David Mitchell: Fantastic voyage

David Mitchell's Booker-shortlisted Cloud Atlas is a dazzling epic, full of elaborate metaphors and shifting voices. But this is no dry literary exercise: it's even got a car chase. John Walsh meets the most exciting English novelist for a generation
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Would you do me a favour?" asks David Mitchell, as he ushers me through his front door. "Could you take your shoes off? We don't wear shoes in the house." Hmmm. You expect to encounter strange local customs when you fly hundreds of miles to meet a writer. But since his home is an upmarket housing estate in Clonakilty, southern Ireland, the shoes embargo seemed just a touch precious.

As it turns out, it isn't an Irish thing at all. It's a Japanese thing. Mitchell spent eight years in Hiroshima, and is now married to a staggeringly pretty Japanese woman called Keiko, with whom he has a tiny daughter, a vision in pink lambswool, called Hana. Their home, in this scenic corner of fashionable west Cork, is hardly a shrine to Nippon - there's no tatami mat or Ofuro bath - but the couple sleep on futons, hand out green tea in earthenware bowls and express horror about visitors bringing micro-organisms of the outside world on to their scrubbed wooden floors.

It's no surprise to find the Lancashire-born Mitchell adapting with ease to an Oriental lifestyle while living in a Celtic paradise, for he is a cultural chameleon of rare distinction. Since his debut novel, Ghostwritten, was published in 1999, readers have got used to his command of a score of different literary registers and voices, his breezy ability to twist several disparate story lines into a cat's cradle of allusion and thematic intertwining. He has pushed, to the furthest corner of the envelope, the principles of post-modernism - its smorgasbord of styles, its death-of-the-author anonymity - without, amazingly, putting off readers. Which is why his third novel, Cloud Atlas, is the star of this year's Man Booker shortlist, the hottest favourite in Booker history, and tipped by the entire world to win the £50,000 prize on 19 October.

"When I was on the shortlist before, with Number9Dream [his second novel], it lay on me less heavily," he admits. "Then I was a happy outsider. Now I can't swat away the possibility that I might win, and might have to say something, but I have this superstitious feeling that the more I prepare for it, the less likely it is to happen..."

Winning the prize would catapult him to global réclame, guarantee sales in hundreds of thousands and ensure years of travel on the world's literary festival circuit. It's a destiny unlikely to trouble this tall, sharp-featured, charming man with a slight stammer and a fondness for elaborate metaphors, as he stands mak- ing us sandwiches and explains why he never learnt to play a musical instrument. (Because he could never embark on anything, he says, unless he was going to be brilliant at it. Mr Mitchell does not do hobbies.)

He is vague about why he and his family have fetched up in Cork, surrounded by mackerel fishermen and deracinated British rock stars such as Ray Davies and Roy Harper. He doesn't mention the tax-free status writers enjoy in Ireland. Instead, "the importance of living somewhere where you speak the same language as the doctor in a medical emergency cannot be overestimated. Also, in an international marriage, however mature and enlightened you are, when things go wrong, it's a bonus if neither of you can blame the other's nation."

We go outside to talk in his shed, where he writes. I'd been expecting a sizeable barn as befits such an oceanically ambitious writer, its walls covered in plot blueprints and maps, sheets full of time-scales, arrowhead diagrams, maybe a blackboard with different-coloured chalks. But this is the smallest shed in the world, an austere little hut with a table and chair, a radio and, mystifyingly, no books. It's hard to square this featureless bonsai shack with the massive imagination that bangs and crashes around inside it.

Even if Cloud Atlas fails to win the Booker, it'll still be the most talked-about novel of the year. The Independent called it "an overwhelming literary creation". In another paper, AS Byatt said she couldn't bear it to end. And in a third, Robert McFarlane, one of this year's Booker judges, praised Mitchell's "darkly futuristic intelligence". Not since Martin Amis became de facto boss of a new generation of young writers in the 1980s has there been such an awestruck buzz about an English novelist.

Why the fuss about Cloud Atlas? It's like a matryoshka doll, with stories buried inside other stories and resembling each other in curious ways. We begin in the mid-19th century with a journal kept by an American notary on board a ship crossing the Pacific. He (and we) learn about the fate of the peaceful Moriori tribe at the hands of the Maoris, and he discovers a stowaway. Abruptly the story ends and we're suddenly reading the Isherwood-like letters of a louche bisexual Cambridge music student called Robert who has gone to Belgium to worm his way into a job with a crochety British composer, to become his amanuensis and make love to his wife. Then we're whisked off to mid-1970s California in a thriller about a girl reporter investigating a crooked energy company with the help of a man called Sixsmith - the chap to whom the Belgian letters were addressed in 1931. After a spell in the memoirs of a venal London vanity publisher in the 1990s, on the run from hoodlums and incarcerated it a twilight home, we find ourselves in Korea a century into the future. Here workers are cloned "fabricants", but one female, called Sonmi-451, acquires intelligence and vision and is condemned to death. Centuries later, she becomes a goddess in a time when the whole of global civilisation has come to an end, and we hear about the final days. At this point, the narrative swivels round, and all the stories are ended in turn, until we're back in the 19th century, heading for the heart of the slave trade. It's a head-spinning display of structural and linguistic virtuosity.

Robert Frobisher, the musician in the second story, composes a piece of music called Cloud Atlas, in which six instruments overlap with each other. "Revolutionary?" he asks himself. "Or gimmicky?" What went through Mitchell's mind when plotting the book? "I didn't think about it at all," he says. "When I'm writing, I know what I want to have next - this scene, that snatch of dialogue, this passage. The theme of predation, the tendency of a society to eat itself, and the Russian-doll structure, evolved organically as I was writing. My books start with four or five stem cells - a mention of the Moriori tribe in Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and the revelation that humanity can regress just as easily as it can go forward. And I'd been reading Eric Fenby's autobiography, My Life With Delius, which was such an intriguing relationship. Another starting-point was Italo Calvino's book, If On a Winter's Night a Traveller, which is full of interrupted stories. I wonder- ed how it would be if you went and actually finished off all those interrupted stories..."

But why not (the cry goes up from readers and rivals alike) write a straight single narrative rather than these serpentining, Gordian knots of plot? He shrugs. The Irish sunlight, pouring through the glass door of his shed behind him, lights up his large ears like twin porch-lights. "It's a structural challenge," he says shortly.

But why give yourself these challenges? You don't have to...

"I do," says Mitchell firmly. "It's a kind of escapology, inside which is originality. The tighter the straitjacket, the more ingenious the act of escapology has to be."

The escape-artist metaphor is typical. Mitchell is big on metaphors. He works hard at conversational imagery, as if horrified at the prospect of saying anything ordinary. He explains, for example, that he likes writing mini-novels because they share with the short story a winning brevity: "A short story or novella doesn't alienate the reader, because it's over soon. It's a heist with its own getaway car, showing a clean pair of heels to the policeman of boredom..." Sometimes his metaphors don't work. "I think of fiction," he says, "as having four engines like a Boeing 747, and they are structure, character, theme and plot. But it doesn't need all four to be firing at once for the plane to stay in the air. And some writers fly well with just one or two engines."

What, I ask, about language? The language used in your six stories is just as important as plot or character.

"Language would come under the heading of style," he replies.

But that means it would be another engine, I say. And a Boeing with five engines would just go round and round in circles...

"All right then," says Mitchell, "language is the fuselage..."

I point out that, despite the wild variations of character and setting, the various narrating male voices share a headlong exuberance and a slightly camp wit. (The vanity publisher is a weird hybrid of Donald Sinden and PG Wodehouse.) Where was David Mitchell himself in the book? He looks pained. "But I'm to be found in all of it," he says. "How can some part of the author not be in every character he writes? Here's a nice metaphor. A personality is like a very tolerant, democratic parliament. It has its centrist party, which has the power most of the time and dictates what goes on, but also has its hard lefts and fascist rights and its monster raving loonies as well. That's what writers use - the weirder voices in the parliament of the person, the stranger wings - though the David Mitchell who's speaking to you is the more lucid centrist party spokesman."

And what, I ask, about all the thriller-ish action scenes that stud the narrative? It's rare in mainstream fiction to read such a succession of fights, pitched battles, escapes, shootybangs and intrepid journeys. Was there a fan of melodrama behind all the death-of-the-author sophistication? Mitchell considers this mildly shocking proposition. "I guess I have a reasonable-sized Melodrama Party in my parliament of person and it sometimes has to enter into proportional representation."

Mitchell is in demand all over the place. The day we meet, he has just returned from readings in Gothenburg. The following morning he is off to New York. All the world, it seems, loves a post-modernist with a real sense of plot, character and endings.

His background is charmingly unexotic, English and decorative. His father was a designer at Royal Worcester, putting patterns on plates. His mother worked for them, too, and was a commercial floral artist. David was born in Southport but grew up in Great Malvern. School was "a pretty good comprehensive" where there were only six pupils in his sixth-form English class, "a near-Utopian teacher-student ratio". Was he a genius with an intimidatingly huge vocabulary? "No, no, no," he says with a modest laugh. "All that came later."

He studied English and American literature at Kent and did an MA in comparative literature. After acquiring a Japanese girlfriend with visa prob- lems, he lived in Hiroshima for eight years. "I really liked teaching. For the first four years I taught all ages, from three-year-olds to people who were doing English on the advice of their doctors to ward off dementia."

Of all the themes in Cloud Atlas - predators feeding on the weak, eugenics, betrayal, corporate rapacity - which engaged him most? "Predation. It's something buried deep in my psyche," he says, almost to himself. "It's a kind of self-defence, in that I want to understand what it is and the mechanics behind it."

David, I say, you're losing me. What is it you're trying to understand?

Finally, it comes out. "I wasn't badly bullied at school. I was one of the borderline ones. As long as I watched out for myself, and played the playground political game the best I could, I wouldn't be picked on. I wasn't one of the leaders, and I wasn't one of the victims. I was one of the in-between kids, always having to keep an eye on relegation, never being quite ignorant."

So the great six-domed cathedral of Cloud Atlas, with its dramas of power and manipulation, has its roots in childhood? Watching people feeding on other people?

"It's true. By your fourth book, you see themes creeping in that you haven't designed as a theme, and you think, where the hell are these coming from? Another young gifted musician has entered the story? What, another one? Or the theme of predators - what, again? And you think, all right, then, let's make it a major theme this time and see what we've got to say about it." It occurs to me that the playground traumas might also lie behind the careful anonymity of his writing. Its "I'm-not-really-here" quality. And his stammer.

He has, typically, two new projects on the go. One is a collection of stories called Black Swan Green, set over 13 months (one per story) in a village in 1982 at the time of the Falklands war. The other is set on the man-made island of Dejima, a trading outpost in Japan in the early 19th century and what happens to 15 Westerners living there, when the only non-Japanese people allowed on the island were "merchants, translators and prostitutes". Stand by for a dozen new additions to Mitchell's menagerie of voices, a muttering crew of new recruits to the parliament in his head, a score of new instruments to the orchestra from which this pro- digiously gifted conductor extracts polyphonic harmonies never heard before.

And that, I think, is quite enough metaphors for one interview.

'Cloud Atlas' is published by Sceptre, £16.99