Interview with a writer: David Mitchell

Spectator.co.uk. January 25 2013

David Mitchell slaps a big hand on his head. ‘I look back at that kid and think, what were you thinking! How dare you, idiot!’ He is talking about his recklessness as a young writer. ‘Yeah I’ll stop it halfway, five times, and start it again. I’ll pretend I’m a Chinese woman living up a mountain.’ He compares it to being a teenager ‘leaping off a 12-foot wall’ without fear. As writers get older, he says, the recklessness subsides, and ‘it needs to be replaced by technique. If you can do that, you’re still in business.’

One of his most madly structured books, Cloud Atlas, has just been made into a film. That’s why we are meeting. Made by the directors of The Matrix, it’s crammed with six stories, each set in a different world, from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century to an Orwellian super-state in the future. All the worlds feature Tom Hanks.

Mitchell says the film ‘ticked all the boxes’ for him, though he was involved in its production and so can’t be impartial (he’s even in it, briefly). He loved being on set. For a writer, he says, ‘any chance to get an access all areas pass to a different world, a different tribe, is gold’.

He describes himself as a ‘journalist inside a novelist’, and I can see why. His curiosity is unsettling. He asks me about my recorders, my pencil (it’s shaped like a drumstick), my writerly ambitions and my prognosis for planet Earth. I fear I’ll end up as a character in his notebook.

He is finishing off his sixth novel at the moment. According to Wikipedia, it’s about a young girl growing up in Ireland. Mitchell laughs. ‘No no no no, that’s not true.’ He doesn’t want to give too much away – ‘it’s morphing quite quickly, and it shouldn’t be at this stage, it should be set’. He says it has ‘dollops of the fantastic in it’, though not of the hobbits-and-elves kind. ‘Stuff between life and death. And the soul.’ The fantasy material is ‘volatile’, he says. ‘It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air. So it’s a bitch to handle… That’s not a particularly post-feminist phrase: it’s a swine to handle.’

Mitchell is, it’s pretty clear, totally consumed by his work. Being away from his laptop and notebook for a few days is like ‘oxygen starvation’. ‘It’s just awful,’ he says. ‘They’re wasted days.’ He says that his writing ‘is the very first thought of any day when I wake up and it’s the very last one as well’.

It sounds a bit extreme, I say. ‘Yes, but – isn’t that a form of happiness, to spend your life getting better and better at something that’s very difficult to do well?’ People who are really content, he suggests, generally ‘have some kind of a cause, some kind of a vocation, that they live in rather than do’.

Mitchell describes a ‘little throb of pleasure from a bloody perfect sentence’. He says: ‘People can hate you, they can hate what you write, they can despise your very soul, but they can’t alter the fact that this sentence is perfect.’

I ask him if writing gets any easier. ‘Well, you’ll find out. Um. Firstly, no… You see the swarm that is caused by reality and words more clearly, and because you’re seeing it more clearly you’re unable to write as superficially as you used to. And your prose can become unreadably dense.’ He says, looking at the snow falling outside the window, ‘it’s like staring into a snowstorm – what flakes are you going to leave out of this swirling mass and which ones are you going to take and use.’

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