David Mitchell is the author of seven novels, including bestsellers Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, and was born on 12th January 1969. To mark his 50th birthday, Rose Harris-Birtill sent him ten interview questions on his birthday wishes, his fictional alter-ego, and his next book.
A huge congratulations on celebrating your 50th birthday! How are you planning to spend it?
Thank you Rose. No big plans really. I’d like to go out with my family for a meal, and walk on a nearby beach here in West Cork, sit down and watch the sea for a bit, maybe with a flask of tea if I’m feeling really really wild. I might give my character Jason Taylor a call, just to say Hi. We happen to share a birthday.
The thirteen-year-old narrator Jason Taylor, your alter-ego from the semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green, shares your birthday. Your short story ‘Earth Calling Taylor’ reveals that he has carried on ageing with you in your fictional world – which means he’s also going to be turning 50 this month. What is Jason up to, and how will he be celebrating?
My, what a coincidence you mention Jason. I was just thinking about him. He’ll be working on his birthday – he’s a speech therapist, and thanks to all the government cuts, his department’s badly understaffed. In the evening he’ll go out for a get-together with his family too, I think. He still lives in England, so it’s a bit easier for him. He’ll call or Skype me afterwards. Did I mention that we share a birthday?
For anyone who hasn’t yet read your work, how would you describe your fictional world?
Not so different to ours. A bit more diagonal. I try to make it a universe people enjoy visiting and revisiting.
Twenty years ago your first book, Ghostwritten, was just being published. If you could go back and give yourself a piece of advice as a thirty-year-old writer, what would it be and why?
When you’re stuck, skip what you’re stuck on, and write the next scene. When the internet takes over, protect your reading time. Put £1000 on Leicester to win the premiership before the 2015-2016 season opens to collect a cool 5 million.
Your interconnected body of works now spans seven novels, some twenty-six short stories and two libretti. Thinking big, what would you like to add to this ‘macronovel’ in the fifty years to come?
Fifty years? Only if the singularity hurries up and uploads me, I fear. Seven more novels and another 26 short stories would be ample. Would be great. I’d better get cracking.
Looking back on your body of works to date, how do you think your writing has changed over time? Are there any issues or ideas that you’ve become more or less interested in?
I care more about the prose, so it takes longer. I wish it didn’t but it does. I use less imagery. I think. I’m still interested [in] what I’ve always been interested in – the world, people, causality, power. To this list, unsurprisingly, we can add mortality, family, the cycle of life. The macro-novel you referred to above grows in ways I wasn’t expecting when I started out.
The last decade has seen you get involved in several projects for stage and screen, including your writing for opera, your involvement with dialogue for Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn tour, and the Wachowskis’ Netflix series Sense8. Are there any more stage or screen projects on the horizon?
There may be news next year. Sorry I can’t answer more fully.
You’ve spoken in interview on having done an MA in the Postmodern Novel. If you had gone on in academia to become an expert in any topic, what would it be?
I’ve met quite a few academics – most of them at the St Andrews conferences on my work – and as a result of these meetings, I’m not sure if I’d be a good one. I lack their rigour and intellectual stamina, I think. I find it hard to read good fiction without wanting to write fiction. Perhaps if I was eighteen or nineteen I’d think about studying languages more thoroughly than I have done, and become an academic in that area. History would be tempting, too. Who knows? Alternative history questions are intrinsically tricky, because if I had taken another path, I wouldn’t be the Me I am, writing this answer.
If you were allowed to have one wish granted for your fiftieth birthday, what would it be?
I wish that the dictatorships, democracies and voters of the world become persuaded that our species is committing ecocide on a planetary scale and that we have to change how we live, right now, to protect both the natural world and our civilisation; and that we act accordingly. There: a nice realistic birthday wish. Failing that, if Liverpool won the premiership, I would be a very happy man.
Finally, a birthday wish on behalf of all those who are eagerly awaiting the publication of your next book this year: can you tell us a bit more about it? Will we be meeting any familiar faces or locations?
Firstly, sorry it’s later than I hoped. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope it’ll be a surprise, in both subject and style, and that it won’t resemble anything else I’ve written too closely. It’s big and strange and new. Yes, there will be a few familiar places, faces and souls from previous books, perhaps with Ghostwritten more heavily represented than elsewhere. The novel is its own creature as well, however. I’d also just like to say Thank You to everyone reading this who enjoys my work and a healthy Year of the Wild Boar to you, your friends and families.
Dr Rose Harris-Birtill teaches and researches at the University of St Andrews in the UK, where she also completed her PhD. Her book, David Mitchell’s Post-Secular World: Buddhism, Belief and the Urgency of Compassion, is available from Bloomsbury Academic. It features a critical analysis of his fictional world, a full chronology of David Mitchell’s novels, short stories and writing for opera, and two new interviews with the author.
Rose has published several academic essays on David Mitchell’s writing, and served as lead organiser of the David Mitchell Conference at the University of St Andrews in 2017. She has also guest edited a special edition of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st Century Writings on the author’s works.
Rose is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and holds the International Society for the Study of Time New Scholar Prize, the Frank Muir Prize for Writing, and a McCall MacBain Teaching Excellence Award. She is also Secretary for the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies.