schools' pushing one particular approach. This book was the first one we felt was really helpful: written by a boy, with autism, from the inside, explaining what it's like, and why kids with autism do what they do, and by extension, why our son was exhibiting the behaviors he was exhibiting. Without getting too mushy on you, it felt like our son talking to us for the first time.

Why did you and your wife decide to translate this book?

Because it was so valuable and helpful to us. Initially we translated it samizdat-fashion, just to give to our son's teachers and carers, because we wanted them to be reminded (if they didn't already know it) of the gap between what appears to be going on in the head of a kid with autism (impenetrable chaos, or not a lot, depending on the child and the adult) and what is going on in the very same head—enquiry, learning, analysis, frustration. But then I mentioned our clandestine activity to my agent, who mentioned it discreetly to my publishers, and when they saw our manuscript they felt there could be a wide audience for The Reason I Jump.

My hope is that it will help anyone who wants to understand an individual with autism better than at present. The problem is that people who don't have autism know so little about life with autism, because this knowledge is so hard to communicate. If it wasn't so hard, it wouldn't be autism. The Reason I Jump is, for me, this knowledge—or at least a damn good start. I hope that parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, godparents, and friends can read the book and become more knowledgeable, more useful, more cheered, more patient, and all-round-better 'interactors'.

In the preface, you describe in detail how the author composed the text. For the benefit of the reader, can you tell us a little about how this book was written and structured, and whether there was an editor involved?

Naoki Higashida, who still finds speech difficult, wrote his book after an inspired teacher taught him to write by way of spelling out Japanese words, character by character, on a 'cardboard keyboard'. A helper at his side transcribed the words into sentences, and the sentences into paragraphs. After months and years of practice, Naoki became able to use a regular keyboard without assistance, allowing him to write The Reason I Jump when he was thirteen. The Reason I Jump is structured into about sixty questions and shortish answers (often the answers are only a couple of paragraphs long), interspersed with a few 'sketches' of the Life Autistica. Rounding off the book is a short story in which many of Naoki's ideas are framed by fiction. I can't tell you how heavily the book was edited at the Japanese end, but if it was, it was only a matter of ordering. Naoki's thoughts are his own, certainly—his mental fingerprints are all over them.

How was the book received in Japan? Has Naoki's life been changed by voicing his experience?

The book was well received within the special needs zone of Japanese society. 'Changed' isn't quite the right word, but Naoki's life has been directed into that of an autism advocate because of his writing, so maybe 'formed' is better. He's a young man in his early twenties now and addresses teachers, writes regularly for The Big Issue Japan, and blogs. Japan needs advocates: there appears to be very little cross-integration of special-needs people with the rest of society and mainstream schools. My impression is that you're supposed to go to your relatively well-funded 'special school' and show your gratitude by not bothering anybody with your disability. Does that sound bitter?

Reading the book, it struck me that the experience of autism that Naoki describes is not entirely different from a foreigner who has yet to adapt to the language of his adopted land and is struggling both to express himself and to understand others around him. I imagine your Japanese must be pretty good, but can you tell us how it was when you just arrived in Japan? And what is your relationship with the Japanese language like now?

I had only a bit of, uh, 'gaijin boyfriend Japanese'—less spicy than you're imagining—when I arrived in Japan to teach English, aged 24. Yes, it wasn't easy, unless you stayed in the English-speaking bubble which gets a bit pointless after a while. I wasn't an overly diligent student of the language, I'm afraid, as most of my intellectual energies were going into creative writing, and only got to a decent-ish intermediate level by the time I left. I can bluff well for a while, but fifteen minutes in and the cracks start to show. Working on the translation bumped me up a notch, though, and we use Japanese in the house quite a lot, and iPhones are a godsend – as you know, it's easier to choose kanji from a menu than recreate from memory what the damn radicals and stroke orders are. As soon as my next book's in, I'm going to brush the dust off the textbooks and study some more. Now I've said that to Asymptote, I'll really have to.

Can you describe the process of working with your wife as co-translator?

My wife did the heavy lifting and wrote a first draft. Then we went through her work, line by line, and either kept it or modified it. Then I did a third stylistic draft to give it the certain 'boyishness' that is a part of the original's charm. Lastly, my wife went through my version three line by line to find places where I had been either too exuberant or too 'New Yorkerish'. She's sharp, clever, and usually right, and the process was good for my humility.

Since voice is such an integral part of this project, did you encounter any significant bumps in translating Naoki's voice during the translation process? Did you need to draw from your personal experience with autism or even meet Naoki himself?

Bumps... As you may know, repetition is less of a vice in Japanese, a borderline virtue in fact, but you can't get away with it in English. 'Variegating' the prose was sometimes a challenge. In the story at the end of the book, 'I'm Right Here,' there are places where the prose is a bit ambiguous as to whether a line is being narrated, spoken, or thought. This gives the Japanese a certain propulsive dreaminess which works really well, but in English, uh-uh, so we used the code of speech marks for speech, italics for thought and plain text for straight narration. Here and there we ran into Naoki's enthusiasm for using terms like 'nervous system', which ever so slightly exceeded his thirteen year old's grasp of the neurology behind the terms. Providing a faithful translation while imagining a jaded consultant in a university hospital somewhere going harrumph! was now and then a challenge. I was lucky enough to run into the gracious Jay Rubin (Murakami's translator) at Galway Festival last year, and although I wouldn't expect him to remember the encounter, he made some general remarks about Japanese-to-English translation that boosted my confidence.

You said that reading this book helped you in your own relationship with your autistic son. What sort of insights did you gain during the translation, and did they affect your day-to-day interactions with him?

A lazy (if truthful) reply would be, "Read the book, and that's the answer". All of the 'whys' that I knew had no answers to: 'Why are you banging your head on the floor?'; 'Why don't your emotions link up with what's going on?'; 'Why do you flap your hand in front of your face for so long?'. The questions I'd never thought to wonder about: 'How do you perceive memory?'; 'What's it like to live inside an autistically-wired head?'; 'Can people with autism also be spiritual?' Most affective (and effective, come to that) of all is the hope that the book provides: here's a boy with moderate-to-severe autism who empathizes; analyses his condition; knows when he's being patronized; has a sense of humour; is hungry to learn. You wouldn't know it if you met him, because he can't communicate these things to us, and because we neuro-typicals often function too highly to know how to listen, or we're just too busy running around being Normal. But all these intellectual and emotional and creative skills are as present in people with autism as they are in anyone else—and no, not theoretically, not hopefully, not interpretatively, but present, there, in his writing, in his words. Just read it. Thanks to the book, I could look at my own son and instead of seeing an autistic boy, I saw a boy inside autism, and when you think that way, you stop feeling sorry for everyone (most of all yourself) and start thinking, Well f*** it, what can I do to punch holes in that barrier? In the grind of caring 24/7, of the negative stereotypes, of the relentless politicking with educational/health authorities who are allegedly there to help you, of worries about what happens to your kid when you die, despair and fatalism and Why Bother? are all too easy. Naoki's book is a vitamin boost. That doesn't mean I don't have bad days, but they're less bad, and I'm over them quicker.

Like Reif Larsen, you've already had to answer many questions posed by translators about your work, but did you yourself have any experience as a translator before this book? And what do you now think of translation as a creative activity?

This is my debut as a translator. The exercise has confirmed my long-held suspicion that my translators are three times cleverer than me, with a better command of English as well as the 'into-language,' plus a knowledge of the mysterious art and science that is translation itself. As a writer I can be bad, but I can't be wrong. A translator can be good, but can never be right. Translators are jugglers, diplomats, nuance-ticklers, magistrates, word-nerds, self-testing lie detectors, and poets. Translators rock.

Someone once said that all writing is translating—if only translating the language of thought onto paper. Similarly, fiction, in some ways, is about bringing characters to life through ventriloquism; do you find it productive to also see translation as an act of ventriloquism, and in this case a double act of ventriloquism (both of culture and of an outsider's psychological space)?

The theory of translation is fertile and deep, but I'm too much of a beginner to go weighing in here, especially considering that Asymptote's readership must include some of the best translators on Earth. All I tried to do was render The Reason I Jump into a book that Naoki would have written had he been born in the UK and not Japan. That intention was my guiding principle and my Sir Alan Sugar who dealt with my hesitancies and second-guessings and prevarications accordingly: You, my friend, are fired.

How was giving voice to someone (with actual flesh and blood) different from giving voice to a fictional character (say the stuttering 13-year-old you created in Black Swan Green)?

There's an ethical dimension to it, of course. Naoki is a real person who entrusted me to be his Anglophonic Him. I had to represent his personality as faithfully as I possibly could—as faithfully as I'd like my own translators to represent me. Depicting Naoki inauthentically just to make a sentence snappier or the flow of a paragraph smoother—that would be betrayal of trust.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book concerned Naoki's jumps from experience to memory. As a writer whose own narratives also perform similar psychological leaps, were you surprised to encounter this in Naoki's description of his own inner world?

I suppose I was surprised, but then I feel guilty about my surprise. That surprise existed only because of my not crediting people with autism—including my own son—with the imaginative and intellectual apparatus they in fact do possess, and love to use. (Once again, the problem is communicative.) Then I just felt stupid that I hadn't realized all this before. Better late than never, though. Much, much, better.

I think what's extremely powerful about this book is that much of it resonates not only with the autistic experience, but with the quandaries of being alive in general—communicating with others, the barrier between self and world, the struggle for free will in a body/mind/world that seems beyond our control. Could you expound on some of the corollaries between autism and the broader universal human experience, either in general or in your own life?

Thanks, and I'm glad you think so. This is a(nother) big question that could be an essay in its own right, really, but it is an essay for another day. I'd agree with you wholeheartedly that when Naoki writes about how his memory works, or what he finds beautiful, or even how he takes in a landscape pointillistically, the reader is obliged to think about his or her own memory, sense of beauty, and mechanics of perception. In this sense, it's almost a more philosophical book than Naoki may have meant it to be – the act of self-enquiry doesn't stop with him, but lassoes the reader,
too. Living in close contact with autism, you do come to understand that autism is indeed a spectrum inhabited by all of us. The majority of us are on the 'right' side of a blurry zone on this spectrum where you don't get diagnosed and don't need to, but I've often thought about kids I was at school with in the benighted 1980s (which were in turn a cakewalk compared to the 1950s, when you shudder to think) who struggled with autism or Asperger's before the word and diagnosis existed. Same thing with people I've met between then and now whom I dismissed as weird-in-a-bad way or selfish or as anal jobsworths or incommunicative beyond the point of rudeness, and now I think, You too, huh? Sorry I didn't understand at the time. Like a speech disfluency—I stammer—autism isn't a disease but an architectural/electronic feature of your brain. The nature of this feature is still a mystery to science and the bad news is, there's no cure—at best, there are treatments that make autism more liveable-with. The good news is that the brain is a mystery and its potential for plasticity, and for evolving new pathways, has been consistently underrated. Ask recoverers from strokes. I'm not saying you should live in hope for a miraculous cure—I don't believe in 'em, especially if there's a trademark or copyright symbol in the neighbourhood—but I am saying you should never underestimate an autistic person's talent for discovering a key to a lock you never expected to see being opened, from the inside. Crucially—and I don't know how I got onto this soapbox, but here I am—communicate, talk, speak, be a constant radio: they are listening. Naoki Higashida proves this to my satisfaction, amply. They're learning, and you're all they've got, so talk.

Click here to read an excerpt from Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump, also in the July 2013 issue, translated by David Mitchell and K.A. Yoshida.