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February 2004
David Mitchell - the interview
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas book cover
David Mitchell - Cloud Atlas book cover
Booker Prize nominee David Mitchell visited Notttingham in March.

Joe Sinclair caught up with the acclaimed novelist before he sets foot in our county to find out more about his new novel.
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From ocean voyagers, to nuclear physicists and exploited clones, David Mitchell’s new novel hops forward through time towards the end of civilisation.

Cloud Atlas, out on Wednesday, 10th March 2004, is Mitchell’s third novel, following on from the success of Ghostwritten and Number Nine Dream, which was nominated for the Booker Prize.

The book is composed of six stories, emerging out of each other like Russian dolls as each new narrator discovers the journal, letters, novel, film and holographic projection (think Princess Lea) of the previous story.

The uncompleted successive stories echo with each other through time until we arrive at the fallen remnants of civilisation at the centre of the novel.

David Mitchell
David Mitchell

In the second half of the book each story is completed, leading us back to the beginning, where reluctant voyager Adam Ewing finds himself dying aboard ship on the Pacific Ocean.

It's an imaginative, provocative and entertaining journey.

David Mitchell moved to Hiroshima, Japan, in his mid twenties, where he taught English and decided it was time to get serious about his writing.

After eight years and two successful novels, David returned to the British Isles, and now he’s on his way to Nottingham to talk about his new book.

He’ll be appearing at Waterstones with fellow author David Peace on Monday, 1st March 2004.

He spoke to me from his home in Cork, Ireland, where he lives a relaxed life with his Japanese wife and baby daughter.

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Have you ever come to Nottingham before?
No, I haven’t. It’s one of the last great unknown British cities for me. I’m really looking forward to it.

Do you have any plans for things to do while you’re here?
David Peace has told me that Nottingham has one of the oldest pubs in the country, so we’re hoping to hunt that down. One thing I really missed in Japan was British Indian cuisine, and I’ve heard Nottingham is one of the best in the country for that. So it’ll be a pint in the oldest pub and a meal in one of the best Indian restaurants as well.

You got a travel scholarship to research your book. Can you tell me more about that?
When I went to New Zealand I used part of the money to fly myself out to the remote Chatham Islands, which appear in the book, just to get a feel for the landscape, the weather and the mood of the place. The next year I used the second half of the money to do added extras around Hawaii. I went walking on lava fields.

Do you travel a lot?
When I lived in Japan I used to do an annual trip. Now I’m a father I’ve got some more immediate responsibilities at home and can’t really swan off for quite so long. In a publicity year the trick is to combine wanderlust fulfillment with book business.

In Japan you were a foreigner in an alien environment, and in Cloud Atlas many of the main characters find themselves in similarly alien environments. Did you write the characters into those situations on purpose?
Probably not actually. But I have noticed the same thing about Cloud Atlas – people tend to be isolated and trapped, which might have been what it’s like walking around Japan for the first couple of years. I think rather than me choosing consciously the predicaments of my characters it more just comes through on a fairly unconscious level. I think artists have a sort of inner architecture that is made manifest in the art work.

What affect did being a foreigner in Japan have on you and your writing?
Inner monologues. I’ve only ever written once in the third person [The Luisa Rey Mystery in Cloud Atlas], everything else is first person. I think one explanation for that is wandering around for all those years in Japan and not being able to communicate that fluently. It does turn you in on yourself a little bit. Your environment effects you wherever you are.

How good is your Japanese?
I can argue with my wife in Japanese, but I can’t win the arguments.

Is that down to the language?
Good point. She’s like most Japanese women. They’re fairly softly spoken but that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions.

Why did you structure the novel like you have?
The idea of that structure has been knocking about in my head for years. It’s to do with form, the idea of a Russian doll. I read about an Egyptian Goddess who gave birth to a pregnant daughter, whose embryo in turn was already pregnant and so on to infinity. That’s just beautiful. It seems to be a beautiful model for time as well. Every possible moment is contained in this moment, regressing on to infinity.

In Ewing’s final diary entry he warns that a "purely predatory world shall consume itself", and we can trace this happening between stories within the novel. Did you feel compelled to write this novel as a warning to people about the way the world is going?
Compelled is probably too strong. It sounds arrogant if I say that I David Mitchell wanted to deliver this message to the unthinking ears of society. It’s not really like that at all. It’s simply something that I was attracted to writing so I wrote. I’m not a great deep political thinker. A novelist needs to know his own strong points and weak points. But I am a novelist with a political streak.

This is the most political of your novels so far. It deals with sweat-shops, migrants, globalisation and so on. Are these issues which have struck you since you came back from Japan?
Yes, the excesses of neo-capitalism. But those are also fairly evident in Japan – just watching people’s working patterns and how grueling they are. I think there’s something in the air at the moment. As evidence I’d sight the success of Michael Moore’s books. Around the time I was writing Somni 451 I was reading Fast Food Nation, the expose of the fast food industry in the States. With feasible science fiction all you have to do is take what’s here already, just take the present and exaggerate it slightly and you’ve got some sort of awful grotesque world.

Reading clubs are very trendy in Nottinghamshire at the moment. If you were to recommend five reads – apart from your own books – what would they be?
1. For Esme – With Love and Squalor, by J.D. Salinger.
2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
3. The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber.
4. Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain Fornier.
5. The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Writer’s groups are also very popular in Nottinghamshire. Have you got any advice for Nottinghamshire’s budding writers?
1. Take your time.
2. Write your characters’ autobiographies.
3. It’s about people.
4. A quote from Stephen King: "adverbs are not your friends."
5. Write something every single day, even if it’s just three lines. And it doesn’t matter if it’s any good – just write something every day.

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