David Mitchell's Dark Art

“The one thing I can’t write about is awful things happening to children,” confesses English-born author David Mitchell. For someone whose novels are as complicated as an Escher etching, it’s strange to learn there are places his pen won’t go – but that may just be parental paranoia speaking. “It’s a superstitious streak which would make me feel that by writing about these evil spirits I’d be bringing them down upon my house,” he laughs. “Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the same before I became a dad.”

Not that 35-year-old Mitchell is afraid of the darkness of human behaviour. His recent book,
Cloud Atlas, (which, despite being the odds-on favourite to win the 2004 Booker Prize, was edged out by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty) spiritedly explores the predatory side of human nature across its six interlinked, timeshifting, genre-flirting stories. And even crafting words for a living has a slightly shady element - after all, language is “the ultimate dark art”, because it can be as manipulative as black magic, he says. A few words on the phone with a contract assassin is enough to rub someone out. So he suggests.

Lest we paint a picture of Mitchell as a brooding, murderous Goth, it’s worth noting he describes himself as a “hopeless cardigan-wearing socially dysfunctional novelist” who once “was a shy stuttering introvert”. The idea of giving readings used to invoke the horror of the infamous Room 101 in George Orwell’s
Nineteen Eighty-Four. The solution to this dilemma, he discovered, was to “bluff that you’re not afraid, and bluff well enough to convince people that frankly you’re not just shitting yourself”.

Mitchell seems to have overcome this fear, having recently been a guest at writers’ festivals in Scotland, Singapore, Canada and now Writers Week at Perth Festival. This will be his second Australian visit after doing the “backpacker route” in 1998, and while certain places have marked this well-travelled author’s work, it’s Japan that has influenced his writing most of all. Originally viewed as a temporary refuge from a London blighted by John Major’s recession, which made finding any work difficult, in 1994, Mitchell arrived in Japan to teach English and ended up staying for eight years. It became a seminal experience from which he learned how to be economical and playful with language. Non-native speakers can surprise you with their directness, especially in expressing abstract thoughts. For instance, one student kept conveying the idea that sometimes it’s advantageous in life not to be too tied down to certain preconceptions. “And he said all of this with the four words, ‘NO PLAN IS PLAN,’” laughs the author. “Now that is good writing!”

Mitchell’s English students ranged form toddlers to elderly folk trying to ward off dementia – the latter being “the shape of things to come in our society as well”, says Mitchell. The 75-year-old student who took his classes was not an unusual case. His doctor advised him not only to undergo English lessons but also buy a Nintendo to play computer games with his grandkids. There are great rewards in still taking classes at that age, the author believes. “I just think learning is good for your mind and your self esteem as well… I think that feeling is particularly important when you’re elderly because society is sort of done with you and doesn’t want you slowing up the supermarket aisles or roads. And if you get a sense of belonging at least in a classroom, then it’s a lot better than nowhere. I also hope to be that sort of pensioner … who will take a course in early Icelandic – that would be great!”

Currently though, Mitchell is working on his next book,
Black Swan Green, which is the “opposite” of Cloud Atlas. At half its predecessor’s hefty size, this book will be extremely confined in time and scope. Set in 1982 and focusing on the small life of a 13 year old living out in the country, the author admits it’s “more autobiographical than anything I’ve done”.

“His life is a stem cell taken from mine but the demands of fiction has evolved in slightly different directions. In a way, my fourth novel is more of my first novel.”

Given his description of language as a dark art, how would Mitchell describe the power of fiction?

“Fiction is this incredible enclave in society where ideas can jam in unlikely combinations like fantasy supergroups and fiction is an enclave where the imagination can compose and sing to itself in ways that, outside this enclave, it gets accused of childishness or somehow being the enemy of moneymaking. In this enclave it’s OK.”

Lee Tran Lam
State of the Arts, January-March 2005