David Mitchell – Transports of Fictional Delight – 15th August 2015.
David Mitchell starts off his Book Festival event with a reading, which leads to him defending his post-irony and trying to convince the audience that Michael Morpurgo is, in fact, excellent (he is, for the record).
The conversation is deftly moved on by host Stuart Kelly, who refers to the recurrence of characters in his books even in passing – is it all set in the same world? “Yes,” admits David. “Motives have evolved, though.” There’s a truism. “If you’ve met before, you have shared history. It’s like a date with an old college friend versus speed dating.” His Canadian publisher summed it up by asking, “You’re making your own Middle Earth, ain’t you Mitchell?” The size of the world is a real feat, but he wants to books to be able to stand independently too.
As to the overall mythology, it’s an exercise in world building and cosmology. “I like making stuff up, it’s my job.” With cosmology and fantasy, “you can’t be wrong, but you can be bad.” You’re allowed to break physics, but replace it realistically; you need to be consistent and he likes the challenge. “Fantasy is the easiest genre to do badly,” he notes, “and the hardest to do well.”
He likes to use science that hasn’t been discovered yet. “It’s great fun inventing your own words,” he muses. “If it can be assigned to the laws of science that we haven’t met yet, it takes away the scariness.”
While the primary driver seems invention, there is a deep moral seriousness that raises his work. “To stop the genre experiment flying into the ether, it needs to be tethered to the earth,” he explains. “Ethics is one way to do that.” It gives it credence. “Aren’t they in every single part of every single newspaper?” he questions. “It’s not fantasy.”
Mitchell toys with his genres, with each section of the Bone Clocks being dedicated to a different one. “I like to use genre within the cover of a single book,” he begins.”Where does it say that a book has to sit in one genre, front cover to back? But if you do it for the sake of it, it’s just a gimmick.”
For Slade House, the upcoming release, it’s said to be darker; “Your Empire Strikes Back,” says Kelly. It leads to good advice for aspiring young writers: If something about a novel isn’t working, and you have something that’s good but doesn’t work in the book, just cut and paste it and put it in the ‘useful bin’. You’ll likely never look back at it, but sometimes something good in a manuscript isn’t always what’s needed.
Mitchell took to Twitter for a story, leading to the question on it being a vessel for narrative, and whether there will be good art that is wholly digital. “There might be,” he begins, noting that he may be ignorant to some things out there and doesn’t want to inadvertently put something he’s not heard of down. “I think it’s still at the level of people just giving it a go. Most things begin by people messing around.”
“Narrative is eternal,” he continues. People always sat around telling jokes and stories and improving them; the delivery method changes with technology. Social media could be the next in an honourable line of Narrative Delivery Vehicles (an official term, obviously).
So with all his genre-jiggery-pokery, what is most satisfying to write? “What is satisfying is working out what a book wants to be and bringing it into being,” David explains, noting that he can’t really answer the question. He likes taking the book from his head and translating it to page. “I’m attracted to ones I haven’t done before, because I’ll always learn something.”
The fun and interesting event swiftly draws to a close. Questions flood in, from his views on the Cloud Atlas movie adaptation (he liked it), and writing as a woman. “It’s scary and tough. You get more cautious as you get older, but should have raised awareness of craft.” He approached the task with great caution and respect. “Find bad female characters by men and work out why they’re bad,” he continues, adding that he ran every single word by his wife. Kelly suggests that there’s perhaps a shared humanity accessible to all that women can draw from when writing men, and vice versa. David doesn’t necessarily see it quite so simply: “It’s only a chromosome, but look at what a difference it makes.”