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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002