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Stutterer Gets Writers And Readers Week Off

Stutterer gets Writers and Readers week off to a fluent start

"Stutterers don't stutter when they're talking to dogs.... Unless, perhaps, they're an intimidatingly intelligent dog," life-long stutterer and author, David Mitchell, noted while answering a question at the opening session of Wellington's Writers and Readers Week last month.

And nor does the multi-award winning author of books such as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas stutter when confronted by 300 or so eager literary-types at the Embassy Theatre.

Mitchell began his session with a reading from a chapter in Cloud Atlas set on the Chatham Islands. Stopping mid-sentence to check the pronunciation of "Tui" he left me in no doubt that he's a prodigiously talented wordsmith.

The reading was followed by a wide-ranging conversion with the host of ABC's The Book Show, Ramona Koval.

Topics covered everything from the evolution of language ("language moves forward by mistakes") to the precocious vocabulary developed by stutterers in an effort to avoid the letters that send them into verbal spasms.

Oddly the letters that trip Mitchell up change every few years... perhaps not a bad thing in terms of developing a well rounded vocabulary. But large vocabularies can come with their own dangers, as he pointed out: "Using the word 'futile' instead of 'pointless" is likely to lead to 13-year-old boy being whacked in the head by his peers."

Stuttering features in Mitchell's most recent work, Black Swan Green, and he regularly pointed out that, "the answers are in here", when replying to questioners fixated (like myself) on his verbal challenges.

Plenty of other ground was covered. Originality, Mitchell said, is the absence of other things: and it's something everyone has if only the can rid themselves of cliché's and formulas.

And he was happy to talk about his own writing process. His characters write letters to him explaining their thoughts and making observations about their surroundings. While writing the chapters of Cloud Atlas set in the 19th Century he emersed himself in Melville

At the end of the session I turned to the women next to me and admitted to having never read any of his works - "Me neither," she replied "but I'm going to now." Not a bad recommendation.


Since writing up this account, I've started reading the truly excellent Black Swan Green and realised that I misrepresented David Mitchell as a stutterer. He's not, he's a stammerer. I'll let the narrator of Black Swan Green clear up the confusion:

"Most people think stammering and stuttering are the same but they're as different as diarrhoea and constipation. Stuttering's where you say the first bit of the word but can't stop saying it over and over. St-st-st-stutter. Like that. Stammering's where you get stuck straight after the first bit of the word. Like this. St....AMmer..."

Some David Mitchell interviews.

The Hindu
The Japan Times
Ian Hocking audio interview

Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington journalist.


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