Aug 7 2011: An Interview with David Mitchell on Cloud Atlas, Murakami, Money and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (Big Issue in the North, 2004)

The following interview took place at the Lace Market Hotel, Nottingham on the second of March 2004, at 9:20 am, as the author of Ghostwritten and Number9dream waited for a train while on a reading tour to promote the hardback edition of his (then) new novel, Cloud Atlas. The previous evening Mitchell had presented a reading and Q & A session alongside David Peace (whose GB:84 had also just been published), an event chaired by Gregory Woods. A few points below refer to comments and discussions from that earlier event. A severely edited version of this transcript interview appeared in The Big Issue in the North the following week.

Wayne Burrows: I thought of being smart-arsed on the way here and opening with the question that starts the ‘Somni’ section of Cloud Atlas. So, David Mitchell, what are your earliest memories?

David Mitchell: Ah, yes. Well, unfortunately I was brought up in a genetically engineered environment…I could be smart-arsed back.

WB: But I guess the actual opening question isn’t too far removed from that: what was it that got you interested in writing in the first place?

DM: Make-up. Not women’s make-up, I should add, but my mental make up. I was in love with books from an early age, as many writers are, and while it’s difficult to separate the causes from the effects, there were early forms of writing, too. I remember when I was a kid I used to get these big pieces of cartridge paper and draw a big map, like at the end of Return Of The King, and I’d just be absorbed in this project for weeks at a time. And once you’d got the geography in place, you’d start thinking about the towns, the society, the people who lived there, and I’d suggest that was probably an early form of novel writing. Later on, around 1982 I guess, I got a 16K ZX Spectrum and I programmed complicated adventure games and strategy games on it…and again, I think I’d see that with hindsight as nascent novel writing. Hard to say to what degree these things ‘got me into’ writing novels, or to what degree they were simply early manifestations of the impulse in me that later led me to writing novels. I don’t know: probably more the latter than the former. They were exercises for the imagination, and early lessons in the technical aspects of stringing together a narrative. But to bring it all up to date, I started actually writing novels aged 25 in Japan. I’d always had the same thing many people do, a desire to write novels, but that’s not enough – you have to get disciplined about it, in a systematic, regular way – so for me that began in my mid-20s.

WB: I’m not sure if I’ve read the thing about the ZX before, or maybe in another comment by another writer, but I guess it makes sense that those kinds of early role-playing computer games would be good training for novelists, as they do work in a similar way to telling a story or creating a novel: you’re playing roles, creating characters and limitations, inventing and putting yourself inside alternate realities and possibilities…perhaps that creates a different kind of writer to one brought up on the ‘Great Tradition’ of the 19th Century classics, more in the Lewis Carroll tradition, maybe, than the George Eliot tradition?

DM: Maybe. They’re both damn good writers you mention there, so if what I do even slightly suggests what either of them did, I’m honoured to be in such fine company.

WB: But they do represent two quite different strands in English fiction…

DM: Yes, they do. Perhaps I’d put people like Nabokov and Calvino and the magical realists into the Lewis Carroll tradition internationally, too, and I think what you’re asking relates to what the writer and metaphysician Jorge Luis Borges was interested in, which was creating an alternative road map of world literature, not in the Leavisite, ‘Great Man’ tradition. For Borges, where it really happened was in the byways, the sideways, the country lanes of literature.

WB: Which I suppose is something every reader does for him or herself naturally, since only those following an academic structure will come across works in the Leavisite order, one following another chronologically and logically, drawn from a relatively small area of the bigger picture.

DM: Yes, the role of chance in what you read is an interesting one. It’s partly over-swayed by increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques, but even so, the way I look in bookshops is still determined by looking at random opening lines and going with whatever intrigues me enough on a particular day. The influences you absorb are very chancy in that way, and often not as obvious as they might seem to an outsider.

WB: One name I notice comes up very often in connection with your writing is Murakami’s, and I’m not sure if it cropped up quite so much with Ghostwritten, but every review and mention I saw of Number9dream seemed to mention Murakami somewhere along the way.

DM: They did, didn’t they? Well, I’ll freely admit I was infatuated with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I thought was fantastic, and I still do, it’s a fine, fine novel. But those kinds of infatuations don’t always last very long. I still have an extremely healthy respect for his writing, though, no doubt about that.

WB: The reason I raise Murakami is because of what you said last night, that your next book is much simpler and more linear and straightforward than Cloud Atlas, and I guess that’s sort of the path Murakami took after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, when the next book to appear was the fairly straightforward, autobiographical Norwegian Wood…I suppose there is the question of how you follow something so complex: does the next book try to top it, or do you move into simplicity? It sounds like Cloud Atlas might have raised similar questions for you…

DM: I think Norwegian Wood was written earlier, but what you’re saying still holds because the book that followed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was South Of The Border, West Of The Sun, which was his quiet, ‘ahhh…’, sigh of relief book after the nightmarish complexity of writing Wind-Up Bird.

WB: Yes, I don’t think it’s a question of copying Murakami, or influence, but just a natural response to having done a particular kind of work. Last night you mentioned David Lynch, who followed Lost Highway with The Straight Story, which definitely looks like the same process in operation. After a novel as complex and multi-stranded as Cloud Atlas, there must be the desire to get back to basics, and write very simply again?

DM: I did, and the key word in that sentence is desire. It’s not that artists set out to imitate each-other, but just that in trying to satisfy certain appetites, desires, things will work themselves out in similar ways between different artists very often, and even within a particular artist at different times.

WB: I read Cloud Atlas over Christmas, and one thing that hadn’t really occurred to me until last night, when Gregory Woods was talking about how complex and demanding the book is – which it is, on one level, but on another I didn’t find it hard work to read or anything – but I guess what he said made me wonder about why it didn’t seem more demanding, given its structure. And part of the answer I came up with was that each section is not just a different story, but each is also in a different – and quite familiar – style, with each style seeming to be one of the stages in the history of the novel itself. So you start with the Daniel Defoe type explorer’s journal, move onto the epistolary section with the composer, and over the course of the book work through the thriller, the SF novel…by the middle section, it’s returned to its source, the first person voice talking about its experiences in apparently unmediated, direct ways, a kind of oral tradition in broken language. Was this part of the strategy from the start, to evolve the storytelling upwards, then throw it into reverse?

DM: Mirroring the arc of the novel itself? Hmm, that’s ingenious! And it’s true, but it wasn’t that conscious. What was quite conscious was my wanting to use very different vehicles for narrative in the book – the thriller, the fireside yarn, the journal – and I suppose to explore what they are simply by doing them. Not drawing any conclusions about them, but just to have them, and to have the mix in the book. That they might represent a sort of history of narrative itself is a happy coincidence, and I’m happy to have it pointed out that they’re in roughly the right order, but that wasn’t a conscious or deliberate part of the design. It’s a gratifying side-effect, though.

WB: I suppose it reinforces on a basic level the sense of moving forward and backward through time, as each section reflects the style and language of the period it’s set in?

DM: …and having them in the right order would help with that by default anyway. After all, you can’t have holographic reproductions in the 19th century, they have to be in the future, and the journal in the first section had to be a journal because that character wouldn’t be writing letters from a ship, so that was the only plausible way he’s have been writing down what he was seeing and doing. There was that built-in guarantee, I suppose, that the narrative styles would be correctly ordered, simply by virtue of the settings, that’s true.

WB: Also, it seemed to me that each story, both as a narrative and stylistically, was essentially self-contained, and you were saying last night about wanting the next book to be one where each chapter could be read as a free-standing short story, but when read in sequence these would develop, add to one another and become a novel. I suppose I see something of that in Cloud Atlas, and I wonder whether it was conceived as the book it is, or was it pieced together from distinct novellas and stories that at a certain point suggested it?

DM: Both. I had a bunch of different story ideas, and I had the idea for that form. Originally it was going to consist of nine separate narratives, making it a nine rather than six-layered novel, but that would have become a bit too Heath-Robinson, even for me. And, yes, for a while I was describing it as a collection of spliced novellas. The novella is a beautiful form, and its demise is to be mourned, so perhaps at some level I was also trying to strike a rearguard blow for the novella.

WB: One of the things that’s interesting about a lot of contemporary fiction is that although short stories and novellas are endangered – a lot of stories still get written, but it’s notoriously hard to publish them unless you can provide novels as well – at the same time novels, or at least the best novels, do seem to be becoming more like integrated collections of stories. Narratives are becoming more fractured and fragmented.

DM: Yes, they are, and I guess I’m part of that tradition, that new tradition…

WB: I mean, I don’t think it’s so new, because you read people like Kurt Vonnegut, say, whose books have always been like that, but it does seem to be happening more and more now.

DM: Nothing is new, really, but the emphases become new or passé, which is what fashion is, really, just changes in the emphases of lots of different pre-existing things.

WB: Another thing is that it’s fairly obvious that you’ve been living in Japan, much more so than in the work of David Peace, where it’s not obvious at all that he lives in Japan when you see his books. What is it about Japan that interests you, because certainly it seems a very strong presence in the first two books. When you first went to Japan, were you following a particular interest, or has the interest developed out of the pragmatic situation of simply being there?

DM: I think, first and foremost, I just have a kind of wanderlust, and I was interested in Japan before I went there because my girlfriend at the time was Japanese, so I was naturally interested in where she was from. But I hadn’t harboured any particular desire to go to Japan from my childhood or anything like that. And there were, obviously, many pragmatic elements.

WB: I ask, I suppose, because I do get a feeling that at the moment the cutting edges of culture do lie somewhere between East and West, and I’d guess that for a writer interested in writing about the contemporary world Japan is quite a good, maybe even an emblematic kind of place to be. Maybe that’s one reason why Murakami seems so fresh, since he comes out of a Japanese tradition, but largely reinvents Western genres and forms. I gather one of the things Western readers can miss is that a lot of his originality within Japan lies in the way he uses these Western influences in his work?

DM: Yes, and I think one of the things I learned as a writer from Murakami is that there is a huge bank of references within popular culture that writers can draw on to create metaphors, similes, moods, and that has supplanted what – 200 years ago – Greek, Roman and Biblical references were used to do. People all over the world now know Humphrey Bogart, The Beatles, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe…Murakami sometimes just refers to Trevor Pinnock, “I put on some music conducted by Trevor Pinnock”, and it works. He gets away with it. It’s ironic to be shown by a Japanese writer that you don’t have to worry about whether people who might be reading this in Eritrea will understand you: they probably will. They probably know The Eagles’ Greatest Hits as well as I do.

WB: A long while back now, a friend of mine travelled to Senegal, hoping to learn about African percussion, and he did, but I know he was quite disappointed when he first arrived, as he’d expected to go to remote villages and find very traditional music being played, but in fact found people were playing Jim Reeves and Boney M cassettes. It’s surprising what parts of ours other cultures do adopt sometimes. The basic language of popular culture is universal, but there are still weird distinctions within it…

DM: It’s almost proverbial for people who’ve been in Japan that Boz Scaggs, of all people, is absolutely huge. Everything he’s ever done is in even the medium-sized record shops.

WB: Yes, among music collectors here it’s axiomatic that if all else fails, and no matter how obscure, you’ll probably find something reissued on a Japanese import. Perhaps there’s an impression I draw from that that Japanese culture is, in some ways, quite an archival one: it tends to become quite obsessive about things?

DM: It’s an interesting idea. In architecture, no: if it’s old, bulldoze it. But in a cod-anthropological way, yes. There’s a popular branch of anthropology in Japan, invented by Japanese people for Japanese people, to emphasise their uniqueness as a race. And by ‘uniqueness’, actually you have to read ‘superiority’. It’s a bit nasty, and a bit rightwing, but it’s very popular. However, in a cultural way, I’d relate it to what you said about your friend’s experience in Senegal. Actually, the places that tend to preserve the past best are the places with post-industrial money to spare, money to give to groups and organisations to preserve things, to spend on restoration, to retain things that no longer function and so on. It isn’t the outbacks or poor countries, because people there are working too hard to survive, trying to acquire new goods to replace the old. And who can blame them? And Japan is, architecture aside, almost an archetypal post-Industrial culture in many ways. That one included.

WB: I suppose it all ties into Cloud Atlas, because you are dealing with issues like consumerism, the influence of corporations, and at a larger level the very literal reversal in the book of the historical assumption that things will continue to progress towards ever greater democracy and technological sophistication. Even before the central section, after civilisation has collapsed, the technology in the ‘Somni’ section has reintroduced a very rigid, feudal class system, with genetic engineering used to create serfs. There was a review of the book last week that said this section was like a fictionalised version of Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and there does seem to be a similar concern there?

DM: Well, I was reading No Logo around that time, as well as Fast Food Nation, and perhaps there is a link. The logical extension of neo-capitalism is that it eats itself. When it’s eaten all the resources, it consumes itself, like a lion caught in a trap is rumoured to eat off its own leg when its hunger becomes too intense. It’s a form of cannibalism, and it made sense to me when I was writing the book that this is the way things might go. The signs now are that corporate interests really will pollute the land that supports them, because they can make money by doing so, and money becomes more important than air. It really does. More important than clean water.

WB: One of my favourite books is James Buchan’s Frozen Desire, which is subtitled ‘an inquiry into the history and nature of money’. In effect, he argues that money depends on the same underpinnings of irrational faith as the medieval church, since money itself is completely abstract, and symbolic, but everything becomes invested in it until money itself quite literally becomes a religion: its value only holds as long as people and societies can be persuaded to believe it has value. It does seem that this is reaching an extreme, where productive land is being destroyed to make paper profit.

DM: In those cases, the medieval church and corporate interests, religion and money, both are manifestations of the abstract that is power. Medieval churchmen didn’t really give a toss about whether Jesus was the Son of God, or some Aryan heresy, or simply a man, but the reason so many chose to give a toss was power, and the way that the right position on those questions conferred it. In the same way, it’s the truest truism in existence that money is power. It’s so obvious. But it’s only stuff, and itself is nothing more than ink on paper. How important that paper is depends on how important we make it. One of my abiding memories from school as a 15 year old was when a teacher came in to teach a subject called ‘Economics and Public Affairs’, a sort of beginner’s politics, and began the lesson by holding up a £5 note, and tearing it into little pieces. A fairly rowdy middle-England comprehensive class went absolutely silent, absolutely shocked, just the sheer horror on our faces. What a point that made! It must have been worth the £5 just to see those faces. But he made the point – it’s just paper. He asked us to think about where the shock came from, and why we were shocked. A damn good teacher, Keith Leslie was his name. But that’s an apt comparison, since money does only work through faith.

WB: The case of Albania a few years ago, when the whole currency became worthless overnight, after a huge pyramid scheme collapsed… I guess it shows how suddenly things can change. But one other thing I wanted to ask was about the way you’re using the fiction to explore these real issues, and I noticed that last night David Peace was very careful about distinguishing his book on the Miners’ strike from a ‘history’. It struck me when he said it that in many ways history is already fiction, in the sense that it’s a version of events, albeit especially deeply researched fiction. Maybe it follows that in a book like Cloud Atlas fiction might offer as good a way of looking at history, and where it might be heading, as any other?

DM: Well, it’s certainly mostly fictional, though not quite all: the Frobisher section owes a large debt of inspiration to the letters and story of Frederick Delius and Eric Fenby, and of course the material in the Adam Ewing journal is based on authentic scholarship and reports from the time. But mostly it is fiction, and I think any relation any of the book’s sections might have to actual history is what it is, really.

WB: What were you hoping to achieve with the book when you sat down to write it? Has it turned out how you wanted it to, or did it take on its own directions as you wrote? The last line is quite revealing, and pretty much seems to sum up the book’s structure, “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops”. When a reader comes to that line, what would you hope or expect them to be feeling or thinking about?

DM: Hmm…in one way, it’s none of my business. I don’t have an agenda, otherwise I’d have tried to write No Logo, I wouldn’t try to write a novel, Cloud Atlas. I would hope that people might feel that although it can seem that what happens to you is out of your hands, and that you don’t have any influence on the way life goes, certainly not on the way the life of the nation goes, and despite the fact that people feel this often – I know I do – actually everything that does happen to you is done by hands. It may be out of your hands but it’s being done by someone’s actions, everything happens because someone, somewhere, acts. And it follows that your own acts can have as much influence as anyone else’s, in a local sense, around you, within your family, your circle, your workplace, your acts can have a lot of influence. Maybe even more so than Westminster, the United Nations, the White House, the big economic summits.

WB: I know that in the first book, Ghostwritten, you seemed to draw quite consciously on that idea, and the idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ in Chaos theory, where one tiny variable, like a butterfly flapping its wings, can play a measurable part in causing a huge outcome, like a hurricane on the other side of the world.

DM: Yes, in that book, absolutely. In Cloud Atlas I’ve tried to vary the narratives, so that each becomes a kind of artefact, one succeeding the next, rather than more obviously overlapping as they were in Ghostwritten. People act, and actions have effects, individually and cumulatively, but the effects may be subtler, further from the source than in the earlier book. But there are bits where I’ve been more explicit about what I’m trying to do, and in the notebook the scientist keeps in one section, he writes that time is a series of artefacts, each moment becoming an artefact within the one that succeeds it. I have this mental image, I suppose, of time being like a Pac-Man that chomps along, eating up moments as it goes. Perhaps alongside relativity and space-time, there’s also this other, Pac-Man time, running: chomp, chomp, chomp

WB: Which kind of brings us full-circle, back to the ZX Spectrum where we began.

DM: Yes, this interview has returned to its beginning, like the book. I think Sir Clive Sinclair probably has a lot to answer for.

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