David Mitchell, the master builder

When he was a child, David Mitchell drew maps. Now he creates worlds.

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Readers only care whether something’s any good, says Mitchell.
Portrait: Felicity McCabe for the New Statesman

“Is that your phone?” David Mitchell asks. We’re sitting in a lushly upholstered bar of a fine London hotel at nine o’clock on a weekday morning; there’s no one here but us and I can hear absolutely nothing. The tone of Mitchell’s voice is not annoyance – it’s quite hard even to imagine him being annoyed – but concern, as if someone much more important than he is must be trying to get hold of me. Just to be polite, I dig for my phone, obviously set to silent, in the very bottom of my bag . . . And wouldn’t you know: it’s ringing. Silently. And yet Mitchell has heard it. So this is when I begin to suspect that perhaps the secret of his work is that he does, simply, have super-powers.

It might make sense of things. For here is an unassuming man in his mid-forties who has something of Clark Kent about him: handsome but not intimidating, unfailingly courteous – essentially, totally unstarry. And yet he has been a star of English-language fiction right out of the starting blocks: his first novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1999; his second and third, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His fourth novel, Black Swan Green (which in the case of a more ordinary author might have been his first, because most writers start with autobiography and move outwards – but not Mitchell), was shortlisted for the Costa Awards and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2006.

But awards don’t make books – we’ll come back to that – readers do, and readers are passionate about Mitchell’s books. His work has been translated into 30 languages across the globe; Cloud Atlas has sold over a million copies in its British editions worldwide. His new novel, The Bone Clocks, went straight to number three in the UK and US bestseller lists. Devoted fans create charts of the way characters migrate from one novel to another. For Cloud Atlas, a sequence of interlinked stories that range from the South Pacific in the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, they built wiki pages that are nearly novels in their own right.

So there’s all that; and there’s collaborating with Kate Bush, which is surely another signifier of super-power. He came to Bush’s attention a few years ago: working with Michel van der Aa on their opera, Sunken Garden, he boldly wrote to Bush’s agent to see if she might want to come along. “To my great surprise she emailed me back! And said she’d love to go; I think she was thinking of [her current stage show] Before the Dawn even then. About this time last year, my phone went at home, and she was asking if we could meet . . . Imagine if your greatest hero just rang you, at home, and you answered the phone in your gruff, ‘Who’s there?’ voice!” He won’t say much about Bush (“If you work with her you respect her privacy”) but tells me he did collaborate on the two monologues and the dialogue incorporated into this, her first live set in 35 years. He describes his role as “a sounding board” and wishes to scotch the internet rumour that he has written lyrics for her. The scenes in the show are “co-written”, he says. “She sent notes and ideas, I knocked those into a first draft, she knocked them into a second draft, we were pinging back and forth six or seven times until Kate was happy. So I am her humble servant – I am an obedient cog in her majestic machine, no more than that.” He grins. “But it was so cool.” Sitting in the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, he found it “a beautiful sensory experience”.

That the quality of Mitchell’s imagination appealed to Bush is not surprising; she, too, is an artist of remarkable range. Mitchell’s powers of invention are on virtuoso display in The Bone Clocks. Like Cloud Atlas, the new novel is a sextet: six sections span six decades. We move from the already retro past of 1984 (a pointed choice of year for a jumping-off point) to 2043, a future in which things are looking pretty bleak for all of us: “But for civilisation, rather than for humanity,” as Mitchell tells me. It’s a good distinction for this writer, who captures human voices and human sensibilities so well – especially so the voices and sensibilities of women – and it is the life of Holly Sykes that provides the central thread of this sprawling narrative, from the moment her younger brother mysteriously disappears to the sci-fi war between the “Horologists” and the “Anchorites”, which is just begging to be taken on by the Wachowski siblings, who also adapted Cloud Atlas. Mitchellites (Mitchellians?) will have fun spotting characters they know and love, from Timothy Cavendish to Marinus; but newbies needn’t fear feeling left out. Exclusivity is precisely the opposite of what Mitchell wants to achieve with the grand project of connected fictions he has called his “über-novel”, in which characters dance between books.

That isn’t how he thought of it initially, though. At first, “It was a bit of fun. I just had characters from Ghostwritten walking into number9dream, and that just pleased me. But then there’s a character who’s a composer’s daughter” – Eva – “in Cloud Atlas, who then becomes a major character in Black Swan Green: and then, actually, there’s a more valid reason for doing that. It has to do with . . .” He hesitates. “I haven’t found a word for it yet. In German it would be a word: ‘reality-concreteness’. If you believe in that character when she’s a girl in Cloud Atlas, if that world was real for you, she’d have a continuing existence, a credibility: and so when she crops up in Black Swan Green in her sixties as an artistic mentor, she brings all that with her. It’s like she’s got Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, and shakes it all out, and all this reality from Cloud Atlas spills out.”

It was, he tells me, his Canadian editor who ventured a comparison for the scale of his task – after, he stresses, a few gin and tonics. “ ‘You know what you’re doing?’ she said. ‘You’re writing your own Middle-earth, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Of course not. Er . . . yeah.’ ” That comparison suddenly brought him back to his first experience of world-building when he was a child. Mitchell’s parents were commercial artists (he likes to make sure that the adjective before “artists” gets mentioned: “People think I was brought up in bohemia, which I wasn’t”) and so, he says, “My first ever novelistic activities weren’t to do with writing, they were to do with maps.” With visceral delight, he recalls “the pleasure of large sheets of A1 cartridge paper, thick, lovely paper, the closest you get to vellum, mounted up on a big echoey mounting board with masking tape so it won’t wobble – ‘There you are, son, there’s your half-term’s entertainment.’ And I’d cover it with maps. Sometimes mazes, but usually maps.” Four decades on, “Whoosh!” he laughs. The worlds have a life of their own.

Which brings us to what Mitchell refers to smilingly as “the G-word” – genre. We’re pretty obsessed, I say, with putting writing into boxes, into rigid categories. “Aren’t we?” Mitchell says a little wearily. “I don’t like that. Readers don’t care about that; they only care whether something’s any good.” Fantasy as a whole, he knows, suffers from the notion that (unlike crime fiction, for instance) it is “not for grown-ups. But then if you watch the first four episodes of Game of Thrones you might be a bit less dismissive.” Mitchell doesn’t read his reviews, not because he doesn’t care, he says, but because he knows he would; it’s not his own reputation he’s out to defend.

We get to talking about a mutual heroine, Ursula Le Guin – who reviewed The Bone Clocks in the Guardian with what must be called measured praise, admiring its ambition but questioning its structure. Mitchell says that he is certain Le Guin would have a more secure place in the canon were she a man. “The Left Hand of Darkness. What a book! What a classic of 20th-century literature! If she were male, she’d be published in Vintage Classics, with gold embossed lettering, with Mark Twain and John Updike, instead of in these lurid sci-fi covers. It’s OK for men to do it – it’s all right for Huxley and Orwell. I’m sounding like a feminist, aren’t I?” He grins.

It’s hard not to wonder whether that early urge to build his own worlds came from feeling at least somewhat excluded from the one he was in. He grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire, did an English first degree and then a Master’s in comparative literature at the University of Kent. After university he spent eight years teaching in Japan, in Hiroshima, where he met his Japanese wife; these days, he lives with his family in Ireland, near Cork, a safe distance from the London literary world. But he was – and is – a stammerer, just as Jason Taylor is in Black Swan Green. Mitchell is the president of the British Stammerers’ Association now, and is keen to talk about how speech therapy has made huge progress in recent years. Although there is occasionally a slight hesitation in his own speech, you wouldn’t hear it if you didn’t know to listen.

He has collected, he says, “a bag of tricks” to enable his fluency: “I wish I could phone my 13-year-old self and say, ‘Hey, guess who’s talking. Guess who’s on live TV!’ ” Although plainly he can’t do that, “maybe I can do it for other 13-year-olds”. And he knows that having to think deeply about language from a very early age – what words he was able to say, what words were best avoided for other reasons (“If you say ‘mellifluous’ or ‘eloquent’ when you’re 13, you’ll get your head kicked in”) – formed him as a writer.

It pleases him greatly that speech therapists tell him that they use Black Swan Green in their work, as does the remarkable success of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida. Mitchell is the book’s translator and it was published to great acclaim in English in 2013. As a severely autistic boy, Higashida, who is almost entirely without speech, found a way to communicate through a keyboard: the book is a window into his experience. Mitchell and his wife have two children, a girl and a boy; their son, now nine, is autistic, and Mitchell’s wife discovered Higashida’s book simply browsing on Japanese Amazon.

At that time, “Our son was about three or four, which is probably the worst it ever gets. We got the book at the right time; it explained so many things about what was going on in my son’s head – Well, with autism you can never know, particularly if the person is largely non-vocal, like our son, but it was easily the most helpful thing we’d ever encountered. And it was by a severely autistic ‘insider’. Other books were either by specialists who don’t have autism, or very high-functioning people like Temple Grandin. Our son was banging his head on the kitchen floor; there was just no connection with those kinds of books. Nothing was helpful like Naoki’s book was helpful.”

They produced a “samizdat” translation for their own use, and for the use of others who work with their son; eventually Mitchell mentioned it to his agent and publisher, “And then, to my astonishment, it took on a life of its own.” He is working on a second project with Higashida, who is now 22, and says simply: “The Reason I Jump is more important than all of my novels put together. It’s doing some good in the world. I hope my books provide entertainment, but this book is potentially improving the treatment of people with autism.”

Yet that “entertainment” fills his head – he has the next three or four books already lined up in his head, and seems startled when I’m startled that he is able to plan so far ahead. But any of his books demonstrates that he has no shortage of ideas. And yet he is a happy and clearly unprecious collaborator. He speaks of his absolute trust in the Wachowskis while Cloud Atlas was filming. “If you wrote sci-fi, and the people who made The Matrix said they wanted to adapt your work, wouldn’t you say yes?”

What endeared the film-making brother and sister to Mitchell was their kindness. “We met at Cork’s poshest hotel, and they were just sincerely kind and considerate to the staff. I really liked that; it makes you think well of people, doesn’t it? The awareness that these people had worked during the night shift – I’ve done that job, and maybe you have – being aware of that kind of thing says a lot about people.” He describes the experience of the first read-through of the script, in Berlin, as being, unsurprisingly, surreal. “I was sitting next to Lana; it was a little like being in school and reading The Crucible, and you have a part, and the other kids are reading . . . but the kids were, like, Jim Broadbent and Halle Berry. But there were lots of times when I whispered to Lana, when there was a good line, ‘Is that mine or yours?’ And usually she’d say, ‘It’s yours, you dolt!’

Prizes are like reviews – at the edge of Mitchell’s vision. He appeared on this year’s Man Booker longlist but didn’t make the shortlist. (Full disclosure: I’m a judge.) It’s not that he’s indifferent to such baubles, he says. “If you win, it’s lovely. If you don’t win, therefore, for the very same reason, you are disappointed. I don’t like the part of me that does care, but that part is there as well. It would not be convincing to say, ‘This is absolutely insignificant; prizes are corruptions of art.’ ” He’s put on a drawling, pompous voice, and he laughs. “But it’s a prize. It’s not your livelihood. It’s not your country being invaded, it’s not deeply unwelcome news from your GP; those are the things you care about.”

He cares, too, about what happens to us all in the long run. The future he imagines in the final chapter of The Bone Clocks offers a clear-eyed vision of how the earth might end up if we continue to treat our planet as we do. He acknowledges that eight years spent living in Hiroshima made him consider the high cost of certain forms of human ingenuity; and that having children has lengthened his view. “It’s not enough for the world to be OK as long as you’re around. The nature of the stake changes.”

I wonder how much he believes in the world he has imagined: one where, essentially, the power has run out.

“I believe in a strong possibility of it,” he says plainly. “Our science and technology is superb at a micro level – at working out a cure for ebola, isn’t that exciting? – but on a macro scale we’re still in the 1930s. Most everything is powered by oil and coal; these are finite resources.

“The reserves are getting more and more remote, and so it requires more oil to get that oil. This leaves us with a world where in the hotter parts we make it habitable with oil; in the colder parts we make it habitable by oil, or other fossil fuels. We move by oil. We fly by oil. Everything we wear, or consume, is largely made by oil-consuming factories in distant part of the world, so that it all has to be brought to us in container ships that use oil. We feed ourselves using oil, agriculture being a means of turning oil into food. There’s that Philip Larkin poem, ‘The Old Fools’: ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’ Why aren’t people more worried about this than the next iPhone?”

One comes away from a meeting with David Mitchell thinking that his sense of perspective – hard won, I think, from his own experience, and from the experience of his son, too – is his real super-power. Towards the end of our talk we come back to the importance of kindness. “It’s massively underrated,” he says. “And the good things that happen in the world only happen because of it. There are the invisible volunteers; and if you have a foot in the special-needs world, my God, the people you meet.

“This is how the world keeps spinning. It’s not Ayn Rand’s Atlas, it’s not the oligarchs, it’s the utterly obscure, kind people. That’s how we all get through the night.”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and an Eccles British Library Writer in Residence 2014

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris