Cork-based David Mitchell tells Zahra Saeed about his new novel, forays into Twitter and getting inspiration from his children.
DING!” goes David Mitchell, mimicking the sound effects of a TV game show. Following my brag about spotting seven connections between his latest novel, The Bone Clocks, and previous books, the multi award-winning author has challenged me to “rattle them off the top of my head”. Hence I’m now in the throes of what feels like a surreal round of Mastermind.
I’m certainly not the only person geekily obsessed with Clonakilty-based David Mitchell’s back catalogue. But, as someone whose adoring fan base is more akin to that of a rock star than a writer, 45-year-old Mitchell is delightfully unassuming. He pauses several times during our interview to make cups of tea, thanking me for spending the weekend reading The Bone Clocks, and seeming genuinely relieved I enjoyed it.
All this adulation has also meant reluctantly accepting a new persona of being the ‘coolest’ writer in town.
So cool, in fact, that A-lister Sarah Jessica Parker was photographed carrying a copy of The Bone Clocks a month before its official release.
Born in Southport and raised in Malvern, Worcestershire, Mitchell’s ordinary middle-class upbringing belies the fantastical and mind-bending plots that pepper his books.
The author has had a stammer since childhood, which is visited in his fourth novel, Black Swan Green, a semi-autobiographical account of a 13-year-old boy who is bullied for having a stammer.
Mitchell is sanguine about his speech disorder — hardly noticeable today — claiming that it’s made him a better writer by forcing him to become more “adept at sentence construction”.
Most of his books eschew the standard format of a novel, and instead consist of a number of separate but interconnected sections or, as he calls them, novellas. “Basically, I’m not a novelist, and I’m not a short story writer. My optimum form is that old fashioned, quaint thing, the novella, 70 to about 100 pages.”
The Bone Clocks, his sixth offering, is in the same vein. Made up of six novellas, it charts the life of its protagonist, Holly Sykes, decade by decade, from teenage punk in 1980s Gravesend, to 70-year-old grandmother in a post-apocalyptic 2040, when the world has run out of oil. So far, so (relatively) normal.
But this is David Mitchell we’re talking about, so in “what the Americans call an elevator pitch”, he adopts a movie trailer voice and explains the fantasy element that encircles the story: “Into Holly’s life erupts a murderous feud in two circles of pseudo-immortals, one of which is more or less benign, the other one which is decidedly predatory. Big nutshell, long elevator, but that’s what it’s about.”
Mitchell’s transformation from cult-novelist to celebrated writer du jour was accelerated by the recent adaptation of Cloud Atlas, his groundbreaking third book. The 2012 Hollywood film featured an enviable cast, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant.
It was in fact Lana Wachowski, one of the film’s directors, who suggested during a chat on set that Mitchell may have gone too far by writing a book that was part normal, part fantasy.
“I was speaking to her about The Bone Clocks and I said, well, it’s kind of a half fantasy, and she said, ‘David, David, David. A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant!”’
The comment now features in The Bone Clocks, perhaps a little joke at his own expense.
Breaking boundaries is certainly not something this novelist is afraid of, as is made evident by his latest foray into Twitter.
At first, Mitchell was persuaded into joining the social networking site by his publisher as a way to promote his book tour, but then: “It sort of irked me a bit that Twitter is a technology that can bring down governments and what am I using it for? I’m using it to flog books and say, ‘Please come and see me’,” he explains. “I thought I could do something better with this technology.”
That ‘something better’ was The Right Sort, a story published in 280 tweets over seven days about a boy getting high on his mum’s Valium pills.
“I justified the use of tweets with the kid taking his mum’s Valium — he speaks in these throbbing pulses; it’s rather like experiencing a narrative through a narrow train window, through a landscape of tunnels and snow.”
Mitchell is now working on his next novel, based on The Right Sort. “It’s sort of growing from the stump of my Twitter story. I didn’t mean it to, but it’s quite a fertile story and it’s grown extensions and is getting bigger. Like The Blob.”
In fact, he has already planned his next five books, and has set himself the goal of publishing “at least one book every World Cup”.
As a married father with two young children, it’s a deadline Mitchell struggles to keep.
Now living a bucolic existence in West Cork, he confesses that being in close quarters with his children can be a creative asset. “Just to see them grow and bloom and blossom and happen is a really useful source of material.”
Mitchell’s children are still too young to read his novels, and when his 12-year-old daughter professes an interest, he puts her off by mentioning the ‘L’ word.
“Fortunately — she’ll be mad at me for saying this — she’s still at an age where the idea of any kind of romance is just nauseating. So all I have to do to stop her reading them is say ‘It’s a love story’, and she drops the book as if she’s been burnt.”
His son has autism. Mitchell and his Japanese wife, Keiko Yoshida, have also translated into English The Reason I Jump, a first-hand account of a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy.
Today, he tells me that “autism parenting is parenting on steroids”, but that his eight-year-old son is a hero. “He teaches me loads,” says Mitchell.
“I have a bag-load of faults, we all do, but they’re more refined faults than the faults I would be walking around with were autism not a presence in my family. So I owe him,” he says.
Many of Mitchell’s books predict a bleak future for Earth. The Bone Clocks even spookily predicts an Ebola outbreak. He admits that having children has made him more concerned about our prospects.
“I think the natural human response is to put one’s head in the sand about this awful momentous fact that we’re addicted to oil,” he says. “It feels like I’m being an activist, but I am afraid that the increases in the standards of our living are being bankrolled by the standards of living of our children and our grandchildren.”
He believes that learning a foreign language might well be the key to a better future.
“I just feel that if you speak someone else’s language, then, in a way, you’ve entered into how they think, and if you’re doing that, then you’re less likely to be OK with your military bombarding their schools.”
Taking a slurp of his tea, Mitchell sighs and says: “This is a third glass of wine conversation.”
David Mitchell achieving world peace, one novella at a time; I’ll drink to that.
* The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is published by Sceptre. Available now.
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