an interview with david mitchell      
david mitchell


Iow did you choose to plot your novel around the globe?

The first three stories started life as unrelated short stories that I wrote on location. Then when I realized there was narrative potential waiting to be tapped by linking the stories, it made sense to keep the locations on the move. The far-flung locations test-drive this interconnected novel about interconnection more strenuously.

How did you decide which cities your characters would live and collide in or travel to?

I wanted the book to travel East to West because it reverses the usual direction of Orientalism, and challenges the Eurocentric view of the world map, which is never a bad thing. Each of the cities is one cultural step from the last -- so although the west of Ireland is a world away from Tokyo, say, Hong Kong and Tokyo can be found on the same spectrum, as can Hong Kong and Mt Emei in Sichuan, as can Mongolia and China, as can Russia and Mongolia. The itinerary was planned to propel the reader as fast as I could without giving him or her jetlag. Finally, they are all locations that appeal to my imagination. 'Choosing' is not so much a part of writing as the question 'Is this idea/location/word delicious or not?' If it is, you use it.

Have you spent time in each of these locations?

Yes, in the same order as the book. Authentic local color matters. Maybe it's like conjuring or lying -- if you get the smaller details right, you are more likely to be able to pull off the whopping deception -- which in the case of writing is the claim that this fiction the writer made up is in fact perfectly real, so please respond to it on an emotional level. I love travel writing, and Ghostwritten allowed me to indulge a little in this quarter. The one place I haven't been to is New York, which is one reason why the 'Night Train' section never leaves Bat's studio. (It's a nice little irony that Ghostwritten is bringing me to NY in October.)

The Hong Kong trader and the Tokyo nerve gas bomber are recognizable from the headlines of the past few years, is the physicist or the DJ based, however loosely, on a contemporary person?

Not so much, especially in a libel court. However, just between you, me and your readers I did read a biography of the Nobel physicist Richard Feynman for background detail on quantum physicists, and I have a particular admiration for the Jeff Bridges character in 'The Fisher King.' A friend asked me if there was a Howard Stern connection, but the guy is so scary I wouldn't dare.

Would you say your characters are strictly entrepreneurial in their conduct in at least one area of their life such as the way they are raised, their professional demeanor/activity, or their romantic lives?

Good question, but I'm not sure I agree 100% -- Quasar the cultist sloughed off his old life to be free from the responsibility of free will -- sort of brushing off the fruit of forbidden knowledge and trying to hang it on the tree. (Although, from the outside, that might look entrepreneurial.) Zookeeper is acting on pre-programmed laws - he enlists Bat to be entrepreneurial on his behalf only when the laws conflict. And the tea shack old lady is a virtual slave of history. Still, I'd concede the point for the others, and say simply that it's easier to write plots for people when their will is the co-pilot of their destiny.

They each experience close calls with a criminal element and/ or brushes with death.

Yes, you're right: I hadn't really noticed. A trick to writing a compelling narrative is so simple it's often overlooked: invent a character the reader likes and make nasty or dangerous things happen to him or her (the character not the reader) Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Molder and Scully, Huckleberry Finn, Agent Cooper. Similarly, plot possibilities swarm around criminal elements like bees around a hive. As a fairly law-abiding citizen living in a highly law-abiding country, I suppose I am drawn to the [cue Peter Cushing voice] dark side, but I'm not alone in this -- look at what's on TV tonight.

They also all connect with an immaterial power that is usually perceived as personally beneficent if hostile to the enemy--the tree, the extraterrestrial world, Serendipity, the little girl ghost, etc.

My answer is prosaic, but I like ghost stories, and I'm interested in taking them to bits and putting them together again and in the borderline between objective reality and whatever is beyond - insanity, New Age hokey pokey flimflam, the supernatural, entities way out of our reality-league. And for writers, this is a narrative gold mine.

Is there anything you would like to tell Bold Type?

I would just like to thank all your readers who have taken the time out to read my book, and I hope that they feel, on balance, it was worth the hours of their lives that it cost. Writing is a strange business transaction, which occurs largely between the imaginations of complete strangers who will stay complete strangers, but I enjoyed writing the book a lot and if it brought any of your readers a bit of pleasure then, well, great.

-- Catherine McWeeney
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