An Interview with David Mitchell
by Nick Bradley
David is busy. He’s come straight from signing books at Waterstones in town and sweeps into the room to chat with me, before going on stage with Chris Bigsby to talk at the UEA Literary Festival. He must be tired, but he doesn’t show it. He’s enthusiastic and positive as ever. We have both lived, at different times, in Hiroshima and this is where we begin, talking about restaurants and bars that we might have in common.
David Mitchell: Is Mac bar still there?
Nick Bradley: Yes it is.
DM: I think it’s survived for the past 200 years, and Mac’s an immortal, but because no one stays there for long enough, no one has noticed yet.
NB: Haha. OK, now I’ll dive in with the serious questions. Your strength lies in first person narrators, in getting into different people’s minds and using different voices. What do you think constitutes a great first person narrator?
DM: Conviction. Conviction in the reader that this person is real. And you achieve conviction by getting everything right and nothing wrong. Especially language — especially use of language. And getting that type of character absolutely correct. Finding things within that type, that are not to type, so finding the right idiosyncrasies against the type of the character that you are getting absolutely right.
So you get the type right, and then find things within the character that are individual. So it doesn’t smell of cliche. And then not getting anything wrong.
So for example, a Londoner would quite like to say “innit” as a question tag, someone from the West Country wouldn’t. Well, not yet, they might in ten years. An ear for microtones of dialect. Generational words as well. Someone from the 70s would say, “God it’s not half hot today!” Whereas now it would be “Sooo hot!” that “not half” has gone. In the 70s you could get away with saying “super” and sound like a toff, now if you say it, you come across as a sort of antiquated toff. It’s all about paying attention to these sorts of things.
NB: I noticed in Slade House the recurrence of the word “titchy” in one section and I remembered back to when I was young and thought, “Yes! We used to say that all the time!” How do you keep track of these kinds of “generationalisms”?
DM: That’s a good word! You are aware of generationalisms by being a nerd. By being a language nerd, by being a nerd about generationalisms. This is my hobby, this is my life. This is what I love doing. I love them. And when I find one that I like, I write it down. I’ve got pages of notebooks with 50s speak, or 70s speak. Maybe not every decade, but every 25 years or so. And before the war as well. I’ve got pages of my notebook for every quarter of the 20th century, and when I get a good one, I write it down.
NB: That’s pretty cool.
DM: It’s my job. And you just need a few per scene, and boy, it stinks of authenticity. It’s certainly worth doing.
NB: In Slade House, Fred Pink says, “Places change you.” Your work is set all over the world, and I’ve read in interviews that you love to travel. How important is it for you to visit a place before you write about it, or do you even have to?
DM: If you do, then you will find some known unknowns. And you will find things that you couldn’t find any other way. Serendipity will hand you a few freebees. I was in Miami last week, and only really modern buildings are high, only from the last 10/15 years. All of the older buildings and the trees are low. Trees over the height of a house really. And I mentioned this to the driver who got me from the airport, and he told me it’s because the topsoil is really shallow. You go down, and either you get marsh, or you get rock, after about two feet. I’d never thought of it but the shallower the topsoil is, the lower the trees. I suppose it makes sense though, because otherwise they’d get blown away easily over a certain height. I would never have read that about Miami, I’d never have known it unless I went.
A good one from researching The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: you have to go to Holland to know that when you’re cycling across Polder and you’re overtaken by a snowstorm even if you’re wearing 21st century gear, the flurry of snowflakes is so roiling, that you’ll get a snowflake melting in your armpit — a peculiar sensation, it’s rather nice and weird, but again, you have to go there to get that. If I can, I’ll go to a place in search of “implants”. Whenever I visit somewhere, even if I’m not planning to use it, I will try and view it like a location scout and think, “I might write something here one day, where are my implants?”
Norwich, I’ve noticed in the centre, there are a number of shops that have entrances and exits on different floors, in fact there was one shop that had three floors, with a door to the outside on each of the floors. That’s just great! Yeah, that’s a good one. I prefer to go if I can, otherwise the scoop will escape you.
NB: I was in a pub in the centre of Norwich the other day with some friends, and we noticed a door on the first floor that lead out into midair. With a massive drop. We couldn’t work it out.
DM: Was the mystery ever solved?
NB: Not really. We were thinking there might’ve been some stone steps that were taken away.
DM: Could be… It would be good for a story if you were there all evening with people coming in and out of that door in ordinary gear, and then at the end when the place has cleared out a bit, you walk over and find out there were no stairs there. That would be good, wouldn’t it?
NB: Yes, that’d be very Slade House! So, are there any places that you have visited that you’ve not yet had an opportunity to write about?
DM: Yeah, loads! Most places probably.
NB: Do they sit in a bank, waiting to be deployed?
DM: Yes. Yes.
NB: Which do you find hardest to write about, the past, the future, or the present?
DM: Each has their own difficulties and rewards. You can be wrong about the past, you can’t be wrong about the future. But you can be bad. You can be bad and wrong about the past, but you can only be bad about the future. You can be wrong about the present. No one earns the medal as being the hardest, but you just need to be aware of the pitfalls, and act accordingly.
NB: OK, this is a bit of a personal question. You’ve talked in interviews about being a “fake novelist” and that now you try to work bridges and passageways between novellas. I’ve always wondered, was Ghostwritten originally disconnected novellas that were woven together? Or did you start the project intending it to be a collection?
DM: About half and half. I wrote the first 3 or 4 as independent stories, while I was travelling back from Hiroshima to England. On the road. Really, they were coagulations of impressions. And then I sort of started thinking, they’re all answers to the question: why do things happen? The Okinawa one is about people abdicating their will. That’s why things happen. People allowing someone else to make their decisions for them, that’s one reason. That’s why the bombs went off in Paris a few days ago. Then, much more rosily the jazz shop kid in Tokyo, things happen in that story because of Love. 3rd, the one in Hong Kong: Greed. 4th, the one on the mountain: History. And then, I started thinking, “Great! Well, what other ones are there?” So it ended up being this interconnected book, and from that point, I started thinking how can I make a novel out of them without it being a gimmick? An interconnected thing about interconnectivity. So, the first half were independent, and then increasingly I thought there could be a novel here, which is great for me because I can’t write novels…
NB: The Bone Clocks deals a lot with the concept of time and mortality, and I’ve heard you refer to it as your “mid-life crisis” novel, where you came to terms with getting older. If you could go back and give a piece of advice to your younger self as a writer, what would it be?
DM: Cut down the imagery. A small number of 4 or 5 star metaphors or similes beat more 3 1/2 or 4 stars. A few killer images per 3 or 4 pages, or per scene is enough. If you’re in the head of someone who doesn’t do imagery, don’t do imagery. Anything about adverbs is generally true. You generally don’t need them, unless it’s a character who overuses adverbs, in which case that’s fine. Don’t waste time. If you can’t get the next bit right, leapfrog it to the next bit that you can do, it’s ok to go around the scene, don’t allow the fact that a scene isn’t going well stop progress until you’ve got it cracked. Hopscotch, and you might find the answer on either side of it.
What other mistakes did I commonly make? Don’t act on this, but be aware of this, that there’s a kind of fader coming down, and a fader going up as you age, (DM makes a gesture like he’s manipulating 2 sliders on a mixing desk), the fader coming down is Youthful Impetuosity and the fader going up is Craft. As you get older, Youthful Impetuosity fades out, you are less in tune with the zeitgeist, you are becoming an old fart. At the same time your Craft increases, and with luck you compensate with this, because you know more about writing.
Trust your instinct. Embrace omnivoreacity. A lot of people can get one or two decent books out, but then diminishing returns kick in as reservoirs of raw material empty. Especially before kids happen, do throw yourself into things, do say yes to things. Don’t waste time. Get rid of the telly. Most Internet is a waste of time. Get into the story, get into the job at hand now. Let that suck you in, let that glue you in – not the funny cat video on YouTube.
You never stop learning these things. What I’d really like to know is what my 65 year old self would tell my 46 year old self now. Unfortunately, it’s the speed of life. But the main thing is that omnivoreacity.
(Chris Bigsby opens the door to tell us we are running out of time.)
DM: ‘Ello ‘ello! Time for one last question?
NB: What’s your favourite English word?
NB: How do you spell that?
CB: You’re not asking him what it means?
NB: I’ll look it up when I get home.
DM: It’s a beautiful word and a beautiful thing.