Q&A: DAVID MITCHELL
SS: Although the majority of your books do not have a linear narrative, do you compose linearly?
DM: Yes. My mind is more like a shopping trolley than the TARDIS.
SS: And how do you write? Do you use notebooks, write longhand or straight on to the computer? Or does each novel mean a different mode of writing?
DM: Each scene gets started in my notebooks. Once the scene is up and running I switch to the computer. Subsequent drafts also get polished on my computer.
SS: Black Swan Green and number9dream, I would argue, are more character driven than Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. Do you keep extensive notes on your characters to the extent that you have a kind of FBI-like dossier on them?
DM: Yes, I do, and watch what you say, Steven, because I might start one on you. I find it very helpful, especially if I’m stuck, to have characters compose intimate letters to me. This not only lets me work out what they think about the other characters in the book (“I love her!” “He’s a swine!”) but also what voice they speak in, (“I’m utterly besotted by the woman!” “That son-of-a-bitch is an A-1 Ass-hole.”)
SS: Because your work must entail a lot of research — history, newspaper reports — have you ever found yourself slipping over into journalism? Have you considered writing nonfiction?
DM: I know my limits, and being a journalist, or a historian, or even a shelf-stacker, is outside them. My publicist sometimes asks me to do bits and pieces for the print media around publication time, but I think of this as less a Journalist’s Hat than a crepe affair from a cracker doomed to last only one afternoon. I’m doing a historical novel at the moment, and for a few uncomfortable hours I began to feel like a historian, reconstructing historical events, and envisaging angry letters and contemptuous reviews. Then I told myself to set it in a nearby parallel universe where the Napoleonic Era happened as it did in ours, but where all the individuals in my little corner of that world are different. This means I am free to invent character and concoct plot as I wish. Since then, that uncomfortable historian feeling has gone.
SS: In Black Swan Green, objects such as Findus Crispy Pancakes, Toblerones and Top Deck (shandy or lime and lager?) have a mnemonic resonance. Could you explain your use of brand names as cultural reference points?
DM: You were allowed shandy Top Deck? What a deprived childhood I had. There’s no big concept at work here, really. If you write a historical novel, it makes the time period more convincing if you populate the world with items, artifacts (including brand names) from that time. Don’t lay it on with a trowel, but don’t lay anything on with a trowel.
SS: You recently visited Colombia, home to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Is magic realism an influence on your work, or do you consider yourself outside of any — particularly British — tradition?
DM: I am told by friends who teach creative writing that nothing makes them groan louder (inwardly or outwardly, depending on how badly they need the money) than magical realism in first attempts at novels. Magic realism as Marquez practices it (like “real magic,” I suppose) is very difficult to master, and avoid being mastered by (or “plonkered” by). I don’t think of myself as a user. Elements of the fantastic, here and there, maybe; but I (think I) always give myself a get-out clause — the apparent magic could be the result of insanity, or paranoia or nine bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale. As to being outside or inside the British tradition, I never think about it. It’s not that I’m dismissive of literary traditions per se, but seeing if/where/how I fit in isn’t my job.
SS: Some writers suffer from neuroses when it comes to the works of their contemporaries. Do you read and are you influenced by writers of your generation?
DM: I read books by writers who have become friends, especially if they’ve read one of mine. Mostly I’m too busy reading around subjects for the work in hand, or filling the embarrassing holes in my reading of the classics, to read much contemporary work. Perhaps I’m influenced by contemporaries if I feel they have “upped the ante” in an area I’m also working in. But otherwise, we all have our own rows to hoe. Though this might be a good time to confess that I stole an adjective, “farty,” to describe the smell of stagnant ditchwater, from Toby Litt. I’m terrified he’ll go public and denounce me in the Observer.
SS: A common accusation aimed at British authors is that they shy away from “big” subjects. Do you think the charge of parochialism is a valid one? Which British authors address this accusation?
DM: Quite an accusation, that — does it refer to all British writers, all God-knows-how-many hundreds or thousands of them? Do American or Italian or Sri Lankan writers write about bigger things? Does Rushdie shy away from big subjects? Does the question imply that McEwan and Amis write about trivia? Must a novel look like Man without Qualities or Delillo’s Underworld to qualify as “big”? What’s “big”? Are love, death, divorce, colonialism, terrorism, cloning, art or science big enough to be big? What’s “shy away”? Not writing about something at all, or writing about A via writing about B? I don’t think I’ll be attending the trial.
SS: Japan is a constant reference point in your work. How did you come to live here and how has it informed your writing?
DM: 1) A girl and a lack of prospects in John Major’s London. 2) Japan has given me subject material I couldn’t resist, and shown me some masters in some areas whom I have tried to learn from: Tanizaki, Endo, late Akutagawa, bits of Abe, bits of Mishima (fewer these days). It feeds me metaphors and moments that I find I want to reproduce in words. It’s home, for now.
SS: Do you think we bring with us, when we are abroad, an almost programmed nostalgia for things, which, while we are at home mean little to us? In addition, as an aside, which things do you miss, if any?
DM: I think that we have an existential need to be able to answer the question, “Who am I?” and that a culture is a means of answering that question, and when we move away from that culture for long enough, this means of answering the question gets knocked for six, and so we have to work out new means of answering it. This might be why we miss the clichés. What do I miss? Second-hand bookshops where I can find things I had no idea I wanted (ABE books helps, but it doesn’t have that smell); wide ranges of hippy teas; health food stores in general; drinking dry cider, or Murphy’s stout maybe, in an 18th century pub with certain old friends; being scared shitless by pheasants whom I just scared shitless whilst on public footpaths; Boots the Chemist (if you have kids, this one); the upstairs front seat on double decker buses; the occasional Double Decker chocolate bar, especially the crunchier lower level; browsable classical music stores. My God, this aside is growing. I had no idea I was so malcontented.
SS: Finally, could you tell Stop Smiling a little about the novel you are working on: its themes, form and possible publication date?
DM: A historical novel, written in six novellas, spaced a few years apart, during the Napoleonic Era, but set in Nagasaki. It’s due in late 2008, and out 2009. It is killing me.