Archive: Interview with David Mitchell

From Asia Literary Review No.20, Summer 2011: Japan






'You cultivate the habit of the open mind. You must be aware that anything could fly in the window at any time. So you keep the window open rather than allow an idea to brain itself on the glass.'

– David Mitchell on writing


David Mitchell is not the first writer who springs to mind for a profile in the Asia Literary Review. Viewed from a certain angle, Mitchell, 42, personifies almost stereotypical Englishness. Born in Southport on Merseyside and raised in the heart of England (Malvern, Worcestershire), he is tall, blond and exhibits the type of self-deprecating sense of humour once considered a national necessity. Discussing his childhood, which he describes as 'English, straight, white, middle-class', Mitchell says, 'Like most teenagers, I felt my parents had entered a world’s most-boring-person competition, and won. Which of course is not fair, and no doubt my own kids will one day be saying the same sort of thing about me.'

     Mitchell writes exclusively in English and occasionally about the most Anglicised subjects. Black Swan Green (2006) fictionalised his Midlands childhood in 13 chapters lovingly packed with references to British television shows, schoolboy slang ('Epic!') and 1970s pop music. The narrator, budding teenage poet Jason Taylor, is a dead ringer for a young Mitchell. Despite his fascination with the Falklands War, Taylor displays only a hazy concept of a world outside his own geographical and historical moment: 'Dad talked about how spices used to be like gold or oil nowadays. Clippers and schooners brought them back from Jakarta, Peking and Japan. Dad said how in those days Holland was as powerful as the USSR is today. Holland!'

     Little else about Mitchell’s literary career is so straightforward, or so simply parochial. Granta may have named him one of its Young British Novelists in 2003, but this is a writer who, in effect, was made in Japan. Mitchell began to write in earnest only after moving to Hiroshima in 1994, by coincidence the same year that fellow novelist David Peace made his way from the north of England to Tokyo. 

     Mitchell and Peace taught English, a job that afforded sufficient time, space and money to nurture their literary careers. 'I worked for 40 hours a week but only taught for about six or seven,' says Mitchell. 'I had to "put my face out", as they say in Japanese, but no one was interested in what I was doing outside the classroom.'

     Mitchell stayed for eight years in total, completing his residence in Hagi, a small city on the Japan Sea known for its pottery. During that time, he published his first two novels – Ghostwritten (1999) and number9dream (2001) – and completed parts of his breakthrough third novel, Cloud Atlas (2004). As he acknowledged in an essay written for his American publisher, Random House, in 2000, Japan allowed him to write without too many distractions. 'I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I’d spent the last six years in London, or Cape Town, or Moosejaw, on an oil rig or in the circus?'

     The answer to this question, as Mitchell acknowledges, is no. Japan was muse and patron, informing the content of his work and its eclectic, entertaining and genre-hopping forms. Mitchell declares an interest in manga and anime, saying, 'They are both extreme plot-driven forms of fiction that pay close attention to camera angles.' He adds: 'Hyper-modernity lends number9dream its stage and its scenery. If you are writing about contemporary Japan, its cyber, virtual and techno aspects are attractive elements. William Gibson reached the same conclusion, long before me, in Neuromancer.'

     Mitchell’s novels could be described as literary mosaics. His most famous works, Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, present seemingly unconnected narratives that gradually develop into a bigger picture through recurring plots, characters, settings and leitmotifs. Ghostwritten appears to be a collection of independent short stories, set in various cities across Asia. In Tokyo, a young Japanese jazz musician falls in love with a girl from Hong Kong; in Holy Mountain, a woman’s life doubles as an account of the last half century of Chinese history; in Hong Kong, a British banker narrates the gradual decline of his life and moral code. His wife leaves him, he has an affair with his Chinese maid, is investigated for nefarious financial misdeeds and eventually collapses beside a hilltop Buddhist shrine. 

     But boundaries in Ghostwritten, whether literary or geographic, are porous and easily negotiated. Characters slip from place to place and story to story: the Chinese maid in Hong Kong is the granddaughter of the woman in Holy Mountain; the young lovers in Tokyo are spotted by the envious British banker in Hong Kong. Even Mitchell’s prose refuses to stay put. The opening line, 'Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?' whispers through the entire book. 

     Mitchell’s recent work has inverted this narrative method: instead of seemingly disparate yarns that somehow link to form novels, Black Swan Green and last year’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet present apparently coherent linear stories that, on closer inspection, comprise sub-plots and micro-narratives that feel like discrete short stories. 

     The prototype for this form was Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream. Its hero, Eiji Miyake, arrives in Tokyo hoping to track down his father, who abandoned the family years before. Miyake shuttles fluidly between reality and his own private fantasy world, which he experiences through an array of different narrative genres including a video game, a manga scenario, a pastoral idyll, a yakuza movie and a sexual-exploitation farce. This duality affects time (Miyake’s past and present) and place. Miyake also bounces between the highly structured surfaces of Japanese society and its chaotic underbelly: love hotels, computer hacking, dirty deals in boardrooms. 

     Mitchell is justly celebrated for his narrative ingenuity, but he also has his critics. Reviewing The Thousand Autumns in The New Yorker, James Wood wrote: 'Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist … he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with.'

     Also stinting in his praise is Philip Hensher, who wrote in The Spectator (once again about The Thousand Autumns), that 'despite his evident inventiveness in creating a novel’s structure, I wonder about his attachment to anything but the conventions of literary storytelling'. 

     Hensher is typical of Mitchell’s detractors, who acknowledge his talent but argue that he seems more interested in chasing his own literary tail than engaging with reality. Common reproofs insist that his fiction is not only too clever (or too entertaining) for its own good but also an empty exercise in postmodern self-reference. Another of Hensher’s concerns is that Mitchell portrays foreign cultures with all the subtlety of Godzilla in a china shop. 

     Mitchell counters by arguing that his fiction is profoundly engaged with the world and people around him, no matter how fantastic the tale it tells. His early books, Ghostwritten and number9dream, simply reflected the life he lived at the time. 'I described the world around me. It was pure youthful mimesis. I wrote what I saw, and what I saw was a world where coincidences happen, where cultures bleed subtly and quietly into one another,' he says. 'Political borders are strict, but cultural ones tend to bend, give way, melt and fragment – simply because culture exists in people, and people up-sticks and move.'

     This last observation is true of Mitchell: he now lives in Clonakilty, Ireland, with his wife Keiko and their daughter, nine, and son, six. The reasons for departure were mainly financial: Japan’s high cost of living made it difficult for Mitchell to support his young family from his writing alone. His decision to return to the British Isles coincided with his first commercial success as an author: having received ecstatic reviews and a place on 2004’s Man Booker Prize shortlist, Cloud Atlas sold more than half a million copies. 

     Years after he left, Japan continues to exert a powerful hold on his imagination. The Thousand Autumns is arguably his most 'Japanese' novel to date. Set at the turn of the 19th century, the story begins on the artificial-island trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. Its content and form pay homage to Japanese culture. 'On every page of The Thousand Autumns I gave myself licence to do a one-sentence ‘haiku line’ in the hope that it would infuse the book with a more Japanese feeling,' Mitchell says. 'The ace of spades of the haiku form is compression – how to pack the maximum into the minimum.'


I first met David Mitchell during a publicity tour for the paperback publication of The Thousand Autumns; we talked over tea at London’s Goring Hotel. Although never less than polite, he was clearly in a rush and slightly distracted. Japan was still reeling from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11 and Mitchell was understandably concerned not to exploit the tragedy to sell books. (Coincidentally, an earthquake strikes Dejima in the novel.) 'News vulturism is as nauseating as disaster tourism,' he says, discussing the media response to the tragedy. 'At the same time, of course I want news crews to be there and reporting. Perhaps the press can’t win, but please let them be wise and sane, and unhysterical, and humane.' 

     That first meeting was followed by a lengthy phone conversation as Mitchell waited for bread to bake. Genial, patient and thoughtful, he considered questions scrupulously and chose his words with similar care, perhaps the legacy of a stammer that, as Black Swan Green reveals, he worked diligently to overcome. 

     This attention to words also reflects a love of language and storytelling. Mitchell speaks like he writes, moving easily from seriousness to humour, from considerations of high art to popular culture, from directness to digression. He delights in making imaginative connections: mention of our shared admiration for eclectic BBC Radio 3 music programme Late Junction mutates into an artistic statement. 

     'There’s an underthought-about artistic quality of propinquity [to Late Junction],' observes Mitchell. 'When things are next to each other they emit a field and make a third thing – like a Venn diagram. When you get a piece of Korean wedding music alongside one of Brian Eno’s Apollo recordings they do something to each other that gives greater value. It works with colour too. Put green next to orange and you’ll see a dark penumbra created by those two colours being there. I wondered whether this might work with narrative too.'

     Late Junction accompanied the nocturnal writing sessions of Cloud Atlas, earning an honourable mention in the novel’s acknowledgements. One can detect its subliminal influence on Mitchell’s technique of splicing genres such as science fiction, the historical and epistolary novel, the journal, espionage thrillers and the gangster yarn. Each story is self-consciously echoed by the succeeding ones, as if Cloud Atlas were an elaborate literary matryoshka. 'One of the happy accidents of Cloud Atlas was realising that radically different genres do something to one another. How it works I don’t know, but something happens,' he admits. 'It’s an artistic effect I’m now conscious of and I seek to deploy when appropriate.'

     It seems entirely in character that Mitchell should describe his first impressions of Japan by drawing on works from two genres. His feelings of confusion and cultural dislocation are conveyed through Mr Baseball, an obscure 1992 movie starring Tom Selleck. Mitchell was particularly taken with a scene where one macho, individualistic American player encounters his Japanese counterparts, filled with esprit de corps. Selleck rebels and shouts, 'Are you going to tell me how to take a crap next?' He opens the door to a bathroom and finds an Asian toilet sunk into the floor. He stares at it then turns round. 'OK, I need someone to tell me how to take a crap.'

     Mitchell also cites Youth, Joseph Conrad’s autobiographical tale of a young sailor’s inaugural voyage to Bangkok. 'If Asia is a part of a Westerner’s youth, then it does something psychic and strange. As you age, youth and Asia become conflated in your memory. You hunger for one as you hunger for the other.'

     The reference to Conrad is instructive. Like him, Mitchell is attracted to voyages of geographic exploration that double self-consciously as narratives of imaginative self-discovery. 'It all sounds rather Germanic,' Mitchell says, laughing. 'I need a quiff and a moth-eaten waistcoat to discuss this.' But it does strike a chord. “Being outside your home culture, you learn that you are dragging half a ton of preconceptions around with you – all the things you never realise you’ve been taking for granted, because they were instilled in you by the environment that made you. Suddenly noticing this great big sack chained to your foot is a fine opportunity to know yourself better.'

     For Mitchell, writing has always been central to processing these experiences, whether he is exploring a new country or analysing his relationship with it. He describes the process as akin to taking text photographs. 'These record the smells, moods, ghosts, sounds and random metaphors that drift by. An example might be an old man’s skin is like a mottled banana.'

     Conversely, new experience has always inspired Mitchell’s writing: locations suggest characters, which suggest plots, which suggest themes. The seeds of Hong Kong in Ghostwritten were sown, in part, by the Nick Leeson case, but also by visiting an old university friend who worked for a Hong Kong bank. 'I have never written an East-meets-West novel, a novel about metafiction or a global novel. I had no interest in expat novels and I didn’t think readers would either.' 

     Mitchell’s practice of writing himself into a place might explain the recurrence in his work of the traveller who is a stranger in a strange land and must imaginatively accustom himself to his new surroundings. One thinks of 19th-century adventurer Adam Ewing in Cloud Atlas arriving in New Zealand from America; Jacob de Zoet swapping Holland for Dejima; and Eiji Miyake leaving his Kyushu home to search for his father in Tokyo. 

     By contrast, failure to habituate has disastrous or bizarre results. In GhostwrittenNeal Brose is the English banker on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Part of what ails him is his attitude to Hong Kong, which he treats like an exotic London suburb crossed with a glorified cash machine. Hong Kong responds by sending the ghost of a Chinese girl to haunt Brose’s apartment and imagination. 

     Mitchell’s twin ambitions to write and travel were roused, it seems, at an early age. He speaks wistfully about his 'pretentious' love of language as a teenager. 'You acquire a synaesthetic appreciation for words. They have flavours and textures. Dusk and twilight are both beautiful words, but they are not quite the same. Even "maybe" and "perhaps" glance off the eyeball at slightly different angles, don’t you think?'

     Both his parents were, broadly speaking, artistic, although Mitchell stresses they were in no way bohemian: his father worked for the Royal Worcester Porcelain company, now defunct ('the company, not my dad'); his mother was a freelance floral artist who painted greetings cards and adverts. 'My parents immunised me against certain myths about the "artist’s life" from an early age. I realised that art is work, and the nuts and bolts of doing it are discipline and hard work. Inspiration is a fancy word for "having a good idea' and creativity doesn’t mean much when you examine the word under a microscope. Artistic myths won’t get you very far.'

     But going far was precisely what the adolescent Mitchell wanted to do. 'I had a globe that I almost used to drool over. I indulged in map lust. I wanted to canoe downriver as far from Worcestershire as possible. Of course, when you do, and live abroad for long enough, you come to learn that mundanity is not a place you can escape from, but an inner state.'

     Mitchell’s first voyage was less than epic: he studied English and Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. His youthful enjoyment of Shakespeare’s 'oddball' plays such as Timon of Athens and Cymbeline give some indication of future imaginative acts. 'They are structural messes, but you can find half-hidden gems there too. I liked the fact they were neglected, that I felt as though I was discovering them.'

     After gaining his Master of Arts degree (he researched the postmodern novel), Mitchell began to discover the world for real. He spent a year in Sicily, teaching English in Catania, before moving on to Hiroshima. 'I wanted to eat the world,' he says. 'I went to Japan, but it could just as easily have been anywhere else.' 

     This destination was largely determined by Mitchell’s Japanese girlfriend at the time, who happened to live in Hiroshima. He arrived with few assumptions about the country and even less knowledge. 'I was too young and stupid to have pre-armed myself with preconceptions. I had read some Mishima, but that’s a long way from being ready to live there.'

     Mitchell found Japan baffling and exciting, humbling and slightly humiliating. Although he would learn to speak Japanese at an 'upper-intermediate level', he describes being 'infantilised'. 'You can’t speak or express your needs. Even when you are learning the language you talk like a four-year-old. But I wanted the differences and the difficulties. Had Japan looked too much like Worcestershire I would have been disappointed.' 

     Mitchell realised he was not simply an observer of cultural difference but an agent of it too: his height, skin colour and fair hair ensured he was a novelty wherever he went. 'You’re looked at a lot. Kids giggle at you. You unnerve people. Just by asking someone a question their stress levels rise. They will be embarrassed by their inability to understand you, even though you are the guest in their country. If you are white and male, you get an easier ride. You don’t know the social codes but you are forgiven more readily – more than, say, a Japanese American.' 

     It was his first inkling of Japan’s complex relationship with foreigners – a theme that pervades The Thousand Autumns. In Mitchell’s case, he found that many of his existing ideas were challenged and reshaped. Japan recalibrated his knowledge of World War II, for example. 

     'The British can be obsessed and uncritically proud of their role in World War II. The Japanese often prefer amnesia,' he says.

     But he also cites 'ignorant' clichés still prevalent in the West, among them Japan’s never having apologised for its part in the war. 'It is not widely known that during the US occupation of Japan, media discussion – including analysis of the war – was illegal. It was even illegal to refer to the fact that it was illegal to talk about the war. That wasn’t Japanese censorship – it was imposed by MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo.'

     The embargo may have been imposed by the Americans, but it has had a profound effect on Japanese culture. World War II has marginal status on school curricula and a similarly tangential presence in cultural life. When Mitchell visited Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Museum he was surprised how little political context was provided to the horrific events of August 1945. 'Can you imagine a British museum about the Blitz that fails to mention why the Blitz happened? Me neither.'

     Mitchell has written that the process of cultural exchange made him feel like 'an alien amongst natives' (a phrase coined by Donald Ritchie, the renowned critic of Japanese cinema who spent most of his life in Japan). Mitchell was especially disconcerted by his first encounters with the urban landscape. '[Japanese cities] are TV – huge, loud, compulsory television. Big screens play adverts and movie trailers while you wait to cross the road. To walk through one of Japan’s rich cities is to channel surf, and opting out of this extreme consumerism is not really an option. Only gaijins who can’t speak the language are spared.'

     Experiences like these would later shape number9dream. They awoke a broad fascination with the interface between the individual and mass culture in Japanese society, between the human and the technological and between ideas of self-expression and self-sacrifice. 

     'The social contract in Japan requires the self-abnegation of the individual and the sacrifice of family life on the altar of the breadwinner’s job for life. The pictures from "Advertland", then, are cruelly tantalising: they show individuals being, acting and consuming as freely as their real-life counterparts never can. Those open roads, those deserted beaches, those spacious, sunlit houses! No wonder Hawaii is a Japanese version of fairyland.' 

     Mitchell quickly understood that this was not the end of the story. 'Self-abnegation is never wholly attainable: you can shelve your dreams and aspirations and loves, but they’re still there on the shelf. It still aches where they used to be.'

     One of Mitchell’s most perceptive guides to contemporary Japan was Haruki Murakami, whom he describes as 'the poet laureate of Japanese alienation, astute about the melancholy of hyper-modern Japan'. Murakami, says Mitchell, discovered that modern novelists can use global popular culture as an 18th-century novelist would refer to the Greek and Latin classics. 'You can talk about Snoopy, Charlie Brown and The Beatles and people all over the world will know exactly what you mean.'

     Murakami’s influence is especially strong in Mitchell’s early work. In Okinawa, the opening chapter of Ghostwritten, Quasar is a cult member who commits a murderous terrorist attack on Tokyo’s subway system. The story was partly inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that, in 1995, released Sarin gas on trains in the capital, killing 11 commuters and poisoning 1,000 others. Quasar finds solace, albeit of a profoundly deluded variety, in the insane mythology propagated by the cult’s leader, His Serendipity. Modern Japan is portrayed as a virus that spreads decadence, greed, sex and even racial impurity through the modern media. Alternately pitiable and monstrous, Quasar is a distorted emblem of Japanese social obedience and self-sacrifice. 

     'Cults have been popular in Japan because they combine family love with self-abnegation. That’s a potent and attractive mixture. The habitual suppression of personal desire has to be extirpated from an early age or the country simply wouldn’t function. You couldn’t cram that many people onto a Tokyo subway train if they behaved like North Americans.'

     Quasar personifies the sinister side of this social contract. 'Japan functions well as a social organism – as the recent past in Sendai shows – but there’s always a price. Self-abnegation can be expensive in terms of mental health. If the cost of British individualism is a cavalier thuggishness, for example, the cost of Japanese social harmony – the oft-vaunted "wa" – can be seen in the hikikomori [people who have withdrawn from society], the daily average of 17 minutes that Japanese fathers spend with their children, the woeful birth rate, social ennui and the suicide rate.'

     It does not escape Mitchell’s attention that Japanese artists have found this burden as heavy to bear as any. He argues that it takes special courage to choose an artistic career in Japan, which discourages the pursuit of individual desires. 'It is a brave soul who strays off the near-compulsory highway of Japanese life – school to university to company – and chooses the unsalaried life of the writer.' Mitchell again cites the example of Murakami, who didn’t just buck the social norm but the literary criterion too. 'He seems to draw flak for being arguably the best-known living Japanese person while eschewing the Japanese literary establishment and the role of national literary ambassador. Murakami rejected the Kiriyama Prize [in 2007] "for personal reasons" and continues to hoe his own row – I admire him a lot.'

     Murakami was one of several writers who helped Mitchell understand the Japanese psyche. But it was Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), through his novel Silence, who helped inspire The Thousand Autumns. Set around Nagasaki shortly after edicts against Christianity were ruthlessly enforced, Silence tells of a young Portuguese priest who travels to Japan from Macau to confirm his mentor’s apostasy. 

     'Apart from providing useful historical information for The Thousand Autumns, [Silence] also issued a challenge,' says Mitchell. 'If this Japanese writer can produce a convincing psychological portrait of a historical foreigner, why can’t I attempt something similar, only coming in the opposite direction?'

     Yukio Mishima, says Mitchell, portrays the grandeur and beauty of the culture superbly, 'although he’s too much of a humourless misogynist for my liking'. He calls Jun’ichiro Tanizaki a 'great writer' who evokes an 'older, faded Japan' with a skill Proustian and his own. 'Tanizaki is perhaps the pick of the bunch. I find much to admire in his The Makioka Sisters.'

     These authors all helped Mitchell comprehend the cultural DNA that underscores the Japanese mind: 'Memes instead of genes, if you like.' There is, he says, a 'cultural, if not personal assumption of Buddhist reincarnation', a belief in nature gods and a Confucian belief in social hierarchy, reflected in family and company structures. 

     Mitchell concedes that his work has not always inhabited this mindset as precisely as he would like. He describes number9dream as 'perhaps not quite right', a weakness that can have its advantages: Mitchell admires David Lynch’s films specifically for their 'not-quite-rightness'. Although he strove in The Thousand Autumns to portray the Japanese faithfully and accurately, this was not always possible, not least because Mitchell himself was writing in English. 'It can be tortuous, especially when Japanese characters are speaking to one another. Basically, I avoided contractions – do not instead of don’t. When they speak to the Dutch, they make mistakes.'

     In The Thousand Autumns, Japan itself emerges as a kind of fiction, an idea as much as a place that is being continually created and interpreted. As Jacob leaves Dejima his final thought is, 'Obscurity is Japan’s outermost defence. The country doesn’t want to be understood.' But Mitchell argues that the stereotype of the 'inscrutable Oriental' is a two-way game. 'Asian people, in my experience, are neither less nor more inscrutable than Europeans,' he says. 'That myth of inscrutability is not real, but nevertheless it is bought into by both parties.'

     Dejima – which Mitchell discovered by missing his stop on a Nagasaki tram – provides a perfect canvas for this cultural investigation. In his fictional retelling, it is a hinge between isolationist 18th-century Japan and an increasingly expansive and aggressive Europe. 'Dejima is a unique conduit in colonial history. The whites stayed quarantined in a walled enclave; the terms of their lives were dictated to them and they conformed. But as well as this ‘house-arrest’ set-up, it was also a cultural cat flap through which all knowledge of Japan exited and all knowledge of the West entered.'

     The Thousand Autumns narrates a strange and tentative series of cultural exchanges. The Dutch introduce the latest advances that Enlightenment science has to offer, including medicine, astronomy, economics, engineering, warfare and navigation. Mitchell says these were to the Japanese what 'a cure for cancer or interstellar light-speed travel' would be to us. 

     The Japanese greeted these innovations as they did almost every foreign import – with suspicion. An exception is Mitchell’s heroine, the curious, clever and open-minded Orito Aibagawa. Having fallen in love with her, Jacob risks falling foul of Dejima’s severe restrictions on personal freedom: all contact between Japanese and Europeans was strictly monitored and broadly discouraged. 

     This law effectively outlawed the 'accidental' on Dejima and tested even Mitchell’s powers of storytelling. 'Novels need those sorts of encounters, which possibly explains why there isn’t much fiction about Dejima. You need an unwatched corner for your principals to have sex in. But there were no unwatched corners in Dejima.'

     Dejima’s proscriptions regarding social and cultural interaction did assist Mitchell in one area: the decision to keep the relationship between Orito and Jacob implied and chaste. 'If Orito had sex with Jacob, she would have become a character in a poor Hollywood movie. The novel would smell like a male writer engaging in an Oriental fantasy. That is why she is not a geisha, but an intelligent woman who is needed more by Jacob than he is by her.' Mitchell adds that he was persuasively advised in this matter by his wife. 'I think her exact threat was, if she read another bloody novel where an Asian woman falls swooningly at the feet of a Western interloper, she would castrate me with a bread knife.'

     Having set many of his stories in Asia, from Japan to Korea, China to Mongolia, Mitchell is understandably sensitive to charges of Orientalism. I ask whether he has ever had any reservations, political or aesthetic, about writing in English about Asian culture. 'I worry now,' he replies. 'At the beginning of my career I was too young and ignorant. I read Said’s Orientalism in my early 30s. I remember thinking, "Jesus, this guy would hate me and my books." But still.'

     Today, however, he improvises a response to Said’s hypothetical objections by posing a succession of counter-questions about his 'right' to imagine cultures other than his own. 'Why do you have to be Asian to write about Japan? Why can’t I have a protagonist who’s my age but Japanese? Isn’t there a reverse racism if I say, "I’m white, therefore I have no business writing about non-white people"? By the same rather crap logic, no novelist from India or Pakistan or Africa or even South America has any business writing about the British – an untenable argument leading to a mutually uncomprehending world, right?'

     In this light, it is slightly ironic that Mitchell’s next book sees him return to Britain, at least in part. 'Its centre of gravity is the British cultural solar system from 1970 to 2030, but there are asteroids all over the world through empire and emigration.' He adds that it will see the reappearance of a character from The Thousand Autumns: the botanist and medic Dr Marinus. Marinus will, Mitchell explains, be reincarnated in the form of a young girl. 'Marinus’ previous reincarnation was as a Dutchman of the Enlightenment whose curiosity took him to Dejima, but his karmic hand is rarely as lucky as that when he returns to a new body.'

     It is a bewildering concept until Mitchell explains it as reincarnation as literary conceit, a surrogate perhaps of the author’s own transgressive and boundary-crossing imagination. Marinus is a template for any fictional character: he can be anyone anywhere at any time, in the 18th or 21st century. 'Marinus is a tourist down human history. In a way he can be me.'

     Our discussion ends with Japan’s future, catastrophically threatened by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency. Mitchell doesn’t know anyone directly affected (his wife’s family lives in the west of Japan), but he has read as widely as he can. 'Where to start, where to end? Immeasurable human misery; the daily indignities of the displaced. An immediate economic hit as the rebuilding costs mount. A shot in the arm for the construction industry.'

     Although he struggles to think of any positive outcomes, he does hope that the earthquake might spread doubt that nuclear power is a post-oil saviour. 'It is monstrous that the costs of storing radioactive waste are rarely, if ever, factored into the price of nuclear energy. To leave unborn generations with those environmental headaches so that we can recharge our iPhones seems metaphorically and literally criminal. If our current fears mobilise our governments into wartime-sized research programmes into renewable energy, then the catastrophes of March 2011 would have one positive consequence.' 

     Mitchell has learned more about the calamity from discussions with his wife than sifting the Western media. 'She says that there is nothing like living in an earthquake zone for engendering an almost fundamental fatalism,' he says. 'There is absolutely nothing you can do to protect yourself. Your only defence is blind luck.' 

     In a way, the earthquake disclosed what Mitchell’s fiction has always implied – that the inherent humanity of the Japanese is hard to defeat. 'The British live amongst their relics – Stonehenge, Windsor Castle. That isn’t possible in an earthquake zone because your relics are levelled when a big one hits.' He speculates that the Japanese locate their sense of permanence not in buildings but in each other, the people who constitute the national culture and ethos. 'In Britain we talk about people as national treasures in the metaphorical sense. In Japan individuals are given the status of "national treasure" quite literally. A medal is handed out from the imperial office to masters of traditional arts, like ceramicists or haiku poets. Perhaps that is because a building can easily be knocked down. A bloodline is harder to annihilate.' 

     Mitchell’s own future seems assured. A success both critically and commercially, he has sold more than a million books worldwide and won several major literary awards (he has yet to claim the Man Booker, for which he has been longlisted four times and shortlisted twice). And rumours have been confirmed that Cloud Atlas will be the first of his novels to be made into a movie, although he says that reports announcing the cinematic adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, were somewhat premature.

     'It’s still in development hell, although it’s as close to the exit marked "Production" as you can get without actually going through it,' he says.

     Mitchell has clearly adapted to life back in the West, but I wondered how the transition had affected his wife. Did she fare any better, at least initially, in the West than her husband did in the East? 'She is tolerant of the less-than-great stuff, values the good stuff and finds the latter offers adequate compensation for the former. If you manage that equation, you’ll be okay living abroad. If you can’t, you won’t, not in the long term. My family is lucky that she can.' 

     Ask what Mitchell misses about Japan and he answers with several textual snapshots. 'Scenes of Japaneseness. Arriving at a guest house in the Nagano mountains. Dunking your Mr Donuts doughnut into your green-tea cappuccino. Onsen spas. Sunset over the Seto Inland Sea. Crowds getting non-aggressively rat-arsed underneath the cherry blossoms. Courtesy. An ability to distinguish service from servility – Americans have this knack too. The food. Two or three old friends. The goofy humour.' 

     During his first weeks in Japan he took the ferry to Beppu and fell to playing drinking games with several Hiroshima tram drivers. 'They didn’t speak any English. This was my first month in Japan, so I hardly spoke a word of Japanese. One guy wanted to ask where I was born: he finally got me to understand by miming being his own mother giving birth to his newborn self. Probably you had to be there, but I laughed myself into an out-of-body experience.' 

Does David Mitchell consider himself an Asian writer? After considerable thought he answers by quoting Charlie Chaplin’s 'elegant refutation' of Nazi accusations that he was a Jew. 'I was not born with that honour.'

More Interviews

Please Register or Login

Register now for full access to News and Events, Web Exclusives, Blogs and Comments.

If you've already registered, please login.