Surfing a wave of success

Despite the Hollywood glitz that goes with the film adaptation of his Cloud Atlas book, David Mitchell is content to live quietly in Clonakilty, writes Conor Power

RELEASED in 2004, the novel Cloud Atlas was adored by critics and the public alike. It was one of those rarities that managed to be cerebral yet accessible and entertaining. A film adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry opens in Ireland on Friday.

The book’s author — 44-year-old Englishman David Mitchell — gave up the day job after the release of his second novel, Number9dream, in 2001. He subsequently left Japan, where he had been teaching English, and moved to Ireland. He now lives outside Clonakilty, Cork, with his Japanese-born wife and their two children.

To the question as to why one should live in this part of the world, Mitchell takes the very Irish approach of replying with another question: “Why would anyone not want to live in West Cork? That’s my question — it’s not ‘Why do you live here?’.

“At this stage in life, you need space and a good environment in which to bring up your children. After a while you need to be able to communicate with other parents at school; the people around you. It sounds simple and obvious and straightforward but in many, many tracts of the world, it’s not normal: it’s not normal to be reasonably friendly to strangers.”

Normal is a word that comes to mind on first meeting David Mitchell — someone who was once cited by Time magazine in its ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ list. Meeting him in a Clonakilty café, this youthful 40-something has more of the air of wide-eyed mature student about him than that of a literary giant.

How does he marry his life in rural West Cork with the world of best-selling literature and film premieres? “I have a sort of ambivalent relationship with the fame side of it. I certainly don’t get a kick out of it. I don’t look at a picture of myself in the newspaper and say ‘Hey, look at me!’. That would make me feel uneasy. But if the reward is that I can make a living writing full-time, then up to this point, it has been a price worth paying.”

He has also adapted to public readings. “I’m beginning to get used to it. I am, by nature, a stammering introvert. In the beginning, in particular, I would get really nervous. But I discovered that there’s no real difference between pretending to be able to do something and actually doing it. In other words, if you’re scared and you’re pretending to be brave, then that’s courage … that’s actually it.”

In one of Mitchell’s previous novels, Black Swan Green, the story is told in the first person by a 12-year-old boy, a character who, the author asserts with tongue firmly in cheek, is “38.6% autobiographical”. One of that character’s characteristics is his slightly debilitating stammer.

Cloud Atlas is the first of Mitchell’s books to make it all the way from “development hell” to the cinema screen. “Most of my other books have been optioned, but that’s no guarantee that a finished product will ever see the light of day.”

Directed by German Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the American Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy), and already released in the US to some lukewarm reviews, Cloud Atlas the film may not make as strong an impact as did the novel whence it sprang. How does he feel about letting go of his well-regarded literary babies to be interpreted by someone else?

“I feel OK about it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have sold the option to the story in the first place. Although I admit that I’m more OK about it if I meet the directors and feel confident that they know what they are doing: this happened in the case of Cloud Atlas. Beyond approving an early version of the script, I had no input into the script-writing,” he says. “Nor did I want any — it’s a very different art to writing a novel. I visited the set in Berlin and found the process of filmmaking fascinating. I also have two very short cameos in the film, but blink and you’ll miss me.!”

One of Mitchell’s trademarks is his mastery of different styles and voices. Nowhere is this better represented than in Cloud Atlas — a plot that involves six distinctive yet interlinked stories set in various locations and eras; each with its own literary style. It is also evident in his last novel — The One Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which is set in a Dutch trading colony in 18th century Japan.

Perhaps one of the reasons behind this skill is his insistence on the importance of the 19th-century novel. Chekov is a particular favourite. As far as Mitchell is concerned, it’s simply logical that one does not overlook novels from this period, in particular if one is serious about both reading and writing. “The novel, as a form, debatably going back to the time of Defoe, is pushing 300 years old. It has its own canon of work and, if you want to master an art, you owe it to yourself to study previous masters.

“If the 18th century is the ‘infancy’ of the novel, then the 19th century is its ‘youth’ and the 20th century is its ‘maturation’ and fragmentation, because there are lots of different forms. It’s not that the 19th century is a particularly strong period but it’s a good third of the whole canon of the novel.”

As we head towards the third decade of the 21st century, and people expect their entertainment to come harder and faster, is the novel as a form now going into decline?

“Every publisher I’ve ever met is just looking for good, well-plotted writing. And if the question is, ‘is good writing in decline?’, then the answer is in Stieg Larsson, it’s in Harry Potter, it’s in book clubs... It’s no. It evolves; it’s a constantly mutating form.”

* Cloud Atlas is in cinemas from Friday

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