Music from Another Room: An Interview with David Mitchell

We chat to David Mitchell about time, death, and creating worlds with no limits

Given the time-curious nature of David Mitchell’s writing, it seems altogether appropriate to be speaking to the novelist across hemispheres, and from the future of a day he is only just greeting. In effect, he is living in my past. The thought seems to please him, and he suggests that if I have any stock exchange tips, or football results to share, he could be a wealthier man by evening.

Like his latest novel The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s conversation is expansive and far-reaching. His thoughts, while considered, have the exuberant bounce of someone greatly stimulated by discussion. So affable is his engagement, if I didn’t know he’d spent months in the flurry of promotion for The Bone Clocks, I’d think the conversation with him was one of his first, not coming at the tail end of proceedings. Mitchell laughs easily, his bright humour close by at all times. He mentions his family often, almost as if they are a touchstone; something to tether himself to while he investigates the far reaches of his creative universe.

And what a universe it is. Mitchell is known for the sweeping scope of his novels. His groundbreaking work Cloud Atlas pulled the reader between continents and through centuries that seemed to exist concurrently, where characters were vessels containing the same souls, answering back in each incarnation, repeating through time. With each new novel, Mitchell not only adds topography to the map of his universe, but a population of figures who recur, sometimes in different guises. In his new book, readers encounter a female version of Dr Marinus from his 2010 Japanese historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Hugo Lamb, unkind cousin to Jason Taylor in Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green retains both his gender and attitude, and arrives in The Bone Clocks to put the moves on protagonist Holly Sykes, whose story begins one year after Jason Taylor’s, in 1984. To try to define Mitchell’s style is like trying to bottle a wave — his world is a fluid and constantly moving entity that challenges boundaries.

Often while reading The Bone Clocks, I wondered how on earth he managed to keep track of the divergent paths. Criticism of the book suggests it is a world so large that parts of it are too far-out, too fantastical; that the voices of the characters are perhaps generalised or lost in the great orchestration. I disagree, which is surprising given that Cloud Atlas, often considered Mitchell’s greatest work, lost me along the way, with characters I struggled to connect to or care for. The Bone Clocks bends genre and expectation, but it has characters that are both relatable and humorous, and a clarity that appeals — there is coherency here, as if the threads of connectivity that extend through all his work have at last been drawn together, and the outline of the web is distinct.

We spoke about ordering worlds, about facing death, and the haunting of life by ghosts real or imagined. Just as in his books, time stretched and bent, so that an hour passed in a moment, and the circle closed as neatly as it opened.*

In The Bone Clocks, your writer Crispin Hershey has a great time taking a serious poke at literary festivals, and the rounds of pretension he encounters. You’re shortly on your way down here for the Writers Festival — are you looking forward to it?

Of course I am! It’s Australia and New Zealand - it’s an exotic part of the world for me. [Hershey’s] not really how I think; he’s how I would be if I didn’t have a family to ground me, and didn’t have people around me to remind me that I’m not so special. I have a great time, but he’s as miserable as anything! At least at the beginning of his character arc, he’s one of the most Eeyore-ish, misery guts I’ve ever written, I think. But happily, I’m not like that.

It’s probably just as well, because you’re teaching a writing workshop within our festival.

I am looking forward to that. I’m not sure how I’d be if I had a teaching position, but a one-off course - it’s actually something I almost never do, so I hope I can approach it with a fresh mind and not get all Crispin Hershey on the poor, long-suffering attendees.

You are considered one of our ultimate 'world builders' in literature, so I wonder whether people are coming to that workshop to steal inside your head to see how you go about orchestrating such an enormous universe.

Well if they are then I’m honoured, and I’ll do my best not to let anyone down. I only really agree to do things that will be of interest to me as well. If I am a world builder as you say, I suppose I’d view this workshop as a chance for me to have a sit-down and a long clear think about how worlds are made, and maybe how I do it, and I’m more than happy to tell people as much as I can work out.

Do you ever fear losing your grip on a universe that has no limits? Is there a way to file it in a tidy order, or is it sprawling through your life as it sprawls through your books?

We can stop after about the sixth word in that question — do you ever fear losing your grip? ALL THE TIME! (As my family could all too readily attest!) Surprisingly enough, it isn’t really a problem, because you only need to keep a track of what’s going on in any given book while you're on that book.

It’s a bit like the way some very hardworking Christians attempt to incorporate the theory of evolution into their worldview, whereby they’d say that God makes the laws of evolution, and then just releases the species and lets them do their own thing while he’s busy engaged in other activities. That way they kind of have their cake of intelligent design and the eating of it too. In the same sort of way, I create my individual books and in the course of those books I have to know exactly what’s going on, and if I am incorporating other things from other books — if I’ve got characters reappearing; if I’ve got major characters in previous books coming on in a minor role; if I’ve got minor characters in previous books coming on in a major role, of course I have to go back and find out what they’ve been up to in the meantime, if the new thing is set in their future. I have to do that much, but only that much. If I’m not using them I don’t have to work out what they’ve been doing between now and the previous outing. It’s only really one at a time and that’s doable more than doing a big complicated flowchart or very complex spreadsheets.

I sort of imagine you like that character in the film A Beautiful Mind, at the point where we see his room is just thousands of pieces of paper pinned to the walls and fluttering.

Isn’t that a great film? I still remember him all these years after. Yes, I don’t need to do that, and I don’t have invisible friends. Well, maybe I do have invisible friends who talk to me, and insist on their reality! But I do get that the characters are not quite as real as the members of my family.

Do you have a sense that a character will come to the fore and demand to be in another book? I yelped with delight when Hugo Lamb turned up in The Bone Clocks, because of his dastardly turn in Black Swan Green, where he’s just so vile, and so 'cool'. What was it about him that compelled you to bring him back?

So vile, so cool. I’ll put that on his gravestone! I suppose it just has a sense of a good fit. I work it out when I’m starting, I suppose like a casting agent in the film world — who would be good for this, who do I need for this? If there’s a pre-existing character, if they can bring something from their previous experience to the role, if I think that Michelle in New Zealand might produce howls of delight when I do it, then I’ll do it. So it’s not that systematic, and it is somewhat mercurial. I do it as the mood takes me. But you just kind of know when you’ve made a right decision. As soon as the thought occurs to you - “Oh okay, that one” - problem solved. I can worry about other things, but I don’t have to worry about whether that was the right move or not. I just felt that with Hugo.

And of course he’s still out there and still alive at the end of The Bone Clocks!

You also allow him a moment of redemption in the penultimate part of the book, when he assists your time being, Marinus, enabling her to take up another human form. We sense it’s because of the love he once had, or still has, for Holly.

Holly does that to people! She offers these flawed, useless, broken, morally compromised men a kind of a second chance. Ed doesn’t quite take her up on it — he tries to and fails. Crispin is sort of slowly on the mend before he gets shot. Hugo walks away from the redemption she offers. But they exchange more than bodily fluids, and a little part of her remained in him all these years. So yeah, he’s still out there and he’s 25 years younger than he should be! At some point I’ll get round to doing the third part of the Marinus trilogy, because He was in Thousand Autumns and She was in The Bone Clocks so there’s more mileage to go for that.

The thing that struck me the most about The Bone Clocks was the men in it — there is such a strong sense of each man’s preoccupation with mortality in this book. They contemplate death all the time. How much of this book is about you working out your own mortality?

A lot, is the short answer! I’m a bloke in his mid forties, moving toward my late forties, truth be told. And I do think about it a lot. I’d be mad not to, really. It’s an impolitic question to you, Michelle, but which decade of your life are you in at the moment?

I’m thirty six.

Thank you, that was a very direct answer to a sheepish question. Then you’re still fine! You can still look in the mirror and see basically a young person, and you can tell yourself that you’re certainly in the younger half of humanity. Not in some parts of the world, but on average. And you can go to a society with a real ageing population and think great, there’s still a buffer zone between me and mortality. But late forties you’re becoming that buffer zone! There are people born in the 90s who are reaching their adulthood maturity and in some cases, like sportspeople, a professional zenith, and they could be your kids, theoretically. And pretty soon, it’s not so theoretically. So it creeps up on us. Possibly especially as a bloke.

Are you scared of it?

The cultural stereotypes and representations of ageing are, I think, overwhelmingly negative! Just think of all those adjectives, those terms of abuse where ‘old’ is a modifier - “old git, old fool, old giffer, old cow”. The whiff of age is getting stronger and stronger. So really the only strategy that our culture offers us is evasion; to not think about it. That’s not a lot of use, really. So the book is a kind of thought experiment along the lines of, “Okay, so you’re getting old - what are the alternatives?” Obviously death’s one alternative, or a young death. Or imagine a Mephistophelean/Faustian pact where someone walks in and says, “Okay, you don’t have to age, you don’t have to get older.” What would you lose if that were real? And therefore, what if it involved the amputation of your conscience, if it involved faking your death every couple of decades to get around the fact that people would notice you're getting older?

So yes, one of the things The Bone Clocks is, is a thought experiment for me to play through the various stances toward death and aging, and the road to the care home which is waiting for all of us, if we’re lucky! Not everyone makes it that far, and we should remember that! Philip Larkin writes that poem The Old Fools, about old people, and it’s just a sort of Bone Clocks-type of preoccupation with bits dropping off and the mind wandering and one line is “Why aren’t they screaming?” and the last line is “We shall find out.”

That’s harrowing and chilling, isn’t it!

That’s exactly the point! It is harrowing and chilling! How come? I mean, it’s a part of life! For God’s sake, it happens to all of us! Do we want to go out like this? Being harrowed and chilled? I don’t want to come over as an expert on Buddhism, and there are various sects and one sect of Buddhism compared to another can be more different than say the Catholic belief system and Zen Buddhism say, but one thing they do have in common is an attempt to prepare for death and to kind of embrace it as a companion who is with you through life, rather than a big scary Darth Vader type thing or a Grim Reaper with a scythe. The purpose of this companion is to remind you not to waste time, and to remind you that you shouldn’t be spending your youth and your health goofing around on Candy Crush or whatever.

Life is short. It’s a lot shorter than we think! When we’re younger we have an endless, squanderable bank account of days to burn through; but it’s not endless and we should not be squandering it. And it’s harrowing and chilling because we haven't put the thought into it. But if we think about it now, while we have the chance, is when we should be doing it. And not walking around like some superannuated goth, being all doomy for the sake of it. But a bit like how we plan for pensions, if we do the intellectual equivalent of that much earlier then we’ll have a store of equanimity and a store of tranquility and calmness to mean that death, when it happens to us, will be a transition that we’re ready for, and not something utterly terrifying that we have to face like a cow who is being led into the abattoir, knowing that it’s getting an iron bolt through its head.

It’s an absolutely lovely day here, and I’ve just spilled that thought out!

I began teaching Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia around the time I started reading The Bone Clocks, and I was struck by the echoes that pass back and forth between that play and your book; centuries answering back to one another, time running out, and the piano music in another room.

I did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for A level, and I’ve seen and know reasonably well a lovely, strange play he did called The Real Thing. I think he’s great. I don’t know him that well, but it sounds as if I should read Arcadia!

That piano music is something I think about so much with The Bone Clocks, and your other work too. That sound of something from far away that is both present and absent; Arcadia very much deals with that.

Once upon a time I fell in love with a young lady in London, and her room was at the top of a four-storey house, late Victorian, sprawling North London suburb, and somewhere in the next house there was a very regular teen piano practiser, and a highly accomplished one as well, and also one who would be playing romantic music late at night — Chopin et cetera. And that sound is sort of under the skin of some very potent memories for me. So maybe that’s why it resurfaces in my books from time to time. And it’s an astonishing thing. I don’t know if you know that Joni Mitchell song, ‘For Free’ — it’s just about a busker, “He plays real good for free”. Well, whoever the pianist was, he played real good for free, and it was there, and I was young, and all those glorious, glorious love chemicals were brewing and popping in, presumably, the chamber of my heart, or wherever it is they pop. And it’s utterly unattainable — you can never find out who it is. Maybe you could, but you wouldn’t and you shouldn't, you know you shouldn't try; it’s just there. And it’s one of the most beautiful sounds on earth and always has been, a piano in another room. So I guess I find it beautiful, and you do, and so does Tom.

I love the thought that somehow, somewhere, tentacles of idea reach out and touch in a completely accidental way.

Possibly we have minds that are captured by similar things. He’s one of a handful of writers who was there when a handful of postmodern tropes were blooming, including metafiction, but he actually knew what to do with it, and didn’t follow it down into a rather sterile narrative cul de sac and get stuck there. When you read a book and come across the writer writing the book you’re reading, it’s neat once, but it’s only a neat idea, it’s not a whole new movement of literature, and when you read it a second time you want to throw the book across the room. Tom Stoppard was there in that world, where things that had only been under the surface of fiction suddenly bubbled up and briefly became the main course. But he didn’t get stuck there, he took some really useful ideas and incorporated them into something great and beautiful like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; he didn’t mistake the garnish for the main course.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead answers back on a number of levels to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which gets a curious mention in your new book. Both plays hum with that notion of the circularity of time, which I read in your books too — like the coin toss moment that Holly shares with Crispin in The Bone Clocks — and the idea of probability, and cause and effect, which is also prominent in your work.

I do sort of have a half-baked theory that all writers are a small number, a bundle, of walking archetypal themes, and however much they try to exile any given archetypal theme from a book, you can’t. The best you can do is to make it relatively minor. I just can’t write without not writing, at least in a minor way, about causality; it fascinates me.

I have a postcard of a ship called the SS Cairo, which was a passenger ship that my Dad took when he was a boy, to India. This is the end of the Phoney War, before things really kicked into gear, and the city had been bombed in a widespread way. My grandfather was a tailor in Yorkshire and got a job in a factory in India making uniforms for the British army. When out there on this boat, ships would travel in a convoy, and many mornings they would look and there would be one less ship. They didn’t know how dangerous it was I think, before they left. Dad’s ship got there, came back okay, and then on the way out it got sunk. I kind of keep this postcard as a memento mori just to remind me of how nearly I wasn’t here.

And just the statistical improbability of any of us being here! Bill Bryson says somewhere how — this is obviously only a thought that a mind that isn’t being hamstrung by depression can think — but in a jocular way, he says that this is his defence against suicide ideation; you actually owe it to the laws of probability to not do yourself in, because it shouts of you being here! This infinity of randomness whereby our parents met because of this; Mum had one too many gin and tonics when she shouldn’t on the night of conception, etcetera etcetera. The odds against it happening are incalculable. It’s always in the back of my mind, if it’s not in the front of my mind! So yeah, causality is one of my archetypal things.

The idea of ghosts, and haunting also recurs through your writing. In The Bone Clocks, Holly says something about heaven being a song you catch in snatches, “like a song that’s been taped over”, and it brings to mind the ghost in the machine, your Radio People; again that refrain of a previous time or another person.

Ghosts, as far as I know, are in every single culture. They even stubbornly resist Christianisation, which would maintain that there is no such thing. Ghosts are powerful metaphors, and a metaphor is a kind of conversation with the mind. It’s the mind attempting to frame, to understand, to give substance to, something insubstantial yet still very influential.

If my characters are haunted by metaphorical figures, or by things that they don’t think are metaphors, but ghosts, or by pangs of regret so strong that they seems to have a body and a mind with it’s own moods, or by memories, or by fears; then I do so because I think human beings are also haunted. And their skins are hazy, because the dividing line between a real ghost and a metaphorical ghost, it’s not as substantial: now it’s there, now it isn’t, as our skin, our real living skin. Hamlet’s all about this, isn't it. At what point one of these metaphorical ghosts stops being a metaphorical ghost and becomes a real one, and whether it’s actually there in some way, of whether it’s just there in the mind. Or whether it makes any difference if it’s there in the mind where only you can see it.

If it’s real to you, it’s real.

As any schizophrenic can attest. That’s the problem. People with schizophrenia are hearing those voices through their auditory nerves. If I were living with schizophrenia now, the existence of a voice speaking in my ear, as far as my brain would be concerned, would be more real than the existence of Michelle in New Zealand who I’ve never met and I have no evidence for at all, other than being a voice on the phone. In the same kind of way, that’s the relationship with literary ghosts and metaphorical ghosts and real ghosts within the frame of reality made by story.

So yes, my work is relatively highly densely populated by ghosts of these different types. In a sense it’s something obvious to externalise something insubstantial and to give it a form and a body and a presence. If it’s good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for all of us. And because we have this atavistic “cave people around the campfire” response to them as well, however often you do it, it’s a rather cliche-resistant method — it taps into something quite deep down and far back that insulates it.

Your told your short story The Right Sort on Twitter, one tweet at a time. What drove you toward using that form?

Curiosity to see what the obstacles were, and curiosity about whether I could solve those obstacles, and the discipline involved in doing so, and having to invent tools to make it doable. The idea that I had to tell a narrative in glimpses through a fast-moving train, and a landscape full of tunnels, in the dark and in the light and then quickly in the dark, in the regularity of, and in the scale, of a barcode. And curiosity about whether I could turn the limitations into narrative assets. It just attracted me as an intellectual exercise, as opposed to the omniscient balloonists view of a narrative you usually have. The Right Sort is now the first section of The Slade House and it’s been rewritten enormously. It’s as if Twitter was the nucleus of a space station the size of a small bungalow that's now become really a large, rambly, sprawling hotel of a thing with many more rooms. And that’s just one of the five (parts).

The Right Sort’s protagonist, Nathan, is scarred from an attack by a Bullmastiff — he’s literally an underdog. Many characters at the centre of your stories are marked by a sense of difference, whether in their attitude, or a sense of dislocation or alienation. How consciously do you write for the underdog?

I suppose just try being a stammering bookish kid in a 1980s British hurlyburly comprehensive school. Not so much that I’m scarred for life, it wasn’t that bad at all, but I suppose I do have experience as one who doesn’t fit in. But don’t we all? All of us have had enough of it to be able to empathise with underdog-type characters, who are marred by certain difference, which is maybe how reading works.

To do it well and in a sustained and systematic way does require technique and art and practice. It’s very, very fundamental, which may be one of the points of the workshop I’m teaching.

Basically, what all books we love have in common is a character who we root for, that we are afraid for, and we shudder when bad things are about to happen to. From gospels to Game of Thrones, we are rooting for someone, and we can’t bear to look when awful things are happening and we feel jubilation when they survive. And I think that’s it.

David Mitchell will be speaking at the Auckland Writers Festival
Saturday 16 May · 10.30 - 11.30 am
Details here

He will also be in Christchurch as part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn season
Sunday 17 May · 6pm
Details here

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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