Cambridge Union Chamber, 29th November, 2015
“A third of the people here have mistaken me for the other David Mitchell,” jokes the world-renowned author of ground-breaking novels such as Cloud Atlas, number9dream and The Bone Clocks. In a packed Union Chamber, he is talking to Tom Gatti (Culture Editor, New Statesman) about his new book, Slade House, as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival.
“This is very Hogwarts,” observes Mitchell, taking in the wood-panelling and portraits of his surroundings. “l’ll choose Gryffindor, please.”
He tells story of how his brother invented a game in 1975 – ‘Round and Round the House’, which he uses in Slade House. The boys would stand on opposite diagonal corners of their home and start running at the same time – the object was to catch each other. Mitchell had nightmares of being pursued, in which the uneven acceleration of pursuer was the frightening thing. He found out late that his brother was just in the kitchen window watching him run around the house.
Dressed in striped t-shirt and black jacket, Mitchell is a boyish 46, full of energy and nerdy enthusiasm. He delights in wordplay and the sensory quality of language: “Oeuvre,” he says, at one point, rolling the word around his mouth, “I love saying that word.”
As he reads an extract from the spine-chilling Slade House, you can hear the remnants of the boyhood stammer which he has written about so beautifully his semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green. Oh, oh, oh!’ No, no, no! reads Mitchell, then breaks off: “looks great on the page, but reading aloud it makes me sound like a dirty old man.”
Mitchell says he crafts and shapes sentences with his hands in the air, as if he is a carpenter constructing an intricate cabinet.
Gatti asks whether he ever writes down his dreams or nightmares. “If I have a good one,” replies Mitchell. “In Japan the rain makes a ‘zar zar’ noise. I dreamt I opened a box with a piece of paper which had ‘the language of mountains is rain’ written on it. So I used this in my second book. My daughter has been helpful – I write her nightmares down – ‘there was a paper aeroplane, Daddy. It was following me everywhere I went.’ Isn’t that beautiful. It’s just there.”
Gatti: The genesis of your latest novel is unusual …
Mitchell: An early version of The Bone Clocks had this house in it. Left stranded there like a Darwinian dead-end animal. I was asked if I used my Twitter account much – no (private life is private, dull) – so how about using it for a story narrative … the shorter novel barged its way to the front of the queue (bigger novels gestating in his head).
I love this form, this 300 year-old, generous form of the novel. It is thriving now, in a state of good health. Other forms can feed me. I view social media novels as a sort of sabbatical – to learn something and to refresh your eyeballs. It’s about eyeball refreshment.
Gatti: Slade House has this genuinely frightening idea of consuming souls.
Mitchell: A handy metaphor. Life seems to be about consumption. The fear of death – we’re pre-programmed with it. As Tom Waits says, ‘the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.’ I’m going through a mid-life crisis – aged 46 – I look in the mirror and say ‘Dad! What are you doing here?’ The kids are nudging you off the stage. No-one buys CDs anymore. Would Christmas have the same zing if you were immortals and your longevity was reliant on someone else’s misery?
Gatti: This idea of a world being run by a chain of predators …
Mitchell: It’s one of my core themes – we are walking bundles of archetypal themes. They pop up like little whack-a-moles. Hierarchies of social systems – very bloody, tooth-and-claw analogies in the natural world. Metaphorically, human beings are doing it to each other.
Gatti: In the Afterword to The Bone Clocks you explain the names of some of the characters who recur in your books. Were you just having fun, or being more ambitious?
Mitchell: A 3-art answer:
- Meta-lapsis – a lit-critty word
- I Noticed the literary benefit to be gained from it. Characters come with a comet’s tail of association. It’s like with your favourite LP records – you remember where you were when you first heard them. Same with books. Resonances, associations can be enriching.
I think of my characters as out of work actors waiting at the Job Centre. A bank of characters that act as hyperlinks or wormholes for other novels. A drinking friend said ‘you’re making your own Middle Earth, aren’t you?’ I have cathedral building and magpie tendencies.
Gatti: World creating is associated with fantasy fiction. Does this mapping quality still appeal to you as a writer?
Mitchell: Building planets. The ontology business is associated with fantasy / Science Fiction writers. Every act of a narrative needs a world to be contained in. Every writer does it. Fantasy flaunts the art of ontology, whereas hard-boiled realism disguises it.
Gatti: There is a snobbish hierarchy between fantasy and literary fiction. Your books leap nimbly between genres. Do you enjoy collapsing the boundaries and hijacking the reader?
Mitchell: I don’t really think that far. That question is larger than the rectangle of my laptop or notebook. The genre police waters are very murky. The relevant question is: ‘is this book any good or not?’ Not what type of genre it is.
A member of the audience asks what Mitchell was doing when he wrote his first novel.
I was in Japan, 27 year old, teaching English. If I had daydreams about being a writer, I had to make a go of it, with talent and discipline. Got rid of the TV, video, a social life – stayed in every night and wrote. My proto-novel was all over the shop. That was my creative writing course.
How had Japan informed the parabola of his life?
I was in Hiroshima for 8 years in my 20s. I had the body of an adult and the mind of a kid. I grew up. Japan was a major source of raw material, a reservoir from which you later draw.
So many of the details in your books are precise – rich and sensory. How do you curate the details?
I deviate massively. I’m a deviant. Gluey-ness, ripeness – if something smells fresh. Like you know what to put in the supermarket trolley when you go round.