David Mitchell: ‘Who cares if a book is highbrow or lowbrow. Is it any good or not?’
The writer’s labyrinthine novels marry experimental narrative techniques with plot twists drawn from sci-fi and fantasy. In person, the writer is as restless as his literary style
David Mitchell: ‘I wanted to put a lot of things into my books . . . gluing shorter novellas together was the only structure that lets me do that.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
‘I am not a novelist,” says author David Mitchell, as he introduces the concept for his latest book, The Bone Clocks. “Basically I write novellas and I line them up and Lego them together to turn them into something bigger.”
In The Bone Clocks, that bigger something is the study of a single life and an epic fantasy about life’s important questions. It opens as rebellious teenage runaway Holly Sykes stumbles upon spectres from her future; members of “two tribes of semi- immortals, one of which is semi-benign, the other which is murderous”.
The book is in six parts, says Mitchell. “It begins in the 1980s, but we meet her six times in her life between then and 2020. In the first part of the book, Holly is just a chess piece in a greater drama, but by the second half she becomes a decisive weapon.”
This is an impressively concise summary of a novel crammed full of ideas and characters, different styles and competing voices, including those of characters who have appeared in Mitchell’s earlier work.
“When I started writing,” Mitchell says, “I wanted to put a lot of things into my books, and this idea of weaving different shorter narratives together, gluing shorter novellas together, was the only structure I have ever stumbled upon that lets me do that.”
In person, Mitchell is as restless as his literary style. He shifts his lean frame constantly, as he talks in a calm voice that belies his edgy movements. He answers all questions – practical and philosophical – with equal consideration.
Box sets to BuddhismThe Bone Clocks
He chats as easily about box sets as he does about Buddhism, which seems particularly fitting considering the way in which his work marries experimental narrative techniques with plot twists drawn from sci-fi and fantasy.
Mitchell doesn’t ascribe to “people putting books into categories. They talk of highbrow and lowbrow but I prefer ‘no brow’. I mean, who cares? I am more interested in whether a book is any good or not. That’s what counts.
“When you are reading, you should just, well, not be thinking at all. Are you held by the narrative? Are you nourished by the ideas? Are you pleased by the style? Are you mostly oblivious or admiring of the structure? If you are, great: the author has reeled you in and it is working. That’s all – and it’s a huge all – but that is all I am concerned with. How it is read: I cannot possibly control that. It’s a bit like asking a duck-billed platypus what type of a mammal he should be. He is just busy going about business as duck-billed platypus.”
Mitchell lists his major influences as JRR Tolkien and Ursula K Le Guin, but he is just as happy extolling the virtues of George RR Martin – “ a world-building genius who people would call lowbrow, but Game of Thrones is like a cathedral” – or Anton Chekhov, who he “reads every five years, just to remind myself of how high the bar is”.
Tolkien was his first literary love. Mitchell spent time as a child in Malvern, England (whose landscape inspired Tolkein), drawing his own maps of Middle Earth, “inventing all that was happening in the lands beyond the edges of the story”.
Mitchell calls Tolkien the “ultimate world builder”, but as a writer he is more interested in plot-driven narratives. Mitchell has flirted with more straightforward storytelling modes: his 2006 novel Black Swan Green is a traditional coming-of-age tale based on his own childhood, while The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) is a fairly conservative historical novel. However, Mitchell is best known for the genre-bending structural mazes of works such as Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks. “People always ask how I keep track of things,” he says of these ambitious, labyrinthine works, “but I only have to keep one narrative in my head at any one time, and that isn’t a big logistical task. It’s not that hard. I haven’t created a vast imaginary realm like Middle Earth, which I need maps to keep track of.”
That said, for the astute Mitchell follower there are connections between the works that they thrill to discover, as characters from earlier novels pop up in different incarnations. In The Bone Clocks, for example, the minor character of Dr Martinus is lifted from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; a pub that the characters frequent in the future is called The Thousand Autumns. Mitchell says the “hyperlinks between the books are a way for me to have fun. I interview different characters from the book to see if they would be a good fit, and then I go back to reacquaint myself with them and see how I can introduce them in the new book. But there is no particular motivation,” he insists. “All of the books should work as independent novels. But I suppose you could say that there is a consequence; that it replicates how people come in and back again into our lives.”
Similar forces of serendipity have shaped Mitchell’s own life. He spent his 20s travelling through Europe and Asia, settling in Hiroshima, where he met his wife. “I was very hungry to see the world,” he says, “and that restlessness and energy would find its way into the books I would write in the future.”
Mitchell moved back to Europe when his wife was expecting their first child, and, when holidaying in west Cork, decided on a whim to make Clonakilty his home.
Though the tax incentives for writers were influential in the decision, Mitchell says that “it was literally a case that we just thought it was the most beautiful place on Earth. It was close to an airport too, and the people spoke English, but it was really more about the way the sun sets in Clonakilty on a good day. There is nowhere more beautiful on this Earth.”
Filming in Los AngelesCloud AtlasTom Hanks
The Bone Clocks is published by Sceptre