A novel approach: David Mitchell on Fiction

Ben Naparstek – The South China Morning Post

Booker Prize-nominated author David Mitchell has established a career on writing genre-blending, postmodern fiction. His latest work, however, takes him into territory that is even more challenging – his own childhood.
By 2004, when Cloud Atlas earned David Mitchell a measure of international celebrity, he’d established himself as an uncompromising maverick, adept at leapfrogging between eras, continents, narrators and genres in the space of a single book. While many tyro novelists cut their teeth by writing closet autobiography, Mitchell’s head-spinning 1999 debut, Ghostwritten, inhabited the minds of a nuclear expert, a Hong Kong-based investment banker, a Japanese cult member, a disembodied consciousness in Mongolia and a St Petersburg art thief.
His equally rumbustious, Man Booker Prize-nominated follow up, number9dream, was a science-fiction romp through Tokyo’s mafia underbelly. Cloud Atlas was another composite of interlocking episodes, taking in a 19th-century sea journal, a pulp thriller, a vanity publisher’s memoir and the interview-confession of a clone. Mitchell, who studied a master’s degree in postmodern fiction, seemed dedicated to the proposition that – at least as a source of autobiographical energy – the author is dead.
Which is why Mitchell’s fourth novel will surprise even those well accustomed to his chameleonism. Black Swan Green spans only 13 months, has one narrator and barely travels beyond the eponymous town. Set in 1982, it’s told by Jason Taylor, a 13-year-old poetry fiend and stammerer who, the 37-year-old Mitchell happily admits, is loosely based on his younger self.
Mitchell concedes it’s as if he’s finally written his first novel. ‘I really didn’t want to start out with an autobiographical novel, especially one with themes fairly under the skin, like the stammer.’ But the preoccupations of his youth – his stammer, his fear of being a social pariah and his secret awakening to the thrill of poetry – continued to niggle away. ‘I really was beating around the bush for the first three books.’
His high-concept extravaganzas were not, he insists, postmodern attempts to toy with novelistic conventions. ‘It’s not that I see myself as a guerilla novelist. It’s simply that I want to write the kinds of things I like reading and I tend not to enjoy reading a book that’s like many others I’ve read.’
Even with Black Swan Green, Mitchell resists thinking in genre terms, flinching at a description of it as a coming-of-age novel. ‘It’s a year before the coming-of-age novel. The real shifts in Jason’s personality will be in the year after Black Swan Green.’
Jason is an inconspicuous family member, his home life dominated by the slugging matches of his self-regarding parents. At school, he takes pains to avoid ‘S’ and ‘N’ words, which provoke his stammer, while attempting – often futilely – to negotiate the cutthroat politics of the schoolyard. Mitchell wasn’t as severely bullied as Jason.
‘I was more diplomatically skilled and managed to survive better than Jason did, by being a bit more able than he is to project the right image at the right times.’ But, like Jason, he never outed himself as a poet. ‘It was very much a guilty pleasure,’ he says.
He published poems in the local parish magazine under the pen-name James Bolivar, after Venezuelan firebrand Simon Bolivar. (Jason writes as Eliot Bolivar, after poet T.S. Eliot.) Mitchell’s stammer is now barely discernable, but he insists it’s still there and doubts it will ever go away. ‘I’ve read somewhere, about an alcoholic, that you never become an ex-alcoholic – you only become a teetotal alcoholic. It’s the same with stammering.’ But at Jason’s age, Mitchell’s stammer was ‘absolutely mortifying. You have no idea how totally it effects the way you interact, or fail to interact, with the world. If someone offers you tea or coffee and you want coffee, you may well have to ask for tea because you’re afraid in advance you won’t be able to say coffee.’
Mitchell looked to writing as a way of compen-sating for his fractured speech, seeking a voice unimpeded by stammering. ‘My speech impediment was my route to interiorisation. It leads to the hopeful conclusion that the things we feel inhibit and bind us are actually our signposts.’
For Black Swan Green, he zeroed in on age 13 because it’s a time when ‘you’re not a child but you’re not a teenager yet. The strategies you have access to as a child are obsolete. They’re politically unwise to employ. Yet you don’t yet have the embryonic adult strategies to fall back on to negotiate the world you have as a later teenager.’
Quiet and unassuming, Black Swan Green is arguably Mitchell’s most mature work. ‘I perhaps know a little bit more now about keeping your eye on the ball of what’s good for the book, rather than what’s experimental for its own sake. As a young writer, it’s one of the traps you fall into. I think I might have come perilously close.’
But Black Swan Green is no less architecturally solid than its more ambitiously plotted precursors. Asked about structure, Mitchell draws an analogy to escapology: the firmer the straightjacket, the more ingenious the feat required to get loose. He wanted every chapter to qualify as a self-contained short story. ‘Short stories have a background white noise that makes you believe the world is a lot larger than the 10, 15, 20 pages of the story. My aspiration was to sink the white noise in the background of each chapter, so they would form a background to the novel.’ Mitchell obliquely wrote
his mission statement into the book by gifting his hero a set of 13 dinosaur postcards. Each postcard shows a different habitat but lined up together, they form a continuous landscape.
Occupying various habitats has also been a part of Mitchell’s life, having lived in England, Japan, Ireland and now the Netherlands. After graduating from university, England was undergoing a recession and he struggled to find work. Turned down by McDonald’s, Mitchell worked in a bookshop for a year.
Then his Japanese girlfriend’s visa expired and he moved to Japan, passing the next eight years teaching English in Hiroshima. There, at 25, he started taking the business of words seriously. He sold his television and began turning down invitations to parties.
‘I’d seen people 10, even 20 years older than me, still there and still drifting. I realised if I was serious about trying to make writing my life, I had to get focused.’ Without the money for a laptop, Mitchell wrote his first novel on file cards. ‘I read that’s how [Vladimir] Nabokov did it.’ His first manuscript didn’t see the light of day,
but his next effort, Ghostwritten, won him a three-book deal with Sceptre and was trumpeted by lauded English writer A.S. Byatt as ‘the best first novel I have ever read’. When the yen rose to prohibitive heights, Mitchell packed in his teaching job and settled on the Irish coast with his Japanese wife, lured by Ireland’s generous tax regime for writers.
Late last year, he relocated his family to the Netherlands to research a novel about a Dutch trading outpost in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan. Had he won the Booker Prize for Cloud Atlas in 2004 – Booker-watchers claimed he enjoyed better odds than any other contender in the prize’s history – Mitchell would only now be wrapping up the winner’s obligatory ‘year or two on a publicity treadmill’. He saw it as a camouflaged blessing when Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty scooped the prize, allowing him to return to work on Black Swan Green. ‘While the Booker is very good for the book, it’s not necessarily good for the author.’
Even at its most difficult, Mitchell never finds writing gruelling. ‘I’m by nature a fairly lazy and ill-motivated person, and if I didn’t believe the lows were merely foothills to future highs, I don’t think I could motivate myself to stick at it. The lows aren’t really lows. The lows are when you’ve spent about three weeks on a passage and actually you’ve been going down a blind alley, except that through that pile of crap, you’ve got to a starting point for the next time, when you get it right.’
On David Mitchell’s bookshelf:
J.D. Salinger’s short stories
‘They’re imperishable and immaculate master-classes in fiction.’
Anton Chekhov’s short stories
‘If I were able to say why they are so good then you wouldn’t need to read them.’
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita
‘It’s ingenious, playful and moving, and that’s a rare combination in a book.’
Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes
‘It stays with you all your life, the same way that your own youth does.’
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline
‘It’s the one book I’ve read about which the word ‘unputdownable’ is apt.’

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