IN the woods west of Amsterdam, between the dunes of the North Sea shoreline and the vast floral-industrial greenhouses where world-famous hypercolour tulips are grown, there is a small working village of intellectuals. Current residents include experts on forgotten medieval cities, a team of linguists attempting to reconstruct the earliest human language, a German philosopher, a former adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin and the novelist David Mitchell, who recently arrived to begin research for a new book.
Mitchell’s last, Cloud Atlas, was popular enough to be voted Read Of The Year by the Richard & Judy Book Club, and evidently clever enough to earn him a place among the scholars at The Netherlands Institute For Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), where fellowships are awarded only to those who make a significant contribution in their field. “The conversation can be pretty rewarding around here,” he says today. Since emerging with his first book, Ghostwritten, just before the millennium, Mitchell seems to have become one of those rare authors whose fiction works for everybody – an Englishman with such a global view that his stories might go anywhere, include anyone, show an interest in anything.
“It’s hard to respond to that without inadvertently complimenting myself,” he says. “But I can say that if you ask yourself why you love the books you love, then the answer is emotional and not cerebral. And if people felt that way about mine, then I would be happy and fulfilled.”
He is obviously admired here at NIAS, a perfectly collegiate hub of private offices, reading rooms and reference libraries, all filled with natural light, surrounded by trees and linked by landscaped gardens and footbridges. At lunch this afternoon in the communal dining area, where the chat is as esoteric as expected, two academics cheerfully ask permission to join us at “the British poet’s table”. “They seem to have a certain professional curiosity about what I do,” Mitchell says of his fellows, when the atmosphere around the institute has returned to a studious, monastic silence.
“I suspect that most people who spend their working lives processing facts and theories probably harbour a desire to try fiction at some point.”
A curious fellow himself, Mitchell has built chaos theory, quantum physics and the Zen Buddhist notion of life-as-illusion into what he calls the “secret architecture” of his books and is undoubtedly absorbing all the productive thought now going on around him.
His wife and two young children, meanwhile, are at home just down the road in the town of Wassenar, far enough away that his four-year-old daughter, who “doesn’t give a toss” about his status as an author, can’t come looking for tickles while daddy is busy researching the history of the Dutch East Indies Company for a future book. Even before this short-term move to Holland, the Mitchells had already relocated from Asia, to England, to rural Ireland over the last few years, and they will return to his wife’s native Japan again soon. “It’s cliched, I know, ” says Mitchell, “but home is wherever my family is.”
Ambitious on the page but humble almost to a fault, he will also tell you with a genuine smile that he is still learning how to write novels, even if two of the three he has published so far have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. A fourth, titled Black Swan Green, comes out next month, with expectations heightened by his rapidly established track record as the best-selling, award-winning, mindbending author of Ghostwritten, Number 9 Dream and Cloud Atlas. But this new book feels to Mitchell like a debut.
“I got very into the idea of doing my first novel fourth, ” he says. “First novels make a maligned genre because they tend to be autobiographical, and written by people who aren’t yet as proficient as they may become one day. They’re formulaic, but by tinkering with formula, you can actually produce original work. Originality is not out there beyond the orbit of Pluto, it’s right here, somewhere, and you can find it if you’re lucky.” Set in a middle-English community almost identical to the place where he grew up, narrated by a character who closely resembles the boy that Mitchell was in 1982, Black Swan Green initially seems more straightforward and less exotic than the work which has already granted him, in his words, “a very mild sort of literary fame”.
Which is, in a way, what he has always wanted. “At the age of 13, ” he says, “I would have visceral, bowel-stirring fantasies about a published book with my name on the cover.” Now 37, he has long since made it happen, and his previous novels can be considered successful narrative experiments. Each one has been an intricate synthesis of love story, pulp thriller, science fiction and artistic literature. Mitchell has shifted perspectives, shuffled imaginary documents and conducted whole choruses of voices from divergent times and places – sailors on the Pacific in the 19th century, composers in 1930s Belgium, teenagers in modern Japan, sentient supercomputers inside rogue satellites, Hawaiian tribesmen in the distant future – to say essential things about human beings. “I think that’s basically what all novelists are trying to do, ” says Mitchell.
“I have my own way of going about it, and there are certain angles that I give more emphasis than other writers, but I’m really not that different.” Richard Madeley, his wife Judy Finnegan, and the many viewers of their definitive afternoon TV show would disagree, having preferred Cloud Atlas to any other read of 2005, including that recent Robbie Williams biography. The publishing world was pleasantly astonished and the author himself felt “extremely pleased for the book”.
“Some measure of praise, ” he says, “is much nicer than being ignored or vilified.” Even so, Mitchell goes on to deflect that praise back toward Richard and Judy. “They have achieved a prize that eludes ministries of education the world over and increased the net quantity of reading that goes on in this country. Reading is that rare drug which enhances the minds and lives of its addicts, and R&J are pushers par excellence.”
Mitchell is not technically the “poet” they honour him as here at NIAS. He hasn’t written in verse since he was a teenager, when he would submit the results in secret to the parish newsletter of his home town Malvern, Worcestershire, using a phoney and ridiculous pseudonym. He won’t tell me what the name was, only that it was as embarrassing as “Eliot Bolivar”, the literary alter-ego of young Jason Taylor, who is in turn the awkward young protagonist of Black Swan Green. Over 13 months and 13 chapters, Jason describes his coming of age in the early 1980s as a sequence of worries which expand outwards to encompass adolescent blues, domestic troubles, school bullies, parochial pettiness, the recession, the Falklands conflict and the constant and credible threat of nuclear war. How much of the author is in the narrator? How much of this novel is based on memory? “It would be flippant of me to tell you that 38.6-per cent of it comes from my own life, ” says Mitchell, “but it might not be too inaccurate. The village, the background, the clothes and the language are all pretty much how I remember them. The people – well, I had no real interest in fictionalising my own parents, or specifically recreating anyone I knew. But as for me and Jason, uh, sure, we were both interiorised kids, maybe more sensitive than was good for us. We both wrote awful poems. And stammering played a big part in both of our lives.”
There is poetry in Black Swan Green, he admits, and even wisdom, but it’s supposed to be “accidental”. Mitchell wanted this boy to know things about life “that he doesn’t know he knows”. Walking away from a confrontation with the hard lads, for example, Jason observes that:
“Trees’re always a relief, after people.” There is politics in it, too, a clear sense of social history; even if he doesn’t realise it, Jason is by his nature fundamentally opposed to Margaret Thatcher’s statist and impersonal view of reality, and the wilfully limited horizons of the UK. “I know that everyone tends to think they were born into the end of an era, ” says Mitchell, “but back then, it really was very easy for a kid to imagine there would be a nuclear strike any minute. Or that an economic apocalypse was nigh and there would be no jobs.
“And against all that we had the Falklands, this bizarre and ruinously expensive war that was called a ‘conflict’. This injection of patriotism that might have done us a lot of harm in the long run. If we had lost, maybe today this country would be more sympathetic to other losers, like the Iraqis. But now we’re getting into an area where I don’t feel confident.” More than anything else though, Black Swan Green is a personal novel, and that, Mitchell hopes, is what will make it universal.
“Yeah, ” he says, “it’s stuff I would like to phone up my 13-year-old self and be able to say. It would be helpful for him to have heard it. Alas, I don’t have the phone number. Or maybe I do, but strangers would answer.” Throughout the book, Jason Taylor refers to his stammer as the ‘Hangman’, the most malevolent of the unseen forces standing between what he thinks and feels and what he is actually able to say. Random words go “kaboom” in his skull, and his mouth “guppergupperguppers like a fish in a net”. This is how it was for Mitchell himself and he has no problem admitting it was “cathartic” to write about. (He mocks me ever so politely for my hesitant phrasing of the question. “Just because a word has come out of American pop-psychology, that doesn’t mean it’s invalid.”) “In becoming an adult, you find ways to make yourself less vulnerable to the cold winds of the world. A stammer is the same. You don’t get rid of it, you just learn to function. In my case, as an author who often has to read in public, it was good to think about it, and to realise that my own strategy has been a kind of militant indifference. This is the truth I may not have arrived at if I hadn’t written the book. If you don’t care what your listener will think if you start stammering, then damn me, you don’t do it.”
Needless to say, he doesn’t noticeably stammer at all in this interview. But he returns more than once to the point that “everyone has their own unique relationship with language” and it seems fair enough to suggest that Mitchell’s has been defined by an early resolve to master in writing what he couldn’t in speech. “I believe that’s true, ” says Mitchell, “and it would be a bit of a coincidence if it weren’t.” And while he probably wouldn’t claim to love language any more than other writers, I have never met anybody so obviously delighted by words. Whenever an uncommon one arises, Mitchell cocks his ear to appreciate the sound of it, and goes off an a tangent to consider the meaning. A growing fixation on the monkey puzzle tree outside his NIAS office window leads him to wonder aloud if it is some kind of ‘avatar’ and if not, then what is? He talks about the recurring theme of ‘simultaneity’ in his novels as if the term itself interests him as much as the concept.
And when he suddenly mentions “the quotidian”, he then seems instinctively required to remark: “Hmm, nice word.” That one in particular describes where his head is at, always in the everyday, even while his writing is ranging from point to point across history and around the world.
“Myself and my friends used to discuss what we would do if we were approached by aliens who invited us to come with them, explore the universe, and never return. I’m really happy to say, as middle-age is knocking on my door, that I most certainly would not go, just because humanity, the Earth, the heart . . . the quotidian . . . are more mysterious and fathomless and subject to greater and deeper speculation than anything that’s out there.” One of the many things that Mitchell picked up in Japan, where he lived and worked through the mid-1990s, was the influence of novelists Haruki Murakami and Junichiro Tanizaki, and their infinite fascination with the mundane.
He first left Worcestershire, where his parents still live, to study postmodern fiction at the University of Kent, and wound up as a buyer for the Canterbury branch of Waterstones. “Prospects were grim in 1990, ” he says, “and the salary was, uh, modest, so we had to eat literature to keep body and soul together.” He would buy up the entire output of brilliant but obscure authors he had discovered, and put them in the window display. Tim Waterstone himself came to visit one day and allegedly told the manager Mitchell was “not as clever as he thinks he is”. (The same is sometimes said of Mitchell now that his own books are in the window but the reviews and sales figures, as well as the author’s apparent diffidence, would tend to suggest otherwise. )
He went away to teach English in Sicily for a while, came back to “tread water” in London for a couple of years, then moved to Hiroshima simply because a friend could swing him a job there. “I was suffering from hunger pangs to be anywhere but where I was. I was postponing the inevitable for as long as I could. And here I am still doing it. That should go on my tombstone: ‘He postponed the inevitable for as long as he could’.” By which Mitchell presumably means he has managed to avoid a conventional and unsatisfying career doing something closer to the centre of the middle-class job market. But it seems to me more inevitable that he would end up writing novels, and particularly this new one. You might call it destiny, but Mitchell wouldn’t, even if his books seem to whisper the suspicion that human events, like weather systems, express traces of strange, violent, beautiful and invisible patterns. “I feel a bit too old to buy into what I regard as mysticism.
“What people call fate and chance are really metaphors we use to ask the question of why things happen. That question is more interesting than any one answer, and it’s not just artists who toy with it. All lovers, for example, like to discuss the coincidences that allowed them to meet, even though the events in themselves are utterly mundane. Which brings us to a nice insight: the only difference between the mundane and the miraculous is context.”
He met his wife, Keiko, because they worked at the same Hiroshima language school. He was able to write his first two novels there (as well as an earlier “unpublishable” effort about an East End London pub) because he was lucky with terms and conditions, which allowed him long free periods in his office. Those books were printed, and garlanded, and Mitchell was selected for the auspicious Granta magazine list of Best Of Young British Novelists in 2003. Needing new material to show the panel, he went back to his oldest stuff – autobiographical notes written years before on a stack of tattered file cards, which he had bought because he read that Nabokov used a similar method. “They were crap, they had tea stains on them, I almost threw them in the bin, but I kept them for good luck.” And those cards in the end became the chapters of Black Swan Green. “I decided that I liked the voice, ” says Mitchell.
If that voice is not still quite his own, then it is the closest he has yet come to it in his fiction, which has so far been too symphonic to pick up the sound of the author himself. If it reminds you of the voices in those other books, this may be because like them, like Mitchell, like most people, Jason Taylor also wonders about “power and will, cause and effect, sequence and simultaneity”.
He wants to know how he can sit drawing a circle in his school geometry lesson, while a soldier is being shot through the eye in the Falklands at the exact same time. “These themes recur even if you don’t mean them to, ” says Mitchell. “Even if you do your damnedest not to make every book different. I think maybe a personality is like a book, and the themes of the book are the issues of that personality. And not just themes but abstracts. I keep coming back to woods and islands and graveyards and night-time, in-between places and in-between things. How come? You tell me.” And if Jason’s voice reminds you of your own at the age of 13, so that Black Swan Green sometimes reads like an implanted memory, then this is, after all, how fiction is supposed to work.
“Perhaps I could posit that every mind is a parliament of voices authoritarian, meek, male, female, young and old, stolid voices and fringe lunatic voices. All a writer does is listen to them and give them jobs. And hopefully, the reader recognises the sound.” It’s all that Mitchell has ever wanted to do, and he wants to carry on doing it. He is concerned about longevity and worries about the fact there are “many more novelists in their 30s than their 60s”. “Why?” he asks. “Where do they go?” The choice, as he sees it, is to keep changing or die. The trick is to keep trying different styles, subjects and stories, and master every one of those voices. There is a good word for this too, and David Mitchell takes great pleasure in using it: “omnivoracity”.