David Mitchell

December 11, 2009

David Mitchell is an English novelist who has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Anthony Burgess, and Huraki Murakami. Mitchell has written four novels and promises to delight readers with a fifth, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which will be released in 2010. His first novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. His next novels, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were both short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and Black Swan Green was long-listed for the same prize in 2006 and won the American Library Association’s Alex Award. In 2007, Mitchell was listed in 16th position between John Mayer and Kate Moss on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People (among artists and entertainers). Beyond his wonderful books and many awards, David Mitchell is a kind and generous man who loves a cup of tea, a warm patch of sun, and a smashing good read.   

Who are you?

An Englishman just turned 40, a dad, a husband, a son, a brother (lower-case), a novelist in the last throes of finishing a long book, pretty much unemployable in any other capacity by now, a negligent gardener, a regular reader, an envier of musicians, a half-decent baker of gluten-free cookies if I do say so myself, an over-imaginative and therefore careful driver, a mostly non-stammering stammerer, a postponer of paperwork, a worrier about the end of the world, white, straight, middle-class, a hoper that life continues after death but a doubter that it does, a gurgitator of embarrassing crap in the presence of famous people whom I admire, university educated for what it’s worth, uncertain of where I stand on many of the intractable political issues of the day because of the validity of opposing viewpoints though Obama came as a blessed relief, curious about a stack of things but right now harpsichords, submarines and the Apollo missions, a beginner at the game of Go. A learner about life. 

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

I spent most of today — a warm, cloudless September day, which is rare in Ireland — reading a graphic novel by Adrian Tomine called Shortcomings. I’m still under its spell. His perception is laser-guided and his talent is humbling.

What books have had the greatest foundational impact on you?

Off the top of my head, and in approximately chronological order, Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Triology, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, Richard Wright’s Native Son, War and Peace, Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Huckleberry Finn, George Perec’s W or Double Vie, a number of poems rather than poets but the Minneapolis poet James Wright deserves a special mention, DeLillo’s Underworld, Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and Chekhov, always Chekhov. I’m sure I’m forgetting dozens. Anything that’s good has a foundational impact, I believe. We evolve.

Do you have any superstitions when it comes to reading?

Not really, but if I’ve enjoyed a book, I like everything to be just right when I read the last few endings. Don’t hurry, and maybe finish it in a patch of sunlight with a cup of Darjeeling with a slice of lime in it.

Have you ever had a freakishly bizarre epiphany while under the influence of a novel?

The end of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility, which throws in the doubt everything you’ve just read, made me momentarily wonder how real I was, and even the city where I read it. (London). Big sections of the book are somewhat ropey, but I’d never read an ending like it.

In your judgment, who was the last worthy winner of the Nobel Prize in literature?

I haven’t read enough of them extensively enough to feel able to grade their relative worthiness. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul was a hell of a memoir, though.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be unpardonably arrogant to impose my choice on the rest of humanity, especially when so many of the hotel guests — especially in the US, if my impression is correct — draw so much strength from the Bible? Perhaps a non-existent volume called 200 Flawless Short Stories from around the World Nominated by Compassionate Literary Human Beings from every Country Plus a Few Stateless Peoples might be worthwhile, so long as the stories were thoughtfully chosen.

Among living novelists, who’s the best at making the most outlandish premise plausible?

If any premise, outlandish or prosaic, seems implausible then the novel is fatally wounded. Hitchcocks’ plots are all pretty daft when you look closely, but you don’t notice as they sweep you onward. Of course, he’s neither living nor a novelist. (I just came back to this question, having thought of Attwood, whose work is so consumate that her SF-extracted premises don’t feel outlandish, or SF-extracted, in particular, Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crate.)

Is there a novel you despise so much you wish you could will it out of existence?

I’m too aware of my own grunting flaws to go around spending energy despising other peoples’. If you hate something so much, don’t read it and don’t waste head-space on it.

When you see a person reading a book in public, do you try to guess its genre by the way she looks, by her fashion, style, manner? How often are you correct?

No. I’m too curious for mere guesses to suffice — I sidle edgways until I’m close enough to see its title. If I’m in Ireland I’ll just come out and ask if it’s any good or not, and quite often a friendly and nutritious conversation follows.

Mike Silverblatt, host of the incomparable Bookworm

Who’s the most insightful literary critic working today?

I’m sure there are many, but I’m awed by Mike Silverblatt every time I have the pleasure of meeting him for his Bookworm radio program. His understanding of my novels is deeper than my own. There’s a British critic, Boyd Tonkin, whom I have a lot of time for, too — like all the best critics, his passion for books comes ahead of his own ego.

As a novelist, are there certain virtues (or vices) you look for while reading?

Excellence and the execrable announce themselves loud and clear without having to be looked for. Sometimes I find a clumsy sentence and correct it in my head, but lots of non-novelists do the same, no doubt. Since someone I met pointed it out, I notice the cliche of the ‘chiselled face’.

Is reading literary fiction on the decline? Explain.

I’d say not, so long as “literary fiction” is broad enough to include book club choices, in which case I’d argue it’s probably growing. I don’t think in terms of “Literary vs. non-literary” as “Is it any good or not?” I have faith that in the long run people respond to the good stuff.

Is there a book you routinely re-read?

Some long short pieces: Chekhov’s The Duel, Joyce’s The Dead, Conrad’s Youth, the latter being a sentimental and Orientalist (I would understand Asians being irritated by it) but it transports me each time. Certain poets – the Welshman RS Thomas may be one whom I relate to now in a different way than I did five or ten years ago. When my next book is safely in I want to re-read Shakespeare. I imagine I’ll be rereading Colm Tobin and Marilynne Robinson in future years — both writers of books much bigger on the inside than they appear to be on the outside.

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