He has won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the South Bank Show Literature Prize and the Richard and Judy Best read of the Year prize. He has also been nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, the Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Costa Book Award. He has also written the libretto for the opera Wake, which debuted at the Nationale Reisopera in 2010 to great acclaim.
Born in 1969, David grew up in Worcestershire and, after several years teaching in Japan, he now lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children.
David Mitchell came to Zürich as part of his promotional tour for the German translation of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Up a cobbled alleyway of the Old Town, in a discreet restaurant, he shared his thoughts on half-full glasses, John Lennon and Transferrable Reality Concreteness.
Interview by JJ Marsh, with Perry Iles. Photography by Libby O’Loghlin
How hard was it for you to find representation given the genre-defying nature and structural originality of Ghostwritten? How did you sell it to an agent?
I was armed with pristine naïvete. I was living in Japan and just did what I heard you were supposed to do – send three chapters and a summary to an agent. I picked one, Mike Shaw at Curtis Brown, because he had the only non-posh name that a bog-standard, state comp-educated kid wasn’t intimidated by. He sounded like he could be a character off Eastenders. I sent him my first novel. Big sections of it were rubbish and I’m now profoundly grateful it wasn’t published. But on the back of that, Mike said, maybe not this time but if you want to send me the next thing you work on … So I did and that was Ghostwritten.
I got a very off-the-rack, unastronomical two-book deal, but it was amazing. This was in the days of fax machines and I still remember the excitement of that fax coming through. It was one of my best ever days. And it’s been like that ever since. Same agency, same publisher and my editor, Carole Welch has been with me since book two.
And Jonny Geller’s your agent now. I interviewed him last year and found his passion for his authors very impressive.
Yes, after Mike retired, Jonny took over. And all of his authors have a hard time believing he represents anyone else. We really think he spends all day thinking about us. He’s a very hard-working man.
Two of my favourite books now have cinematic adaptations. Cloud Atlas and Midnight’s Children. Rushdie’s creative influence on the film was immense. What about your relationship with the Wachowskis and Tykwer? How much involvement did you have?
Almost none. The desire for my approval for an early form of the script I do believe was genuine. We met in Cork, and that’s when they discussed foregrounding the reincarnational theme by having the same actor play different ethnicities and genders at points in time. Which you can only do in film. You can’t have actors’ faces in books.
You were happy with that?
Absolutely. John le Carré, speaking about the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, said what I wanted to say. The biggest compliment you can pay is to take the book and interpret it your way. What’s the point in making an audiobook with moving pictures? I want it to be disassembled and reassembled. And they’ve altered some plot lines, to make the Tom Hanks/Halle Berry relationship evolve over time, and that’s fine. It has its own, pure internal logic. It was very hard for the Wachowskis and Tykwer, but my first Hollywood experience has been unusually lucky. They really are artists. With people like that, it’s an honour to be adapted. I wouldn’t be voluntarily praising the film as much as I do if I didn’t respect them and what they’ve done.
And you have a cameo role?
Blink and you’ll miss it. I’m in two scenes, and people who think deeply will eventually work it out. When you get the logic, you can work out that I’m a kind of Svengali, a behind-the-scenes manipulator. It’s a sweetly placed cameo for an author.
What sort of fiction do you read?
Good fiction (laughs). Sometimes I read work written by friends, it’s getting socially awkward not to. I have a big list of classics to catch up with. And I read things I can use, such as James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. It’s about a war correspondent, and I’m thinking about a character who might overlap.
Characters from your previous pieces turn up regularly in your other books and short stories. Are these thematically representative, or are you just fond of these guys?
I’m fond of them; it’s fun. And I like the idea of writing an über-novel and all of my books are chapters in it. And linked with that is my theory of Transferrable Reality Concreteness. If you’ve spent time with a character in work A, and you felt that was a very real place, then when they appear in work B, they bring with them the conviction that any world they appear in is real. Shakespeare did this in the history plays, and Falstaff appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor. There’s even a literary word for this: metalepsis. Sprinkle that one into conversation when you can, then make friends and influence people.
So when I bring back characters, it’s like meeting someone you’ve known for years, you have history, you remember where you were when you met them.
Yes, that’s true. It was lovely to meet Jason Taylor again in your short story, Earth calling Taylor.
Thank you very much. In my next book, I’ve got Hugo Lamb, who was Jason’s awful cousin, a kind of malign Ferris Bueller. He’s got quite a big part in the new book.
The references and motifs in your work are often musical; Paul Auster’s Music of Chance; Thomas Bernhard’s Der Untergeher; the title of Cloud Atlas itself as a piece by Toshi Ichiyanagi; and two references to Neil Young; the formality of composition and returning to chords, tones and melodic riffs – what’s your relationship with music and literature?
Music is a big part of the world, and I want to put the world into my books. Musicality is a different thing. Language has a musicality, most audibly so when you don’t speak it and you’re undistracted by meaning. Two Turkish ladies talking this morning on the train here from Stuttgart – I don’t speak a word so I heard it more purely. There’s a musicality to individual words, which you do consider when choosing them. Because there’s a difference to when words are spoken and when they’re read.
Like me, you were an English teacher for many years. What did you learn? And how much did that feed your work?
It’s so helpful. It gives you a practical working knowledge where a native speaker only has an unconscious knowledge. It also means you can write non-native speakers a whole lot better, which for me is essential.
Can we talk about cultural influences? I’m especially intrigued by the subtle layers of cultural (mis)understandings and interpretations in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Japanese, the most indirect of languages, as opposed to Dutch, one of the most direct. And you render all this in English. It’s a conjuring trick.
It was a nightmare, to be honest. I had about eight different dialects to signify language, class and gender. Most languages have a passive voice, and I used that for the Japanese to eliminate the pronouns. We use that when we want to evade responsibility.
I wrote a short grammatical constitution, for the Dutch, English, Japanese, educated, pleb and female Japanese. Each has three or four rules, for example, the Japanese don’t contract, or at least not in my book. The Dutch don’t use ‘will’, it’s always ‘shall’, which gives it an archaic patina. And all the time you’re writing under the confining umbrella of historical fiction, so neologisms are out.
I discovered the hard way, by reading whole load of Smollett and applying his usages, that it sounds like Blackadder. If you get it right, it sounds patently absurd. You could do it for a few pages but then forget it. So you have to insinuate that they’re speaking as we would have done a hundred years ago. I call this the ‘lest/in case’ dilemma. ‘In case’ is pretty new, so I pushed the Dutch more in a ‘lest’ direction, as we spend more time with them and they’re foreigners to the Anglophone ear. Whereas the English tend to use ‘in case’.
But it was a huge problem. Thumping great novel, huge cast and after a while, the reader’s going to think, ‘Hang on, they all have the same voice. Ah, it’s a novel, it’s not real’. Then pop goes the bubble and you’ve lost it.
One of your most astounding achievements is structure. Not just over one book, but your entire canon. Do you choose to break from convention or is the choice of framework more visceral, organic?
With the exception of Cloud Atlas which was there already, they emerge and evolve as the only possible way to get the damn book written.
When you say Cloud Atlas was there already, you’re referring to Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller?
Yes, exactly. With that mirror at the end of it so you go backwards. But you know, Calvino is now best loved now for works like The Baron in the Trees. That’s a lovely idea, lovely story, no tricks. My work is relatively new, so time as the ultimate test has not yet been applied. I’m not sure how these clever postmodern experiments now look or will look in the future.
Are you wary of writers who call themselves postmodernists?
I think there is a danger in buying into a way of writing as cleanly labelled and distinct as postmodernism was in the 80s. The danger is that you’ll age quicker. On the other hand, Midnight’s Children still reads really well. But is that really what we call postmodernist? It has flecks of magical realism and in other ways is quite Dickensian, which I mean as a huge compliment.
Half full or half empty? Pessimism seems to play a great part in your take on the human condition, but it appears to go hand-in-hand with some kind of spiritual redemption on a higher level. Where are we bound?
No dark, no light; no light, no dark. Redemption is important. Over lunch, we talked about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I remember watching that as a twelve-year old, expecting something like Close Encounters. I really enjoyed it but at the end, he’s strapped to a chair, he’s delusional and he’s having this awful screaming nightmare about what the film has been. I remember thinking ‘Thank you so much. Not.’
If a thick book, in which you invest many hours of your art-consuming life, ends up sledge-hammering your skull in with bleakness and a total lack of redemption and then expects you to admire the brutality of its honesty, I feel cheated and I want my money back.
I know it’s grim up north, and it’s pretty grim down south too, but just gimme some hope. That’s a Lennon quote. Again.
The Number 9 Dream connection?
Yes, as you mentioned, Cloud Atlas is actually a piece by Yoko Ono’s second husband, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Not many people know Number 9 Dream, because it doesn’t feature on the Greatest Hits, but is on the Walls and Bridges album. It’s absolutely glorious, a very superior pop song.
Finally, what have you learned from writing?
More about how to write. An infinite job. Did you read that piece by Julian Barnes, My Life as a Bibliophile? At the end, he talks about the symbiosis between reading and life. He talks about an aphorism; ‘Some people think that life is the thing, but I prefer reading’. He criticises it as slick and meretricious. The more you live, the more intense your reading experience becomes. And vice versa, the more you read about non-existent people, the better potential you have to understand existent people.
As for reading, so for writing. To write a consistent character, you need to formulate the laws of consistency in real human beings. And if you can’t find them, at least you need to fumble in the right direction. So to get the writing right, I’ve had to think more deeply about people and what drives our miraculous, bonkers, paradoxical species.