A Reader’s Guide A Conversation Between David Mitchell and David Ebershoff
David Ebershoff is the author of four books, including The Danish Girl
and the number–one bestseller The 19th Wife
. The Danish Girl
was adapted into a film starring Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne and featuring an Oscar–winning performance by Alicia Vikander. David had a long career at Random House, where he edited five novels by David Mitchell, as well as more than twenty New York Times
bestsellers, three Pulitzer Prize winners, and a winner of the National Book Award. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Columbia University. Originally from Pasadena, California, he now lives in New York City.
On November 3, 2015, David Ebershoff interviewed David Mitchell onstage at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, after which audience members asked questions. The following edited dialogue is based on a transcript of the interview.
As your editor, every time you turn in a manuscript, I’m reading it on many levels. To see what it’s about, to see what you’re building on, but always in each of the books you’ve delivered, I’m discovering something you haven’t done before. And in this book it was the first time you really scared me.
I’m delighted to hear that.
The fate of your characters terrified me, as I saw what might happen to them and what was
happening to them. How conscious of that were you when you were writing this? Was this the book where you set out to terrify your readers?
: Could a ghost story call itself a ghost story if it didn’t try to unsettle—-or, sure, terrify—-its readers? You’ve reminded me of a T–shirt I saw that other day that read, “Guns don’t kill people—-George R.R. Martin kills people.” The T–shirt made me think of how, when I kill characters off, the deaths tend to be moderately benign ones, with hope or redemption or poignancy being in the mix. But in George R.R. Martin’s books, nobody is safe. It’s high stakes, because some people will be too upset to read on, but for the survivors—-what a payoff! Whenever a character is in jeopardy you feel twenty thousand volts of fear because you really know Martin is quite capable of offing him or her right now. Not even Arya Stark is safe. Reading it, you’re as scared as the characters. Of dramatic irony there is not one whiff. Martin’s refusal to give preferred or privileged characters a “safety cloak” was a method I tried to emulate in Slade House
. Nobody is safe here. Justice is not automatic. People do die in these pages.
When we were getting ready to publish Slade House
, I sent the book to Joe Hill, the horror/supernatural novelist, son of Stephen King, and he loved this book and he wrote back to both of us saying, I’ve always thought small doors are really creepy.
Why are they creepy and where in your life have you encountered a little door, and did you open it?
Lots of such doors, as a matter of fact. I always try to open them, though they usually turn out to be locked. You get them in old higgledy–piggledy English houses. Small doors have something wrong about them. Not glaringly wrong, but mildly wrong; and mildly wrong is more disturbing than glaringly wrong, because it’s not strong enough to make your fight or flight instinct kick in, and you don’t know whether you can trust your judgment about it or not. They stabilize and debase the currency of your belief in your own mind, and that is frightening. If something is going to come and get you, a vampire, a monster, it’s not very nice, but it’s kind of ripping the life out of you, it’ll be over pretty quickly . . . it’s not that bad. But the idea that you can no longer trust your mind, that’s just about the most frightening thing there is. When you mess around with proportion or symmetry, or when doubt is injected into your perception of the laws of physics, your mind ceases to be a refuge. Your mind is no longer a safe house.
I have a recurring nightmare where I’m being followed by someone. He’s not immediately threatening, but I want to keep him at a safe distance. We start off with him two hundred meters or so behind me, and I’m walking through a very empty Manchester. (I’m not sure why it’s Manchester: maybe because I support Liverpool, and Manchester United are the tribal enemy.) Then the figure that was a good safe distance behind me only a few seconds ago, when I next turn around is only five meters behind me—-practically in garroting distance. It’s not the fear of what he may do to me that makes me wake up in a sweaty panic, however; it’s the impossibility that he could he have covered that ground in so short a time. The only expla-nation is that my senses, memory, and mind are conspiring against my well–being, and nothing’s scarier than that.
The Slade House door is modeled on a small door in my sixth–form college building. It was a ramshackle old house with Tudor timbers and a Georgian side—-real mutant, hybrid, default architecture, built on different levels, from a basement to an attic. To conform to modern fire safety regulations, the school had had to put in little fire–exit doors everywhere, but for whatever structural reason, some of these doors were so small that you’d have to stoop to get through unless you were a hobbit. That small black iron door was in my history classroom.
That explains it. What about originally publishing the first chapter on Twitter? That was your first time on Twitter. What intrigued you about seeing your work go out in those bursts and the kind of immediate response, which is so different from publishing a book, where you’re done writing many, many months before publication, where there’s a distance between you and your reader until evenings like this?
The difference was that I was able to control the time the reader could read the story, and the speed at which they could consume the narrative. Ordinarily you have no control over these variables. The story was released in timed bursts of tweets to coincide with U.K. rush hours. It was more like a communal art project or a kind of textual radio than anything I’d ever done before, and it’s from the things you’ve never done before that you learn.
Writing a narrative in tweets is a unique writing straitjacket. Escaping from that straitjacket required me to think about narrative in a different way, break it down to its barest, unadorned elements, and work with each of those elements one tweet at a time.
With novels you can take your time. It’s more like being a balloonist, looking down on the lie of the land on the page below, seeing what’s happening here, what’s there, what’s where. With Twitter fiction the experience is more akin to being on a Japanese bullet train, traveling through a landscape of mountains and tunnels. You’re in the dark for a while and then, [bullet train sound
], you get a moment of light and view and you have to see as much as possible in a brief window of time, a horse there and a mountain there, and a lake there with a couple making out in a boat, and then, [bullet train sound
], you’re into the darkness again. What isn’t there is gone. With each tweet, you only have time to progress the plot, or
develop a character, or
convey an idea, or
attend to “atmospherics.” Just one thing. In sentences in novels, you get to do all of those things in a single sentence. Twitter fiction is like the old spinning–plate–on–stick trick. You’re constantly asking yourself, “Which element most urgently needs addressing next?” And you can’t have very long names like Benedict Cumberbatch. DE:
Let’s take some questions. AUDIENCE MEMBER:
What inspired you to make Nathan thirteen? When I think of a curious and observant child, I would have imagined someone younger. DM:
In a word, vocabulary. You’re right that kids are curiosity machines when they’re eight or nine. Why, when, who, what, where, what? Their spoken vocabulary is really not great. By making Nathan thirteen years old, and a sort of borderline Asperger’s thirteen to boot, I could give him both that ferocious curiosity about the world that younger kids have, but also a kick–ass lexicon—-at least inside his head—-to express that curiosity (and its findings) in ways that engage the “mind–ear” of readers old than thirteen. AUDIENCE MEMBER:
Is there a theme you feel like you’re working out or something you’re especially interested in exploring that unites your different books? DM:
Every writer is a walking bundle of archetypal themes. If you have more than one, consider yourself lucky, though a single theme can be enough—-Nathaniel Hawthorne only ever wrote about guilt, but he wrote about it so brilliantly, who cares? Maybe the average number is about four? My themes include predacity, the eternal conflict between human beings who cooperate and human beings who are competitive and predatory. Another of my archetypal themes is language, especially when it goes wrong: speech impediments, miscommunication, autism, translation, nonmastery of a second language, being able to kind of express what you mean but not having the software to do it perfectly, and what it’s like to be sort of stuck in a prison house of language through whose barred windows you have to shout. Thirdly, cause and effect. Why do things happen the way they do? Were they preordained? If so, by whom, and how? Or free will? Can free will ever really be “free”? If not—-and it seems not—-then why not? In my first novel, each of the sections is sort of an essay in fiction that gives a different answer to this question.
Probably the object I would save if my house were on fire, obviously once the kids and wife were safe—I’ve got a photograph of a merchant navy ship called the Cairo
that my dad sailed on when he was a little boy and was taken to India by my grandparents during what was known as the Phony War, when Germany and Britain were officially at war but hadn’t started bombing yet. The two sides were still sizing each other up while drawing up plans and manufacturing armaments like crazy. Anyway, my grandfather was a tailor and he got a job as a supervisor for a uniform factory somewhere in India. The Cairo
came back, and on the way back out, well, the Phony War was no longer the Phony War. It got torpedoed, sank, everyone aboard died.
So had my grandparents, of course, taken the next passage on from the one they did in fact take, I would not be here. My dad would have died at age five, the timeline of me would never have happened, and the photo of the ship sits on my desk to remind me of the mercurial nature of cause and effect and the profound improbability that any of us are here at all.
I don’t suffer from clinical depression or suicidal thoughts, but if I did, I like to think this photograph would be my “Oh, come on, don’t do it, hang on in there.” The position of our existence is as close to impossible as you can get and yet still exist. As it is for us, so it is for all reality.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Slade House is broken up into five parts and is narrated by five different characters, all in the first person. Which of their voices were you most drawn to and why?
2. Despite their differences, the narrators are all “engifted” and therefore targets of the Grayer twins. What do you think “engifted” means? What might qualify someone as “engifted”?
3. Did you notice any recurring patterns in the storytelling across all five parts?
4. With each new “guest” you learn more and more about Slade House and the Grayer twins. What about their abilities and story was most unsettling to you?
5. On page 146, Freya Timms thinks “Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.” Do you agree? In what way is this true for characters in the novel?
6. On page 175, Fred Pink counters Freya’s argument for why immortality wouldn’t be kept a secret. What does Fred’s explanation say about human nature? Do you agree?
7. Throughout his life, many people dismiss Fred and his beliefs and research. What might his experiences say about the way society treats those who are labeled as mentally ill?
8. Norah and Jonah’s history is extraordinary, but also marked by loss. Did you ever find them sympathetic? When and why?
9. You don’t learn much about what Norah and Jonah do in–between each nine–year cycle, but we do know that they have a great degree of freedom and many resources at their disposal. Would you be tempted by their nomadic but gifted existence?
10. Were you surprised by Norah’s actions at the end of the novel?
11. What’s the most frightening book you’ve ever read, and what is the most spine–chilling movie you’ve seen? Are there differences between literary fear and cinematic fear?