With his books having sold four million copies worldwide, David Mitchell is that rarest of creatures: a successful author of literary fiction. His novels are as well respected in critical circles (last year, The New York Times described him as ‘certainly a genius’) as they are cultishly popular, with some, such as Cloud Atlas, arguably taking their place among the cultural touchstones of our age. Strolling onto the Hay-on- Wye stage, his natural pleasantness lights up a marquee packed with adoring fans (who, notably for Hay, are not merely composed of the wealthy elderly). There is not so much the electricity of charisma as the genuine warmth of a quiet decency. ‘Pleasant’ is certainly the word to describe a talk replete with a continual bashful selfdeprecation and gentle humour. There is not a self-confidence- Mitchell’s delicate embarrassment about attention is very apparent- but rather a comfortableness with himself, his own work and his own skin. An extraordinarily self-referential reading (subject: a middle-aged author at the Hay-on-Wye festival) from The Bone Clocks, his latest novel, is carried out with mischievous aplomb, punctuated with light and unassuming ironic asides to the audience. This continual sense that the whole event is a kind of collective joke that everyone- audience and Mitchell alike- apart from the slightly aggressive stage interviewer are in on is maintained endearingly throughout.
Chatting to him afterwards, the impression of openness and wit is only reinforced. I open by speaking about the bestselling Bone Clocks, a book which he has described as ‘his mid-life crisis novel’, joking “I couldn’t afford a Lamborghini, I couldn’t handle the paperwork of running for office and I don’t have the stamina for an inappropriate mistress.” He is much keener to speak about the content and characters of the book than it flying off the shelves, which he dismisses as superfluous: “This looks like fake modesty, but I don’t really think about it. Essentially, to be able to not worry about money I kind of need the books to hit six figure sales in the UK and the US; as long as it does that I’m happy, my accountant’s happy, I can feed and clothe the children.” He prefers, instead, to point out a rhyming passage set in an end of term Cambridge pub- and scarily reminiscent of the KA at the end of 8th week (“foetal think-tankers, judges and bankers in statu pupillari”) – giggling and asking if I got the “fairly digusting pun” (the name of the pub in question is “The Buried Bishop”, an Australian euphemism for sex).
There is obviously something special about the novel to him, however, for he has taken the unusual step of setting his next book, Slade House (published at the end of October), in the same universe. His answer to ‘why?’ brings to mind Larkin’s poem Posterity: “It was there sort of in the beginning of The Bone Clocks … what I thought was quite a juicy idea, and either I turn it into a book or it’s orphaned and in my notebooks and some poor soul at the University of Texas in 65 years researching some obscure unknown forgotten author called David Mitchell then will get the story, and no-one else.” His second reason is slightly more precise, and also captures the overwhelming focus Mitchell places on character rather than plot (he has earlier remarked that “It’s the character, it’s the human being that keeps you reading and keeps you interested”). Speaking of one of the main characters of The Bone Clocks, the immortal and gender-flexible Dr. Marinus whose appearance was also foreshadowed in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, it is evident that he sees his stories merely as vehicles for his characters: “I want to bring Marinus back in the future and he or she needs a decent enemy, so I plant an enemy in this book who will kind of outlive the book. What’s Holmes without his Moriarty? What’s batman without the joker? I need something for Marinus to be a protagonist on her own terms in the future.”
I’m fascinated, and when I push him on why he keeps returning to this particular figure out of the wealth of eccentric and intensely humane characters whom he has created, his answer is intriguing, and carries a profound insight into the interconnectedness that characterises all of his novels: “He’s an archive of us, he’s an archive of human history, what a toy!… He is the train and the train set; you could spend your lifetime writing books about a character like that. The psychology of immortality is really interesting: is it possible to love someone when you know that you’re going to outlive them? If that doesn’t make you a commitment-phobe, what would?”
Mitchell’s best known world remains the kaleidoscopic Cloud Atlas. I’m curious about what it was like to see his words turned into a Hollywood blockbuster. He is reflective: “It’s odd that it wasn’t odd. At first it was: wow, I wrote these lines! The surreal part was when we all assembled and the actors were doing the read through. It was like when you were at school and doing The Crucible or something, and this classmate’s reading that line, and ooh it’s my turn- but instead of it being school kids it would be Hugh Grant would read a line, and then Jim Broadbent would read a line, and then I’d read because a few actors weren’t able to be there, and then Tom Hanks would read a line.” I push on whether it was how he imagined the universe when he was writing it. He thinks for a few moments: “The answer’s kind of interesting. It replaced how I imagined it. Have you ever been to Auckland in New Zealand? When you think of Auckland, however, I would posit, you don’t think of a blank, you have some sketchy ideas of photos, of stories you’ve heard. It’s not accurate but it’s not a vacuum. But then you go to Auckland, and before you’ve got into the town from the airport it’s all gone and your imaginary Auckland has been replaced by the real Auckland.”
We turn to Mitchell’s own youth. He describes attending a comprehensive school in an earthy, agrarian and predominantly working class village as a bookish, middle-class child as an “early lesson in class system dynamics.” Despite this, there is an evident affection for his childhood, and a regret that his own children’s adolescence cannot be spent as frequently in the outdoors; that they will lack a “deep connection with nature” when “a kind of sense of wonder grips you in the chambers of your hearts”. He speaks of his undergraduate days at Kent with a form of wary affection, skipping quickly through with a conscious sense of his own good fortune: “It was the late 80s and the world was different and there was still a little of the hangover from the sixties about students –“Oh, we’re going to change the world’- courses were paid for, generally. Now people are stumping up the thousands themselves there are far fewer strikes and that kind of thing. There was no afterwards, that’s what we thought about it.”
I focus in on a more difficult issue: Mitchell’s well-disguised stammer. He is effusive- and, perhaps, peculiarly grateful on this subject. “As a teenager, you autocue ahead, you look at the sentence ahead, you scan it very quickly for tricky words, and if there is a troublesome one, you work out a way to get around it, you have to reboot the sentence: all without the other person catching on. This makes your vocabulary very muscular, it enables you to switch an active sentence into a passive sentence very quickly… What a great crash course in applied linguistics for a future writer. Language was never something I could take for granted, and that consciousness about language is something that has stood me in good stead.” He wrote about the condition in the semi-autobiographical (and, in my opinion, finest of his novels) Black Swan Green, which he describes as “a gift to my thirteen year old self”. There is a quiet frustration more generally on the issue of mental health (Mitchell’s son is autistic), particularly with what he calls the ‘double whammy’: “there’s the condition itself and then there’s public ignorance.”
The overwhelming impression is of an author at the height of his powers precisely because of a deep and intuitive understanding and curiosity of what it is about to live a life as a human being. There is a real, honest and open sense of an unabashed depth of care for others. Mitchell, sparkling with wit and intelligence, is just as good company in person as he is in prose.