This article is from 2006.
David Mitchell is a writer who never repeats the same book twice. Rodge Glass chats to a man who is driven by fear.
Within seconds he’s quoting Morrissey and chatting about other people’s books. Relaxed, articulate, down-to-earth, David Mitchell is that rare breed of successful author: friendly until given a reason not to be, rather than the sort who waits, guarded and grumpy, for the interviewer’s next attack. After half an hour of friendly meandering conversation about everyone from Muriel Spark to Paul Simon, I have to remind myself that my job is to talk about his work; and there’s plenty to say about that. David Mitchell’s rise to prominence has been steady and impressive, with each of his extraordinary novels bringing that magic mix: a larger audience and increasing critical acclaim.
His first novel, Ghostwritten, published in 1999, was hugely ambitious, involving nine interlocking narratives. A second, number9dream, was set in Tokyo and saw him reach the Booker Prize shortlist and 2003’s Granta Best Young British Novelists list, alongside the likes of Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters and AL Kennedy. He is probably best known, however, for his breakthrough novel, Cloud Atlas (2004), which was as different from his second book as the second was from the first, building on a reputation for wide-ranging ability that allows him to skip between voices, countries and historic periods. It also brought about a second Booker shortlisting and even a Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year Award. It would take up most of this article to list the prizes he has won or been shortlisted for. So was there pressure to follow Cloud Atlas with more of the same?
‘No,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘I usually react against the previous book anyway; but that’s more out of a fear of repeating myself than reaction to pressure. I’m known for always doing something different anyway, so I don’t think anyone expects a repeat.’ Black Swan Green is certainly another about-turn. Most unusually for a Mitchell book, it’s set in one place (a quiet Worcestershire town), in a single year (1982) and is delivered by just one voice (a 13-year-old boy called Jason Taylor). It can be crude to compare protagonists with their authors, but Mitchell happily admits he and Jason have plenty in common: as well as being born in the same year and coming from Worcestershire, they both suffer from a stammer, or a ‘Hangman’. This is the name Jason gives to the unknown force that gets in the way of his speech, usually when he is under some kind of pressure:
‘I can feel the stuff I don’t say building up inside me like mildewy spuds in a sack.’
Hangman is ghost-like, strangling Jason, preventing him from saying certain sounds or words, making him look stupid. But Jason is not the only one who can’t say what he means. This is as much a book about people not knowing how to communicate, or refusing to, as it is about those who can’t: ‘Like in that Leonard Cohen song,’ says Mitchell, referring to the quiet dinnertime arguments between mum and dad that define Jason’s evenings, ‘“The homicidal bitchin’ that goes on in every kitchen.’”
As well as being about communication, and one boy’s struggle with his own voice, Black Swan Green also deals with that big political event of 1982, the Falklands War. It is potently described, right down to the period detail, the Daily Mail headlines and Thatcher’s air of invincibility. He even captures the spirit of reporter, Brian Hanrahan, whose regular news updates represent Jason’s daily intake of information: ‘When I was at school, the Falklands was what we talked about in the playground every morning. I was intoxicated with Falklands fever; we all were. It was kind of like winning the World Cup, then realising you hadn’t won the World Cup at all.’ Perhaps it’s because war isn’t a fun game for everyone or, as Jason puts it, ‘War may be an auction for countries. For soldiers it’s a lottery.’
After treating fans at last year’s Word Festival in Aberdeen to Black Swan Green-in-progress, read off scraps of A4, Mitchell now returns to Scotland with the real thing, though there may be some new material this time too. He’s currently writing a sequence of occasional pieces narrated by fringe characters from his last novel, one by a boy in Jason’s class. It’s clear from the excitement in his voice that this is where his head is right now. He talks enthusiastically about the most minor players, like Jason’s neighbour Mrs Castle - ‘one of those garden Nazis who confiscates footballs’ - and her daughter, who doesn’t appear in the novel at all, but now gets a short story all to herself. Does he often perform new work at readings?
‘Writers write the kind of stuff we like to read, and it’s the same with events; there’s nothing wrong with doing an event you’d like to attend. That’s the kind of thing I like to see: authors doing whatever they want.’
And how does he feel about presenting his work? Well, that one’s answered in Black Swan Green, by the mysterious character, Madame Crommelynck, who assesses Jason’s early poems: ‘If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, ‘when you’re ready.’
David Mitchell & Colum McCann, Charlotte Square Gardens, 27 Aug, 5pm, £7 (£5).