David Mitchell: Novelist turns his gaze closer to home
David Mitchell's richly inventive novels have won him rapturous acclaim. He tells Christina Patterson about his new work
Friday 28 April 2006
David Mitchell has waited quite a while to publish his first novel. Technically speaking, of course, Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £16.99), his tale of a stammering adolescent in a Worcestershire village, is a fourth novel, a fourth novel that follows in the wake of a trailblazingly triumphant trio. Ghostwritten, published in 1999, was hailed by A S Byatt as "one of the best first novels I've read". number9dream, published two years later, was shortlisted for the Booker. By the time Cloud Atlas exploded into the literary firmament in 2003, the reception was one of near-celestial rapture. The most hotly tipped book ever to hit the Booker shortlist, it didn't land the jackpot, but scooped a prize that was, in commercial terms, worth even more. The Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year Award won Mitchell a (somewhat unlikely) place on the sofas, and bookshelves, of Middle England.
So why has this doyen of dazzling postmodern pyrotechnics, and erstwhile stammering adolescent who grew up in a Worcestershire village, waited so long to write his novel about - well, about bullying and butterscotch Angel Delight, first forays into poetry and first fumblings with girls, family evenings in front of Basil Brush and spats over baked Alaska, all set against a background of Falkland victories and Thatcherite cuts? "Why have I written my first novel fourth?" says Mitchell, pre-empting the question before I can frame it. "Why you're interested in writing one book instead of all the others you could have been working on I don't know," he adds with a shrug. "However, it's partly because I'm interested in writing what I'm not altogether sure I can make work. To write a relatively straight, relatively linear novel was pushing the frontier for me."
It's not hard to see why. A spectacular mix of myth, thriller, science fiction and love story, set between Tokyo, Hong Kong and Ireland, Ghostwritten established Mitchell as a writer of extraordinary reach and ambition whose delight in genre-bending was matched only by his gripping narrative powers. number9dream went even further. An at times slightly crazed but compelling journey through a kaleidoscopic world of cyborgs, gangsters and Tokyo love-hotels, this dystopian dreamworld combined his now trademark literary acrobatics with the biggest of big themes - good, evil and love. "This isn't just fun," said the reviewer on Amazon, "this isn't just clever, this is a great, perhaps a very great novel." Boyd Tonkin, in this newspaper, remarked that "It makes me hopeful about the future of British fiction."
Even more epic in its scale, Cloud Atlas wove together six utterly divergent narratives, ranging from the Pacific journal of a mid-19th-century traveller to the letters of a cynical young composer in Thirties MittelEuropa, a contemporary thriller about a young journalist who stumbles into a corporate nightmare and a fabricant who lives on soap. In the abstract, it's almost impossible to see how these radically different voices and genres could combine in a way that was anything other than disastrous. Under Mitchell's Midas touch, they do. Words such as "breathtaking", "miracle" and even "masterpiece" tumbled from the mouths of critics more used to "interesting" and "disappointing". "No other British novelist," said The Sunday Times in this chorus of eulogies, "combines such a darkly futuristic intelligence with such polyphonic ease."
No, it's not hard to see why a linear, realistic and, you can't help assuming, at least partially autobiographical novel might, for this novelist of untrammelled imaginative powers, prove a bit of a challenge - like Barenboim conducting a single triangle, say, or an acrobat forced to perform only with his eyes. But once the gauntlet was laid down, Mitchell was away. "I'm interested in the idea of a first novel as a genre of itself," he explains."Generally, by definition, they're not as well written as books that that writer will learn how to write, but there's a lot going for the subgenre, an X-ray of yourself in those terms, just to see where you're from and what are the founding precepts of the adult you have become. Just," he adds with characteristic humility, "to have a go at the merits of the first novel with the experience that three novels has already taught me about writing was an intensive thing to try to do."
We're sitting in a tiny café near the BBC, and Mitchell is eating noodles. He's on a flying trip from Amsterdam, where he's currently living with his wife and two children, and researching his next book, a historical novel set between Holland and Japan. Timing is extremely tight, but Mitchell, famously the Mr Nice Guy, as well as the blue-eyed boy, of English fiction, is courteous and warm. "So, what's interesting in your life at the moment?" he asks, as if this were a cosy lunch with a long-lost friend and not a mathematically precise slot in a publicity schedule that will soon have him begging for hearth and home. The novelistic ego seems, in fact, conspicuously absent. No wonder he was daunted by the thought of (even fictional) emotional exposure. "Do I really want to go poking about in the unopened rooms in my mind," he muses, "and then make all of that public in the most public possible way?"
Black Swan Green is, in fact, a resurrection of a first attempt at English adolescent angst made in his early twenties, an attempt written on file cards and then locked away. Preferring for many years to be "elsewhere", both physically and imaginatively, Mitchell dug them out a few years ago when he was writing a piece for Granta. He "liked the voice", and the seed of the novel was sown.
"Everything was drawn from real people," he explains, in response to a question that I don't quite dare ask, "but I do want to stress that my own family was a lot more harmonious than Jason's." What is clearly autobiographical is Jason's stammer. The ghost of a stutter remains in Mitchell's speech, a slight hesitation that gives little indication of the agonies that must have gone before. It is the first time Mitchell has tackled the subject in fiction. "When you're a stammerer," he explains, "you put it, and all reference to it, and all thinking about it, in a room in your head and lock it in there and hope it won't come out."
In Black Swan Green, Jason's stammer, which he calls "Hangman", turns even routine conversations into an ordeal. Disconcertingly erratic, it also serves as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life. Mitchell's own "cover" was, he says, "never quite blown at school", but "for dramatic purposes", Jason's is. As a result, he sinks even lower than usual in the pecking order of his schoolmates. "It's easier to change your eyeballs than to change your nickname," says Jason matter-of-factly - just one of thousands of unwritten codes that make up the merciless childhood world in which he is daily forced to duck and dive. Black Swan Green is, like all of Mitchell's novels, about predation and power. Was this childhood world, I wonder, the source?
"Yes," says Mitchell, "it's interesting. There's no real difference between the adults' world and the kids' world, but it's more naked. An English teacher once said that Golding could have set Lord of the Flies with adults, it's just that it would have been three times as long because it would have taken three times as long to break down. It was interesting to me to be able to explore these mechanics of will and power and survival strategies in such a naked way."Jason does suffer agonies at school, and the break-up of his parents' marriage, but the novel, like Mitchell's others, ends on a largely positive note. "There's no point being a miserablist," Mitchell explains, with a rather sweet smile. "You won't live as long and you won't enjoy it as much. I don't want to read 300 pages about someone who has hated their life and dies miserably. Cool, postured misery is easy. I want to write books that I love writing and, God willing, that readers will love reading."
Somehow, I don't think he needs to worry. Black Swan Green is certainly a departure for this most experimental of writers, but it is that very rare thing, a realistic first novel written by a master of his craft. For a large tranche of the nation's middle youth, the cultural references will be doubly familiar: from their own childhood or adolescence and also from the steady flow of novels and memoirs that continue to exorcise the demons of teenage trauma and trouser-width. It does, however, take more than a reference to a Spacehopper to bring that era alive. On the evidence of this novel, in fact, it takes David Mitchell.
Mitchell actually groans when I tell him that his novel is in a different league from the growing-up-in-Seventies-Wigan norm. "All originality is cliché with a drop of the right catalyst," he explains. "It's difficult to create an original novel in a landscape that is densely packed by novels it resembles, but somehow it's actually that mass of cliché that's nearby, and you can use that and just give it a little twist. What's everyday in Japan, for example," says this writer who lived in Japan for eight years, "can seem quite exotic here. Originality is right here. It's in the quotidian. All you need is the right twist."
David Mitchell was born in Southport, Merseyside, in 1969 and moved to Worcestershire when he was seven. After doing an MA in ccomparative literature at the University of Kent, funded by a spell at Waterstone's, he moved to Hiroshima in 1994, where he taught English for eight years. His first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. number9dream (2001) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as was Cloud Atlas (2004), which went on to win four literary awards including the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year Award. In 2000, he was named by Granta as one of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists. Mitchell lives in Amsterdam with his wife, Keiko, and their two children, but they are planning to return to Japan next year
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