Melissa Denes offers some fascinating insights into the life and work of David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten and Number 9 Dream (“AS Byatt described Ghostwritten as ‘the best first novel I have ever read’, while Number 9 Dream was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker”). The article discusses Mitchell’s approach to writing and notes that his new novel, Cloud Atlas, is out this week:
It’s a rule of thumb that precocious young novelists start off with something loosely autobiographical – drug-taking in Leith or high jinks in Camden, say – but three books into his career, David Mitchell has revealed very little of himself. This, of course, has never been his point, and until recently he had almost no interest in delving into his own life story. By the time he started writing seriously, he says, he wanted “to write the world, underlined three times, three exclamation marks”. So instead of ruminations on a childhood in rural Worcestershire, we have had, to date, the inner lives of: a Japanese terrorist, a nuclear physicist, an art thief (his debut, Ghostwritten); Tokyo gangsters and submarine pilots (Number 9 Dream); and now, in Mitchell’s new novel, Cloud Atlas, a 19th-century lawyer, an investigative journalist and a doomed clone from the future. His books are dense, noisy with life – a string of multi-layered narratives.
All of which makes Mitchell sound an annoyingly tricksy writer, and it’s true that his critics have him down as a bit of a clever clogs, too ambitious for his own good. But what saves his books from being just brilliant formal experiments is the heart with which he writes, the humour, and the absolute conviction with which he draws his characters. He will spend ages writing biographies for all his narrators, working out the speech patterns and the childhood traumas, before he even starts on the ghost of a story. His new book has a brilliant comic creation in the character of Timothy Cavendish, a louche publisher who had a walk-on part in Ghostwritten, and a lot of good jokes – my favourite being a tantric sexual position called the Plumber (you stay in for ages and nobody comes).
Mitchell’s short story, “The January Man,” was included in Granta’s “2003 Best of the Young British Novelists” issue and is available online. It’s the only work of his I’ve read to date, but on the strength of the story I picked up a used copy of Ghostwritten (now languishing on my bookshelf). This new Guardian article has convinced me to put the other two books on my list.
In a 2002 interview with Ron Hogan of Beatrice, Mitchell explained how he found the discipline to finish his first book, Ghostwritten:
I got rid of my TV–that was the first, crucial thing. You get it out of the house and you have all these hours open up that you didn’t have before. You consciously cut down your social life; when people invite you out, you have to politely tell them, “Sorry, I have to write today.” It’s that simple, really.