Charting the course of our days is an inexact science. The mercurial nature of life and experience seems a gestalt theme for twice Man Booker-nominated author, David Mitchell, whose novels tend to suggest history is formed by many overlapping stories stitched curiously together. I am unabashedly a tremendous fan of his work, and the allure is not simply the strength of his story, but his ability to instil even the most unremarkable of moments with almost metaphysical potential – a trait that requires not just imagination, but craft.
“Maybe narrative is a balance of plot and character,” Mitchell reflects. “Sometimes, your development will be character-led. Sometimes a character will start acting out of character, which actually modifies your view of what the character is. It changes the borders of the character, and it’s good when that happens. Other times the narrative will sit on top. You might have an idea you think is just great, and in order to get that in, you work on making a character a lot different. It depends on … a hunch, on instinct. Both these things are compulsive forces. Both are behind the reasons you can’t put books down, are what give momentum. Style and theme tend to be the brakes, while character and plot are the accelerator.”
The notion of borders – where they lie, how readily they might be breached – is a recurrent concern not only in Mitchell’s writing, but in this very conversation. The unexpected intersection of lives is a fundamental tool of writing, but rarely has such transgression been so riddled with potential and peril – most notably, perhaps, in his latest novel, The Bone Clocks. The trick, as it were, is voices – not simply those on the page, but within the author himself.
“Write until you find your voice, that’s true,” Mitchell says. “Write what you know, and then write what you don’t know. But once you find your voice, well, which voice? You have any number of different voices. Our minds are plural; we are not singular things. We are a multitude of different people in the course of a single day. All of these different selves have different voices, and if you’re only writing with one voice, well, what happens when you’re writing a character who isn’t at all like another character? If you applied that principle even mildly, everyone in your book would sound the same, and as we know people speak vastly differently.
“I would wish to nurture a multiplicity of styles and a multiplicity of voices. I know I’ll fail. I am just one person and we are finite beings. We are defined by that. We would not be a person if we didn’t have beginnings and ends, with borders discrete. That limited discreteness is what allows us to imagine someone else’s skin, to imagine that multiplicity of styles. For me, it’s the key to literary longevity, I suppose. The alternative is to keep rewriting Cloud Atlas until no-one wants to publish me anymore. I need that omnivoracity of style in all my books, which is why you should be voracious in your reading.”
Before reluctantly allowing Mitchell to get back to his own life, the fan in me needs to know what his future holds beyond the publication of Slade House in October.
“I know what my next four novels are probably going to be. At the speed I write that will take me into my 60s, which is a really sobering thought. Really sobering. Life is short,” Mitchell chuckles, “and you only get so much use out of it.”