The Illusionist's Dream
David Mitchell chats about limb-creeping risk-taking
By Toh Hsien Min
Born in Lancashire in 1969, David Mitchell is the author of Ghostwritten (1999) and number9dream (2001). The former won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. number9dream was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001. Mitchell has a BA in English and American Literature and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He currently lives and teaches in Hiroshima, Japan. Toh Hsien Min catches him on the coat-tails of another dream.
THM: Thank you for your time on this interview. If you'll allow me to, I'd like to start by first asking you about your history as a traveller, not as a writer – or might that be the same these days, now that every writer seems to have lived everywhere? You seem to have the knack of getting under the skin of whichever culture you visit – all the places in Ghostwritten, plus a few more besides. How do you do that, and what are your parameters for doing that?
DM: In terms of passport stamps, I'm not as widely travelled as it might appear – Europe, Australasia, eastern Asia; but visiting these regions is not so unusual for people of our generation. I certainly haven't gone anywhere a purist traveller would call "challenging", like Burma or Bolivia or Iran. Perhaps of more importance than the number of "been there"s is the matter of perception. You can find people who have seen more countries and "places of interest" (deadly phrase) than you can shake a stick at, but who don't seem to have got much that is meaningful out of the experience. You can also find people – Emily Dickinson springs to mind – who don't seem to have been anywhere in terms of mileage, but who perceive large tracts of the planet inside their rooms. If "travelling" can be defined as seeing above, below and beyond your everyday surroundings, then I would agree all writers have to be travellers, on this plane at least.
Thank you for your comment about getting under the skin of cultures. I do the best I can, but of course when it works well, what is going on is mostly the same stock-in-trade illusionism that creative writing has to rest on. If I go to a place for research, I generally stay in a seedy hotel (all I can afford) for a few days, ride around on public transport, follow the flow of commuters and school kids, sit in window seats in coffee shops, eat lunch where people who don't have much money eat lunch, try to find where families go to let their kids run around, eavesdrop on conversations if I understand the language, allow myself to be used by people who want to practise their English on me (polite citizens and nutters alike) and asking them in return what they hope for, what they fear, what they like and hate and why, go up the tallest building open to the public, read whatever is available in the way of fiction anthologies and histories while I'm there, go to museums, then sit outside and watch pigeons, take a trip up and down the river, try to predict the local weather and notice where I go wrong, visit the quietest and the most peripheral places there, rest my feet and channel surf in the evening, then do the same the next day, until the notebook is filled, the story written or the travellers' cheques gone. Sometimes you see a person (like Satoru, the Tokyoite jazz-kid in Ghostwritten) who is the catalyst for a story, and then you're away.
THM: Isn't the problem with depending so heavily on such stock-in-trade illusionism that people get on your back if it doesn't come off, even if only for a second's lapse? As I'd mentioned to you previously, an Irish friend of mine was annoyed by what she felt was inauthentic Irishism in the 'Clear Water' section of Ghostwritten. Or as Nicholas Blincoe says in The Guardian, "A further problem with Ghostwritten is that minor factual inaccuracies stand out in a way they would not in a conventional novel, making one doubt more important facts. I know that Iranians are not Arabs and that Dolly Parton, not Tammy Wynette, wrote Jolene – if Mitchell is mistaken about these things, how good is he on the Cultural Revolution?" That may be why number9dream felt like a better book – you only had to pull one cultural rabbit out of the hat, and it had less ideological objection to push through.
DM: Illusionism is the sword writers, artists, filmmakers and bedtime story-inventors live by, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves if we screw up and get killed (well, hopefully just get scratched a little by critics) by the same sword. I am learning about the importance of insisting on fastidious proof-reading, which, believe me, is the last thing you feel like doing after a month-long writing sprint to meet a deadline. Nicholas Blincoe is quite right: factual errors are as distracting as a mis-tracking CD. American publishers seem to be a lot hotter on perfect proof-reading. Of course, your Irish friend would still feel I had "Disneyfied" her country, however well proof-read Ghostwritten had been, because the problems with that chapter are more at the illusion's molecular level, rather than flaws in the finishing, i.e. proof-reading blunders. I just don't know Ireland as well as Mo Muntervary must and an Irish person can pick it up. I didn't mean to imply that what we are calling illusionism is my stock-in-trade – all novelists do it. However, the further away your characters' experiences are from your own, the further out on a limb you have to go, and the greater the risk you are taking with the illusion. As, so far, I write about cultures I am an alien in, I have to do a lot of limb-creeping risk-taking. I would like to think number9dream works better not because there is only one cultural rabbit coming out of the hat, but because I have got to know this particular rabbit sufficiently well over the last 7 years for me to get the illusion working at its cellular level, although perhaps we are saying the same thing here.
THM: Yes, that's one well-studied cultural rabbit! What if you turned your lens this way? If Ghostwritten were to have a chapter titled 'Singapore', what would the chapter be? Also, what are your impressions of its literature?
DM: Singapore is teeming with possible stories: all that multi-ethnicity in such a relatively small area, in such a near-unique socio-historical context. If I were to attempt one, I would need another month in your country, and I think it would be wisest to stick to a white, Anglo narrator – there are too many fine Chinese, Indian and Malay Singaporean writers around whose toes I wouldn't want to or dare to tread. Thanks to the Writers' Festival, some names I was familiar with before are now acquaintances or friends (won't name names, but you know who you are). I don't feel qualified to discuss Singaporean literature as a body, but I think the potential your literature has is as great as your cuisine already is, and for similar reasons.
THM: I'm sure you know this already, but your reception in Singapore has been overwhelmingly positive; for example, The Straits Times, Life! critic Ong Sor Fern recently rated number9dream as one of the top ten books of 2001, beating all the other Booker nominees. Speaking of which, what was your reaction to being told you were on the Booker shortlist?
DM: I felt honoured, fortunate and pleased for the book.
THM: You're as modest and self-effacing as ever! What about some of the reservations that have been expressed about your writing? Much of it, I notice, zeroes in on points of daring. For example, Laura Miller of Salon writes that, "With Ghostwritten, we have a kind of elective boldness, the spectacle of an artist who may not be particularly original trying his hand at the wildly imaginative..." Darren Waters of the BBC says, "Mitchell wants number9dream to appear contemporary but, in truth, it seems dated, rooted in the 1980s... when the word 'postmodern' was fashionably hip in the halls of university campuses..." Did you set out to be daring, or are these critics mistaken in their basic premise?
DM: I never set out to be anything. A writer uses the tools at his or her disposal to make the book that is itching to be made. Which tools the writer may feel are best suited to the job may depend on the decade or the century, but also on the writer's own tastes, and "inner weather". Nabokov said (in the afterword to Lolita, I think) that the only reason he ever wrote was to get rid of the book he is engaged in. That's all. Writing a novel is such a full-on process; I don't have the mental energy to wonder about how I will be seen.
THM: But surely the book that is itching to be made is, at some fundamental depth, particular to the writer, who has, after all, chosen that book? Or is the ability to be Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Miss Piggy, Jeffrey Archer, Milan Kundera and Queen Maud of Denmark an empowering instrument?
DM: Certainly, a given book is particular to its writer, and one fundamental element of that given book is going to be its narratorial standpoint. I felt that the tool labelled "multiple narrators" was necessary to write Ghostwritten; similarly, I felt that the tool labelled "multiple reality frames" was necessary to write number9dream. But that isn't the same thing as me thinking, "Right, how can I be daring here? I know, I'll write a novel that uses multiple narrators." I guess we should add "what the writer feels his or her strengths to be" to the writer's toolkit. I agree that this list will not only influence how a novel is written, but also what novel is written.
THM: I'm glad you've written the novels you have – their technical excellence can only have been accomplished by someone completely engaged in them. Ghostwritten was stunningly tied together for me by, more than anything else, threads of detail – the numerous instances of preparing tea or coffee, various relationships with the sky (and the "secret satellites" that appear as early as 'Tokyo'), the music of chance, the high street, the mosquitoes... However, I wasn't so sure about the ties between Ghostwritten and number9dream – I was somewhere between shocked and pleasantly surprised to see Suhbataar reappearing, but less excited about Eiji and Satoru sharing the same profile – orphans of a random sexual tryst wondering about their fathers and running into their ideal romantic female companions while working in no-end jobs in the seediest parts of Tokyo.
DM: Guilty, I guess. I didn't notice the Eiji-Satoru similarity until I was committed to writing number9dream. It hadn't really occurred to me that it is all too possible to plagiarise your own work. It took me eighteen months to write each of my two novels to date, so accidental overlaps get fuzzed by life. A reader, however, can get through each book in a week (and a literary editor in an afternoon!), so repetitions are going to be more glaring. It's a little embarrassing to learn these things in such a public way, but so it goes.
THM: Your turns of phrases are astonishing in the most positive way. My favourites include "Au Cointreau", "the fridge motor shuddered off", "as unconscious as the deep blue sea" and "Atomic September sunshine" – all startling in context; or the way the meaning of life is to be found in passing or failing a whole series of tests you mark yourself on. Elsewhere you've said that you've been influenced by Philip Larkin. Might we see your poetic style condensing into poems in the future? More generally, what are your tests?
DM: No, I don't think I'll ever pass muster as a poet. Language isn't enough for poetry; poetry needs a peculiar wisdom, sensitive but scalpel-sharp, that I know I lack. I'd rather cannibalise my unborn poems and use their body parts to spice my prose style. I would like to write short stories, but deadlines cometh. My tests? How I know whether or not what I've written is any good? I don't really have any. I suppose if, after several rewrites late at night, I finish something and, as I clean my teeth, I think, "Yep, I can't write that particular piece any better", then I know it's probably time to stop tinkering with it. Time allowing, I let it settle for a month or so, and then go through it one last time.
THM: Oh, I meant "tests" as you used it in number9dream. Let me see if I can find it...
'You find your own meaning by passing or failing a series of tests.'
DM: I think people who are fortunate enough to not need to worry about where their next meal is coming from all have similar tests, although our life and circumstances still vary the forms they come along in. Being a more considerate and a more patient person, working out what you are good at and becoming better at it, understanding why you suffer and changing what you can so you don't have to... all fairly muddled and maybe idealistic stuff, but life is not a clear-cut thing. Obviously.
THM: Last question. I shall resist the temptation to consult the oracle on parts of the novels that puzzle me... So, a non-question really: If you were interviewing David Mitchell, the novelist, what is the one question you would simply have to ask?
DM: After an intense interview like this one, I think I'd ask something un-cerebral, like "What's your most indispensable Bill Evans recording?" or "Which cranks your handle higher, mango chutney pickle or lime chutney pickle?" What would Toh Hsien Min ask Toh Hsien Min?
THM: D*mn, I miss British curry! What would I ask myself... hmm... "Can I buy you a case of Chateau d'Yquem?" would be nice. How's this? "If you could be anyone or anything in the world, who or what would you be?"
DM: I'll take my chances with being who and what I am already.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002