David Mitchell is a best-selling British author, acclaimed by the New York Times Book Review as “one of the more fascinating fearless writers alive.” His critically hailed novels have been in the running for the Man Booker prize, and his innovative 2004 novel Cloud Atlas was adapted into a feature film in wide-release; other works include Black Swan Green, number- 9dream, Ghostwritten, and his most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet from 2010. Mitchell visited Yale this week to speak about his upcoming book The Bone Clocks, due out in the U.S. this September from Random House. The Herald sat down with him to talk about colonialism, love, science fiction, and Groundhog Day.
YH: You studied literature in college. Do you feel like your education, and your time in college generally, was formative for you as a writer?
DM: College? I didn’t really know what else to do. I just liked reading and liked narratives, and I had no ambition—I was not a sorted or organized or career-oriented young man. And it was the 1980s, and that was okay in those days. I’m glad I studied literature. I think it helped. But I think I would’ve been a writer anyway. I drifted into it rather by default.
YH: I know you were born in England, but you’ve spent a lot of time in Japan, Italy, and Ireland, and you’ve taught English to foreign students. Has your interaction with so many different languages and literary cultures affected your own writing in English?
DM: You sort of plunge yourself into the infantilism of not speaking the language somewhere, and having no greater abil- ity to function than a native six year old. That’s kind of rather good for you. Just to see the world from that point of view, where every encounter is perhaps going to resort in embarrassment, or even in mortification, you can’t even work out how to cross the road or how to use a bus. You sort of have to resort to basics. You have to go back to sign language. You have to scrape by with a vocabulary of fifty words. In some way, that’s good training for writing. You can see how much you can do with how little.
It is a crash course in acquiring language. You and I have no recollection at all of acquiring English. We just did it. If you live somewhere else and have to do that, in the case of Japanese, a language far enough away from English for your native tongue to be no use to you whatsoever. Your characters only exist through what they do, and chiefly what they say. That’s where you learn to love them or not. It’s sort of what they say and how they say it, and to be forced in the real world (not just in the world of writing), the real world of supermarkets and dentists and court- ship and neighbors, to have to start from zero. I think in some parallel way that does help.
YH: Right, and miscommunication does actually end up playing a role in many of your works, since so many of them focus on cultural exchanges. Characters often have a language barrier, like that between Jacob and Orito in your most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Also, some of your books focus on time periods in which cultural exchanges were growing heated with the real-world, political issues that can occur due in part to miscommunication: bigotry, cultural appropriation, Ori- entalism, even colonialism.
DM: Yeah, I think you’ve identified an underground tunnel be- tween two of the themes that keep appearing like whack-a-mole
snouts in my work all the time: mis- or non- or poor communi- cation, and power. And the underground tunnel between the language barrier and colonialism is that because these short, brown people can’t speak your language, which allows you to assume and believe they are less than you. They are lesser than you, which justifies your occupation of their country, your theft of their resources, and your enslavement of their bodies, and permits the racist ideologies that licenses all of that. Power grabs would have to be a lot more naked if the U.S. enslaved Canadians. You can’t tell yourselves those comforting lies.
YH: To what extent do you write with a clear opinion or message about this kind of cultural ignorance?
DM: You start off writing something you’re drawn towards, or you’re curious about, without always being quite sure why. And then you see what it is you’re doing, what you’re working on. First, I find something then I go looking for what it is. And that means, in the context of writing, discovering the theme. Some writers, great writers, start off with theme—they’re “ideas” men or women—and you get essays in fiction, essays framed in fic- tion. And that’s fine, too. But I’m not that bright [laughs]. So I kind of start the story, and say, “Well that’s what this is about, actually, yeah.” So, in the case of Cloud Atlas, it’s sort of about predation, and groups predating other groups. Pretty soon, eth- nicity and race is going to enter. It’s going to rear its ugly head. So, that’s how I identify themes. And, obviously, along the book you can’t bang on about one theme without working through variations of it. Individuals on individuals, or tribes on tribes, or corporations on society, or whatever.
YH: You have a new book coming out called The Bone Clocks. For me, your latest book was the most straight-forward plot-wise and stylistically of your novels thus far. Will The Bone Clocks be similar, or does it return to the more experimental constructions of your earlier works?
DM: It sounds flippant, but the answer’s really both. It’s in six parts—they go chronologically. But there’s a macro-plot that’s in the background for parts one through four, and then it erupts like an upward-shooting sinkhole in the fifth part. That fifth part, in some ways, is quite Cloud Atlas-y, or like Ghostwritten. Yeah, that’s a bit more unconventional.
YH: You often have continuity between your books, especially with your characters. Will this continue with The Bone Clocks? DM: Yes, lots. It’s my most hyper-linked book to date. The Bone Clocks is a very loose sequel to Thousand Autumns, in that it’s got Marinus the Doctor in it, but it’s set in the present day. Marinus is an immortal, he dies but then is reborn in a body of a kid 49 days later, and he (or she) lives that life time, and the same thing happens. By The Thousand Autumns, he’s on about his twenty-eighth lifetime, and by The Bone Clocks, she’s on about her twenty-fourth. And what’s the psychology of that? Would that bother you? Would it change over time? The second time it happened, and the first time it happens, you’d just think, “My God! Wow!” But the fifteenth, twentieth? Would it have an impact on ethics and morality? I think of Groundhog Day, actu- ally. That’s a good film.
YH: Yeah, and it does eventually drive Bill Murray’s character crazy. DM: It does, and after he’s driven crazy, and it still doesn’t do him any good, he then… well, it’s a Buddhist blockbuster, basically. He goes to enlightenment. Not exclusively Buddhist, but he tries to attain enlightenment, and only that gets him out of this comic cycle, which some sects of Buddhism preach that we are in. It’s actually happening. We just don’t remember it. That’s the only difference. But what if we did? That’s Marinus’s situation.
YH: You’ve become a very successful writer, with a feature film adaptation of Cloud Atlas and several best-selling novels. Do you include that continuity at all because your fan base has become large, and it might be especially satisfying for fans? DM: The rule is that it has to work perfectly well if you’ve never read anything else I’ve written. So, that’s also true. I do it for my own amusement, and because I feel the characters bring a sort of concreteness from their earlier incarnations into the new book and make the world of The Bone Clocks more believable. Also just a faith that the kind of people who read me will seem to find fulfillment or pleasure in the same things I do. I trust them.
YH: So, I saw that you signed a three-book deal with Random House. Does that include The Bone Clocks?
DM: No, it doesn’t. Two novels, and another translation by Naoki Higashida, the Japanese man with autism. So we’ll be doing some of that. He wrote The Reason I Jump when he was
13. Now he’s a young man in his twenties, so he sort of paints a portrait of autism in a young man, and autism in a kid. The two novels, I do have a clue-ish idea, about when and where-ish they’ll be set.
YH: Were there any major books or experiences that you can trace that fantasy influence to?
DM: It’s a bit like finding the theme. The same thing actual- ly happens with plot and style as well, and genre. There’s no way around it. I mean, The Bone Clocks, it’s got socially realist bones and it’s about relationships and the periodic table of the human condition. But there beating in the left chamber of its heart is fantasy: it’s about two ambiguous groups of immortals who are trying to destroy the other.
YH: Which is awesome.
DM: Yeah! “They don’t die like we do!” Actually, it’s Ursula le Guin’s books. To me, they should be published by Penguin Classics. They’re great American novels. I read them when I was
16—that, and all the Isaac Asimov I read as a teenager, and Tolkien, of course. You know, why not? So that’s in the compost heap, and I draw from it. But for the next book, I’ve promised myself there will be not a drop of genre. I’ve noticed I’m sort of making a habit of it a bit.
YH: What does a book without genre look like?
DM: I don’t know, and that’s what’s exciting. I don’t know yet. It’s going to be set in 1967, ‘68, ‘69. It’ll be a British act in the folk rock revival starting in Soho—which is like our Greenwich Village, London’s Greenwich Village—and then they’re agent will try to “break America,” so they’ll be performing in the Gas- light Bar, and in places like that. But there are drugs around, so you can then bend the laws of reality with that justification but stay within realism. There will be weird shit happening in the book.