David Mitchell - language animal storyteller

OVER THE last 13 years, British author David Mitchell has produced a series of stunning novels such as Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

These works revel in slipping effortlessly between numerous genres - one chapter is sci-fi, the next is mystery thriller, then comedy; the creation of worlds long faded and yet to be; how speech patterns differ from one human to the next; the ability of language to convey both a standard meaning and be elastic enough to be twisted into new shapes and uses; and above all his books celebrate the power and joy of telling a damn good story.

Ahead of his reading at this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, David Mitchell talks about his love of language, his writing, living in Ireland, and why John Lennon matters.

From word nerd to language animal

David Mitchell was born in Southport, north of Liverpool, in 1969 and was, by his own admission, “a teen word nerd”.

“My mum was a big reader, there were always books in the house and she was very generous with buying books,” David tells me during our Monday morning interview. “I spent hours and hours just reading stories and poems in my room, and that’s the start of my work now.”

David describes writing as “a deep fundamental source of pleasure”.

“It’s why I love my job,” he says, “the pleasure of crafting a sentence and using language and formulating and populating worlds, and representing them on the page in language. I am a language animal and I’m lucky to make a living out of it.”

Language is not just a mode of communication, it is also a mode of expression and as with all modes of expression each person uses language in a way that is unique to him/herself and David’s work explores this fully.

Cloud Atlas’ Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish are both upper middle class Englishmen, but Frobisher talks like a cocky cad and Cavendish is full of bluster and dither. Personality affects how they speak. The tone and expression of Eiji’s memories in number9dream differ due to whether they are happy, sad, contemplative, etc.

This exploration of the potential uses of language leads Mitchell to explore a wide variety of genres and historical periods. The aforementioned Cloud Atlas covers historical fiction, sci-fi, farce, and thriller. What is the attraction of being so eclectic?

“I view genre as a range of colours a writer has in his/her paintbox, rather than genre being the paintbox itself,” says David. “While most books occupy only one genre there is no reason you can’t use genre in a more diverse way and as an ingredient rather than allowing it to dictate the terms of the world of the book. Genre exists. It’s there to be used, why not give it a go?”

The period a story is set in also affects how a person speaks, and for his historical fiction this entails trying to recreate not just a bygone world, but also a bygone mode of speech. How difficult was this to achieve while writing ...Jacob de Zoet?

“The research is easy, just read a couple of good books,” says David. “The tricky part is the language and getting it right. I read a battalion of late 18th century novels and made notes about phraseology and how their use of English differs from ours now. I wrote a few chapters as close as I could to late 18th century English and it was unreadable, so the challenge was to create a synthetic historical dialogue which you could call ‘Bygonese’ to give a sense of how English was used at the time but that also chimes with now.”

It still made the task no less difficult. “What kind of eejit am I having 18th century Dutch, Japanese, and British educated class characters, and having to give each one a separate Bygonese voice!?!” he says. “That was the killer! I was tearing my hair out as I felt I had put myself into a straitjacket! I know that’s a paradox, but that’s how it felt.”

The diverse genres, multiple speakers, and various perspectives of his books place David firmly as a post-modernist writer. However he has a refreshingly unpretentious approach to such academic labelling.

“I don’t worry about descriptions of myself,” he says. “The big question I ask artistically is ‘How am I going to get the damn book written?’ Anything beyond that and where I fit into [adopts deliberately pompous toffee nosed voice] ‘English literature!’ is not my job.

“It’s a bit like asking a duck billed platypus if it should be considered a mammal or a bird. A duck billed platypus is just interested in being a duck billed platypus. It’s for zoologists and biologists to answer those sort of questions. If I got too into things like that I’d end up Googling myself all day and doing the sort of things that school headmasters in the old days warned us would make us go blind!”

He has an equally humorous definition of the personality needed to be a writer.

“Being a writer means you’re partly-schiophrenic, partly OCD, partly multiple personality disorder!” he said. “If I manifested these traits a little bit more strongly I’d be sectioned. As they are not that strong I can put it to good use. But you do need to display these traits to believe in a world convincingly enough to make it concrete enough and make it into language and then on to the page.”

Across the universe

Following the completion of his university studies, David graduated into “the John Major recession” and “no jobs in the UK”. However a friend had a contact who gave him a job teaching English in Hiroshima in Japan and it proved a turning point.

“I ended up there for eight years,” he says. “I was content and being in a relationship there helped. Now she is my wife and Japan is part of the family.”

While Japan is a major part of number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, David and family now live in Clonakilty, County Cork.

“I came here in 1998 for a holiday and went to Cape Clear,” he says. “Ireland stayed in my mind and I came back again, four/five years later, when we were looking for somewhere to raise our family.

“We wanted to live by the sea, somewhere relatively affordable. We wanted to live in a ‘third neutral country’ and Ireland has always been a neutral country. If we lived in England and had to phone the plumber it would be my fault as we were in England. If it was in Japan it would be my wife’s fault and she is Japanese. If we have to call the plumber in Ireland it’s no one’s fault. So one factor was the relative freedom from spousal conflict!”

Ireland made a brief appearance in David’s debut Ghostwritten and is due for another appearance in the book he is currently working on.

“I am not brave or rash enough to think I could to Hiberno-English perfectly as I’m British and middle class,” he says. “It’s a novel about three London-Irish girls whose parents are from Cork. They live in Gravesend but their parents speak with Cork inflections, which I can do. My kids have Cork accents. That way I only have half the distance to travel from my head into the girls’ heads. I’m in the middle stages of the book now but don’t have a title.”

Speaking of family, how does David balance being a writer with being a husband and dad?

“Same way we all do mate,” he laughs. “It’s a combination of juggling and begging and having a great wife who is on-side. Luck is involved as well and I am lucky enough to be married to someone who gets what I do.”

Unfinished music

Music and musicians crop up in David’s books, especially number9dream, which not only takes its name from a John Lennon song, but Lennon features as a character in the book. Unsurprisingly David is a major Lennon fan.

“His best songs are sublime,” he says. “‘Imagine’, ‘Beautiful Boy’, ‘Watching The Wheels’, ‘Across The Universe’, ‘Julia’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘In My Life’, and the most truly joint Lennon/McCartney production, ‘A Day In The Life’.

“‘Number 9 Dream’ is a ‘long weekend’ song [in reference to Lennon’s 18 month bender in LA in 1974]. It sounds like nothing else. It is suffused in this unhappy Californian sunshine and also harks back to something ancient. ‘Mother’ is another great one. The production feels so unremitting and dark. It’s just beautiful. I also really like some of the stuff off The Beatles Anthology like ‘Real Love’ and ‘Free As a Bird’. They are bare bones, but what incredible bare bones they are.

“John Lennon is truly international and a not insignificant cultural figure. The cultural commonality of the West 150 years ago was was Classical culture and graduates from Trinity, Oxford, and Cambridge could share the same cultural coinage. In our day it is pop culture and The Beatles are known all over the world so that was why it made sense to have a Japanese kid obsessed with John Lennon in number9dream.”

David Mitchell will read in the Town Hall Theatre (with Simon Van Booy ) on Saturday April 26 at 8.30pm as part of Cúirt. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie


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