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David Mitchell: The Powells.com Interview

David Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone Clocks focuses on Holly Sykes, who begins the book in 1984 as a British teenager and ends it as a grandmother in 2043. Holly's otherwise ordinary life is interrupted by voices, whom she initially calls the "radio people," and psychic experiences, which ultimately pull her into a sort of supernatural, immortal war. Joe Hill raves, "There's no real argument: he's the best novelist of his generation — and the most fun. The Bone Clocks is a stunning work of invention, incident, and character. The levels of awesome in this book are off the charts." Gorgeously written, bracingly intelligent, poignant, and occasionally very funny, The Bone Clocks is one of our favorite novels this year and our pick for Volume 49 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of The Bone Clocks?

David Mitchell: There were a couple of geneses. One was my middle age — it's my midlife crisis novel. I've reached that age where mortality is no longer a distant abstract in the future ("it will get you one day"). It's actually there in the mirror. It's in your knee caps. It's in your spine. It's in the breathlessness when you take the stairs instead of the escalator.

Through the novel, in a way, I offered myself this Faustian pact where you can become immune to all of that. You can be young and peaceful and healthy forever. All you have to do in return is have your conscience amputated. So, playfully, one of the geneses of the book was from my own biology, from my own aging process.

Another was from an idea that kind of went wrong: the idea being to write 70 short stories, one per year of Holly's life, where she would either be a main character, a very minor one, or something in between. It was a great idea in theory, but when I started doing it, about 10 or 15 stories in, the problem was that when you're reading a short story, you pay attention to every single word. When you're reading a chapter you do looking as well as reading. You look at the words. Your mind doesn't always pay attention to literally every word and every line. It was very tiring to read, because you didn't know where you could partly switch off and when you couldn't, I found.

So that idea condensed, in a way, from 70 short stories to six decades, one novella per decade, in which Holly was either the main character or a hefty, major one. In a way, the novel is built with the scaffolding of an early idea, but the scaffolding became the main edifice.In a way, the novel is built with the scaffolding of an early idea, but the scaffolding became the main edifice.

Jill: That's interesting, because that's something else I was going to ask: Why did you want to focus on Holly indirectly for a large part of the book?

Mitchell: Greed, I suppose. I wanted to get lots of other things in that I couldn't have done had Holly been the direct focus. This means that there are periods where the narrative eye has to shift away from her. The payback is you also get to explore the relationships which Holly is a part of.

Yes, it's all Holly physically in the first section. Then you can get to explore Hugo, who's essentially a casual lover, but a casual lover who has the potential to become more than casual. With Ed, you get to explore the relationship of the person you had a kid with, a breeding partner. There has to be a better word for it than that, but that's what comes to mind. [Laughter] With Crispin, she's a colleague. And along the way we get to see her as a mother and a daughter and a sister, as well. In the end, she's also a grandmother, a guardian, and a teacher.

That is one useful advantage of having written the book the way I did. Yes, you take your eye off the ball. On the other hand, it facilitates an exploration of all these other relationships. We are many things, aren't we, in life? We aren't just the one self. We have these relationship selves. These selves vary with the kind of relationship in question. With a big, broad, smeary canvas like this one, I got to explore quite a few of these selves where Holly is one side of the relationship.

Jill: How did Holly's character initially come to you?

Mitchell: I went to a comprehensive high school in the U.K. It was formed in the late '60s as quite an idealistic kind of school. It was non–fee paying, and it was a mainstream school. In a way, it still is, despite several generations of reforms.

The point of it was that future managers — the future elite, if you like — and future novelists would be going to the same school as future blue-collar workers, future trade unionists. We'd all learn about each other and happily build a new tomorrow in a few decades hence.

Nice in theory, but as these utopian things go, reality tends to spoil the best-laid plans. It didn't work the way that the planners intended. However, it did mean that I was at school with kids like Holly; even though I was middle class with parents who were artists, I was there cheek by jowl with what you might call some pretty rough kids. Holly would be an amalgam of some of the girls I would have known, and been at school with, and been kicked by [Laughter] when I was 15, 16.

In a sense, she developed as characters always do. You sit down and work out what they think about, about society, money, sex, work, language, class, God, the other characters in the book, their parents, family, religion, etc. You think long and hard about these things and hopefully make a credible, plausible, believable character who feels real, and who mostly you care for.

Jill: You jump around in time in a lot of your work, but in this book, I guess in part through the concept of mortality you mentioned, you're taking on the nature of time itself, in a way. What made you want to address that — not directly, exactly, but sort of as a through line?

Mitchell: I'm writing a little bit for an academic journal whose editors got in touch with me from California. The journal is called SubStance and it's completely about time. It's what they do. So, yes, I have been thinking about the subject. It's almost accidental. The book does think about time a lot. It thinks about deep time.

I've got a character, Esther Little, who is millennia old, and then of course there are children in it as well. We get to see time from the human point of view, where time is a slow-motion, slow-burning decay bomb that turns embryos into newborns, newborns into toddlers, toddlers into teenagers, teenagers into middle-aged people like me, middle-aged people like me into our senescent, bedridden selves, and then obviously it's curtains.

We also get to see us from time's point of view. People who want out of that built-into-our-genes parabola of a lifetime level of time. They want something more, as Hugo's bunch do, the Anchorites. There are also people who have that whether they want it or not, like Marinus and the Horologists, who do come back, whether they like it or not. They sort of have what the Anchorites strive for, but they don't have to sacrifice their consciences.

In some ways, it's almost a reverse — as if they've appointed themselves as humanity's chemotherapy, as the white blood cells that will track down and destroy people who would otherwise feed on us, or at least try to, or die trying to.

Finally, we get to see time almost from time's point of view, where people are these little, brief flashes. Kind of like those experiments you might do in chemistry class using exposed magnesium ribbon, where it just flares up and hisses and spits and burns incredibly violently, then instantly it's gone.

As to why I wanted to write about time, well, it's interesting stuff, isn't it? [Laughter]

As Saint Augustine properly said, we know exactly what it is until the moment we start to think about it; then it's mainly problematic. As the imminent American theoretical physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, a colleague of Einstein, said: explain time, first explain existence. Explain existence, first explain time.

Jill: How did you think of the title? "Bone clock" is a kind of insult that Hugo and the Anchorites use about the mortal bodies of the Horologists.

Mitchell: It is. I think for us mortals, it's also not an insult. It's just our faces. We have a certain amount of time to live. Science and technology, perhaps luckily for us, have not worked out a way to circumvent it, and you can see on the clock faces of our faces how much time has been spent, and how much time we've got to go, barring accidents and terminal illnesses.

So it's also just an accurate description of what a human's face is, how we can judge someone's age. We are reading the "life/times" on the faces of our fellow human beings all the time and making all sorts of value judgments about them on the basis of that.

Jill: You've written about the future in several different books. What did you want to emphasize, or what were you thinking about in terms of this particular future of 2043, in the last section of this book?

Mitchell: I wanted to point out in a non-emotive way that in bettering our own standards of living, we are worsening the standard of living of our children and grandchildren. We're probably kicking their standard of living off a cliff. Amongst other things, that's the point I wanted to make. Of course, the sixth part leads to all sorts of other things, with Holly and the narrative arc of the whole novel.

Jill: In Crispin's section, someone — I didn't note who — says that a book can't be half fantasy any more than someone can be half pregnant.

Mitchell: Oh yes. I think it's Crispin's rather despairing agent.

Jill: Which is a somewhat wry thing to say in the context of this book.

Mitchell: Why thank you. [Laughter]

Jill: How do you think that statement applies to The Bone Clocks?

Mitchell: I don't think she'll mind me saying, the statement was Lana Wachowski's when I was staying with her in Berlin, and she and her brother were making the Cloud Atlas movie. We had a long, long late-night discussion that turned into an early morning discussion about what we were working on, or what her next project would be and what my next book was.

I said, a little bit sheepishly, "It's kind of a half fantasy."

She gave me this very wry, matter-of-fact glare and said, "David" — she said exactly that — "a book can't be half a fantasy, for the same reason that a woman can't be half pregnant. It either is or it isn't." Of course, she's absolutely right, but it was such a good line that I wanted it in the novel. So that's hers.

I have recently noticed the blindingly obvious: I make novels out of novellas. It's an odd way to go about it, but my optimum form is the novella, this very unfashionable 70-120 pages. I'm not a natural short story writer. My books are big, but they're big because I build them out of novellas. It's a bit weird. It's a bit oddball. But it's how I seem to do it. Everything has a price; everything has a payback. The price is you have to link those novellas and make them work as a novel, and do it thematically or through the same characters or even, like in Cloud Atlas, by having the novellas being artifacts inside their successors.

One of the advantages is that the book can be half pregnant. The book can be a partial fantasy, by having most of the book, five of the six sections, in the high 90 percentages, written in the realist mode, with enough fantasy in them to generate a "Huh? What?" in the mind of the reader, but hopefully not an alienating one.

However, in the fifth section we've got two groups of pseudo-immortals. Lord knows how many laws of physics — how many laws — are being broken in that fifth section. The whole novel is written in order to let me get away with that. It's a profoundly odd thing to do, especially when it's not even the last section! I go back afterwards and the magic stops and the immortals stop. It's futurology, not fantasy. Well, you could argue that futurology is a kind of fantasy, but I wanted to again at least adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them.

So, yes, I liked the line. I put it in, and then in a way the novel is a violation of that line, or a bending of that line, at least.

Jill: In terms of building novels out of linking novellas, is it a related impulse that you include cameos or connections of characters from your other books?

Mitchell: Exactly, yes.

In the case of Hugo Lamb, it's much more than a cameo. His cameo, in a way, is now a retro cameo in Black Swan Green, where he walks in as Jason's awful cousin when he was about 15 years old. Little did we know... [Laughter] He's kind of the number two character in The Bone Clocks. Joined to Marinus, maybe.

Yes, it's exactly that. In the same way that my novels are made of interconnected novellas, this über-book, this universe is being made by the interconnections, the hyperlinks, within the novels. Each novel has to stand on its own. It's not a prequel; it's not a sequel. It needs to be a unified, satisfying (I hope), nourishing reading experience in its own right. But what it's also doing is building up and enriching a bigger universe that hasn't got a name. It's bigger and I've spent my life working on it. Wish me luck!

Jill: I was talking to my husband about this book the other night, and I said, "You know, David Mitchell's books always seem fun to write, but this book in particular seems like it would have been incredibly fun," which I hope it was.

Mitchell: Yes. You need to bleed for your writing at times as well — authorial blood is a necessary fertilizer; it's got nitrogen in itauthorial blood is a necessary fertilizer; it's got nitrogen in it. [Laughter]

But yes. It's a really bad sign if a book is unremittingly difficult and unrewarding to write, because if it's not nice for you and you're the author, what's it going to be like to read the damn thing? I enjoyed the Crispin stuff, and I enjoyed the Horologist stuff… I kind of enjoyed all of it, though the final part was a bit bleak, because of the subject.

It's very satisfying to get stuff right, at a sentence level. You kind of know when you've got a well-crafted, dovetail-jointed sentence. You have a decent inkling when a scene has gone well. It starts at the right place and ends at the right place, and you've rewritten it a few times, and it's succulent and sizzling away.

Jill: What are you reading and listening to these days?

Mitchell: As the music that I own has grown and grown, that question becomes harder to answer. I make playlists and listen to them in the car a lot. I'm going to see the Kate Bush concert in London at the end of August, early September. I've been revisiting her catalog.

As I age, I'm more drawn to music that has slightly less music in it — not musicality, but music. I listen to chamber music more, or even single-instrument music, lute and guitar, and not a lot else. I've got a lot of CDs issued by the German ECM label. It's slightly Nordic/Scando/Slavic jazz, quite small-ensemble kind of music.

I think Bon Iver is wonderful. I enjoy his work a lot, and I wish there were more of it. Maybe he's just wisely selective of what he issues.

Books, well, some history. I'm reading a book about the origins of the Irish. A lot of books that might have been direct or indirect research for what I'm working on now — a big anthology of ghost stories, some of which are no good but some of which are wonderful. A bit of Henry James — always good to keep your eye on Henry James, a really good writer of ghost stories.

I think the next largish book I might read is set into the '60s. Some social history. I'm reading a history of Greenwich Village. I'm sure it's the same for you — a bit eclectic, magpie book choices.

Jill: What are you working on now?

Mitchell: I did a story for Twitter. If you're curious, have a look online. It's quite recent. It ended up being 6,000 words, which is a lot of Tweets. I'm happy with the story; it's called "The Right Sort" but it really ends on a "what happens next?"

I have some ideas from when The Bone Clocks was still going to be 70 stories long but not six novellas long. I wrote a few of these, and I kind of want... I think they have too much potential to lose in a vat of old notebooks. I'm resurrecting them and working them into a short volume, about four or five. I think the Twitter story also would be a part of it. Not quite sure yet. It's a little bit murky.

That's what I'm working on next, and then once that's done, I'll be working on a more substantial book set in the late '60s in Soho — the London Soho.

Books mentioned in this post

One Response to "David Mitchell: The Powells.com Interview"

    Simone September 15th, 2014 at 7:50 am

    "The Bone Clocks" sounds like yet another book that densely packs a lot of content between the lines, in other words - fires us up to use our imagination. Describing a scene or setting or dialogue minutely, but placing these super-detailed little gems in a more loose context (i.e. a set of interlinked novellas, how brilliant), leaves it all deliberately just a little rough-edged - for the better. Why persist in writing a novel and butcher it? But few people have the guts to allow imagination the space it needs to grow; be it in literature, music, architecture - anything, really.. Stumbling across the Toronto Star review's "With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has crafted a novel of such breadth and magic that his oeuvre no doubt by now deserves its own adjective: Mitchellian" and besides just having returned from experiencing Kate Bush's "Before The Dawn", I laughed and wondered what adjective they would stick on Kate's multilayered and genre-transcending current stage production? Which features many DM-written dialogues, incl. the filmed intro to the kaleidoscopic and emotional "The Ninth Wave" set (perfectly rendered in not-so-quiet desperation by Kevin Doyle). BTW along with the hilarious transcript (in the show booklet) of a late-night phone call between Kate and David on how best to film that dastardly scene. Thinking about this, more similarities crop up - Kate's entire show also excelled at allowing scenes to unfold to brilliance, but still stay just a tad unfinished.. So as a spectator, you'd have to fill in the gaps, thereby denying you any chance to stay unaffected and instead asking you to wake up and participate. Hard to capture the concept more simply than by having a wooden artists model participate in the show. Expressively, eerily life-like, perfectly human-proportioned and blank expressioned (as they all are), an artist model marionette appeared and represented (you, me, a child, an adult) - everyone. We were invited to wander around the stage, explore the drum set, say hello to the bass player - and in the process we all are present in each silent dialogue. And then we are set free.. Pretty mind-bending stuff - if you can allow it in. Judging by the most amazing audience reception I have ever witnessed, we seemed to have all gotten the drift. Maybe that's really where it's at: For books like David Mitchell's and shows like Kate Bush's, the 'reader' is required to participate and the real dialogue happens between the lines - in those images and words that take flight in your mind, long after the book is closed and the show is over. Rewarding stuff! Seeing a bit of what else he's been up to recently, I'm most certainly looking forward to David Mitchell's new book.

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