Q&A: DAVID MITCHELL
Online Exclusive Interview
Friday, June 29, 2007
By Steve Finbow
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David Mitchell’s most recent novel, Black Swan Green, was shortlisted for the 2006 Costa Novel Award, Quill Book Award, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region Best Book). His three previous novels — Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas — were hugely ambitious in scope, drawing comparisons to the works of Murakami Haruki and Italo Calvino. David Mitchell takes the novel where other writers fear to tread. He is currently living in Japan, and working on a historical novel.
Stop Smiling: In the final pages of Black Swan Green, two sentences struck me: “Until Hugo told me that Happy Days is set in the 1950s, I thought it was about America now” and “The world won't let things be. It's always injecting endings into beginnings.” Does your creative use of past, present and future time suggest a philosophy of a continual present?
David Mitchell: Time is a beautiful thing to think about, and your phrase “a continual present” is an evocative way to describe it. What I think about time changes from moment to moment — all the time, in fact — and is too unstable for me to pass off as a philosophy. Referring to the two quotes, the first is literal — Jason (and I) really did believe Happy Days was set in the early Eighties; and the second is more about how humans use language to chop up the inchoate (“time”, “causality”) into smaller chunks, for easier handling.
SS: Time elides in your earlier novels, causing space and viewpoint to slide with it. Do you see this method of writing as postmodernist, or is it how you internalize and narrate points of history that interest you?
DM: The me who wrote my first two novels is now far enough off for me to sometimes wonder what he was thinking. (It is very right for Ringo Starr to refer to Beatles as “Them,” the way he does, apparently.) I don’t think I thought “this is postmodernism, let’s do it this way!” as much as, “How can I emulate what I admire in Calvino and Perec and Murakami, etc?” Ghostwritten’s secret agenda is to offer up eight different answers to the question, “Why do things happen?” so it has the right to monkey about with time and history. number9dreams’s secret agenda is to offer eight different answers to the question, “In what space does the mind operate?” Time, as hinted at in the last question, is a function of mind, so that the novel, too, has a degree of license to take liberties with the linearity of time and the solidity of space. In a weird way, I leave it up to the book. “How can the book best achieve what it wants to do?” is the question. How the book turns out, whether it looks realist or post-modernist or whatever, is the answer. Black Swan Green was best done as a straight line and in one place, so that’s how that turned out.
SS: Events in Black Swan Green take place in a set and recognizable time and are linear in progression. Most authors would have used this recollective material for a first novel. Is Black Swan Green in anyway autobiographical? If it is, do the events inform your other work?
DM: 52.1% autobiographical. The stammer, the stage, the times, the kid feeling like a freak for having this relationship with language, certain details; yes. The family (mine is much nicer), the divorce, Madame Crommelynck (alas), most of the plot; no. Some characters are partly based on people I knew, but what characters aren’t? The answer to the second part of your question is a simple “Not really.” I never considered my life as a worthwhile element to incorporate into a novel until I began Black Swan Green.