During Wellington’s Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, SAM BRADFORD talked to English-born David Mitchell, the author of four generally acclaimed novels: Ghostwritten, Number9dream, Cloud Atlas and most recently Black Swan Green.

I MEET the accommodating Mr Mitchell in the lobby of the Museum Hotel, which as he points out has an odd atmosphere reminiscent of a David Lynch film; dark curtains, hideous porcelain, disquieting oil paintings, and pasty-faced members of the English cricket team wandering about looking lost.

Interviewer’s note: David Mitchell seemed too polite to have a one-way conversation, and insisted on asking questions of his own. Most of these have been edited out for the benefit of the reader.

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SB: A question about Ghostwritten to start. It’s constructed in chunks that are tangibly connected, but with lots of room between the sections. It’s a very open book, and to me the construction feels quite intuitive. Was it intuitive, or carefully planned?

DM: I wrote the first three as totally independent short stories that had nothing to do with each other, then stumbled upon the idea of having one thing happen in one story that makes the whole of the next story possible. Then it was an engineering feat really, to see how I could make these stories connect without having to substantially rewrite them. Because I’m very lazy. And then after the first three it was, “how many can I do before it gets boring?”. I wrote about nine or ten in the end I think.

SB: So some of them were written specifically to act as joiners for the others?

DM: Not really. You get an idea for a story, a place; I went to all the places in the book except for New York, on one long Trans-Siberian trip, and made lots of notes as I was travelling. On the way I started to think of this as being a book. But there was as much accident as there was design in the writing of the novel. A lot of the ideas you can get beforehand but many of the best ones are things you actually stumble across while you’re writing. Which is why it’s a good idea to get started and not hang around waiting for it to be brilliant before you even begin, because a lot of the good stuff is happy accidents.

SB: So this big trip that you went on – was that after you’d starting writing it, or before?

DM: It was… 1996, I think. I’m so old. I’d finished something, sent it out, and got 20 rejection letters. Which is fine. I mean, thank god really, it was nonsense, it was dreadful. It was unpublishable, so I’m very glad no one published it. But I did get a couple of encouraging letters from agents, who said not this one, but send us what you write next. That was the beginning of Ghostwritten.

SB: There was a question I was going to ask about whether you had any sort of writing apprenticeship before Ghostwritten.

DM: I wrote an unpublishable novel, that was my apprenticeship. No creative writing courses or anything. Just write a novel. Get rid of the TV. That’s always good. You’ve suddenly got all this time and none of the distraction.

SB: In Ghostwritten, and some of your other books as well, there seems to be a certain supernatural presence that appears, and a dream logic that runs through the stories, which reminds me of Haruki Murakami. I was wondering if he’s been a particular influence.

DM: I had a crush on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle! Absolutely besotted by it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Crushes, of course, don’t always last. I still enjoy his- Would you say Kafka on the Beach is as good as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

SB: No, not as good. But still good.

DM: The short stories are good. Anyway, yes is the answer. A good strong influence. A few ghosts are always good. Shakespeare always had ghosts.

SB: I was interested to hear you mention David Lynch before. He seems a similar artist in some respects-

DM: Blimey, thank you. That’s a very flattering comparison to me. You might have to apologise to Mr Lynch.

SB: -well, Lynch and you and Murakami all have this similar dream logic happening at times.

DM: Yeah, yeah. Lynch has made it his language hasn’t he? It’s wonderful stuff. It’s kind of that- not that much else. You don’t go to Lynch to find out how to make your marriage work. You go to Lynch to find out how to dispose of your wife’s body! (laughing)

SB: Have you seen Inland Empire?

DM: No, I have to wait for the DVD. I live in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, and things don’t come on the big screen there. When it’s on DVD I’ll watch it. Lynch is wonderful, really great. Of course life also has it’s passages of dream sequences, when we dream, but also memories can get quite dreamlike, and just occasionally, waking reality is also quite dreamlike… it’s quite dreamlike here, there’s a mirror on the ceiling for God’s sake! (laughs) And the England cricket team are walking round, that’s quite dreamlike too. In some ways the oneiric – it’s a word I use about once a year – the oneiric can also be a part of the realist mode. Perception can be dreamlike too.

“What will always be true is that you write because it’s fulfilling, and right now part of the fulfilment is the multiplicity of voices. The buzz and satisfaction of expressing something, not only hopefully reasonably well, but in one character’s voice reasonably well. That’s very very fulfilling.”

SB: All your novels have sections narrated by adolescents or in the case of Black Swan Green are narrated entirely by an adolescent. I was wondering if you find this artistically rewarding, or if it’s just your natural register in some way.

DM: Um, never thought about that sort of question… hmm…

SB: Perhaps it’s because of the intensity that adolescence can have?

DM: It’s the way that they don’t censor reactions and responses, probably. That’s what makes it attractive to artists of a certain type. It’s not that they see further than a 39-year-old, it’s what they don’t stop themselves from saying.

SB: Would you say that this is something you’ve thought about, a deliberate choice, or is it just natural because of the way you write?

DM: It’s the demands of the book. It’s the book saying… It just becomes self-evident that the book needs a lens and an angle of this… from here: a narrator of this age, with this outlook, this degree of life experience. It’s a clever book that decides, it’s not too flaky.

SB: The book tells you?

DM: Yeah. In a non-mystical way.

SB: It doesn’t come in a dream?

DM: (laughs)

SB: In your first few books especially, you write in a lot of different voices, with a lot of different registers. What gave you the confidence to do that? Were you worried that people would be dismissive, or it wouldn’t work.

DM: Um, what’s the word… bravura?

SB: Bravado?

DM: Not quite. I think it’s this one. A kind of naïve chutzpah, where you’re not actually sensible enough to suspect this might make you look very stupid. That’s bravura. I didn’t stop to think that I couldn’t write an American women journalist.

SB: It didn’t occur to you it might be a problem at all?

DM: No. I thought, I can do that. I’ve watched Cagney & Lacey, it’s American, yeah, of course I can write it. I’m more cautious now, but within the parameters of my caution there’s still quite a wide cast, so I’m not that worried. But writing first-person stuff from within a different language group… I might try New Zealand, you can kind of put a few things in there to try and get the tone right, but that’s not too far removed from British English. Black American English would be. I wouldn’t do that. Whereas ten years ago, I would’ve thought, I can do that.

SB: Having moved around so much, it must be a while since you’ve lived in England.

DM: Yeah, I haven’t lived in England since I was 24, so… 15 years.

SB: Is there anything stopping you from going back, or is it just that you prefer other places? Do you ever want to go back?

DM: Um… not really. There’s a lot of good things there but… I’ve got kids. That makes things very simple. The south-west of Ireland’s a nicer place to bring up kids than most places in England, that I could afford. I’m a dad, and everything changes. One of the things is, it’s not “where would I like to live?”, it’s “where would be good to be bringing up kids?” South-west Ireland ticks most of the boxes, more so than England.

SB: You’ve used so many different voices in the space of comparatively few novels—is the fun of it, the play of it, an important part of being a writer for you? Or do you think you’ll look back in thirty years and say that was part of your youthful, impetuous phase?

DM: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know… I’ll only know when I get there. What will always be true is that you write because it’s fulfilling, and right now part of the fulfilment is the multiplicity of voices. The buzz and satisfaction of expressing something, not only hopefully reasonably well, but in one character’s voice reasonably well. That’s very very fulfilling, that makes you lean back and do this… (leaning back with a satisfied sigh) …looking at the laptop, thinking “God I’m good.” (laughs). You might not think the next day, and it’s best not to think that too much, because you become arrogant and stop editing yourself as sharply as you should. But it’s nice when it happens.

SB: Do you edit yourself often?

DM: Writing is largely… it’s begin with what you wrote yesterday. It needs tidying, it needs polishing, it needs training. That’ll happen another ten times before I hand over. Big pieces, very nice scenes, they might get cut; not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they don’t earn their keep. Which at the time hurts, but then they’re gone, and you think oh, that’s great.

“There are a small number of archetypal themes through every artist, even Tolstoy. They come back over and over. They are at the core of who you are, and however much you try not to write about them, they get back in.”

SB: Black Swan Green; to what extent is it autobiographical?

DM: Very much so. Stammering, yes; bookish kid, yes; Cold War, Falklands, Thatcher, that was all going on.

SB: So he’s the same age as you?

DM: Same birthday! And really spookily, the love interest in that, the flirtatious Dawn Madden, has the same initials as me. Ooh, Mr Freud! I don’t come into my books at all, my first three, and I thought “Hang on, I’ve never actually written my first novel!”

SB: Exactly! It seems like a reversal of the usual novelist’s course where they pack their first novel with themselves and then have to start searching for material.

DM: Yeah, I just become interested in where I was from, and viewing the 80s as a historical period, as you might the 1920s or the Napoleonic era.

SB: So were you trying to put down an accurate self-portrait?

DM: No...

SW: Exaggerated perhaps?

DM: If I did, that was just an accidental result. I’m not that interested in myself. I am interested in language, stammering is something that doesn’t get written about much but I wanted to write about that because it’s very interesting. And I’m interested in that moment in England, when the rural past… there were still farmers in large numbers. It was the last vestiges of old England; they sort of went around then. Thatcherism did for them.

SB: So you think it’s an interesting psychological moment, on a national level, that hasn’t been explored yet as much as it should?

DM: I felt so, yes.

SB: I read one interesting review of Black Swan Green that suggested that adopting the voice of a precocious, slightly pretentious 13-year-old was a- they didn’t suggest it was any sort of deliberate clever ruse, but perhaps it helped cover up any moments of clumsy writing that you yourself might have committed rather than the narrator.

DM: Ah, that’s clever…

SB: It seemed like an interesting doubt to have to me. Did you… Is there any deliberately “bad” writing in there?

DM: Yeah, I think so… he gets the odd past tense wrong. He says “freezed” instead of “froze” for example… The sex scene in that got shortlisted for the Bad Sex Award, the London Review of Books do it I think. That was kind of where a kid sees sex for the first time, and that’s quite a clumsy, gross description because it’s just such a shocking thing for a 13-year-old with not much of a clue about it yet to be seeing. So I thought that was a bit unjust. Or maybe there just weren’t that many good Bad Sex Scenes that year. That was supposed to be quite gauche.

SB: That’s what I was thinking… so there is some deliberate gaucheness in there, you’d say?

DM: Yeah. Also I needed in that book to provide a plausible 13-year-old, not a genius like Catcher in the Rye. It’s a bit of a cheat to have someone who’s an adult really, a sharp Manhattanite. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to have a plausible 13-year-old yet make him sustainably interesting for an adult reader. The solution is accidental poetry, accidental metaphor, accidental insight. Young adults don’t censor things like we do, and will actually draw quite vivid and fresh comparisons which we might not, because it might sound a bit naff or immature…

SB: Gauche.

DM: Just not like an adult speaks. And he does do that. If that’s an example of deliberate bad writing, then maybe yes, I do that. I would probably take issue with the reviewer on that. It’s both a requirement of the book and it’s plausible for that. Hopefully it works. I think it works, otherwise I wouldn’t have left it as it was. It’s a richer book because of it, therefore it can’t be bad writing.

SB: It leaves the reviewer in a quandary, as to whether to say “this writing is poor”, or “this is an author doing their job.”

DM: Yeah, it does. But it’s their quandary, not mine. (Nervous laughter all round.)

SB: You’ve written in different genres, especially in Cloud Atlas, with a section that’s a thriller and section that’s science fiction and so forth. Which did you enjoy writing the most?

DM: In Cloud Atlas? I enjoyed the best parts really. The Frobisher story works, the young composer, kind of historical country house bit. The Timothy Cavendish section, the vanity publisher that gets incarcerated in an old folks’ home, I enjoyed that. ‘Picarasque’ might be the literary form that’s written in, like a Henry Fielding novel. A 19th century, rambling, “and you’ll never guess what happened next” kind of mode. And the far-future, back to tribalism section works I think. That was good fun to write too. To mess up English- to fuse it and snarl it and monkey about with it, that was fun.

SB: So are you tempted to write in any of those modes again?

DM: Yeah!

SB: A straight sci-fi novel, or some ambitious futuristic thing?

DM: Straight, no, but my next novel, not the one I’m writing but the one I’m writing afterwards will be set in the future. The last four lives of someone who only ever lived twelve years but has been resurrected in human bodies six or seven hundred times through history. It’ll be the last four resurrections, in the future.

SB: With a consciousness that retains the memories of the previous ones?

DM: In the same way that you retain memories of your former addresses. So, yeah, you remember outlines, and if you think hard you can remember certain details, but it gets hazier and murkier. He does keep his languages though, so he can speak most of them. Obviously the demographics of human development has meant that he’s been Chinese or Indian much more often than anything else.

“Don’t write a character according to your first thought about how the character should be, because that’s probably a cliché. Take the cliché and turn it round. A bank robber shouldn’t be tough, mean and scarred, they should be gay and Welsh.”

SB: So you’ve tried to think logically about this.

DM: Yeah, he’s male-female as well, so he’s a library of the human experience really. Which in a sense is sort of the whole point of what he’s for. He has never known why he has this.

SB: So you’re still playing some of the same sort of games…

DM: Yeah!

SB: Still having fun with that…

DM: …yeah. There are a small number of archetypal themes through every artist, even Tolstoy. They come back over and over. They are at the core of who you are, and however much you try not to write about them, they get back in.

SB: So can you tell me anything about the book before that one, the one which is next out?

DM: It’s a historical novel, set in Japan during the Napoleonic era… of course there wasn’t any Napoleon in Japan, but between about 1798 and 1818. The Dutch were there, a small number of Dutch guys on a little trading post at a time when Japan was closed off to the outside world. There was this little cat-flap through which the outside world came in and Japan out. It’s about their lives there, and what happens to them in the Napoleonic era when the ships stop arriving, and they’re marooned, like astronauts in a space station when war breaks out on Earth and there’s no way of getting back and no way of getting news. It’s quite an intense, strange book.

SB: So is it finished?

DM: No… I wish it was. It’s got to be finished by the end of the year.

SB: But it’s well on its way?

DM: (groans comically) I’d kind of half-done the first manuscript but just before Christmas I decided I’d written it the wrong way and started again.

SB: I’m glad you’re willing to talk about it. Some writers I think are reluctant to talk about anything that isn’t finished.

DM: Yeah, I kind of understand it. It gets on Wikipedia before you know it, and people are reading about your next book, and in fact what’s on Wikipedia- it’s totally different now, just because I’ve changed my mind. You don’t want all that wrongness out there (laughs), with your name attached to it.

SB: I think I understand that. Would you agree that you’re a better writer now than you were when you started?

DM: I hope so…

SB: What do you do better?

DM: One excellent metaphor per page is much much better than eight fairly good metaphors on a page. Watch out for adverbs, don’t use them too much. Don’t write a character according to your first thought about how the character should be, because that’s probably a cliché. Take the cliché and turn it round. A bank robber shouldn’t be tough, mean and scarred, they should be gay and Welsh. That’s a good fresh bank robber. Sam Goldwyn said, “What we need here are some brand new clichés!” Invent brand new clichés. And don’t go on for too long. Making the point once is enough. Edit like a film-maker. That little glimpse of someone working in a tax office is enough, don’t spend three pages telling about that person working in a tax office. Unless something happens that day.

SB: So those would be your lessons for the young writer, your words of advice.

DM: Yes, for what they’re worth, but they’re less valuable than the prime directive, which is just write.

SB: Write that terrible first novel.

DM: Yep. And work out why it’s terrible. And learn from that. You should be learning from your mistakes all your life.

SB: We’ve gone over half an hour, but I have one more question. Is that okay?

DM: Sure.

SB: What is your greatest fear as a writer? What would be a terrible disaster for you?

DM: Spent the advance, and then to not have a book, and not be able to do anything about it. That would be pretty scary.

SB: Would the terror be in not being able to recoup the money, or in knowing you’d written something terrible?

DM: Both! The terrible part is… losing it. Having believed for such a long time that you can do this forever, and suddenly for that to be disproven. Yeah, that’s probably my Room 101. It happens with pop groups much more visibly. And it’s not as if they can no longer write songs; they write songs, but something’s gone. It’s flat, it doesn’t spark. Something’s gone, and that something comes from not knowing what you’re doing. When you’re a kid, just combining things in fresh, un-done ways, it’s a product of youth. You somehow have to be able to continue to access that as you age, as a writer, and combine that with a deeper working knowledge of the technical aspects of the craft. But if it’s all technical aspects of the craft, it’s sterile and you somehow have to preserve this faculty that youth has access to without even knowing it’s doing it. Not being able to do that is… I almost don’t want to think about it, because my fear is that thinking about it makes it more probable that you’d be inviting that demon into your head.