The early life of David Mitchell, spent in the town of Malvern in Worcestershire, England, was ordinary and uneventful—as he puts it, “white, straight, and middle-class.” Things got more exciting when, at twenty-four, he fell in love with a Japanese woman and moved to Hiroshima. Six years later he published his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), which A. S. Byatt declared one of the best first novels she’d read. It was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for the best work of literature by a British or Commonwealth author thirty-five or younger. Both his second novel, Number9Dream (2001), and his third, Cloud Atlas (2004), were short-listed for the Booker Prize; Granta picked him as one of the best young British novelists; and Time magazine, following the publication of his fourth novel, Black Swan Green (2006), chose him as the only literary novelist in their 2007 list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. His new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a rich and absorbing historical novel set in Japan at the very end of the eighteenth century, in Dejima, a walled artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor that was the only place in the country where Westerners were tolerated. All five novels are ambitious, formally complex, imaginatively powerful, and immaculately written. They zigzag across the globe, across centuries, skipping from genre to genre with a restless, openhearted intelligence.
Despite the critical adulation, Mitchell remains modest, polite, and friendly. Eager to laugh, he brims with boyish enthusiasm. He dresses like a slacker, in baggy jeans and layered T-shirts, and the clothes add to the youthful aura—as do his close-cropped reddish-blond hair; his long, lanky frame; and his translucent, stick-out ears. Because he skirts around it with considerable lexical ingenuity, it’s not immediately apparent that he stammers.
After returning from Japan in 2002, Mitchell settled in Clonakilty, a seaside town in County Cork, Ireland. He and his wife have a daughter and a son. Most of this interview was conducted in the cramped and cluttered upstairs parlor of O’Donovan’s Hotel in Clonakilty, with breaks to eat lamb burgers in a nearby restaurant. We also met at Hazlitt’s Hotel in London, which has a fine eighteenth-century pedigree—a fitting venue for an interview with a man who has spent his last half decade living in the year 1799.
INTERVIEWERDo you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?
DAVID MITCHELLAbsolutely not. I can write pretty much anywhere. If I’m in a loud place where I know the language, then I can’t write, but generally the universe needs to contrive circumstances to stop me writing, rather than contrive ones to allow me to write. But I am happiest in my hut in County Cork, with a pot of green tea and a large, uncluttered table.
INTERVIEWERIf you’re in your hut with your teapot and cup, are you writing on your laptop, or longhand?
MITCHELLI do my thinking on paper, and act on my thinking on the laptop.
INTERVIEWERWhat are you working on now?
MITCHELLRight now I’m working on a book set in the thirty years on either side of 2010, but I shouldn’t give too many details or the next thing you know it’s on Wikipedia and if I change my mind and decide to recast King Lear in a pond of frogs and toads I’ll just give a hardworking Wikipedian an extra headache.
INTERVIEWERCan you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?
MITCHELLThere was no single epiphany, but I recall a few early flashes. When I was ten I would be transported by certain books—Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novels, Isaac Asimov—and burn to do to readers what had just been done to me. Sometimes that burning prompted me to start writing, though I never got more than a few pages down. A few years later I would indulge in a visual fantasy that involved imagining my name on the jacket of a book—usually Faber and Faber—and I’d feel a whoosh inside my rib cage.
INTERVIEWERDid you confess these desires to anyone?
MITCHELLWhen I was thirteen I boasted to my mother that I was writing a book. She replied, Oh, well, that’s no surprise. I was crestfallen.
INTERVIEWERDid your parents have literary interests?
MITCHELLMy father taught art at a teacher-training college before joining the design department of Royal Worcester Porcelain, where he worked on tableware and limited editions—I remember a series with famous American ships, which people might still be dining off in Omaha or Santa Cruz as we speak. Mum was a freelance artist specializing in botanical images used in advertising, packaging, and on greetings cards. When I talk about my artist parents people imagine a bohemian environment and think, Aha, so that’s where he gets it from! But we were as white, straight, and middle-class as the next family on our white, straight, middle-class housing estate. But my parents did show me, inadvertently, that earning a living off the back of an artistic talent is not impossible. And certainly there was no shortage of books in the house—Mum was always a big reader, and still is—and my childhood was a place where reading for pleasure was not weird. Also, my parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? The empty spaces required me to turn anthropologist-creator.
INTERVIEWERHow different was your childhood from the rather traumatic one you give Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green?
MITCHELLMy mum and dad were much nicer than the parents in Black Swan Green, and I wasn’t picked on the way Jason was. My stammer was less extreme.
INTERVIEWERBut you did have a stammer?
MITCHELLStill do. I’m a proud patron of the British Stammering Association, I’ll have you know, and they don’t let any old Tom, Dick, or Harry in. I was once told that an alcoholic never stops being an alcoholic, but can aspire to become a teetotaler alcoholic. Likewise, a stammerer can aspire to become a nonstammering stammerer—which, in my case, involves working toward a state of peaceful coexistence with it.
INTERVIEWERDo you think your own stammer had much to do with your desire to write?
MITCHELLOn one hand, yes: it makes sense that a kid who can’t express himself verbally would be driven to express himself on the page instead. On the other hand, no: most writers aren’t stammerers and most stammerers aren’t writers. Perhaps the best answer is that the writer that I am has been shaped by the stammering kid that I was, and that although my stammer didn’t make me write, it did, in part, inform and influence the writer I became. It’s true that stammerers can become more adept at sentence construction. Synonyms aren’t always neatly interchangeable. Sometimes choosing word B over word A requires you to construct a different sentence to house it—and quickly, too, before your listener smells the stammering rat.
INTERVIEWERWhat was your schooling like?
MITCHELLPretty standard, for my class and generation, though with a few lucky breaks. Black Swan Green is loosely drawn from a village called Hanley Swan in Worcestershire where my family lived from about 1976 to 1981. Due to a demographic blip there were only five children in my year, and just twenty-eight in the whole school, so the teacher-to-student ratio was advantageous. I had a reasonable enough education by 1980s UK standards—neither dreadful nor inspired. But I encountered three or four gifted teachers, which is a decent quota. They exposed me to some fine writers and encouraged my covert bookishness.
INTERVIEWERYou already thought of yourself as bookish?
MITCHELLAt home, yes. In public, it wasn’t politic for boys to display symptoms of the ailment.
INTERVIEWERWhat about university?
MITCHELLI read English and American literature at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I then applied and got funding for an M.A. in the postmodern novel at the same university—but I had no money to live on, so I worked at a bookshop, Waterstone’s. A year later, I got a job working in Sicily, in Catania, teaching English. That was my first taste of being the lonely foreigner, of exploring someone else’s city until my feet ached, strangers going home to dinner. I wrote up my thesis that year, and read a lot of the more amply endowed nineteenth-century centurions—Dickens, Tolstoy, George Eliot. Very little creative writing on the horizon at that point.
INTERVIEWERYou spent many years in Japan, where you’ve now set two novels. How did you end up there?
MITCHELLI met a Japanese woman when I was living in London, and when her visa expired I went back with her, and we eventually got married. I taught English in Hiroshima, and ended up staying in the city and its environs for eight years.
INTERVIEWERWhat led you to move back to the West?
MITCHELLMy wife and I moved to the UK in 2002 because it dawned on us, midway through her second trimester, that back in England I could support the soon-to-be three of us from my earnings as a writer alone. If we had stayed in Japan, on the other hand, where the cost of living was higher, I would have had to stick with the day job in order to bring home enough yen, and I would have been unable to help with the imminent arrival any more than an average Japanese husband—that is, not a lot. English life, combined with first-time parenthood, was a jolt for both me and my wife, but human beings adapt to much more dramatic life changes and we adjusted soon enough.
INTERVIEWERYour first novel, Ghostwritten, has an epigraph from Thornton Wilder. Was he one of the writers that influenced you?
MITCHELLWe studied Our Town at school when I was fifteen. It was one of the first works of literature that moved me. It implanted a distrust of the distinction between high-, middle-, and lowbrow books. For me, the distinction between excellent and engaging and the less so is more useful. Then I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey at university. It’s a glorious thing, packed with ideas for other possible books. Wilder’s novel is an attempt to explain why a certain group of people died when a rope bridge collapsed in Peru—to locate meaning in randomness. It’s an essay in fiction about causality. Ghostwritten is a sequence of explorations on the same subject, and I named one of the characters Luisa Rey as a kind of tribute. Each chapter offers a different reason why its events unfold as they do. In the first one, set in Okinawa, the main events happen because of the abdication of one’s own will.
INTERVIEWERThe main event, then, would be the deadly 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. And that event was triggered by the cult’s indoctrination technique—brainwashing.
MITCHELLAnd the desire to be brainwashed—and abdicate personal responsibility to a guru, a higher authority, a god. In the Tokyo section, love is the principal mover. In the Hong Kong section, greed. In the Holy Mountain section, it’s history. My editor at the time liked to tell the story of how he bought Ghostwritten as a novel in eight parts, but then there was a fax a few days later saying, Well actually it’s nine parts, and a few weeks later it was, Erm, now it’s a novel in ten parts.
INTERVIEWERWas it painful to get into the mind of someone like Quasar, who had killed so many people?
MITCHELLIt would be now, but younger writers are often less interested in Should I do it? than Can I do it? and I was no different. I was chasing that prize of Let’s see if I can do this! Let’s see if I can do the murderer! I have a crime-writer friend who became unstuck one day by asking herself, Jesus, what am I doing, writing about these atrocious, soul-mincing events? and now I understand her dilemma. If your work is to be true, and not a vapid parlor game, and if your work is trying to shine light in the human psyche’s deepest, darkest, illest places, then you have to go there, and be it, and that’s no casual undertaking.
INTERVIEWERHow long did it take for the connections between the stories in Ghostwritten to develop?
MITCHELLI took about six or seven months off from my job in Hiroshima and traveled to Europe via Hong Kong, Macao, China, and then the Trans-Siberian Railway from east to west. I wrote Ghostwritten’s earlier stories in backpacker hostels, primarily to relieve my writer’s itch. After the Chinese section the idea came to me that they could be merged and strung into an odd-looking sort of novel.
INTERVIEWERA writer friend once compared writing a novel, when you’re in the midst of it, to having the bathwater running upstairs in the house at all times.
MITCHELLThat’s a more pleasing image than mine, which involves hearing the blip blip blip of e-mails arriving in your inbox, and knowing that at some point you’re going to have to sit down and sift through them, but not today, damn it, not tonight, please, not until I’ve just finished this one last scene.
INTERVIEWERSatoru, the sweet young man in the Tokyo section of Ghostwritten, seems a close cousin of Eiji, the hero of your next novel, Number9Dream.
MITCHELLThat musically precocious, young Japanese orphaned or half-orphaned male—yeah, I had something in my system. The more books you write, the more this becomes a problem. It gets harder to keep the cast of characters that you have written so far sufficiently discrete, sufficiently free of resemblances. I was traveling, actually, while I was writing that novel as well. And making notes in my notebook for the later stories too.
INTERVIEWERWith a pencil or a pen?
MITCHELLProbably a scuzzy Biro nicked from a hostel. I was too poor to afford a laptop in those days.
INTERVIEWERWere you particular about what kind of notebook you used?
MITCHELLNot then, but I do use the Moleskine ones now, just because they stay flat when you open them. Most notebooks want to close.
INTERVIEWERAt what stage in the writing process do you move from longhand to electronic media?
MITCHELLAs soon as I hanker to see my words in a neat on-screen font, and when a laptop is at hand, which means after a few hours at home, or a few days if I’m away.
INTERVIEWERHow many hours can you write a day?
MITCHELLI could probably do ten if I had them, but I’ve got two young children, so I can either be a halfway decent dad or I can be a writer who writes all day. I can’t really be both. As things stand, I might clock in three hours on a poor day, and six or seven on a productive day.
INTERVIEWERYou’re still useful in the fifth and sixth hour?
MITCHELLWriting describes a range of activities, like farming. Plowing virgin fields—writing new scenes—demands freshness, but there’s also polishing to be done, fact-checking, character-autobiography writing, realigning the text after you’ve made a late decision that affects earlier passages—that kind of work can be done in the fifth, sixth, and seventh hours. Sometimes, at any hour, you can receive a gift—something that’s really tight and animate and so interesting that I forget the time until my long-suffering wife begins to drop noisy hints.
INTERVIEWERSome writers talk about getting into a zone, where things come in a rush.
MITCHELLWriters can sound rather mystical when they talk about these things. Words like inspiration and creativity I’m really rather suspicious of, though I can’t talk about my work for more than thirty seconds without deploying them myself. Sometimes I think that creativity is a matter of seeing, or stumbling over, unobvious similarities between things—like composing a fresh metaphor, but on a more complex scale. One night in Hiroshima it occurred to me that the moon behind a certain cloud formation looked very like a painkiller dissolving in a glass of water. I didn’t work toward that simile, it was simply there: I was mugged, as it were, by the similarity between these two very different things. Literary composition can be a similar process. The writer’s real world and the writer’s fictional world are compared, and these comparisons turned into text. But other times literary composition can be a plain old slog, and nothing to do with zones or inspiration. It’s world making and the peopling of those worlds, complete with time lines and heartache.
INTERVIEWERThere’s a lot of fantasy and science fiction in your books. But there’s also a lot of history, particularly in the chapter devoted to the tea-shack lady in Ghostwritten. You attempt to condense all of twentieth-century Chinese history into a single chapter.
MITCHELLI had just read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and a more scholarly history of China ahead of my visit there. Sometimes it’s easier to see the effect of history on a country, on the shape of its streets, on the sumptuousness or grittiness of its buildings, when you have an outsider’s immunity to the camouflage of familiarity—or censorship. A Chinese friend in Japan asked me, incredulously, All that stuff about what you call the Cultural Revolution—did you make it up, or did it really happen? Many Japanese teenagers have only a murky awareness—or, incredibly, no awareness—that their country was run by Americans for seven years. I’m not claiming that foreigners know a country better than natives—how could they?—but foreigners’ viewpoints may be different, or else their ignorance may oblige them to write about the country in a different manner.
In China I traveled with a Mandarin-speaking Brit, and we stopped at a tea shack where an old woman was insisting that her tree had different types of fruit on it. A single tree, she said, but it’s got apples in one place, and persimmons here, and walnuts here—I just felt, What a wonderful, quirky stroke of strangeness, and she gave me my main character and structure for the China chapter in Ghostwritten.
INTERVIEWERIt’s in Ghostwritten that we meet the Mongolian killer, Suhbataar, who at first seems two-dimensional, but then develops into a full-fledged character, and later reappears in Number9Dream.
MITCHELLSuhbataar was an early experiment in having characters from one novel appear in another. Bad guys are easy to do badly. It is easy to write two-dimensional James Bond badasses, but doing it well, and intelligently, is one of the tallest orders of all. There’s a memorable section in The Gulag Archipelago where Solzhenitsyn talks about evil not being a personality type, but a line running through every human heart, and circumstances can put you on one side or the other. If I were writing Suhbataar now, I would make him more roundly portrayed.
INTERVIEWERGhostwritten contains an invaluable piece of advice for writers: If you’re trying to finish a book, steer clear of Nabokov—he’ll make you feel like a clodhopper. Was this from bitter experience?
MITCHELLYes, his combination of barbed intelligence and incandescent imagination is pretty humbling. And what a vocabulary! I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it.
Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages. Somebody call the cops!
INTERVIEWERI was struck by the phrase from Ghostwritten about “an infinity of paths through the park,” which seems to describe the novel itself.
MITCHELLThe line owes a debt to Borges’s story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Human life, Borges said, is a cascade of possible directions, and we take only one, or we perceive that we take only one—which is how novels are written, too. You start with a blank page, and the first word opens up possibilities for the second word. If your first word is Call, those second two or three could be a doctor or it could be me Ishmael. It could be Call girls on Saturday nights generally cost more than . . . The second sentence opens up a multitude of third sentences, and on we go through that denseness of choices taken and choices not taken, swinging our machetes.
INTERVIEWERHow do you create a character who has no background in the conventional sense—like the zookeeper, say, a digital entity who figures prominently in a late chapter of Ghostwritten?
MITCHELLScience fiction generally uses a fallback device—the Enterprise computer, a disembodied, floating, toneless voice. HAL, I would say, is the classic Enterprise computer, but filtered through Kubrick, a master cliché extractor. I wonder if this thing we call originality isn’t an electric motor powered by the two poles of the already done and the new twist, or the familiar and the far-out. What did Samuel Goldwyn say? “Let’s have some new clichés.” How can HAL—so soothing and maternal—also be murderous? It can’t, but it is, and that’s original. When something is two-dimensional or hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, plausibly, into the brew.
INTERVIEWERIn Number9Dream, you have a description of a gangster who has a voice “as thirsty as sandpaper.” He has “cavernous eye sockets, plump lips, mottled and flaky skin—the sort used on young actors playing old roles—and a wart on the corner of his eye bigger than an amorous nipple.”
INTERVIEWERYou don’t like it?
MITCHELLI’m not sure. Am I guilty of Orwell’s criticism of Dickens’s fabulous gargoyles, that they make for rotten architecture? “His voice is as thirsty as sandpaper.” I think that’s from David Bowie’s description of Bob Dylan’s voice, a voice like sand and glue. Cavernous is the right word, at least. It has whiffs of cadaverous. Plump lips is OK too—the ps go pop: plump lips. The stuff about the makeup used on young actors playing old roles works. The makeup always looks wrong, doesn’t it? An amorous nipple is too pleased with itself. That’s writing, I suppose—dozens of decisions about what’s in, what’s out, what goes with what, what’s clever but not honest, what’s so honest that it’s a truism, what’s meretricious—and all just to produce one short sketch.
INTERVIEWERYou dedicated Number9Dream to your wife, Keiko. Does she read your drafts?
MITCHELLWe were dating when I wrote it, and we talked a lot about the book—a foretaste of the future, poor girl. She is my first reader, whether the manuscript relates to Japan or not. Whatever Number9Dream’s merits may be, they owe her a lot.
INTERVIEWERI noticed this sentence in Number9Dream: “The cloud atlas turns its pages over.”
MITCHELLWow, is that in Number9Dream? Then the phrase was haunting me earlier than I realized. “Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title. It pleases me that Number9Dream is named after a piece of music by Yoko’s more famous husband, though I couldn’t duplicate the pattern indefinitely.
INTERVIEWERThe epigraph to Number9Dream is from Don DeLillo: “It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.”
MITCHELLThe best line in the book and it’s not even mine.
INTERVIEWERIt’s pretty obvious what that has to do with your hero, Eiji, an inveterate fantasist who dreams of a father he has never met—but is there a deeper link between Number9Dream and DeLillo?
MITCHELLI read Underworld around that time, and was deeply impressed by it, which led me to Mao II, and Americana, which is where the epigraph is from—but I don’t think there’s a deeper link between our writing. DeLillo is more of an ideas man than me—than just about any novelist I know, for that matter.
What about Number9Dream and Haruki Murakami?
MITCHELLI had a crush on Murakami in those days—specifically on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I was living in Japan, somewhat alienated, and not sure where the page ended and the world around me started, and in that rather porous state, I was overly impressionable. I hope there’s enough of me in the book to ensure that it’s more than just an homage or an imitation of Murakami—but I’m not the best person to make that judgment.
With Number9Dream I might have overdone it in terms of the number of storylines. I used to try to make myself look clever by saying I was in search of the narrative saturation point of fiction, but now—don’t you get tired of the phrase experimental novel? If I could present theories directly and well, I might be tempted to do it, but as I can’t, I prefer to discuss the human heart through characterization, and to address the human condition through plot. Many of the masters do the same—Chekhov, Salinger, Austen. When a writer presses the pause button, turns to me and says, Now I’m going to tell you about life, dear reader, I think, This had better be damned good, and if it isn’t, this dear reader makes his excuses and heads for the exit.
INTERVIEWERAre you a storyteller outside of your writing?
MITCHELLNo. I botch jokes and bore my few friends if I do too much of the talking.
INTERVIEWERHow did you come up with the idea for the structure of Cloud Atlas?
MITCHELLThe first time I read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, I didn’t know what I was dealing with. I thought we’d be going back to the interrupted narrative later on in the book, and I very much wanted to. Finishing the novel, I felt a bit cheated that Calvino hadn’t followed through with what he’d begun—which was, of course, the whole point of the book. But a voice said this: What would it actually look like if a mirror were placed at the end of the book, and you continued into a second half that took you back to the beginning? That idea was knocking around in my head since I was eighteen or nineteen years old and, by my third novel, had arrived at the front of the queue.
INTERVIEWERHow did the first narrator in Cloud Atlas, Adam Ewing, pop into your mind?
MITCHELLEwing drew into focus rather than popped. I spent a few months reading nineteenth-century things, lots of Melville, and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. I was also reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I found the bit about the Moriori, the inhabitants of the Chatham Islands east of New Zealand, and that was irresistible. I wanted to work out a way of getting that story in, and I read about someone in San Francisco whose name was actually Ewing, someone lost to history—except that one of the last Moriori told his story to him.
INTERVIEWERDid you write the first half of the first story, and then start the first half of the second story, and so on?
MITCHELLNo. I wrote all six novellas from start to finish, though in each case I had a fairly clear idea about where the cut would come.
INTERVIEWERThe first cut comes in midsentence, which is startling for the uninitiated reader.
MITCHELLStartling is OK—provided it’s not so startling that the reader dumps the book in the charity shop unfinished.
INTERVIEWERThe first chapter—the first half of Ewing’s narrative—is itself cut in half by the narrative of the savage Autua (whose name is a palindrome), so that the first chapter mirrors the shape of the book as a whole. Or is this a case of overreading?
MITCHELLIs there such a thing as overreading? Just because it wasn’t part of my grand design doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Things do happen in books that the writer is too submersed in bringing the narrative to life to notice. To put it a little pretentiously, Cloud Atlas is a novel about whose echoes, eddies, and cross-references even its author possesses only an imperfect knowledge. That’s not unique—many writers can say the same about many books.
INTERVIEWERCannibalism features prominently in Cloud Atlas—and it reappears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
MITCHELLA writer only has a relatively small family of themes, and however hard you try to write about something else, they reemerge like indestructible whack-a-moles. One of my serial-repeating themes is predacity—and cannibalism is an ancient and primal manifestation of predacity. I remember watching an animal documentary in school, where a cheetah successfully pursued an antelope. As the cheetah ripped the antelope to shreds, a cute girl called Angela said, Oh Miss, that’s cruel. The teacher answered, Yes, Angela, but nature is cruel.
That was an early encounter with ethical relativism. Yes, an innocent antelope got ripped to shreds—but what about poor Mrs. Cheetah and her six adorable cheetah cubs? Did I want them to get so thin and hungry that the hyenas pick them off one by one? Then what about the poor baby hyenas? And on we go . . . arriving, eventually, at questions like, What is cruelty? and not long after, What is evil? As a novelist I want answers in order to motivate, plausibly, the antagonists who bedevil my protagonists.
One memorable line on evil is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s at the end of his short story “Moon and Madness”: “Don’t be a fool, Reb Zalman. The moon is shining. The heavens are bright. Evil is nothing but a coil of madness.” I like to balance Singer’s words against Solzhenitsyn’s take when he discusses the agents who arrested him and carted him off to the camps. The author considers how easily he might have signed up for their jobs—how easily accident might have nudged him into his oppressor’s uniform. This breathtakingly generous view implies that the ethical distance from good to evil can be crossed creepingly, by a long series of small steps. As a human being, I believe that this series of steps must be understood. As a parasite novelist, I find this series of steps fascinating, rich, and usable in fiction. One of literature’s strengths is that it can go back far enough and find the reasons behind the depravity. Iago is Othello’s chief glory, as well as its engine—why is the guy getting off on all of this misery? Can he really be evil just because he’s evil, like he’d have us believe? Is he shot through by Singer’s coil of madness? Or is something else going on? Shakespeare doesn’t settle the matter and that’s why he’s still performed, why he is who he is, and why he’s a protonovelist in an Elizabethan dramatist’s clothing.
INTERVIEWERYou’re evidently interested in reincarnation—in Cloud Atlas there’s the suggestion that each new chapter contains a character from a previous chapter reborn in a later era. And in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, there’s the suggestion that one of the principal characters, Dr. Marinus, has been reborn again and again. Do you actually believe in reincarnation?
MITCHELLI would love to believe in reincarnation, but the answer is no. There is solace, however, in the carbon cycle, in the nitrogen cycle. Biochemically, at least, reincarnation is a fact. Donate your ashes to a fruit farmer.
INTERVIEWEREnomoto in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet commits cannibalistic atrocities so that he can attain immortality. Do cannibalism and reincarnation connect in your mind?
MITCHELLYou and me both, right now, are converting our lunches into skin cells, brain cells, blood, mucus, sperm, hair, toenails, the rest of it. Enomoto is doing the same, but spiritually: by cannibalizing souls, he ensures that his soul can never be severed from his body.
INTERVIEWERThere’s another kind of reincarnation in your work—you recycle characters from novel to novel.
MITCHELLI grow fond of these characters I bring into being. In my adult life I have spent more weeks in the company of people such as Timothy Cavendish or Jacob de Zoet than I have with my own flesh-and-blood parents or brother. Letting them dissolve into nothingness feels too much like abandoning an inconvenient cat by a reservoir. There’s a practical reason as well—the example I use is Falstaff, though it works just as well for a character like Captain Jack Sparrow: because Falstaff exists in the history plays, our perception of him in The Merry Wives of Windsor is different and enriched. We invested emotions in him during his time with young Hal, and these emotions are still there in Windsor. Belief in a character and his milieu is retentive and transferable. This is why sequels exist.
INTERVIEWERDid the futuristic section of Cloud Atlas, about a “fabricant” named Sonmi, pose any particular difficulties?
MITCHELLYou bet: chiefly, how does she speak? I was writing in English a character from a time when English no longer exists, someone who was genetically created to have only a vocabulary of a few hundred words, someone whose world is, literally, a subterranean McDonald’s of the future. What is her voice? It’s worse than the HAL problem. I remember rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting until I ended up like the inept man in the old wobbly-table gag, where someone ends up shortening the legs to the point where only the tabletop remains.
INTERVIEWERYou allow Sonmi to say gorgeous things, like, “Mountain stars are not these apologetic pinpricks over conurb skies; hanging plump they drip lite.”
MITCHELLIn Black Swan Green, I can have thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor saying stuff like that because he’s a kid; he hasn’t quite mastered the rules of collocation, or an adult’s linguistic self-censorship. And given his fecund addiction to words, he can get away with accidental poetry without being a prodigy. But Sonmi hasn’t really the right to be speaking in so lyrical a register. Her intellectual powers expand thanks to the drugs she ingests, but how would that expansion be reflected in her language? To be truthful, I think I ended up fudging the problem.
INTERVIEWEROne of the more striking lines in Cloud Atlas has a neat aphoristic quality: “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too.”
MITCHELLWhat made us successful in Darwinian terms—our skill at manipulating our environment—now threatens to wipe us out as a species. This is a sentiment expressed very well by Agent Smith in The Matrix when he compares unthinking humans to viruses. He’s just trying to do this very worthwhile job of keeping these self-spawning life-forms—us—under control, some semblance of control. Which is what the cheetahs might well say about the antelopes.
INTERVIEWERHow important was the success of Cloud Atlas to your career?
MITCHELLIt sold over the half-million mark—chicken feed by global blockbuster standards, but good for me, and thanks in no small part to the Richard and Judy Book Club, the UK equivalent of Oprah. The business and media side is what allows me to make a living from my vocation, and I don’t knock it, but it’s not what I’m good at and it disrupts the writing. I make sure that I’m sunk into the next book by the time the most recently finished one is published, so I always have an inner world to be working on.
INTERVIEWERDid Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas overlap that way?
MITCHELLI’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.
INTERVIEWERDid you, like Jason, write poetry under a pseudonym for the parish newsletter?
INTERVIEWERWas your pseudonym the same as Jason’s: Eliot Bolivar?
MITCHELLJames Bolivar—after a character created by an American science-fiction writer, Harry Harrison. I’ve never told anyone that before. You can see why.
INTERVIEWERAnd, like Jason, did you go see a speech therapist?
MITCHELLJust 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.
INTERVIEWERWhen you were creating Jason Taylor, did you ask yourself, What was David Mitchell like at that age?
MITCHELLIt 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.
INTERVIEWERIt was perverse of you to write a first novel after having written three others.
MITCHELLWhen 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.
INTERVIEWERBlack Swan Green is very carefully structured.
MITCHELLGet 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.
INTERVIEWERNo tricks, but plenty of stories. Your novels are all prodigiously crammed with stories—stories within stories within stories. Including your most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. But it stands apart, if only because as far as I can see it shares no characters with your other novels—with the possible exception of a moon-gray cat.
MITCHELLThis is the result of chronology—The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is set fifty years before anything else I’ve written. However: Boerhaave, the young midshipman aboard the Profetes, right at the end of the novel, is Boerhaave, the first mate of the Prophetess in Cloud Atlas, and keen-eyed readers may notice that the Irish carpenter has the same surname as an Irish particle physicist in Ghostwritten, and both come from West Cork.
INTERVIEWERWhat was the genesis of the book?
MITCHELLDuring my first New Year’s holiday in Japan, I went around the country on my own. In Nagasaki, I got off the streetcar at the wrong stop and found some buildings which looked like they had come from an earlier century. This turned out to be the Dejima Museum. I spent the day there and filled half a notebook. This was 1994, and I still hadn’t made a serious stab at writing a novel, but the place fascinated me. What a window, what a cat flap between Europe and Japan for two hundred and forty years. We think of Japan at the time as a closed-off country, but it wasn’t—Japan possessed the keyhole of Dejima to peer through, to keep abreast of international events and observe the fates of countries and races that tried to ignore the rise of Europe and its new technologies. Moreover, Dejima inverts the common Orientalist terms—on this tiny man-made island, it was the whites who were corralled, fleeced, and exoticized. Cees Nooteboom says that all countries are different, but Japan is differently different. Dejima is a differently different cultural abnormality—and few people, even in Japan or the Netherlands, know of its existence. How could I not want to write about it?
INTERVIEWERDo you think of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as a departure, or as another step along the path laid down by the first four novels?
MITCHELLIt’s on the same path, but the path has passed through a gate into a new garden.
INTERVIEWERThis is the first time you’ve made extensive—nearly exclusive—use of the third person.
MITCHELLI tried writing it in the first person, and it just wasn’t right. The book gave me a lot of trouble, which is why it took four years. I restarted it twice, and it only came to life when I tried it in the third person. Then I had to decide which characters’ thoughts we’d be able to hear. In the end I devised a rule: each chapter has a single principal observer who wears an imaginary recording digicam, like a coal miner’s hat with a spike tapping his brain, so his thoughts, but only his, can become known to the reader.
INTERVIEWERDid this open up new territory?
MITCHELLI was relieved that this rather basic item—the third-person narrator—is at last in my writer’s toolbox of skills.
INTERVIEWERWhat about dialogue? You’ve had that skill from the very beginning.
MITCHELLDialogue is a halfway house. I heard the British crime writer David Peace speak last year. David’s a second-person narrative specialist, and a member of the audience asked what it is about the second person that appeals to him. David’s deadpan reply was, Well, it’s halfway between the first person and the third. Dialogue-driven narrative is a more conventional means of having first-person connection with third-person detachment from you, the writer. It’s an elastic-tether way for people with first-person dependency issues—like me—to range further than the “I” form usually allows. Dialogue can be a revealing tool—you can smuggle in a lot about your characters simply by their choice of words. On seeing a snapshot of my infant son, an elderly and somewhat racist relative exclaimed, But he doesn’t even look Japanese! Rather than get angry, I thanked her, inwardly, for reminding me how revealing a person’s choice of words can be. I also thought, I’ll use that line one day.
INTERVIEWERWas Melville an influence on The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?
MITCHELLYou can’t write about the nineteenth century and the sea without Melville’s long shadow falling across your laptop. He was there and he did it very, very well. But I’m not sure how directly my esteem for him shaped the book.
INTERVIEWERAt one point you have a slave shaving his master’s throat with murderous thoughts—that seems an explicit reference to Benito Cereno.
MITCHELLThat wasn’t conscious—but yes, it is a strong echo. On the other hand, if you or I were a nineteenth-century slave owned by some lardy-arsed white tosspot too lazy to shave himself, might not the same thought cross our minds, too, every single day?
Patrick O’Brian is the great source for life aboard ships in the Napoleonic era. Melville was eager to display his credentials as a man of letters, whereas O’Brian, like many twentieth- or twenty-first-century writers, was in the historical-simulation business. O’Brian does the vulgar as well as the noble—his characters burp, fart, catch the clap, and use period slang. Consequently many more pages in my notebooks are headed O’Brian than Melville.
What about Joseph Conrad?
MITCHELLHis story “Youth” has this beautiful passage about your first landfall in Asia and how it haunts you for the rest of your life—everything is downhill afterward. There’s something of that in the end of Thousand Autumns. We all romanticize our youth, but when East Asia is intertwined with youth, the wistfulness and the sense of loss are amplified—for reasons which Edward Said might have scorned, and who knows, maybe justifiably. But Conrad wasn’t lying about what he felt, and neither am I, so perhaps we just have to take the flak.
INTERVIEWERYou once told me you admire Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Was it on your mind when you set about writing your own historical novel?
MITCHELLBrashly, at the beginning, I was saying to myself, If you aren’t at least going to try to make it that good, then don’t bother. So then I was lumbered with Lampedusa’s ghost at my shoulder (between Melville’s and Edward Said’s—what a crowded hut) saying, Pah.
My Leopard aspiration was a rash one, but I’m not embarrassed by it. The past is rich—as the zeitgeist begins to outpace aging novelists, the past can make a dignified refuge.
INTERVIEWERThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet deals with questions of translation, between Dutch, Japanese, and eventually English. Was it difficult to write dialogue for characters speaking multiple languages?
MITCHELLAnother of my recurring whack-a-mole themes is cultural dislocation. But this book made me realize there’s yet another: miscommunication. Stammering too is about being unable to say what you want to. Similarly, many people in this book are unable to express themselves when it matters most. In early drafts I was always trying to devise ingenious ways around the language barrier—and then I realized that this barrier could work for, and not against, the novel. So I stuck my characters into language prison and watched them try to get out.
INTERVIEWERYou also take on the business of translating one age for the benefit of another. Were you tempted to employ antiquated language?
MITCHELLI did, at first, and devoured those eighteenth-century nutters Smollet and Fielding, making extensive word lists to incorporate into my text—and ended up with Blackadder.
INTERVIEWERDo you see a link between the work of the character Orito, who is a midwife, and that of a writer?
MITCHELLThe novelist is more like a pregnant woman who delivers her own child unaided. A messy procedure, with lots of groaning.
INTERVIEWERYou said earlier that you distrust words like inspiration to describe the creative process—
MITCHELLI even distrust the phrase creative process.
INTERVIEWERHow about this metaphor, which you put into the mouth of a minor bad guy: “Storytellers are not priests who commune with an ethereal realm, but artisans, like dumpling-makers, if somewhat slower”?
MITCHELLI’ve got to confess, that’s Don DeLillo again, from Mao II—though I substituted dumpling-makers for the original, which was donut-makers.
INTERVIEWER“The soul is a verb, not a noun,” says Dr. Marinus. He’s a wise man. Is he also the author’s mouthpiece?
MITCHELLHe’s one of the author’s mouthpieces. He’s wiser than his creator. Readers of this book don’t know it, but in Thousand Autumns he’s on his twenty-eighth lifetime.
INTERVIEWERJacob and Marinus are providentially saved during the bombardment of Dejima, largely because they’re reciting a psalm—does that tip the contest, in the novel, between science and faith in the favor of faith?
MITCHELLI hope that the novel isn’t a set of scales that weighs one against the other. I’m not a Christian, but I dislike the current trend in British culture to trash Christian faith, which has, and does, inspire devout people to perform acts of humanism, from the abolition of slavery to the provision of AIDS orphanages in places nobody else ventures. Of course Christianity can also inspire far less praiseworthy acts too, but these instances get plenty of airplay in secular societies.
In Jacob I wanted to create a character who was steeped in Protestantism, but who was also worthy of respect. Marinus isn’t a Christian, but he believes in belief.
INTERVIEWERDo you ever allow yourself to think that your novels might be read in the next century?
MITCHELLBest not to go there. Orhan Pamuk said in his Paris Review interview how only a handful of the countless novels published this decade will still be read two centuries from now, and that all writers, at some level, hope that one of theirs will be one of them. I do too, but writing for the future is the best way I can think of to ensure that you’ll be forgotten. Make your work as good as you can, as seaworthy as you can, as human as you can, and it might go the whole distance, but history is an unpredictable judge. Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, sure: but which nineteenth-century critic foresaw a twenty-first-century readership for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, or Alice in Wonderland?
INTERVIEWERHave your ambitions changed since you published your first novel?
MITCHELLI didn’t have any ambitions when my first novel came out—I just hoped it might sell enough to get a contract for a second and third. Now my ambition is simply to stay working as a professional novelist for the rest of my life.
INTERVIEWERIsn’t that guaranteed at this point?
MITCHELLI don’t believe in guarantees, but I hope so. Lord knows what else I’d do.
INTERVIEWERHow about dumpling-maker?
MITCHELLOr donut-maker—could you put a word in with DeLillo?