Interview with David Mitchell
by Ian Hocking

David Mitchell was born in 1969, studied English and American literature at the University of Kent, and spent some time in Japan, teaching English. After a stint in Ireland, he is now back in Japan, where he is researching an untitled novella about Napoleonic Dutch traders. David's first novel, Ghostwritten, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and his subsequent novels, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Black Swan Green, a series of connected stories about teenager Jason Taylor growing up against both the backdrop of a sleepy village and the Falklands War has recently been released in paperback. We discuss David's experience of the writing life, story structure, novels that have inspired him, and the techniques he uses to develop his novels. I began by asking him about the novels that inspired him as a child.

David Mitchell: Tolkien, I suppose, although I'd better be careful what I say about him! There's something almost psychotic about creating your own mythology in a world so minutely, in volumes and volumes, and I think even then, well, I know this is fantasy, but it's somehow not real, in the same way as say, The Dark is Rising. It's a sort of a literary equivalent of a model railway nutter who starts on a tabletop with a landscape, then shifts it upstairs to the attic and makes it four times larger, then it starts taking over the whole house. That is Middle Earth, really. And that is both its wonder and its, rather spooky for a kid, off-putting quality. But sure, Lord of the Rings was there as a kid.

Ian Hocking: So you have an interest in genre, and that is something that characterises your later fiction. Was genre fiction what really started you going?

David Mitchell: If we can think of this as being the feeling of wanting to do to other people as has been done to you, in a book, then most of those books would probably have been genre books. But kids' books tend to be genre books, don't they? At least they did in the 1970s and eighties. So, now for answer two to question one . . . are you with me?

Ian Hocking: (laughs) Yes, I'm still here.

David Mitchell: Things change a little as an adult, if you can be considered an adult in your early twenties. There's Kundera, Italo Calvino, Marquez. If you lump the first lot together as kids' genre writers, then you could lump the second as eighties, early nineties post-modern writers.

Ian Hocking: Is there something particular about the way that they went about their fiction, the product that they came up with, was there something about that you found particularly interesting, compared to other types of fiction?

David Mitchell: It appealed to the twenty-something that I was. These writers were just doing something that I'd never come across before, particularly compared with what we did at school: The Old Man and the Sea, or A Passage to India—A-Level books, you know. And I just thought, "Wow, how experimental", and off I went with them for a while. I've now come something of a full circle, and I probably admire Forster more than I admire Calvino now—though that's just aging, I guess. It's possible that experimentalism is easier than old-school, beautiful, deft, thoughtful prose. It might take a lifetime to learn to write like Forster, whereas it might only take a couple of years to learn to be experimental.

Ian Hocking: I'm wondering if the experimentalism, if you like, of a work of fiction might be used as something that the writer can stand behind, and distance themselves from the reader, and make its flaws more difficult to identify?

David Mitchell: Yes, I think experimentalism can hide a multitude of sins. Yeah, an unequivocable ‘yes' to that. Or have I caught myself out? Is it ‘unequivocal' or ‘uniquivocable'?

Ian Hocking: That's a good one. . . I think ‘unequivocal' sounds more correct.

David Mitchell (laughs): Yeah, that sounds better, you're right.

Ian Hocking: So I wanted just to finish off this section about writing in general. Does the writing life as you're living it now seem very different from what you thought it would be like, from when you started out, when the publisher first said, "Yes, we want the book"?

David Mitchell: Your voice sounds fairly young, Ian. Am I right to think you don't have any kids yet?

Ian Hocking: That's correct! How can you tell? Perhaps I don't have the gravelly voice of a father?

David Mitchell: It's just sleeplessness! (laughs) With regards to the writing life, none of the stereotypes have come true, and I suppose I ought to have seen this coming in a way, really. My parents are artists and immediately people think I grew up in some big bohemian house in Hampstead or somewhere like that, whereas in fact I had one of the straightest middle-class upbringings on the most ordinary Bedford estate that I know of. And it's sort of the same with writing—I don't get up at 11 o'clock and have a glass of wine for breakfast, Hemmingway my way through the day, and I don't smoke hash late into the night, wait for the muse. . . nothing like that. I'm an office worker. It's just that my office is very close to home, and obviously I have to timetable my day with of the rest of my family.

Ian Hocking: Sure. In terms of the share of your workday, or the share of your time that you devote between actually producing words and doing the other things that maintain your writing employment, as it were, do you find that the ratio is OK for you? Would you rather be doing more writing, or does the publicity side of things serve as a break from the writing?

David Mitchell: I only really have publicity leading up to or around publication, and I don't publish that often—not infrequently, but not every year. And I'm better at saying no these days, as well. So it's probably 90 to 95 per cent writing and 5 per cent being an author.

Ian Hocking: That's a very good ratio by the sounds of it.

David Mitchell: Yeah, it is, yeah. That's an average over two years, a publishing cycle. Obviously when I'm on tour, it's zero per cent writer, 100 per cent author, but that's only the first two or three weeks of a publishing year. The festivals I occasionally go to are a break, and a nice chance to meet other authors and talk shop. So I don't really include those as ‘being an author'.

Ian Hocking: Okay. So, one of the reasons you are talking to me right now, is because Black Swan Green has recently come out in paperback. I did want to ask you one question which I'm sure you've had a thousand times.

David Mitchell: Oh, don't worry!

Ian Hocking: Jason, in that book, is thirteen years old. There are thirteen stories, I think, each one a month in this kind of pre-coming-of-age period in this boy's life. Obviously that's a fairly—if not restrictive, then definite—structure. Did you come up with that before you had an idea of the identity of the novel? Was that a kind of game that you played with yourself, to produce the book, or did that structure have some kind of meaning intrinsic to the book?

David Mitchell: Well, I haven't been asked that question a thousand times. Nine hundred and one. . . (laughs) No, I like to talk about structure. It's an organic process, and structure feeds and is informed by plot and character, and plot and character are similarly informed by and feed from structure. I can get to about a third of the way in and realize that the structure was wrong, head back and re-engineer.

Ian Hocking: So did that happen with Black Swan Green?

David Mitchell: No, it didn't. I suppose the only reason it is an organic process is that I begin ‘writing' a book long before I actually start writing it - when, in fact, I'm writing the last one. Even, I think, I sometimes start thinking about a book two books ahead. So, in conflict with what I've just said, to a degree, often before I start, many of the foundation blocks are already in place, and I know how the blueprint will go.

Ian Hocking: I'm just wondering how the research process might feed into that too, because your books strike me as being fairly research heavy, in the sense that they've got lots of information there, about different countries, and people's language, that kind of stuff. Do you have to get it mostly done before you start the book, or is it again more a kind of interactive process?

David Mitchell: It depends on the book. For my first couple, I'd been through the places the books deal with anyway, so it was just a question of working from notes I'd taken when I was there. Cloud Atlas sure was a lot more research heavy. I didn't know a thing about the 19th century or life on ships, or anything like that, so I spent about a year, just reading around 19th century sea narratives and whatever. The future is always a lot easier, as long as you are internally consistent. Black Swan Green was sort of a holiday from research, I just had to research the Falklands a bit, which was a case of reading a couple of books. I got a lot of stuff from Friends Reunited, where I was a lurker. The internet is quite good for nerdy kind of areas, like a pop chart from 1982. My next book is the most research-heavy one I've done. It's a Napoleonic-era Japanese-Dutch novel, and my relationship with research for this one is a whole new kettle of fish. You can't start writing it until you know something about the era, and you don't know exactly what you need to know about the era until you start writing. So there's a double bind there that you have to wrestle your way out of. And it takes a while.

Ian Hocking: Obviously you're a person with a reasonably in-depth knowledge of Japan. Do you think your knowledge of modern Japan helps with the area that you're researching, or do you think that Japan has been through such changes that the overlap isn't quite as it could be?

David Mitchell: (Laughing) Oh, that's a heavy question. Japan has aged and changed, but it's a classic title I think for a conference—continuity and change, sort of takes care of everything! In a way my research is more useful forwards than it is backwards. By researching this history of Japan, it becomes easy to see why the country is the way it is now. The present day makes more sense. And this works with British history as well, of course. So, unfortunately, my knowledge of Japan in the present day doesn't really help me understand how it was two hundred years ago. It's more the other way around.

Ian Hocking: In terms of, kind of, intangible research, was it Friends Reunited that helped you come up with some of the slang from the 1982 kind of era? For me it was freakishly familiar, hearing words like ‘doss' and ‘skill', and ‘ace'—all of those words that we were using a lot. Do you remember you childhood that intimately, or is that something you had to get through research?

David Mitchell: Ah, the vocabulary, I think, comes back to us. For some reason those particular years remain with us more deeply, and the impressions are imprinted more vividly, than say, at least in my case, ages 23 to 26. I couldn't really tell you much about those. I have a more vivid bundle of memories from, say, in the three year period 11 to 14 than I do for time periods or bundles of three years much closer to now. That goes for the language as well. As a man who can sort out my—um, what was that word you stuck me with—irrevocable?

Ian Hocking: Equivocal?

David Mitchell: . . . As a man who can sort those out, and you obviously care about language and stuff, and if you care about language, then you retain at least the back-catalogue of your own language pretty well I think. It comes back to you.

Ian Hocking: So, writing a novel that was so autobiographical, was that a good experience? Are you tempted to kind of mine another aspect of your experience to produce another autobiographical novel, perhaps the first time you went to Japan maybe, something that would have a particular kind of salience for you?

David Mitchell: Um, I can't rule anything out at the moment, but I don't have any plan to do such a thing now. Oh, and for the sake of my wonderful mum and dad, as well, I ought to say that Black Swan Green is autobiographical in a number of ways, but my parents are much nicer, happier people! (laughs)

Ian Hocking: I think your parents contributed some of the graphics that we see within the book?

David Mitchell: Yeah, it's Mum's handwriting on the little notes that Jason's mum leaves him on the fridge or on the kitchen table. And Dad did the engraving on the tree. A while ago they were referring to it as ‘our book'!

Ian Hocking: I'd just like to ask you one more question, then I'll let you go since you're obviously a little bit poorly because of your cold. I'm just wondering are there any writers writing today that you're particularly excited about, that you eagerly await their next book?

David Mitchell: I don't read that much contemporary fiction. I like Michel Faber's books very much. He's never written a bad one. The Crimson Petal and the White was a wonderful piece of work, I think. I'm envious! I'm not being coy, it's that I really don't read much contemporary fiction. There are so many holes in my knowledge of the classics.

Ian Hocking: Yeah, I know what you mean, that's something that I find.

David Mitchell: Do you?

Ian Hocking: My reading queue is full of Dickens, Madame Bovary, all of these absolutely great titles that I'm completely embarrassed that I've never read, and of course I put them there, but then something like an exciting new book turns up, and I think, I'll just read five pages of that, and then of course, a week later. . .

David Mitchell: Yeah, I know the feeling. You must read Madame Bovary, it's absolutely brilliant, it's really bloody good.

Ian Hocking: Ok, yeah - I got a few pages into it, but that was about ten years ago, and I wasn't captivated by it and I put it down, but I'm a slightly different reader these days so I'll definitely go back to that.

David Mitchell: So what about your writing, Ian? Where you are?

Ian Hocking: Well, my first book was a technothriller/science fiction book that involved time travel. I'm writing a sequel to it, and I now have an agent. Things are looking up. The trick is to make sure you keep writing and don't give up, and enjoy what you are doing, I guess.

David Mitchell: Well, if you are a writer and you are too much addicted to it to give up anyway, in a way, if it is your vocation, well that just solves itself.

Ian Hocking: (laughs) It's like a drug!

David Mitchell: So what's your mechanism of time travel?

Ian Hocking: It's a wormhole, an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and it connects two pieces of space. You take one of the wormholes and accelerate it to almost the speed of light, and time will slow down for it. Bring it back to the earth again and that wormhole that you've accelerated will effectively be like the exit to a time machine that goes back into the past. I've tried to be fairly vague about the details because it couldn't possibly work! (laughs) So, best not to be too detailed!

David Mitchell: That needn't stop the best ideas from working. You change the conditions of the universe rather than invent a brilliant machine. It's a bit like space travel in Dune, isn't it? The way they increase the size of the ship until the galaxy is actually inside it, then shrink to a different place, which is really, really neat.

Ian Hocking: Yeah, it sounds a bit like the Infinite Improbability drive in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well. It passes through every point in the universe

David Mitchell: I think like Monty Python, the Hitchhikers books are full of whiz-bang anecdotes but they never really convince me. I was always conscious of Douglas Adams—who I understand was a very, very nice man—standing over me and thinking, "Oh, this is really clever, isn't it, really witty?" Are you a fan? Am I committing heresy here?

Ian Hocking: I was a fan when I was a teenager. The original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was a radio series, and I could repeat all six hours of the radio series non-stop, because I listened to it the whole time, but I think I know what you mean about the books, because I've gone back to them as an adult reader, and they're not quite as satisfying as they were when I was a teenager. Its partly because I know all the gags, but they aren't really stories. The Arthur Dent character doesn't seem to learn anything, and that was the difficulty perhaps with the movie, which had the imposition of the traditional narrative and love story between Arthur Dent and Trillion. It's funny how that really destroyed the character of the story. It was very different and really didn't work very well as a film, I thought.

David Mitchell: I didn't see the film, but I read reviews which said much the same, really. The main character of the books was actually the books. . . it wasn't anyone in the books. It was the atmosphere, the archness. Very hard to get that over in a film. So which books would you die for? Remember the questions that you asked me, about those writers that have influenced you. Who are they?

Ian Hocking: Well, the last time I had that feeling was a book by Herman Hesse called Steppenwolf, That was an absolutely bizarre, amazing, amazing book . . .

David Mitchell: Bit of a trip, isn't it?

Ian Hocking: It is, oddly modern, but really, really engaging. Very, very different from any other book that I've read, and I can't quite figure out why. But it's a very kind of unique work.

David Mitchell: He reads very well, I think he reads better now than he probably did back then. Have you read The Turning to the East by him?

Ian Hocking: No, no that's the only book of his I've looked at.

David Mitchell: It's a very thin one, its only about a hundred pages, but it appealed very much to the acid-dropping generation in the sixties.

Ian Hocking: I think one of the dangers of reading such a unique and fascinating work of fiction is that I found that the metaphors Hesse was using were creeping into my own fiction, particularly Steppenwolf. It was quite an odd feeling, almost as if he were propagating my own fiction. . . so I ended up reading something completely different.

David Mitchell: That's fine too. There's no harm in working out what you love about another writer and seeking to emulate that. That really isn't the same as plagiarism at all. And, again, its something that automatically fixes itself, if writing is your vocation. Like that thing about not giving up. As long as you aren't starving, obviously, in which case you might need to do something else for a while. But if writing is your vocation, and you've become kind of addicted to it, then you'd never lift a metaphor straight out of Hesse and put it straight in your own book, because it wouldn't quite fit in your book and you'd have to adapt it anyway. Your book will keep you safe from doing anything too direct, because the demands of your book are inevitably going to be different from the demands of Steppenwolf or the demands that had on Hesse. So go for it really, and if it's any encouragement. The Beatles would start some of their beautiful, unique compositions by borrowing a line from an Everly Brothers song, for example, and that would be the stem cell, and off they'd go with it.

Ian Hocking: OK, David, I'll let you get back. Thanks for your time and best of luck with the new book.

David Mitchell: It was my pleasure.

The End

Interview Copyright © 2007 by Ian Hocking. All rights reserved.
Interview was transcribed by PostModern Housewife.

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Ian Hocking keeps a popular blog on writing at He is represented by John Jarrold.

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