David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, speaks to The Adelaide Review about genre fiction, writing tricky books and the myth of boredom.
David Mitchell, the writer not the actor, has been quietly pottering away on the frontier of fiction for 15 years. His first novel, Ghostwritten, was published in 1999. Six world-bending, genre-blending books have since followed, including Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green and 2014’s The Bone Clocks. Mitchell will be returning to Adelaide for his second-ever visit on Monday, May 18, for a writer-in-conversation session hosted by Adelaide Writers’ Week. Ahead of this, Mitchell speaks to The Adelaide Review. When he picks up the phone, it is nine o’clock in the morning in the small Irish village, south-west of Cork, that Mitchell calls home. His wife has taken their children to school and now Mitchell is planning to complete his slightly overdue sales tax return. It is 3°C outside and 24°C in Hiroshima. He tells me this as we discuss his upcoming visit to Adelaide, planned for our “balmy cold months” with their shivering overnight lows of 10°C. He remembers the first – and only – time he visited Adelaide. His memory of that day spent between Melbourne and a journey on the Ghan is marked by “the jingle and the rumble of the tram going by” right through the middle of the city. Mitchell chats a little more about the errands he has to complete – the pink basket of household tasks waiting to be checked off – and chuckles: “If I begin to bore you, yawn loudly and I’ll take that as a sign to start talking about art and literature.” He doesn’t need much encouragment, enthusiastically diving into questions about writing practice, music, artists and the perfection of the book. The works of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan (though less of the latter since his Christmas album release) have shaped and followed Mitchell through his life. A childhood spent drawing maps of imaginary worlds and documenting the people who lived there has similarly informed the man he is today. But before all this, Mitchell explains a misconception about boredom. “Everything is interesting if you look at it in the right way,” he says. “My accountant is a really interesting man – the way he talks about the electronics of money, the way he talks about economic forces; he makes accountancy sound absolutely fascinating. He makes me think how often ‘boredom’ is a lack of imagination, rather than an inherent quality in the supposedly boring thing itself.” A stubborn refusal to believe anything can be boring would certainly aid a writer’s imagination. Mitchell’s is one that works on constant overdrive, spurred by his commitment to not be dull and his belief that readers deserve interesting work. “If I’m bored by it, then how can I, in all conscience, expect the reader to give 20, 30 hard-earned euro, pounds or dollars to a book that didn’t even crank my handle?” His books are kaleidoscopic, Babushka doll texts: stories within stories, characters and genres looking like one thing then something brilliantly different. It’s not simply through blurring literary elements with devices found almost exclusively in science-fiction or fantasy that Mitchell achieves the weirdness of his work. While this is certainly important, it is the minority of his work that explores the supernatural, metaphysical sides to a story. More impressive is the completeness with which he brings a world to life, the secure grasp he has upon his characters – and those characters he reprises in different places, times and books – and the ability for each novel to be so markedly different from anything that has come before it. Mitchell explains that as bold and thrilling his genre-bothering is, he would not describe the act as “exciting” or even “liberating”. “It’s certainly made life more difficult,” he says. “It’s somewhat dangerous, because there are prejudices against genre fiction, and I knew some people would get to the fifth part [of The Bone Clocks] and just go, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me. I just don’t do widespread violations of the laws of physics’, and they would have put the book down at that point. So, it’s sort of easier not to [bring in genre elements], especially if you’re not a genre writer. “In the context of The Bone Clocks, it’s quite risky because I spend 100 pages being serious about the politics of the war in Iraq. I then go from that to talking about invisible people who live in your head and move around in this whole other secret history of western civilisation; that’s quite a tough thing to pull off. And if I didn’t pull it off, the book would kind of die. I would have a broken book.” He laughs, a little nervously. Feedback, generally, says that Mitchell has pulled it off, and that The Bone Clocks is not a broken book. With the escalation, though, from book-to-book – more layers, more Eva van Crommelyncks, more bizarre leaps of literary faith – has Mitchell doomed himself to a life of ever-growing complication? He answers by drawing a comparison to escapology. “The harder the trap you’re extricating yourself from, hopefully, the more audacious your act of originality has to be to extricate yourself from that trap. And by ‘trap’, I mean a book that’s quite difficult to make work, because there’s not too many like it. It’s not formulaic; you can’t look at a thousand other things in the bookshop and think, ‘Ah, yeah yeah, that’s how you do that’.” He explains that future books will not have to be “more difficult” and he is wary of the term “escalation”. “That can lead you down a cul-de-sac where you’re doing things just for the sake of it,” he says. He illustrates this with Georges Perec’s The Void – written without the letter ‘e’. “Now, as it happens, he did that for a reason,” says Mitchell. “It was sort of about his parents who were both killed when he was very, very young – or who both died when he was very, very young – so he was saying that a life without his parents was like a book without the letter ‘e’ in it. But there are many less noble experiments where you admire the technical acrobatics, but it doesn’t really move you because there’s something a little bit fraudulent about it.” A wariness of this ‘fraud’ means Mitchell is not concerned with asking himself ‘What is the hardest book I could possibly write?’. Instead, he says that in the early stages of a book’s conception, he makes clear choices to not take the easy options and to not be afraid of making “fairly major headaches” for himself. The long-term pay-off of this approach? “Hopefully I get to not be constantly stuck on a treadmill where I’m realising that I’m writing my greatest hits Cloud Atlas with ever-diminishing returns.” While the treadmill won’t be turning, Mitchell’s imagination certainly will. His next book, he hints, will be based in London Soho in the 1960s. And as with Eva, or as with the tram that rattles through Mitchell’s mind when he thinks of Adelaide, it is possible we will see something familiar return anew in this next novel. “If you have a shared history with a character and they come back, then they bring that shared history with them. That shared history can flavour or colour or dye or scent the new world, the new narrative they appear in, in the reader’s imagination.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPADQG_5wz4 David Mitchell will appear in conversation with Stephanie Hester as part of Adelaide Writers’ Week’s 2015 out-of-season event series. Elder Hall, Monday, May 18, 6.30pm Tickets through BASS Thanks to Adelaide Festival, we have eight double passes to give away. Competition entry and details here. For more on the out-of-season events with Norman Doidge and Helen Macdonald, visit adelaidefestival.com.au davidmitchellbooks.com