Cork-based writer David Mitchell in tune with Joni

Cork-based writer David Mitchell talks to Richard Fitzpatrick about autism, the influence of his folk-star namesake, and helping out with the local Tidy Towns.

The album that made David Mitchell take a look at the world from a different angle was Joni Mitchell’s Blue. He got it in 1987. He was about to leave school — and his hometown in Worcestershire — for university.

He bought it blind, not knowing anything about it, except that a girl he fancied had recommended it.

On listening to it, he was enchanted with the album’s instrumentation; the “contradictions” in Joni Mitchell’s voice; and her lyrics. It helped him see life from a female point of view.

“Most of the songs I’d heard, the books and poetry I’d read, the films and TV shows I’d seen, had been male-centric,” says Mitchell. “Gender equality in the arts is a little better now — a little — but in the 1980s, God, things were grim.

Male-centric art is invalid because of its maleness, but if it makes up 95% of your diet, as it did for me, you succumb to ‘ignorance-scurvy’ — a certain piggishness — without even knowing it. This leads to avoidable trouble. Gender ignorance is not a one-way street, but looking back to my 18-year-old self, I can only wince.

“Blue has a song about a woman enjoying a holiday fling; about a mother wondering how the infant you were forced to give up for adoption is getting on; about struggling with fame and success as a woman; a torch song for a man (not a woman!) who is now unhappily domesticated.

“Even when the subject matter isn’t overtly female — for example ‘River’, a song about longing to be where you are not, or ‘California’, about the morphing of idealism into scepticism — the light-source, the perspective, the palette, is female. Sure, the songs on Blue are by one woman, about one young woman’s experiences, but when art is personal it’s also universal. That’s why it works.

“I also want to say that the album’s 10 songs are devoid of cliché. Entirely. That is very, very rare. There’s a puckish joy in language, too. ‘Richard got married to a figure skater/And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator.’ Back of the net or what?!”

Mitchell, who has appeared on Time magazine’s annual 100 Most Influential People lists — has been scoring with his unrivalled novels, too. Each one published, as he has said, roughly according to World Cup cycles over the last two decades. They include Cloud Atlas, which was adapted for film in 2012 by The Matrix directors, the Wachowskis.

They’re clever, vast, genre-hopping works that slip easily across cultures and from century to century.

Mitchell’s output is diverse. He’s done screenwriting work for the Netflix show Sense8 and, he has co-translated with his Japanese wife, Keiko Yoshida, two books: The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism and Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8, about what it is like to live with autism; the couple have an autistic son. A Japanese teenager, Naoki Higashida, published the original books.

“Us neurotypical lot habitually underestimate the intellectual, emotional, and imaginative abilities of non-verbal autistic people,” says Mitchell.

“By failing to understand that our ignorance is aggravating the problem, we make their lives — and ours — harder and grimmer. By understanding autistic people better, we can act accordingly and kickstart a virtuous spiral which enhances their lives, and ours, and their ability to navigate our neurotypical world.

“There are no magic bullets, but we can do a better job of it than we’re doing now. Let’s stop mistaking a communicative impairment for a cognitive one. Let’s stop seeing a blank face and assume there’s no emotion behind it. To anyone at the [Irish] Department of Education and Skills reading this, six words: ‘High schools and autism — now, please.’”

Mitchell knows all about Ireland’s foibles. He’s been living in Clonakilty, Co Cork, since early in the millennium, having also spent stints living in Italy and Japan.

He’s taken with Ireland’s “sane” politics — “To the many who disagree,” he says, “try living in a truly dysfunctional society and you’ll see what I mean”; its “blessed” environment; and as a great place to bring up kids, citing the number

of energised teachers he encounters.

“Of course Ireland has challenges, but show me a society that doesn’t,” he says.

“The connection between Church and State can look medieval to someone acculturated elsewhere, but again, there are countries far more medieval in this respect.”

There are things he enjoys about living in West Cork which differ from, say, his native England: “If you’re driving along a lane — and they’re all lanes round here, except the N71 — and you see your friend coming in the other direction, you’re not only allowed to stop, wind down your window, and have a quick gossip, but it’s rude for any driver coming up behind you to beep his or her horn inside of a 30-second grace period.

“Try that in the English countryside, especially in the south, and you’d have a major police incident on your hands.”

For socialising, there’s nothing that tops John Spillane’s monthly sessions at De Barra’s, he says. “The Murphy’s is magic and the man’s a legend.”

He adds: “I help out with Tidy Towns a bit. Our small group — some locals, some other blow-ins — with whom I weed, tidy, paint, pick up litter, and scoop the gunk from our village water feature, don’t care where you’re from or what you do for a living.

“Whoever you are, you’re welcome, especially if you don’t mind pitching in a little, if you can, when you can, no pressure, like. That attitude is why I stay living here.”

David Mitchell and Deborah Levy will be in conversation with Tom Gatti about the albums that inspire their writing at

International Literature Festival Dublin, 8pm, Saturday, May 19, Smock Alley Theatre, Temple Bar.


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