David Mitchell

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.


9 Responses to David Mitchell

  1. I loved Cloud Atlas. Always interesting to know a little about the author.

    And, as David pointed out, literary fiction is not declining, according to reading groups and book clubs. Reading Group Choices is in its 17th year and has conducted surveys for the past 8 years. The survey results have found consistingly that most reading groups read and discuss literary fiction titles 7 times a year. Along with “Is it any good?”, reading group ask “Is the book discussible?” to order to become a reading group selection.

    Thanks so much for the interview with David!

  2. Great interview! I loved Ghostwritten. I read it while living in Frankfurt and was struck by the richness of the characters and their stories–painful, haunting, and unforgettable. Somehow Germany in December seemed a perfect setting to be savoring Mitchell’s debut novel.

    “The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.” (from Ghostwritten)

    Love that.

    I am passionate about character (in what I read and what I write), so I wonder if David has a favorite among his many characters?

    P.S. I would love to read an anthology of 200 Flawless Short Stories from around the World Nominated by Compassionate Literary Human Beings from every Country Plus a Few Stateless Peoples.

  3. Loved this interview. So self disclosing, honest and humorous. Have only read ‘Cloud Atlas’ and as a result, haven’t really retrieved my jaw from the floor yet. Am now inspired to be sublimely transported again and feel blessed that there are another 3 or 4 Mitchell books to choose from. Am disproportionately delighted that one of David’s favourites is Murakami’s ‘WindUp Bird Chronicle’, another book that gave my poor jaw a good old floor bounce.

  4. Colleen says:

    Except for the Atwood (infinitely more popular outside of her native Canada than within it), David, we seem to possess parallel reading experiences and tastes. Especially regarding Mishima. He makes my brain hurt, in the best possible way.

    I am, also, of course, a gushing fan of yours and am counting the days until the new novel is released.

    Also, a friend of mine, who lived 8 years in Seoul, just read Cloud Atlas and would like to know how you so completely nailed its dark and terrifying spirit without having lived there yourself.

  5. David Mitchell says:

    colleen, eva, valya and barbara, you 4 bibliophiles –

    Thanks very much for your positivity and encouragement.
    It’s a fine thing to know there are people out there who
    enjoy what I write, making novels being such a solitary compulsion. To Colleen’s question, the answer would be that I spent a few days in Seoul over the New Year in 2000 – millenialism was in the air, and I was all on my own in a language I couldn’t speak a word of for the first time in quite a while, which maybe makes the Korean section of Cloud Atlas spookier than it otherwise might have been. Valya’s question is harder to answer because if I show favouritism to one character all the others will complain, but I have a soft spot for Timothy Cavendish – he’ll be in my next novel (a sort of contemporary sequel to ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet I’m starting work on this week), a surgeon from ‘Thousand Autumns’ whom you haven’t yet met called Marinus, and maybe Dean Moran, the narrator’s friend from Black Swan Green, also pencilled in for a middle-aged reprise.

    Anyway, early Season’s Greetings to you and yours, all 4.

    David Mitchell

  6. Colleen says:


    Thanks so much for answering my question!

    Both Yuri and I were actually in Seoul that same spooky new year’s as you were. It really *was* spooky, and the panic intense; everyone I knew had been stockpiling food and water for months. I hadn’t been and they all looked so pityingly on me…and of course, nothing happened.

    Happy holidays to you as well,


  7. Tony says:

    Firstly, great interview.

    Secondly, congratulations on getting David Mitchell to agree to this.

    Thirdly, just about to start the last leg of ‘The Sea of Fertility’. The end now has a lot to live up to…

    Fourthly, I love all David’s books (2010 will be the year of rereading Mitchell) – although, as a thirty-something Englishman, ‘Black Swan Green’ is uncannily reminiscent of my childhood in places and, therefore, especially favoured.

    Finally, David, what took so long with number 5? We’ve been waiting ages! 🙂

  8. […] Neilson at Between the Lines interviews David […]

  9. […] created his own version thereof, and through which he totally out-classed me by getting David Mitchell to be one of his […]

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