About The Author
David Mitchell was born in Southport on Merseyside and grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire. He currently lives in Ireland, having lived for eight years in Japan, where he met his wife, and his affection for the country is represented by his regular use of it as a location.
After winning the John Rhys Lllewellyn Prize for his debut, Ghostwritten, in 1999, his next two books, number9dream and Cloud Atlas, were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It was Cloud Atlas that elevated him from cult status to national acclaim when it was selected as a title in the Richard & Judy Book Club.
His fourth book, Black Swan Green, was a semi-autobiographical tale of a Worcestershire childhood, before returning to more epic themes with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: influenced by traditional Japanese romantic literature, it recounts a doomed romance between a Dutch trader and a Japanese midwife at the end of the eighteenth century. In 2013 he co-translated The Reason I Jump: One Boy's Voice from the Silence of Autism by Naoki Higashida.
His latest book is The Bone Clocks. A metaphysical thriller and meditation on mortality, it opens with a teenage runaway in Gravesend who grants a favour whose consequences take decades to unravel and finishes with the last vestiges of civilisation as we know it trying to survive in remote Iceland. Holly Sykes - daughter, sister, mother, guardian - is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon.
It was longlisted for 2004 Man Booker Prize. We're delighted to be able to offer a special edition of the book, limited to 1000 copies and available exclusively at Foyles, with beaufilly turquoise edges to the pages.
In this exclusive interview with our web editor, Jonathan Ruppin, David talks about the 70 short stories that became The Bone Clocks, Talking Heads' masterpiece and what's wrong with Benedict Cumberbatch. He also recommends some of his favourite Japanese fiction and tantalises us with a hints about his next novel.
(Beneath the interview is a list of ten of David's favourite works of fiction, chosen when he came to Foyles in 2010 to launch The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and his thoughts on them.)
Questions & Answers
When you came to Foyles to launch The Thousand Autumn of Jacob de Zoet in 2010, you showed me a notebook in which you'd starting sketching out plans for your next novel, to consist of 70 short stories set in consecutive years from 1969 to 2038. Did any of this plan survive to become part of The Bone Clocks?
Yes. The 70 stories turned into 7 novellas, one of each decade of Holly's life, which turned into 6 when I realized the first decade would better be handled in backflashes. It's normal for the first year of writing a book to be spent working out what the book's really about. I think of it as subsidence in a new building, albeit of an extreme nature - the building sometimes collapses entirely, but you find good things in the rubble.
From Ghostwritten to The Bone Clocks, you've frequently featured characters for whom death need not end their story. Is this a consequence of being a novelist who is always keen to confound the orthodoxies of narrative arcs?
It's probably more strongly a consequence of being a human who doesn't want to die. Isn't death annoying? You spend all your life learning (hopefully) how to live well, and then whoosh, you're gone in a heartbeat. But what if we could stay? How might that be do-able? I'm haunted by this question, and what you're haunted by, you write about, repeatedly. (Which is why you should try to be haunted by a variety of ghost-themes.)
The exploits of novelist Crispin Hershey and agent Hal 'the Hyena' Grundy create a vision of a publishing industry riven by jealousy, superficiality and vengeance. Were there any specific events from your years as a writer, or previously a bookseller, that inspired these grotesques?
Well, there was the time I was stuck in a broken-down bus in the middle of the Serengeti with five world-famous authors and nothing to eat but brownies spiked with sodium thiopental, and... only kidding. Sure, several fictional episodes in Crispin's life probably are traceable to real-life events, but you know me well enough, Jonathan, to know I can't say which. Most of the literary world pastiche-y stuff is drawn from second-and-third hand anecdotes - just because I try not to gossip myself doesn't mean I don't occasionally... uh, overhear it. Putting cocaine into a hostile critic's suitcase and then shopping him to the drug-agencies was fictional, though what author hasn't engaged in a little harmless revenge fantasy now and then?
Your publicist at Sceptre gets a double cameo, once by name and one through her unmistakeable turn of phrase. How did she react to her immortalisation?
She has a robust sense of humour - a key requirement of her job I suspect - so she laughed. The only problem is that my American publicist now wants the same treatment. She has a great name, so I may well oblige. Watch this space.
Talking Heads fans will enjoy the references in the final section of the book, 'Sheep's Head', to their third studio album Fear of Music, the one LP Holly takes with her when she runs away from home 59 years earlier. Where do you stand in the debate about whether this or Remain in Light is the band's finest album?
Fear of Music is the stronger album. It's spacier, bleaker, trippier, more driven and truer, and it sounds better today even than in the 80s, when I first heard it. While the songwriting quality on Remain in Light stays at a high plateau, the peaks on Fear of Music reach a higher, ozone-rich altitude - 'Heaven', 'Cities', 'Memories Can't Wait' (especially the looping repeat of 'These memories can't wait' at the end), and 'Life during Wartime' - C'mon! Sure, Remain in Light is a 4-star album, better than most band's best album, but for me its only immortal song is 'The Listening Wind'. I've played Fear of Music many dozens of times in my life, it was a consoling companion during a fairly isolated couple of years in Japan, and I still find new door and windows and hidden rooms in it.
The final section of the book, set on Iceland in 2043, offers a very plausible dystopian turn to humanity's future. Does this reflect your own thoughts about where we're heading?
Yes. I'm afraid our civilization is defecating in the well from which it draws life. We're leaving our grandchildren a hotter and less secure world, waste, rats and cockroaches. We're intelligent but we're not wise.
You had the returning Dr Marinus in mind for an appearance in a future book when he first appeared in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Is anyone from The Bone Clocks poised for a comeback?
Hugo Lamb is still out here, 35 years younger than he should be, and Marinus we know is living in Iceland in his new young body, with Rafiq and Lorelei. I must tie those threads up sometime. In my next biggish novel, three-quarters of which will be set in the late 1960s, I intend to bring Crispin Hershey's filmmaker father as a major-minor character, which toddler Crispin running around doing what toddlers do. And probably a few others I haven't thought of yet...
You've acquired a very passionate and knowledgeable fanbase. Are you able to say what it is about your writing that inspired such a devoted following?
Not without inadvertently praising my own writing, which I can't do, so forgive me if I duck this question. Quack. That said, I'm honoured and grateful that my novels do find an audience, and I'll try my best never to take my readers for granted by handing in a book that I don't believe is better than the last one, or a book that is in some way a rehash of something I've already done.
You recently published a short story on Twitter, The Right Sort. What was the biggest challenge in writing a story told 140 characters at a time?
The ever-interrupted narrative flow. Twitter-fiction like a slow-speed zoescope compared to Blu-ray. But zoescopes have a certain charm, don't they? Also, you can't have long names like Benedict Cumberbatch, because that's half your tweet gone.
Your love of Japanese culture remains evident in The Bone Clocks and while many in Britain share your fascination, book sales by Japanese writers are dominated by Haruki Murakami. Whom else would you recommend for those wanting to investigate Japanese literature?
The Woman in Dunes by Kobo Abe - strange, compelling, existential, a bit erotic too, David Lynch-esque, and windy and sandy. The Makioka Sisters by Juni'ichiro Tanizaki - a mid-20th century family drama with darker undercurrents. The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima, especially if you're a young man - even Mishima's best friends would have to agree he has a misogynist streak, and his humourlessness can be taxing - but the first two books in this quartet are brilliant and the finale is a nearly unparalleled stunner. Silence by Shusaku Endo - one of the best historical novels by anyone, ever. For a succulent ghost story try Strangers by Taiichi Yamada. If you're a hungry Japonophile and have read the above, track down four stories published as Rain in the Wind by Saichi Maruya - I won't tell you anything about it, but it's really good.