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Cosmic Station Master

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Thinking back to the beautifully pitched amusement arcade scene in Black Swan Green, this is a pleasingly Mitchellian metaphor. Moreover, with his non-corporeal, homeless spirits (Ghostwritten), or Tai Chi mastering baddies (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) Mitchell seems determined to give his readers a memorable narrative ride. When I clumsily present him with the idea of “fiction fatigue” (the latterday notion that many novelists and readers are sick of stories, and crave reality-based narratives), as couched in David Shield‘s book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Mitchell seems to lack the mental software required to process such information. It is as though he cannot imagine anyone not needing to read or write stories. In 2006, Mitchell told Rick Kleffel from The Agony Column literary website that he found Alain Robbe-Grillet‘s first novel, The Erasers a difficult read. I suspect that this is because he felt that Robbe-Grillet’s interrogation of narrative strategies gets in the way of the actual story. Mitchell being more into rides rather than riddles. Instead, of pursuing this, I ask how much of his workaday life finds its way into ‘Mitchell Towers Amusement Park’?

“I think the everyday stuff is all fascinating – it really is. I had an aunt who said [adopts a piously pedantic voice]: ‘Intelligent people are never bored.’ There is a lot of interest to be found in the apparently drab, but we forget that in the grind of life. We think that what is fascinating resides in some zone called ‘the exotic’, or some deep place we must go to by meditating. Not at all. It’s everywhere. So, using the plot, character, theme and language formula is how I mine the fascinating material. I mean, if someone said: ‘Give me an idea for a novel!’ it just seems impossible to begin with a theme. It slips away the moment you reach for it. But if they were to say: ‘Tell me about an interesting person.’ Now, that’s something you can work from on a blank page. You can go: ‘Okay, the old scout master: he was an interesting guy. Got married: no cliches about paedophilia here, thank you very much. He married an incredibly gorgeous woman, and everyone was thinking: ‘What does she see in him?’ But they would go to all the scout jamborees and all the boys would see her and go home and indulge in very unscout-like activities while thinking about her. Three weeks after the wedding, she was applying for a divorce: she was after his money. A heartbreaking true story. So that sets off the parasite novelist’s Geiger counter. Here, you’re into the old theme of predacity pretty quickly. But what about her? What drives someone to do that? Do you hate men? So you can see how themes rise to the surface.”

David Mitchell, who takes characterisation very seriously, has his characters write him letters when he is having problems writing them. He also keeps a fleet of previously used characters, whom he is apt to take for another spin if they suit the terrain of a given story. Fortunately, they are built to last, so these re-appearances are always welcome. An example of this tendency would be Danny Lawlor, a Machiavellian Irishman from Black Swan Green, who also turns up in the superlative short story, ‘Preface’.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, the bloke from Cork, Lawlor. ‘Preface’ is narrated by a Black Swan Green guy actually. What’s his name? (Mitchell is referring a character called Mark Badbury). He is going to be in my next book, so I’m going to tidy all these characters together and…God, what’s his name? It’s quite a glib name, isn’t it? Something that suits him…” We wrack our brains to remember Mark, but fail to do so. When I put the name Neil Brose forward, Mitchell tells me that Brose is dead, before dissolving into giggles, tickled at how lost we are getting in his intricate metaworld. Does Mitchell realise that he will end up with a Trekkie-type fanbase who will invite him to their conventions when he is ninety? Is that what he is aiming for? “It’s not my primary motivation, no”, he chuckles, “but the possibility tickles me, and I would be lying if I said otherwise. Erm, Neal Brose is doing something else. Now, what have I forgotten to plan for Neil? It might be something that I haven’t written yet.”

From here I get to segue relatively smoothly on to Mitchell’s admission that each of his books is “one chapter in a sort of sprawling macro novel.” The portentously-inclined even speak in terms of Mitchell having created “his own cosmology,” or have him down as “a cartographer of the human soul.” I settle for likening his oeuvre to a cosmic Scalextric set-up; one that covers continents, is accessorised by airports, schools and shopping centres. And is curated by a mysterious figure like the jovial shopkeeper in the popular children’s cartoon, Mr Benn.

“Or, how about a Hornby train set, up in the attic?”, chirps Mitchell.

We split the difference with a “Nick Hornby railway set”, albeit one whose network and timetable was lovingly planned by M.C. Escher. But I am keen to know what the idea behind all the intertextuality in Michell’s work is. Apart from keeping all us anoraks happy? “Firstly, I’ve no problem with anoraks: they’re wonderful coats and they keep your head dry. Secondly, the intertextuality is a replay of the themes in Ghostwritten; an assertion that the Dickensian web of coincidence is what the world is actually like. Here’s a nice thing from Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos. He was talking about constellations and how, if you find the right viewpoint in even our small galaxy, you can make any shape you like out of stars. If you find the right place to stand, you can get the most improbable, contorted, symmetrical manmade designs. Similarly, if you find the right viewpoint in a story, then extreme, Dickensian – ‘Come on, I’m not swallowing that!’ – coincidence becomes entirely inevitable. So, I like this theme. It’s a variation on coincidence and design. So, to go back to Ghostwritten, Neal Brose just happens to be the guy in Hong Kong, and was also Jason Taylor’s nemesis in Black Swan Green. Find the right viewpoint, and what’s coincidental about it? Grow up in an English country village and you go on to become a dodgy banker in Hong Kong. It happens all the time.

“A third reason, beyond the anorak…Hey! That could be a good title for this interview [adopts a strikingly authentic Alan Partridge voice]: ‘David Mitchell – Beyond the Anorak’…A third reason is that it makes my narrative net as big as it possibly can be. Now I’ll just change my metaphor. You know the astrophysics project, where they make one massive, massive telescope by joining them all up? It’s an amplification device and, narratively, it’s…[sighs]

“I started off wanting to write about the world. I wanted to do these huge, great big books, crossing continents and time. After Cloud Atlas, maybe I’m more interested in a smaller, more modest scale. And, with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet it was more a case of my using a microscope rather than a telescope. More recently, I was going to say that I’m returning to the broader canvas. But maybe it’s more an understanding on my part that there’s no difference between a small canvas and a large one. And, whether you choose a microscope or a telescope, it’s all the same cosmology. Yeah, I want to try and get the world.”

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, October 6th, 2010.