David Mitchell’s world is always growing. Raised in England’s West Midlands, Mitchell lived in London for a time before moving to Japan in 1994 — while he was in his 20s — to work as an English teacher. After eight years in Hiroshima, he returned to the U.K. to launch his career as a novelist.
The setting and style of Mitchell’s early work seemed to be influenced by his experiences living and working in Japan. Not only were his first novels, “Ghostwritten” and “number9dream,” set there, but critics also noted the influence of Japanese authors, in particular Haruki Murakami, on his writing.
After those early works, Mitchell’s scope expanded. Epics such as “Cloud Atlas” and “The Bone Clocks” explode with complex plots that traverse continents and generations.
His latest novel, “Slade House,” is in many ways a return home. It’s surprisingly English: A traditional ghost story turned on its head, laced with English slang and references to quotidian British icons — the BBC, wellington boots and John Lewis department stores.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Mitchell talks about his many homes — London, Tokyo, Hiroshima, the Midlands — and how they have influenced his writing.
You lived in Japan for eight years. How do you think your time here influenced your creativity? I find that hard to answer. From the outside you’d think it would be easy to answer but it’s not, because I can’t compare myself to a (version of) me who never went to Japan.
I read a lot of Japanese writers I wouldn’t have read if I’d never gone to Japan, and I found myself wanting to emulate some of them. A lot of the raw material I gathered in my 20s was Japanese. And when the Hiroshima Kokusai Gakuin University was kind enough to employ me, they allowed my “academic research” to be my first two-and-a-bit novels, which was deeply supportive of them. I’m not sure if the university authorities knew they were giving me this support, but my gratitude is no less sincere.
You’ve said Junichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters” is one of your favorite novels. Which other Japanese writers do you admire? For me, “The Makioka Sisters” is an all-time top 10 novel. Ryunosuke Akutagawa is also one of the greats. I like Yukio Mishima less as I age — so bloody humourless! Yasunari Kawabata, at least in translation, I find a little dry and unengaging, though I have a soft spot for “The Master of Go,” which inspired me to learn how to play the game. I can reveal exclusively to The Japan Times that I am the world’s crappiest go player. Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” is wonderful, and Haruki Murakami at his best is up there with the very best. Saichi Maruya has long passages of brilliance, too, as does Yoko Ogawa. There are so many authors I’ve never read and have never heard of as well, however.
What do you think of intensely personal writing, particularly of authors such as Osamu Dazai? Deeply personal writing is great if it’s good, but if it’s not — if it’s a teenager’s diary dressed up in literary affectations — then all your personal flaws get magnified and you’ll end up with egg on your face. Self-importance and privilege are especially toxic. Doubtless being the young Mishima of “Confessions of Mask” wasn’t a picnic, but try being poor or burakumin (former outcast class) or Korean or blind or a hibakusha or in a wheelchair or living with autism, and then write a book about the existential torture of a healthy privileged Japanese upper-class life. So, as you’ll have gathered, I tend to shy away from writing directly about my own life directly.
In Japan you worked as a teacher and a writer. Stephen King has said that after a week of teaching he couldn’t write because he felt as if he had “jumper cables” clamped to his brain. Did you have problems juggling the two? While I was still a paid-by-the-hour hamster in the spinning wheel, it was tricky to combine the day job and the writing. Still, I did my best, and gave up (most of) my social life and my TV. It was no big loss: TV is 98 percent rubbish and there are only so many conversations you can have in bars about the best “Bond” film before you feel like you’re trapped in “Groundhog Day.” I could still write late into the night back when I was in my 20s, so I got most of my first novel written that way. When I got a job at a university I had more time at night to write, which was ideal.
I would also say that although the “juggling” seems to be obstructive, the non-writing things you’re juggling tend to have the greatest impact on what you write. Let your obstacles be your informants and your raw material.
The narrator of “number9dream” has a negative opinion of Tokyo: “Tokyo turns you into a bank account with a carcass in tow.” How true was this to your own feelings about the city? As my wife likes to remind me from time to time, I view Tokyo as a country boy would view it. I find Tokyo somewhat overwhelming, but I also know this is my problem and not Tokyo’s. I’m sure there are quieter, saner parts of Tokyo that I’ve never discovered — there are in all busy cities. My friend David Peace, the British novelist, lives there quite contentedly.
What changed after you returned to the U.K. from Japan in 2002? What changed wasn’t my thinking but the lack of a monthly paycheck. Fear of being unable to support my family focused my energies quite keenly. Naivety also played a role: I didn’t fully understand the unlikeliness of a book like “Cloud Atlas” ever succeeding, and so I gave it a shot where wiser counsel would have advised me to write a police procedural or something about a boy wizard at boarding school. Finally, I was lucky. The Man Booker Prize was good for me, the daytime TV Richard & Judy Book Club was good for me — don’t laugh, it helped sell an extra 100,000 copies of “Cloud Atlas” — and by and large the book media was more kind than disobliging.
It’s said that people from the Midlands don’t have the same sense of regional identity as people from North or South England. Perhaps this makes them more curious to look outside for influences — do you feel your origin had any impact on your work? I’d agree that the Midlands is cartographically even foggier (than the North or South). Influences? “Black Swan Green” is a kind of swan song to a 1980s Midland rural village childhood, I guess. The backdrop is woods and fields, not London or Yorkshire coal mines or Welsh nationalism. Possibly because a Midlander’s home culture is less well defined regionally, we may be more flexible when we’re in foreign parts? Just a theory.
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