Last year I had the honour of interviewing David Mitchell about his novel The Bone Clocks. The interview took place in August 2015 at Oh Me Oh My, Liverpool and was organised by Sceptre Books and Waterstones Liverpool. I transcribed the interview and it can be found below. This transcription originally appeared in Vector #281. Quotations from it also formed an important part of my analysis of The Bone Clocks which appeared in the LA Review of Books in 2015.
David Mitchell: Yeah, I was born in 1969 in Ainsdale, which I guess, back then was a newish, probably aspiring-lower-middle-class-ish branching off of Southport, which I understand was considered quite posh. Two of my earliest memories: one was playing in sand dunes at Ainsdale and a horse running past a high speed, along the surf… this is sounding a bit like Chariots of Fire isn’t it… and my mum saying “that’s Red Rum”. The second memory is being brought to Liverpool for a birthday treat, and the treat was going to Littlewoods and having a ham sandwich! I can still taste it, this was about 1974 I guess (we moved down South in the mid-70s, hence my accent), but it was white bread, margarine, and a single layer of ham, but you know how – even when there’s not much ham in it, because it’s the mid-70s – the ham sort of impregnates the crust around it. I’d nibble off the crust first, but it was a slightly more hammy crust than a non-ham sandwich crust would have been, and I just remember how fantastic it tasted. Sorry, that’s my North West story, exclusive to Oh Me Oh My, I’ve never told that story before.
GM: I was thinking about the connections between yourself and Liverpool. Not just the near-Southport connection but your second novel number9dream (2001) is a song by one of Liverpool’s favourite sons, and I only realised the other day that Cloud Atlas (2004) is named after a song by one of Yoko Ono’s other husbands.
DM: That’s deep research! Yes, it was a Japanese composer called Toshi Ichiyanagi. So yes, there are these hidden connections going on. There’s football as well, which is like your daemon in the Philip Pullman books: once it’s set, it’s set for life. Whoever you’re supporting when you’re five, for better or worse (and for the last few years my God it’s been the worse, but maybe this year will be different) they’ll be your team for life. So, I think of Liverpool every time I click onto The Guardian Sport website and see how they’ve done and it’s like a web of connectivity with this fine city.
GM: How would you describe The Bone Clocks (2014) if you were summarising it to someone without giving too much away, but just enough?
DM: In the States they have something called an elevator pitch which is where you pitch a film to a wolfish film executive when you’re trapped in an elevator before he gets out, or she gets out, at the top. So the elevator pitch for Bone Clocks…? It is the story of its protagonist, Holly Sykes, who we first meet as a fifteen year old, kind of teenage punkette, then we encounter her as a young woman, a girlfriend in the 90s, then as a mother and a partner, then as a widow, and then as an accidental writer of sorts, and finally in the 2040s in the West of Ireland as a grandmother. Throughout this arc of a life, her life is erupted into by a battle between two groups of pseudo-immortals: one of which is more or less benign, the other which is decidedly predatory. Holly is, in the beginning, a fairly unwitting pawn (in chess terms) in this battle but by the end she just might be its decisive weapon. Ping. The elevator doors open.
[At this point David reads from The Bone Clocks. He reads from section 3 of the novel: “The Wedding Bash”. Pages 268-274 of the 2015 paperback published by Sceptre. It’s a section narrated from the point of view of Ed Brubeck, a war reporter, attending a family wedding in 2004. The specific part which David read from details a frantic run through the hotel and out onto the pier outside after Ed wakes from a nap to realise that his six year old daughter has disappeared whilst he slept. Whilst not relevant to what follows in this interview, it’s interesting to note that in the course of his mad dash through the hotel Ed stumbles upon a science fiction convention, a moment which leads to some humour amidst the adrenaline.]
GM: There’s a lot of horror in The Bone Clocks…
DM: And not just the quality of the writing!
GM: …I’m not even going to touch that, because it’s just so patently untrue. There are lots of different types of horror in The Bone Clocks and that section in particular is definitely the horror of someone who is a parent.
DM: It’s based on two real life events. One being with a dad who lost his kid at a busy Japanese festival in quite a large town, some years ago. And of course part of me was “of course I’ll help” and feeling terrible, but there was the evil part that is inside every single writer that was “mmm, must take notes”. We did find the boy, he was fine! Then, as if in cosmic revenge, some years ago I lost my daughter in a drapers shop in the small town in West Cork where I live and I was afraid she had left and was wandering on the streets outside when she was happily sitting in a corner playing with curtain rings. It took me about twelve minutes to find her and those were the worst twelve minutes of my life.
GM: But at least you used them to good effect…
DM: Ah it’s a writer’s consolation that, no matter how awful it is, at least one day you can use it. Something happened a few months back and you know when you’re blubbing so badly that snot is coming out of your eyes and tears are coming out of your nose, and I happened to catch a glimpse of my reflection and I thought “ah so that’s what I look like, that’s what crying looks like”. That’s a nice consolation. I interrupted you with a massive interruption, I’m sorry.
GM: No it’s fine, I’m here to facilitate interruptions! So, I suppose given the power of that memory, there’s a lot of you coming through in that character’s voice at that moment: of you looking for your daughter?
DM: Yes, through the prism of Ed.
GM: People have referred to you as a ventriloquist or sorts, because of the uncanny way you are able to do voices and I think in particular your style of novel, where we jump between different first-person narrators, shows that off to particularly good effect.
DM: This might sound like a weird combination of false modesty and colleague bashing but I feel like complimenting a writer on his ability to do voices is a bit like saying to an actor: “wow! When you played that role I thought you were someone else, I didn’t think you were you!” Isn’t that part of the job? I know different writers have different specialities, and some have skills that maybe writers who can’t do voice as perhaps less dexterously have that I don’t have, so I get that, but I think it should come with the job: it’s part of the craft and you develop it if you want to develop your craft. The second thing is, it’s maybe necessitated more in my case: I like the first person, it’s my home style, it’s my square one. I become someone else and then I know what they’re going to say and what they’re going to do and that’s the plot and the dialogue taken care of for starters. I also like the Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse multiplicity of points of view and once you have those two things: a fondness for the first person and a fondness for multiplicity then you better be a half-way decent “ventriloquist” otherwise your novel will blow up on the runway.
GM: I’d like to ask you about the other voices in Bone Clocks though, and how challenging they were for you to write. First, the most important character in the book, Holly, who narrates the first and last sections of the book. She’s also your first female point of view. How hard was it for you to put yourself in a frame of mind to write a female protagonist? Was it a different challenge to writing, for example, Jason from Black Swan Green (2006) who is another teenager in the 1980s?
DM: Obviously it’s more daunting because male is my home gender. A lot of fantastic female writers have written a lot of fantastic female characters, and male characters, but femininity is their gender. In the same way I’m kind of nervous about writing Americans because there are all the great American writers who have written American characters. It’s daunting because it’s easy to publically and humiliatingly fail. So, with some trepidation is probably the answer. My wife happens to be female, which due to some recent extremely enlightened legislation in the Irish Republic is no longer anything that we take for granted, but she was helpful with that section.
Secondly, or thirdly, or fourthly, I can’t remember where we’re up to now - that’s the problem when you use those number adverbs you can really get into hot water quickly can’t you? – I’ve got a theory that if you went to a comprehensive school then the future writer is at an advantage, if you had a more privileged background, then you’re at a disadvantage once you leave your home stratum. If you went to a comprehensive school… I was at school with girls like Holly is what I’m trying to say: they were skinheads, or skinheads’ girlfriends, they wore Doc Martins with red laces, not knowing that was a National Front thing, but they did it anyway. Maybe they did know… They would have been quite willing and able to have kicked the crap out of a bookish, stammering, middle class kid like me. Once or twice they probably did. But I now thank the memory of their Doc Martin steel tips landing in my face because it meant that I could study them and store them away and use them years later and so I drew on my comprehensive school for Holly. It was hard to get her voice, how you portrayed the demotic: more vernacular? Earthier accent? How East End should I make her? Should I lose the “h” with an apostrophe? Do it too much you sound like Dickens’ urchins, if you don’t do it at all then you’re missing a trick, you’re losing a chance to develop a character and resonate with what’s in a reader’s mind. So it took me quite a while to settle on a balance to represent her.
GM: You had a similar struggle with your pervious book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)…
DM: That was a nightmare!
GM: Because you were toying with writing in a historically accurate dialogue but that it ended up reading like Blackadder, I think that’s a version of the book we’d quite like to see!
DM: I did, yeah. It’d be funny for five pages and then it’s just urghh. I wrote it first person and then hit the problem “what language are they thinking in?” Are they thinking in 18th century English? (Or Dutch or Japanese, represented in English). In the beginning I combed through 18th century novels, which is a good excuse to read them. Have you ever read Smollett? He’s not read much these days, it’s really good fun. He’s really smutty! It’s the kind of book you see in libraries in National Trust houses that are never looked at and left, but he’s really good if you get the chance.
I constructed this core of vocabulary and did about fifteen pages of Jacob de Zoet in that voice, but yes it was ridiculous. That taught me that if you get it right you get it wrong: what you have to do is collude with the reader in the creation of, in this case, bygone-ese, or in the case of Holly a kind of “East-End-ese”. It’s not accurate but (the closer you get to the present day the less true this is) sometimes accuracy can be an inhibition, it can be a disruptor. When you’re writing a historical novel you need to create bygone-ese, I think there’s a geographical present day version of this too. It’s more important to chime with how the reader believes people in this demographic did and do speak than it is get it bang on accurate. The “lest” vs. “in case” argument is an example of this: “bring your umbrella in case it rains” that’s quite twentieth century, we used to say “lest”, and so on the border you need to work out is it “lest” or “in case” we’re dealing with and go with instinct.
GM: The next character in Bone Clocks is Hugo Lamb, who is a completely different proposition to Holly…
DM: Oh he was fun!
GM: People who’ve read the book know how loaded a sentence like “he was fun” is in relation to Hugo. Hugo Lamb is a character people might remember as the cousin of Jason from Black Swan Green, he’s a pretty nasty piece of work, let’s put it that way.
DM: He’s amoral. I read the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith, the first one [The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)] is sickeningly gripping: he’s not even immoral, he’s amoral. He’s an artist of ethical dubiety! So there’s Ripley in there: I want him to seduce the reader with his charm and then royally shaft them. There’s also some Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities: he’s a great character, you think he’s this monster, this coward, but he’s got a spark of lightness in him that when it really counts it flares up, and I wanted to give Hugo an ending like that. I wrote the book, handed it in and thought “hang on, he’s still alive! He’s still out there somewhere!” He’s about thirty-five years younger than he should be but he’s out there.
GM: I want to ask you about Crispin Hershey, whose section was my favourite within the book, but before I ask you a real question about him I want to ask about something specific. At one point when we encounter him he’s teaching creative writing, he advises his students to write letters to themselves as their characters. Is that an actual technique from your playbook?
DM: He’s a slowly self-redeeming, uninviting soul, whose arc is facilitated by his friendship with Holly, the first real friendship with a woman he’s ever had. He doesn’t even realise he loves her. He’s clawing up Mount Enlightenment. He is who he is, but when he talks about writing, that’s him talking about something he cares about: and he does care about words, and he is a sentence geek, this stuff matters to him; that’s when he’s not a fool and he’s not superficial, it’s pretty much the only time when he cares very deeply, and so when he speaks about writing he means it.
GM: So these tips from Crispin Hersey we, as aspiring writers, can take as being reasonably good tips?
DM: If you want to. I say that not to seem clever, but in a way writing is something you spend your life learning how to do and you never quite get there, you never finish learning about writing, that’s why it’s such a great job. It’s a combination of learning other people’s tips and seeing what works for them and also forming your own core… we’ve been calling them tips but perhaps understandings… of what writing is and what it’s about, what works for you. It will differ depending on who you are and what your experiences are, so what Hershey says is how I feel it works for me at the moment but I wouldn’t say they are prescriptive, I wouldn’t say I AM THE WAY!
GM: Whether good tips or not, I love even the way that you/Hershey talk about writing: saying that ‘adverbs are the cholesterol in the veins of prose’ and ‘half your adverbs and the prose pump twice as well’, that’s wisdom you feel you should have on a T-shirt. But if it was fun to write the sociopathic Hugo Lamb, how much more fun was it to write the cantankerous author Crispin Hershey?
DM: It’s always fun when you get to say the things you don’t get to say. Give him the lines you have too much respect for hard working people to actually ever offend them by saying. Hershey is a sort of legitimate outlet for passive aggressive pent-up fury… But don’t worry!
GM: I think that everyone who has read both The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas really wants to see him in the same room as Timothy Cavendish [one of the narrators from Cloud Atlas: a small press publisher who hits the big time].
DM: I thought about it. Maybe I will again in the future. Hershey is my first ever writer-character, I’ve always avoided it, I was afraid it would seem or feel somehow incestuous. It’s said somewhere that when a writer starts writing about writers it’s a sure sign that the creative aquifers have run dry. So when I wanted to write about writers, or talk about Art (with a capital “A”), then I used musicians; I translated it into songwriters and composers but then, for whatever reason, it felt right - like it was time. I wouldn’t do it in a half-hearted way, I really wanted to write about the world and time spent by an author on the road, as opposed to in a small hut somewhere. This is where he lives: he’s more of an author than a writer these days, which given the number of festivals around the world can happen to people. I’ve known people who you meet at the beginning when a hardback comes out, at the Hong Kong festival or something, then my book moves into my past and I write something else, then the new book comes out and I’m invited to wherever and I meet the same author, and they’re still there, and they’re still promoting the same book! It’s the curse of winning the Booker by the way… It’s a curse that many of us don’t have to suffer, including me! But it can be better for the book than it is for the author. Crispin Hershey is an example of an author whom the mercurial Gods of Prizes have smiled on once (for his book Desiccated Embryos) but it has become larger than he is or has been and he is now its employer. So in a way it’s a cautionary tale. His cardinal vice is vanity, he believes his own reviews, believes what has been said about him, and he hasn’t got people around him to remind him to take out the wheelie-bin, to ground him. So he’s sort of a little reminder to myself to not believe the good reviews, and to not look at the bad ones either.
GM: Of course a bad review plays a key role in Crispin’s section of the book…
DM: Which is also a sort of “wet dream” of a revenge plot which writers have had about revenge on negative reviewers. I don’t do that but what happens to Crispin might well be what would happen to me were I to exact revenge on certain people in the media who will remain nameless… Well I say nameless, except in the next book I might change the name very slightly, have something awful happen to them and the name will be close enough that they won’t be sure if its them, and they’ll go to their graves not knowing if I’ve hexed their lives through fiction, and the lives of their children and pets… It’s very petty, but it makes me feel better.
GM: Well, on the topic of bad reviews... Whilst I loved the book, there were elements of The Bone Clocks that some people wrote very harshly about, specifically the fantastic element, which really seemed to stick in certain reviewers’ craw.
DM: It did didn’t it. The same quarters who opened fire on Kazuo Ishiguro for his book The Buried Giant, which I loved. There seemed to be a call that semi-respectable writers shouldn’t be dabbling in genre, it can sometimes come from the other side as well…
GM: “Don’t play in our playground”
DM: Yes. I wanted each stage of Holly’s life, each section of the book, from the 80s to the 2040s to a degree to have its own genre. So we have Thatcherite social realism in the 80s. At the other end of the social scale we have a sort of rich kids, Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities-ish thing going on with the 90s. We’ve got a war reportage section in the Ed Brubeck section, a pastiche in Hershey’s section. A fantasy in the fifth section, and dystopia in the sixth. For some people that’s kind of against some sort of unwritten constitution and if you mess around with genre like that within the covers of a single novel then you DESERVE TO BE TAKEN DOWN! But you write what you write. You can’t be a slave like that, you just have the book you want to write and the first loyalty is to that. You have to finish that book, you try to bring it into being as truly as you can.
GM: A key part of the fantasy section are two themes which you’ve used repeatedly throughout your work: the spirit and reincarnation, and human predation. This seems to be the section within the book where they meet.
DM: I’d add a third, if I may, and that’s mortality. The book, in that section, offers a Faustian pact which is me having my midlife crisis really. If you could not grow old, if you could keep the looks you have when you’re young, if you could have an endless, squanderable bank account of days, what would you be prepared to pay for that? Would you, for example, be willing to amputate your conscience? Would you be willing to have all that if someone else had to pay? I mention this now because fantasy is in service of that. It’s sort of a real theme, not the Faustian pact they’re offered, but a need to come to a working accommodation with ageing, with the fact kids are being born the whole time: people are moving into their twenties and thirties as we’re moving into our forties and fifties. The moment you’re on the centre stage of the world, the world begins nudging you towards the wings. It’s Make Room! Make Room! or the old kids song “and the little one said: roll over, roll over”. As we become members of an older generation to be superseded by a younger one. This is a social realist topic, it isn’t fantasy. This is something we need to do! We need a healthier relationship with aging than fear! And so the jiggery-pokery with genre is in service of all this.
GM: It did seem to me that the reviews that were snottiest about fantastic elements in (to use a lazy term) “literary fiction”, have the appearance of those that don’t read much fantasy. They seem to think it’s a genre that’s always play and that’s incapable of serious topics, themes, tropes and examinations of the human condition.
DM: And they seem to never care to look backwards, I mean what about Dickens? You’ve got Bleak House and someone dying of spontaneous combustion. Some of the greatest novels ever written are fantasy. What about Master and Margherita: as Neil Gaiman pointed out that you’ve got a talking cat who uses a machine gun and it’s a brilliant novel and it’s about Stalin and totalitarianism and art.
GM: And all the books we call magic realism, which is a label I’ve heard you don’t particularly care for…
DM: Have I said that somewhere?
GM: At some point, yes.
DM: This is the curse of the internet, it never forgets.
GM: I suppose to be fair, I think you were at the time being critical of the term being applied to British writing.
DM: I feel it was invented by South American writers in a South American context when they were doing something very specific that related to the politics of the 70s and 80s in their region. I felt it was somewhat lazy to transpose it to anyone anywhere who writes a book where someone suddenly sprouts wings, turns into an angel, and flies off. But maybe it is okay, I don’t feel that strongly about it really. But sure, A Hundred Years of Solitude is a great book, why is that allowed and A Buried Giant isn’t? And who says so? And why does it matter? Surely the only thing that matters is if the book is any good or not?! Not if someone has written with particular tropes from a particular genre. Find something more intelligent to not like the book for. It’s all quite new, Dickens used fantasy and no one ever called him a fantastic writer, it was all just writing back then. Why do we need borders in the middle of a book shop? Why bother with all of this?
GM: I mentioned the horror of parenthood earlier, and the fantasy sections are supernatural horror in a sense, the last sections of the book are something else. It’s stuck with me. Someone else described it as Post-Anthropocene Horror, post-human age, or post-oil. I feel it’s an issue very close to your heart.
DM: I fear it will be close to everyone’s heart, or it should be. I’m forty-eight and I might have had the best of it, I don’t know, we’ll see. We are members of, and beneficiaries of, a civilisation that is pretty much dependent on oil. I flew here because of oil; lights, heating. The food that’s in our stomachs right now that is keeping hunger at bay was produced thanks to an agricultural system that converts oil into food. The clothes we’re wearing were made in oil powered factories, by slaves, in other parts of the world and then brought to us by container-ships: international trade, essentially it’s just oil. Solar power is great for lightbulbs but we can’t shift stuff, the distribution networks aren’t there. The food arrives in our supermarkets thanks to a complex distribution network and it’s just oil, oil, oil. They’re not making any more of the stuff and what’s left is getting harder and harder to extract and more expensive, in terms of oil, to extract. The hungriest industry of all is oil extraction, it sort of eats itself and then gives us the leftovers. But yeah! Our civilisation is in trouble. Let alone climate change, let alone what that’s doing to our planet’s life support system and its ability to keep safe our civilisation, to preserve it, our civilisation is itself an addict of a drug which there is an ever dwindling supply of. Is that a bit concerning?
GM: It’s very concerning, which is why that last section of the book is so affecting.
DM: Thank you. It would have been tempting in a way to finish the book at part five, but then I realised I mustn’t. It would have followed quite an identifiable Hollywood template where you have the apocalyptic battle and then stop, but actually there’s been this other thing going on the whole time that Holly’s life has been following its course, as our lives are following their courses now, our civilisation is on borrowed time and unless it changes its ways and, depending on which scientist you speak to perhaps we’re already ten years too late, perhaps not. We’ll see.
David ended the discussion with a reading from his then-forthcoming short novel Slade House. He then took questions from the audience but my dictaphone was unable to capture them or the replies but I offer here a few brief summaries:
- The first question was from a nuclear physicist in the audience asking about David’s thoughts on that particular form of energy. He said that he recognised the arguments for its necessity to “plug the gap” but didn’t really know enough about it. What he did know was very worrying to him and that was that the legacy of nuclear power has its own horrors and dangers. He references the Runit Dome in the Marshall Islands, a legacy of nuclear tests by the USA during the Cold War, the structure holds 111,000 cubic yards of nuclear waste and is threatened by poor maintenance and rising sea levels. Similarly, he pointed out that the clean-up and containment costs of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan are roughly equal to the Irish economy, which clearly means nuclear power isn’t a viable safe option for everyone.
- Another question asked him which genres he would most like to play in next. He replied that he’s been recently very interested in Iceland and so something with Vikings, or Greenland, or the Sagas, is probably in the queue. Particularly, he’s interested in writing something set 30 years after the end of The Bone Clocks and set in Iceland. He also admitted to being fascinated by the 18th century harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti who was decidedly average until the final years of his life when he wrote 550 sonatas of brilliance. The inversion of the more familiar child-prodigy figure appeals to him and he wondered what might have triggered that sudden awakening of genius.
- Finally when asked for further advice for aspiring writers, David replied: write something every day, feel encouraged when you read what you wrote last week (even if you think “God this is awful” work out why it is awful), reward yourself by enjoying the good bits, and cultivate and nurture your instinct – it is your friend and you will need to trust it.