undefinedMitchell in 2010.

 

The early life of David Mitchell, spent in the town of Malvern in Worcestershire, England, was ordinary and uneventful—as he puts it, “white, straight, and middle-class.” Things got more exciting when, at twenty-four, he fell in love with a Japanese woman and moved to Hiroshima. Six years later he published his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), which A. S. Byatt declared one of the best first novels she’d read. It was awarded the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for the best work of literature by a British or Commonwealth author thirty-five or younger. Both his second novel, Number9Dream (2001), and his third, Cloud Atlas (2004), were short-listed for the Booker Prize; Granta picked him as one of the best young British novelists; and Time magazine, following the publication of his fourth novel, Black Swan Green (2006), chose him as the only literary novelist in their 2007 list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. His new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is a rich and absorbing historical novel set in Japan at the very end of the eighteenth century, in Dejima, a walled artificial island in Nagasaki Harbor that was the only place in the country where Westerners were tolerated. All five novels are ambitious, formally complex, imaginatively powerful, and immaculately written. They zigzag across the globe, across centuries, skipping from genre to genre with a restless, openhearted intelligence.

Despite the critical adulation, Mitchell remains modest, polite, and friendly. Eager to laugh, he brims with boyish enthusiasm. He dresses like a slacker, in baggy jeans and layered T-shirts, and the clothes add to the youthful aura—as do his close-cropped reddish-blond hair; his long, lanky frame; and his translucent, stick-out ears. Because he skirts around it with considerable lexical ingenuity, it’s not immediately apparent that he stammers.

After returning from Japan in 2002, Mitchell settled in Clonakilty, a seaside town in County Cork, Ireland. He and his wife have a daughter and a son. Most of this interview was conducted in the cramped and cluttered upstairs parlor of O’Donovan’s Hotel in Clonakilty, with breaks to eat lamb burgers in a nearby restaurant. We also met at Hazlitt’s Hotel in London, which has a fine eighteenth-century pedigree—a fitting venue for an interview with a man who has spent his last half decade living in the year 1799.

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?

DAVID MITCHELL

Absolutely not. I can write pretty much anywhere. If I’m in a loud place where I know the language, then I can’t write, but generally the universe needs to contrive circumstances to stop me writing, rather than contrive ones to allow me to write. But I am happiest in my hut in County Cork, with a pot of green tea and a large, uncluttered table. 

INTERVIEWER

If you’re in your hut with your teapot and cup, are you writing on your laptop, or longhand? 

MITCHELL

I do my thinking on paper, and act on my thinking on the laptop. 

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now? 

MITCHELL

Right now I’m working on a book set in the thirty years on either side of 2010, but I shouldn’t give too many details or the next thing you know it’s on Wikipedia and if I change my mind and decide to recast King Lear in a pond of frogs and toads I’ll just give a hardworking Wikipedian an extra headache. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you remember when you first knew you wanted to be a writer?

MITCHELL

There was no single epiphany, but I recall a few early flashes. When I was ten I would be transported by certain books—Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novels, Isaac Asimov—and burn to do to readers what had just been done to me. Sometimes that burning prompted me to start writing, though I never got more than a few pages down. A few years later I would indulge in a visual fantasy that involved imagining my name on the jacket of a book—usually Faber and Faber—and I’d feel a whoosh inside my rib cage.

INTERVIEWER

Did you confess these desires to anyone?

MITCHELL

When I was thirteen I boasted to my mother that I was writing a book. She replied, Oh, well, that’s no surprise. I was crestfallen.

INTERVIEWER

Did your parents have literary interests?

MITCHELL

My father taught art at a teacher-training college before joining the design department of Royal Worcester Porcelain, where he worked on tableware and limited editions—I remember a series with famous American ships, which people might still be dining off in Omaha or Santa Cruz as we speak. Mum was a freelance artist specializing in botanical images used in advertising, packaging, and on greetings cards. When I talk about my artist parents people imagine a bohemian environment and think, Aha, so that’s where he gets it from! But we were as white, straight, and middle-class as the next family on our white, straight, middle-class housing estate. But my parents did show me, inadvertently, that earning a living off the back of an artistic talent is not impossible. And certainly there was no shortage of books in the house—Mum was always a big reader, and still is—and my childhood was a place where reading for pleasure was not weird. Also, my parents discovered they could shut me up for hours by mounting a large piece of cartridge paper on a drawing board—beautiful quality paper, a big beautiful snowy expanse—and leave me to draw, and name, maps of imaginary archipelagos and continents. Those maps, I think, were my protonovels. I was reading Tolkien, and it was the maps as much as the text that floated my boat. What was happening behind these mountains where Frodo and company never went? What about the town along the edge of the sea? What kind of people lived there? The empty spaces required me to turn anthropologist-creator.

INTERVIEWER

How different was your childhood from the rather traumatic one you give Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green?

MITCHELL

My mum and dad were much nicer than the parents in Black Swan Green, and I wasn’t picked on the way Jason was. My stammer was less extreme.