Our thanks to our friends at Goodreads for this interview with David Mitchell, whose new novel, The Bone Clocks, is Amazon's Best Book of the Month Spotlight pick for September.
In the literary world David Mitchell is the stuff of legend. He's been nominated for the Man Booker prize five times, with critics and legions of fans consuming his works. Some of his forays are straightforward, such as the linear historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Others not so much. The novel Cloud Atlas rubber bands from time period to time period and back and forth between genres with dizzying acuity. The works are always formally complex, opus-like, ambitious—and funny. Mitchell's latest is just another piece of the puzzle. The Bone Clocks centers around Holly Sykes, a divining rod for psychic phenomena who is somehow caught in the middle of a war between two immortal groups: one that needs to devour humans to subsist, the other that can reincarnate without killing. We coaxed the Irishman writer to tell us about opera, Scully versus Mulder, and how he loves Goodreads member questions.
Goodreads: Let's start with not your average question. Joseph Formaggio, a Goodreads member and associate professor of physics at MIT, has a question for you. He says, "In his book Ghostwritten (which I very much enjoyed and placed as my top ten books I have ever read) he invokes a physicist named Heinz Formaggio as a character. As a physicist whose last name happens to be Formaggio, I was always curious whether he completely fabricated the name or somehow flipped through some list of graduate students and settled on mine. :) I could also say it was complete coincidence, but that seems to go against much of the theme in Ghostwritten anyway."
David Mitchell: Ooooooh, I love that question. Well, in 1989, I taught English at a summer school for Italian high school kids in Edinburgh. I had a student named Nicola Formaggio. I know that the name means "cheese," and what a name. I keep a name bank in my notebook where I write great names that I find that I could never make up. Formaggio was there. Heinz is somehow Germanic. Formaggio is Italian. I think that section of the story happened in Switzerland, which is both German and Italian, so I imagined a German woman falling in love with an Italian man and them having a kid called Heinz Formaggio. That's my answer. What an original question! Never answered it in my life.
Crowd-sourced interviews are kind of my favorite. Of course the questions are going to be more diverse than any sane individual journalist could ever think of. Bring them on!
GR: Well, many of our members are interested in how you structure your work, "the multiverse"—the interlocking narratives, fragmentation, and jumping from one story to another, often skipping from the past to the future. Goodreads member Simone Mailman compares your work to "a fugue or a symphony." What draws you to that approach?
DM: I think it has something to do with the fact that I basically write novellas, not novels. My optimum parabola is about 80 to 120 pages long, rarely much shorter, rarely much longer. This means to build up novels from these novellas I need to interlock, interconnect, and insert hyperlinks.
GR: Goodreads member Alonso declared, "Fragmentation is an essential part of your narrative form." He adds he'd like to know if it comes from the decentralized and fragmentary Internet age as described by Marshall McLuhan or if it's a personal preference.
DM: Fragmentation is an essential part of my work—is it? I haven't been asked to think of this before. I can see why a reader would say that. I do leave a narrative in midair and move on to the next narrative, apparently having left the previous character dangling off a cliff. However, I do come back to it eventually. I would respectfully suggest that my narratives are more apparently fragmented than they are really fragmented.
GR: Then there is the concept of time in your work. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was historical fiction, "Cloud Atlas bent genres and jumped from the historical past to the recent past, the modern era and present, and finally to two versions of the distant future," and The Bone Clocks similarly skips from one time period to the next. Goodreads member Ted Flanagan asks, "Do you find one period more or less suited for your brand of thematic storytelling or narrative devices? Do you enjoy one more than the other?"
DM: It's not that I tailor what I want to write to narrative styles of the past, present, and future. It's just...I have ideas for books. Some attract me more than others and beat the competition, and that becomes the book at hand. I then have to sit down and work out how to tell it. I will use any means at my disposal in the past, present, and future of literature to help me do that. It makes a weird sort of sense...the book decides what the narrative style will be. It's the book that decides whether I use tricks from past masters, from present masters, or I try to concoct my own, which you might want to call the future because it hasn't happened yet.
GR: In The Bone Clocks several of the characters from your previous novels make an appearance, such as Luisa Rey from Cloud Atlas and Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's a unique aspect of your work, the level of interconnectedness between books. To take it a step further, Goodreads member Marlon would like to ask, "Do you see your work as an artist [creating] one contiguous whole and view each progressive novel as a continuation of what came before? Or is it just something a bit clever and fun for you as a writer to include as an aspect of your work?"
DM: For my first two or three books it was the latter. Now more and more it's the former. I'm beginning to see an über-book that overlays everything I write. Everything I write is an individual chapter. The answer has changed over time. I see it as an architect of an ever-morphing building that puts out tentacles, adds stories, and billows deeper. Very interesting!!
GR: For readers—and I imagine you as well—having those characters reappear in your books is almost like being able to spend time with an old friend.
DM: It means I never have to say good-bye to anybody. It's less like spending time with an old friend and more like hiring an actor who you know will bring the certain character traits to the new production.
GR: That comment indicates that you are in complete control over your characters. Some writers we interview feel as if the characters are leading them around.
DM: I'm in control of the hiring and firing, but when you take somebody on, you then need to read the story from inside their skin and through their retinas. How they see things can still surprise you. I don't want to make that sound mystical. It's not really mystical. You can't always predict what your imagination will do—and amen for that.
GR: In The Bone Clocks Holly Sykes is a lightning rod for psychic phenomena...
DM: It gets even madder by part five. She's not only a lightning rod—by that point she's a chess piece in a wildly fluctuating game of chess between two circles of immortals. So what you just said gets amplified, and the knob gets turned up to 11 in part five.
GR: Speaking of psychic phenomena, do you believe in much of it? Reincarnation? Telepathy?
DM: I believe in the possibility of reincarnation. I can't believe in the certainty of it because I've got no proof. I went to a psychic at a seaside resort in Kent, and he was rather like Dwight Silverwind in The Bone Clocks. He's generally perceptive, clever, fake, but occasionally he's quite sure of some things. I would be more of a Scully than a Mulder.
GR: Did the psychic in Kent tell you anything that was true?
DM: I think he was reading me, and that's a valid skill. Just because a psychic is fake and has no psychic ability (because arguably there is no such thing), that doesn't mean the psychic is incapable of doing good for the person who has gone to see them. Sometimes a fake psychic can function as an untrained counselor or inadvertently help a person with a problem understand something about himself or herself. Now very often that doesn't happen, and they just take the money of the gullible. I don't want to dismiss every psychic as a charlatan, because even if there is no such thing as psychic phenomenon, it can sometimes be good for someone to have an objective pair of ears—[even] if they need to pay for them.
GR: Your work takes you to some very dark places. Do you ever get nightmares while writing your books?
DM: No, in a way my novels are the lightning rods for my nightmares. I do love a good nightmare. I kind of wish I had a few more—well, that's a very rash thing to wish for because people have been in war situations and really do have them, so it's vaguely rude to them to express what I just expressed. But certainly I love hearing about people's nightmares. If my daughter wakes up with a nightmare, then I'm first there to parasitically extract the juicy details. You can't really invent them. You get some really good nightmares from your kids sometimes.
GR: You have a personal connection with Japan; you've lived in Hiroshima, and your wife is Japanese. Goodreads member David asks, "In several of your books (number9dream, Jacob de Zoet, Ghostwritten) you have portrayed Japanese characters in an extremely convincing manner, not only in characterization but in the actual style of narration that I have come to be familiar with as an avid reader of Japanese fiction (not to mention spending much time in Japan). I have never seen another Gaijin writer who has been able to so closely ape Japanese conventions of narration and characterization (not James Clavell, certainly not Arthur Golden). I would love if you could relate some of the means and processes by which you did your research and 'got into the mind-set' of this particular cultural style."
DM: Thank you very much. Means and processes? Lived there. Learned some of the language. Married one. Read the seminal texts. Read some of the great turn-of-the-century Japanese novels and think about what they have in common: certain austerity of style, certain poetry of understatement. Apparently there is no word in Spanish for "understatement," but I think it would be very easy to say in Japanese.
If you live anywhere for eight years and keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed, then you tend to understand what it is about that culture that makes it distinct. You can then relate that to your characters. You come to understand the invisible, unwritten constitution by which Japanese people live. You ensure that your characters obey the same constitution or abide by the same constitution of behavior and of speech. No mystery really. Just observation.
GR: Could you recommend a few Japanese books?
DM: Sure. I recommend The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. Another one I'd recommend is a book called Silence by Shusakū Endō.
GR: What books have influenced you as a writer?
DM: About 2,000 ones. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Also The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin.
GR: You've written several librettos for opera. How did you decide to embark on that experience, and how does it compare to writing novels?
DM: I've only written two. Just to learn from. I wanted to learn about the opera world for a novel I'll write one day. It's a peculiar form—a total art form. You have narrative, visual arts, costume, choreography, orchestral, and vocal music. All glued together with the logic of dreams. It's a strange, beautiful art form, and I am intrigued by it, but for the time being I'll be concentrating on novels. I would view my way as a librettist as a foray.
GR: The way you describe it sounds a bit like the concept often attributed to Wagner: Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of creating a work of art that synthesizes multiple forms and creates a sort of über-artwork.
DM: I think I just unintentionally plagiarized Wagner. Thank you for pointing that out. That's who I must have heard it from. He's dead, right, isn't he?
GR: Wagner definitely made art on a grand scale. Your written work has a similar element of Gesamtkunstwerk, pulling from various narrative techniques, styles, visions to create something larger and impactful. It's very symphonic, your work. You've got the brass trumpeting, the strings pushing the melody forward in big curlicues, the layers of drums and woodwinds.
DM: I do build bold, big narratives from novellas, in that I do build them up more than publish novellas one by one. I suppose that I'd agree that I'm a maximalist, so analogies, metaphors with symphonies or operas would not be inappropriate. I use transitive double-negatives like that: "would not be inappropriate." That's a bit of an operative trait in itself, isn't it?
GR: It's unique, that opera world.
DM: I think if you're in that world, opera is the real world. Our world is just a pale, inconsequential hive of bland little people.
GR: Tell us about your writing process.
DM: I drink tea and write at the kitchen table when the kids are at school. It's a nice, airy room in the house, and it's out of Internet range, so I can't be tempted to waste time, looking stuff up on news websites. I feel wasting time brings postponement.
GR: Last one! What's next?
DM: Not as immersed as I'd like to be, but I'm knee-deep into my next one. I'm writing a novella before I start on the next novel. Some bits and pieces that I wanted to give a home to. So yeah, I'm knee-deep in my next shortish project.
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