Q&A with David Mitchell

Robertson Davies speaker ends Kingston WritersFest with a bang 

David's Mitchell's third novel, published in 2004, consists of six intertwined stories taking place on opposite corners of the Earth.

Last week, Kingston WritersFest hosted contemporary literary talent, including David Mitchell, a best-selling British author known for his works such as Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks.

The five-day festival closed on Sunday night with the highly anticipated Robertson Davies Lecture featuring Mitchell. His lecture focused on the anatomy of the ghost story, a genre he explores in his latest novel, Slade House.

Mitchell’s novels tell intricate and epic tales of humanity and the interconnections that weave us together. Over his career, Mitchell has written eight critically acclaimed works, which often transcend time, space and genre. The Journal sat down with David Mitchell to discuss his inspirations, writing process and the infamous topic of time travel. 

Q: Why did you want to become a writer?

Mitchell: I never did. I just wrote and found fulfillment in it that I get from nothing else. Whenever a day goes by and I haven’t written anything, it feels a little bit like a wasted day. So, it’s not that I want to be one or I wanted to be one, it’s just that I’ve got a genetic predisposition to this thing we call writing. I love it. That’s it, really.

Q: This is a very tough question, but do you have a favourite novel?

Mitchell: Yeah, it’s impossible. Daunting, really. My top twenty are too diverse and impossible to choose or grade. Off the top of my head, from my top twenty right now would be The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; Independent People by Halldór Laxness; The Duel, a very short novel by Chekov, it’s the longest thing he wrote but it’s beautiful. The Russians are so good. I also really enjoyed Anna Karenina. For a modern novel, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. I love that book.

Q: Is there anyone in particular that influenced your writing the most?

Mitchell: I mentioned Ursula Le Guin earlier. She was there right at the beginning when I was reading A Wizard of Earthsea. That intelligence and mythic depth, but not written by a mythical author thousands of years ago, but a real flesh and blood human being who’s still alive. That was quite a ‘wow’ moment for me.

But I can use or borrow things from everything I’ve read that’s good. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s not like anything I would ever write but it just reminds me how high the bar should be. It gets me hungry to try and write something that good. I’d probably fail, but I can try. So there’s nothing good that I read that doesn’t influence me in one way or another. And I only read good stuff.  

Q: How has your writing changed since you published your first novel? Is there anything you’ve learned over your career that you would like to go back and tell your younger self?

Mitchell: I hope that I’ve gotten better but I think that I wouldn’t tell him [me] anything. It’s probably best if he learns by himself, makes his mistakes and learns from them. Generally, he did.

I think that groping towards your style, which is always evolving anyway, is a part of it. I think shortcuts and advice from your older self aren’t really very good for you. If I were to rewrite my first two, three, four books, they would come out differently, but that’s only because I wrote my first two, three, four books myself. See what I mean?

There’s something built into your question, that while it’s a worthy question, it kind of obviates the question, and nullifies it. Basically don’t do time travel. Don’t go back. Live at the speed of time. In life, if we are not regularly and deeply embarrassed by our behavior then there’s something wrong. It’s right to be embarrassed by our recent behavior, otherwise we’re making no progress. And what’s true in life is almost always true in writing. That would be an interesting thesis to put to the test, but I’ll stand by it for now.

Q: Your novels allude to one another through subtle details and overarching themes. Is this interconnectivity of your works important? What are the reasons behind it?

Mitchell: Important? I have no idea, but I just do it. The reasons have changed over time. Initially I just thought it was cool and I liked when I encountered it in other people’s work. Then I noticed that characters bring baggage with them from earlier books, and you can use that stuff.

Thirdly, it lets me have my cake and eat it too. I want to be a minimalist and a maximalist. I want to write individual, short-ish, lovely little perfect imperishable, polished chunks of labradorite. And I want to do big cathedral-sized, space opera, epic, enormous, Tolkien-sized monsters. I want to do both. This uber book, this multi verse, lets me do both.

And the last reason I’ve just noticed is that it’s mimesis, it’s life-like. Ourselves and people we know do overlap, interconnect and diverge. And unexpectedly, years later, in the café on Princess St., we converge. Coincidences are real. And the only weird thing is that they don’t happen more often.

Q: Where do your ideas for stories come from?

Mitchell: I just find them. I sort of find them by not trying to. Nourish your curiosity and develop a sort of spider sense for a decent narrative. They’re everywhere. One of Robertson Davies’ most famous quotes is “everything matters”. What isn’t a story? What isn’t an idea for a story? Think of the most boring, unpromising scenario for a story and you have a scenario for a story. It’s not that you look for ideas, you just have to feed that instinct.

 Q: Was there ever a point when you knew you had “made it” as a writer?

Mitchell: I’m still expecting to get arrested by the literature police for being an imposter … I don’t think I have made it. It’s just that no one’s caught on yet.

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

Mitchell: I’d say that going wrong is a part of going right. It’s good news that you’re looking at what you wrote a month ago and thinking that it’s awful. As long as you are, then be unsentimentally honest with yourself about why it’s awful. Then it can become the scaffolding you need to build the real thing. That’s normal. That still happens to me now. And then I can make out why it’s not working, and that is the key. That makes it work.

Just keep doing it. Just keep writing every day. It’s far better to write crap than to write nothing. You can improve crap, you can do something about it. You can find the bits in it that aren’t crap. If you write nothing then you are just a dreamer. Dreaming is fine and that’s what you need to do beforehand, but you have to get going at some point. Draft by draft, chunk by chunk, and manuscript by manuscript you fumble and you grow.

Finally, almost always when you’re stuck it’s because you don’t know the characters well enough. So sit down and write yourself a letter from the character in their voice about what they think about: class, money, sexuality, God, the afterlife, society, work, the other characters in the novel and their early experiences. Just do a few pages of that and that almost always works for me. Then you can get going again. 

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