David Mitchell in Utrecht: Interview & Signing

David Mitchell in Utrecht

David Mitchell in Utrecht

This weekend the British author David Mitchell came to Utrecht, the Netherlands. That’s not far from where I live and I had just read his newest book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet so I was interested to hear what he had to say.

To prepare (just in case they would talk about it too), I read his most famous book (I think), Cloud Atlas. That took me a lot longer than I had expected, so I joined the 48 Hour Book Challenge to help me along. I managed to finish the book in time – but then they didn’t talk about it! Still, it was nice to re-read it.

First impressions

When I arrived, with ample time to spare, I found that there were some 30 seats set out in the middle of the book shop for the audience, facing two higher seats and some loud speakers. The seats for the audience were already taken so I found a standing place straight behind the seats, with a good view. I think in total there were about 70 people, many more than were expected.

When David Mitchell came in, it was clear straight away: this is an Englishman. The kind that does not really want to be in the limelight (or so he makes out), shielding his hands in front of him: “No, don’t applaud, I’m not worth it. “, which I found a bit annoying, as we all came to see him, and no other, and he’s worth it, otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered! Also his dress sense was English standard, i.e., less than impressive¹.

With him came Lidewijde Paris, his Dutch editor, with great dress sense. Initially, when the interview started, she seemed to want to stress what great fun they had had together talking about this and that the previous day, i.e. what great chums she and David were, which I also found annoying. Luckily she relaxed after a while and disappeared more into the background of the conversation.

The interview

Having been sufficiently annoyed, I then started to enjoy the interview. Lidewijde asked how many people in the audience had actually read the book, and it turned out there were only about 5 or so (as far as I could see hands in the air). I was one of them.

I was glad to have read the book, because although they were trying to make the interview more general, I think it was especially interesting if you knew the story and the characters. They talked about Jacob de Zoet, who is a very boring character, honest, God-fearing, serious, without any weaknesses. How could such a boring person act as a main character in the book? Well, interesting things happen to him, which make him also interesting.²

They also talked about the Psalter, the book of psalms that Jacob had (illegally) brought along with him. Mitchell explained that he wrote it so the book was a gift from his uncle. With lots of stories about the life-saving properties of the book and the family history, there was no way Jacob could have left it behind.

Mitchell wanted a female character on the island of Dejima, which was more or less impossible (as no Japanese and certainly no women other than Geishas were allowed on the island). After long thinking he thought she should be a midwife who saved the baby of a very important man in Nagasaki, so she could ask for a favor: to be allowed on the island and work with the Dutch doctor. He said, as the writer, he had had as many problems making Jacob get into contact with Orito as Jacob had! It cost him a lot of figuring out.

What I really liked was when Mitchell was discussing something about Dr Marinus, someone in the audience asked whether he would read the pages where Jacob is submitted to a medical procedure (as a reluctant volunteer). Mitchell immediately agreed and read the passage. It was hilarious! Such fun to listen to!

Then the conversation went on to parts further in the book, but in less detail. Mitchell mentioned that that many of the people traveling to warmer regions in the 1700s died through malaria and other diseases. Some 40% of people would not survive the first few months in Indonesia or Japan. That meant that it was mainly the less well-educated, orphans, people with little opportunity in their own country, that would travel to the far east. Thus, most colonies were built by tough people, rogues, less refined than we might like to believe. I found that a very interesting idea. In the book itself, Mitchell lets some of his characters tell about their life before they came to Dejima. Indeed, these people all had their reasons for escaping the situation they were in. Fascinating!

The signing

After this very interesting interview and reading, it was time for the signing. As I was at the back, behind the rows of chairs, I was going to be at the back of the queue. So instead, I took one of the now vacated seats and just waited for the queue to shorten. When the seats were being cleared away, I joined the queue.

Poor Mitchell! There must have been 40-50 people in the queue with in total about 100 books to sign. I was 3rd to last in that queue, but even when it was my turn, Mitchell still had some friendly words and showed interest in me and in what I was saying. Impressive!

Here are some pictures of the signed books:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - signed

Mitchell first drew over his own name and then signed and put “Utrecht 2010” at the bottom. Meanwhile he was chatting with me so when it it came to write something personal, he had something to write: “To Judith, who was devastated but, hopefully, then undevastated” (explanation in footnote, as this contains a big spoiler)³.

Black Swan GreenBlack Swan Green - signed

This book I bought new at the event, because the day before, my book group decided this was going to be our next read. Honestly, I didn’t push that decision a bit! It says: “To Judith, who is so cool”. Not sure why. Maybe because I mentioned we were going to read this for my book group, in English (but we discuss in Dutch).

And that was the end of a nice afternoon out!

Read also Elma‘s account of David Mitchell in Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem.


¹ I should immediately confess that my dress sense also lacks a bit, which is why I lived happily in England for many years, not bothering much about clothes.

² Personally, I thought that his strength was actually a weakness: he was honest, which was very much not appreciated in the circumstances he found himself in.

³ SPOILER ALERT. I mentioned to Mitchell that I really liked the chapter where Orito escapes from the nunnery. And then goes back! I was devastated to find she had gone back.

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at bookhelpline.com. In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

18 Responses to David Mitchell in Utrecht: Interview & Signing

  1. LOL I believe Lidewijde and David actually *are* ‘great chums’ since she’s been his publisher for some time now and they really seem to get along. It didn’t annoy me ‘the day before’. LOL

    IMO Jacob de Zoet does have one major weakness: he’s a real “Prinzipienreiter”, but loosens up a little later on. In our Haarlem audience only a few people had read the complete book as well. I could not NOT have read it before I went to the interview!

    Well, I better stop commenting and start writing my own post & review… procrastinating… procrastinating…

    PS. About spoiler/note #3: Mr Gnoe didn’t get to finish the book in time (poor soul) and only yesterday did he get to the point where he discovered ‘the devastating event’. He came running to the kitchen where I was cooking an Indonesian meal, real upset! LOL I guess we all react the same way (more or less 😉

  2. Carin B. says:

    That is very cool! I didn’t know that you got to speak to him for a few minutes! From your post, it seems like he was a very nice person.

    I was laughing at your comment about this dress being very English. I’m sure Americans dress even worse. I guess if I make it back to Europe I will try to dress better! 😀

    • leeswammes says:

      Yes, Mitchell is very friendly and pleasant to speak with.

      Dress sense: well, in the Netherlands we dress very “Dutch” (I can pick out Dutch tourists in other countries by their clothing). I would be VERY carefully dressed if I went to Italy, people are very stylish there!

  3. Carin B. says:

    Oh, I also wanted to let you know that I’ve given you an award over at my blog. Click HERE to see it!

  4. Nymeth says:

    Okay, I think I’m *definitely* going to the signing I was telling you about. It sounds so fun! Minor annoyances aside, of course. I’ve never actually read Mitchell, but I actually own Black Swan Green. I should fix that 😛

  5. shelleyraedesigns says:

    Visiting from the bloghop. Thanks for sharing your review I’ve never been to book signing since our small town isn’t on anyone’s itinerary. Sounds like something I will have to do when I get the chance.

  6. You had a great time didn’t you (bad fashion aside!). Mitchell sounds like a really kind, generous guy. I love how he signed his books, making sure to put something special in there for you.

    • leeswammes says:

      Yes, I did have a great time. I hope all author signings are a bit like this. Mitchell is great, even after signing so many books he’s still putting in an effort.

  7. IIt sounds as though you had a great time. I hope my encounter with David Mitchell is just as lovely 🙂

  8. lenny says:

    ‘Devastated’ more of less would have described your feelings over the Orito-escape-return to the monastery episode. I was rooting for her to escape, and perhaps meet Jacob and his band of rescuers on the way. But she turned back ! Reading the reasons for her choice, I can’t help but be in awe, and feel humbled.

    • Leeswammes says:

      We felt the same then, Lenny. I also hoped that she would be rescued by Jacob somehow. I’m still not sure she made the right decision in staying. It was very good of her, though.

  9. Sarah says:

    I just discovered your interesting review of 1000 Autumns. It’s been a while since you posted it but do you remember if any of the members of your book group read the book in Dutch? I’m reviewing this wonderful novel for a Luxembourg book group, in English, and read Mitchell’s comment that the Dutch translation may have an advantage in being able to replicate the way Dutch is spoken. Mitchell learned Dutch while he was writer-in-residence in Leiden in 2006

    I’ll try to read all your reviews from now on. Have you reviewed Het Diner? I did read that one in Dutch. It’s just been translated into English and had good reviews but I was underwhelmed.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Sarah, I can’t really remember what the opinion of Dutch readers was, so I can’t say. So nice you’re reading Jacob de Zoet, I hope you like it as much as I did.

      I have read The Diner but didn’t review it. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. A pity it wasn’t quite what you hoped for.

      • Sarah says:

        I’ve read all of Mitchell’s books and each is great, and different from the others. His interviews are equally enlightening – he calls Dejima the cultural cat-flap between East and West during the reign of the Shoguns. He also has lovely things to say about the time he’s spent in the Netherlands.

  10. Pingback: Een avond met David Mitchell | De Boekblogger

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