David Mitchell's (1969 - ) first novel, Ghostwitten, was published by Sceptre in 1999 to great acclaim and won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His second novel, number9dream (2001) was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize. He was chosen as one of Granta's 20 Best Young British Novelists 2003. He talks about the genesis of his new Man Booker prize shortlisted novel Cloud Atlas exclusively in Cloud Seeds. David was born in Southport, Lancashire, lived in Hiroshima for eight years and now lives in the west of Ireland, he very kindly answers a few of our questions ...
Mark Thwaite Cloud Atlas is a big, multilayered, complex novel: was it your biggest writing challenge so far?
David Mitchell "When you are immersed in writing, each book is equally challenging. Each book must be plotted away from implausibility, stodginess, cliche, all the reasons why your book might fail, and to do that for hundreds of pages is always a challenge. I suppose the longer the book, the harder an act it is to pull off, so yes, Cloud Atlas probably has been the trickiest book to do. I also had to learn about ships and nineteenth century language, which was fulfilling but time-consuming. The Luisa Rey section of the novel is my first venture into both 3rd person narrative and genre-fiction. It's difficult to write in genre, because the turf is so meticulously staked out. I have even more respect for writers like Ian Rankin and David Peace who can work in an established genre but still feel so fresh."
MT Cloud Atlas got great reviews - did you read them!? Will they influence how you go on to write?
DM "I scan them first to see if the tone is favourable or if it's a hatchet job. If the latter, I scan a little more closely to see if I can learn anything from the reviewer. If I can, great, I'll give the article my full attention. If not, then I bin it, then telephone my local fixer and take out a contract - only joking. (Not enough ready cash.) If the tone is favourable, then I'll read it once, then put it in my 'To be filed' box which means I haven't thrown it away but that I'll probably never set eyes on it again."
MT Your book number9dream was very much inspired by Murakami. You've lived in Japan. What is the fascination with the place?
DM "The mysterious orient. The likenesses hiding inside the differences and the differences hiding inside the likenesses. The outward calm and gentility. The beauty, the muggy ugliness. The sense of being different that being there brings. The food, Mark, ah, the food! The arts, the mountains, the islands, the shonky wooden noodle bars, the laughter of pissed salarymen, the music."
MT Who are you favourite Japanese writers? Who should we be reading?
DM "Murakami of course needs no introduction now. Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters is immaculate. A recently-translated novel by Taiichi Yamada, called Strangers is being brought out by Faber next January, tho' is already available from Vertical in the US - a ghost story which really cranked my handle. Mishima's stock seems to be falling these days, but Spring Snow is still a gem of a love story, I think. Go into the Japan Centre just off Piccadilly Circus and browse in the book section on the 2nd floor - it's like a little capsule of Tokyo implanted in the liver of London."
MT "Will do David. And Shusaku Endo, who I love, have you read him?"
DM "Yes indeed, Shusaku Endo's a masterly historical writer. I rate Silence (Peter Owen) particularly highly. His Catholicism can be a bit obstructive for a non-Christian reader, but he's still well worth reading. He handles some fairly ugly moments on Japanese history head-on: treatment of lepers in the post-war period in The Girl I left Behind, for example."
MT You now live in Ireland. Better than Japan or just different? Any Irish writers that have caught your attention!?
DM "Just different, very different! I'm not the man to discuss Irish writers really, but I recently read John McGahern's Amongst Women and oh is that ever a beautiful, beautiful book. So human, so observant, so forgiving, so illuminating about families and about oneself."
MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?
DM "A novel called Black Swan Green. Very semi-autobiographical. I figured it's time for me to write my first novel."
MT What is your favourite book? Who is your favourite writer?
DM "Where do you begin? End? Any book written with integrity and ingenuity and insight is a favourite book. The Leopard, Mansfield Park, 1984, The Obscene Bird of Night, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, The Master and Margarita, Native Son, Oscar and Lucinda, and on and on and on."
MT What book do you wish you had written?
DM "My next one."
MT Do you think good writing can be taught? What are your top tips for for the aspiring writer?
DM "Good writers have done MA courses, but as I haven't, it's not for me to say whether they would have been good or not without the MA course. I suspect they may save wrong turns. But there might be something to be said for wrong turns. The short answer is 'I'm not sure'. Top tips? 1) Keep asking yourself, 'Why am I telling the reader this?' If the answer is 'No idea', think about jettisoning that part of the text. 2) Don't worry about jettisoning text - nothing you write is ever really wasted, even if it's a whole novel. It will get you to a place you wouldn't otherwise have got to. 3) If you're stuck, write a short honest piece on exactly why you are stuck. You will then be unstuck."
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
DM It's a demanding vocation, but all vocations are. If it's your vocation, however, it's true fulfilment."
MT Thank you so much for your time David - all the very best!