David Mitchell, one of Britain's most celebrated novelists, talks inspiration, post-modernism and Lego.
David Mitchell is folded into a pillowy leather armchair, situated deep in the Soho hotel - Georgian, discreetly fashionable - that is our meeting place. And this most celebrated of British writers - named in Time magazine's 2007 list of the 100 people doing most to transform our world - is about to sum up something of his approach to fiction. "Novels," he says, "are Lego. I used to be so intimidated by the novel. I'd think, 'how does any writer do that? A novel is so long'.
"But any novel, even one that appears to be a continuous narrative, is really made up of a series of interlocking strands. You write in such a way that the strands have common threads running through them." It seems pre-destined, somehow, that an interview with Mitchell should end up traversing this kind of ground. He is, after all, the British novelist who, uniquely among his contemporaries, embodies a trinity rarely managed by any one writer: huge popular success, high critical acclaim, and a dedication to formal experimentation.
His best-known book, 2004's Cloud Atlas, pushed at the boundaries of the novel when it presented a mirrored hall of six disparate but interlocking narratives, ranging from the diaries of an 18th-century naval officer in the Cook Islands, to the testimony of a cloned slave-human living in a futuristic dystopia. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and sold over 500,000 copies after Richard and Judy Bookclub viewers voted it Best Read of the Year. There followed, in 2007, the more restrained Black Swan Green, a semi-autobiographical novel about a teenager growing up - as Mitchell did - with a stammer in 1980s Worcestershire.
Even there, though, he retained a formal playfulness, ensuring that each of the 13 chapters functioned both as a self-contained short story, as well as a part of the whole. Narrative experimentation, in the popular imagination, is Mitchell's USP, and it has served him well: TIME credited him with "creating the 21st-century novel". Granta included him, in 2003, in their influential list of the 20 Best Young British Novelists.
But Mitchell is here to talk about publication of his latest work, called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and one of the most anticipated books of 2010. Thousand Autumnstransports us to the Japanese man-made island of Dejima, in the bay of Nagasaki, at the end of the 18th-century. Back then, Dejima was the only point of contact between Europe and a Tokugawa Shogunate Japan in the midst of Sakoku, or self-isolation. With no Japanese subject allowed to leave the Shogun's realm, and no European allowed to enter, the island - occupied by traders from the Dutch East India Company - became the single, narrow gateway across which two civilisations could touch hands. We follow the ambitious, prissy East India Company clerk Jacob de Zoet as he navigates a path through corrupt colleagues, and falls in love with a Japanese midwife, Orito. Soon enough Orito is kidnapped by a sinister religious cult, and the foundations are laid for this part novel of colonial encounter, part unabashed page-turning adventure. It all sounds exactly what Mitchell-watchers would expect least: a conventional, third-person historical novel.
So what drew Mitchell to Dejima? His interest, he says, dates back to the years he spent in Japan in his 20's, teaching English, and cultivating an ambition to write: "I was on a street car in Nagasaki in 1984, and I got off at the wrong stop," he explains. "I walked down a narrow little road, and there it was: Dejima. It piqued my curiosity, and I spent the day there. "For a writer, how could Dejima - this little catflap between east and west - not be fascinating? Walls are good for fiction, too. In a place like Dejima there is no outlet for human neuroses, so they just bloom."
The recurring Mitchell themes, then - power, miscommunication, microcosmic worlds within worlds - are all in evidence. But what of his decision, here, to treat them via a conventional, chronological structure? Has Mitchell finally had enough of narrative experimentation? "The form grows out of the material," he says. "It's about asking: how I can get this book done, and make it good? This time, it felt as though a whacko structure would only confuse the picture."
And there's a danger, he says, of allowing a technique - however successful - to calcify into a formula: "I don't want to repeat myself. I'm conscious that being Mr British Postmodern Novelist could send me down a cul-de-sac." Of course, Mitchell's success means he finds himself now - as all famous novelists do - in a world where his temperament is endlessly to be judged against his writing. For all the superabundance of imagination in his novels, he is, in person, quiet, considered, so friendly as to be disarming. It's no wonder the opinion prevails that big time literary success Never Happened to a Nicer Guy. These days Mitchell is settled in Cork, Ireland, with his wife Keiko and their two children. He works, he says, around the school run: "I've got an office near to the children's school. I'll do three or four hours in the morning, get the children home, and then a couple of hours in the afternoon."
It's been a productive routine. But the writing of this novel, Mitchell says, was beset with early problems. They were to do with the departure from his usual first-person voice, and they provide a fascinating insight into the way he thinks about the fiction making process: "For a year I wrote this book in the first person, using Jacob's voice," he says, "but it just didn't take off. "I realised that I needed the third-person, which I'd never used before. The thing is, the first-person voice acts as an infinity filter. You have a character. You start by asking: who is this person? What were his childhood experiences? What are his relationships with money, love, God, sex, death? Meanwhile you come to understand how this person speaks: so voice is thrown in for free. And one you know who a person is, you know what he is going to do: so plot is almost thrown in for free, too. That's always been the way I've approached the blank page.
"I did an event with A.S Byatt, and asked her: 'with third person, how do you know what to leave out?' She said, 'well, you simply tell the reader what you think they're going to want to know'. She's far too nice a person to have added, 'idiot' at the end," he laughs. Eventually, Mitchell settled on a third-person voice that is itself limited, told from the point of view of one character at a time. Then, he had to ensure that each narrative building block combined to form a whole: the novel as Lego.
There's no doubt that Thousand Autumns succeeds. From the outset we're drawn into Jacob's dealings with malicious colleagues, his memories of his father back in Amsterdam, and his quest to rescue the kidnapped Orito. By Book III - which also sees the arrival of the hostile British - the pages are flying by. It's clear that Mitchell was again guided, here, by a principle that he says is the at the heart of all fiction. "Establish a character that the reader cares about, and then cause the reader to ask: is this person going to be OK?"
"Show me any good fiction that doesn't do that," he says. "There are novels that knowingly ignore that dictum in the name of experimentation. But none that anyone really loves." Look close, and it's a stance that is at the heart of the success - artistic and popular - of Mitchell's work. The truth is, for all the structural complexity of Cloud Atlas and his debut,Ghostwritten, Mitchell is misunderstood by those who view him as primarily a novelist of narrative experimentation. In fact, his first concern is something much more old-fashioned: good story-telling:
"I don't crave a vast readership," he says. "But I do want to move readers. "It's common now for writers to declare the novel a dying form. I can't see that. We novelists are the distant descendants of those ancient story-tellers who spoke around the campfire. We appeal to an ancient instinct. The Twilight books have just sold tens of millions of copies, and there is no way around the fact that they are novels.
"I'm optimistic. If we write good stories, people will want to read them." And, for a moment, this quiet back-room study in Soho seems filled with the cacophonous sound of a million stories clamoring to be heard. No doubt David Mitchell will end up telling us a few of them.