David Mitchell slaps a big hand on his head. ‘I look back at that kid and think, what were you thinking! How dare you, idiot!’ He is talking about his recklessness as a young writer. ‘Yeah I’ll stop it halfway, five times, and start it again. I’ll pretend I’m a Chinese woman living up a mountain.’ He compares it to being a teenager ‘leaping off a 12-foot wall’ without fear. As writers get older, he says, the recklessness subsides, and ‘it needs to be replaced by technique. If you can do that, you’re still in business.’
One of his most madly structured books, Cloud Atlas, has just been made into a film. That’s why we are meeting. Made by the directors of The Matrix, it’s crammed with six stories, each set in a different world, from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century to an Orwellian super-state in the future. All the worlds feature Tom Hanks.
Mitchell says the film ‘ticked all the boxes’ for him, though he was involved in its production and so can’t be impartial (he’s even in it, briefly). He loved being on set. For a writer, he says, ‘any chance to get an access all areas pass to a different world, a different tribe, is gold’.
He describes himself as a ‘journalist inside a novelist’, and I can see why. His curiosity is unsettling. He asks me about my recorders, my pencil (it’s shaped like a drumstick), my writerly ambitions and my prognosis for planet Earth. I fear I’ll end up as a character in his notebook.
He is finishing off his sixth novel at the moment. According to Wikipedia, it’s about a young girl growing up in Ireland. Mitchell laughs. ‘No no no no, that’s not true.’ He doesn’t want to give too much away – ‘it’s morphing quite quickly, and it shouldn’t be at this stage, it should be set’. He says it has ‘dollops of the fantastic in it’, though not of the hobbits-and-elves kind. ‘Stuff between life and death. And the soul.’ The fantasy material is ‘volatile’, he says. ‘It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air. So it’s a bitch to handle… That’s not a particularly post-feminist phrase: it’s a swine to handle.’
Mitchell is, it’s pretty clear, totally consumed by his work. Being away from his laptop and notebook for a few days is like ‘oxygen starvation’. ‘It’s just awful,’ he says. ‘They’re wasted days.’ He says that his writing ‘is the very first thought of any day when I wake up and it’s the very last one as well’.
It sounds a bit extreme, I say. ‘Yes, but – isn’t that a form of happiness, to spend your life getting better and better at something that’s very difficult to do well?’ People who are really content, he suggests, generally ‘have some kind of a cause, some kind of a vocation, that they live in rather than do’.
Mitchell describes a ‘little throb of pleasure from a bloody perfect sentence’. He says: ‘People can hate you, they can hate what you write, they can despise your very soul, but they can’t alter the fact that this sentence is perfect.’
I ask him if writing gets any easier. ‘Well, you’ll find out. Um. Firstly, no… You see the swarm that is caused by reality and words more clearly, and because you’re seeing it more clearly you’re unable to write as superficially as you used to. And your prose can become unreadably dense.’ He says, looking at the snow falling outside the window, ‘it’s like staring into a snowstorm – what flakes are you going to leave out of this swirling mass and which ones are you going to take and use.’
Mitchell lives in Clonakilty, near Cork, with his Japanese wife and two kids. Keiko, his wife, reads all his drafts. She gives her opinion with ‘brutal honesty’, he says. ‘She writes on the manuscript and points out what’s wrong with it. Especially with the female characters.’ Mitchell says it’s like driving a car while his wife, sitting in the passenger seat, lets him know if something’s coming. ‘In the early days I’d get quite defensive but now I’m just grateful. It took me a while.’ After a few years, he says, ‘you realise the benefits of listening and the consequences of not, and you tend to be a bit more humble and hopefully a better writer and a better person as well. You’re often wrong, and if there’s a wise person nearby then you’d be a fool not to use his or her advice.’
I ask Mitchell about his earliest writing days. As a teenager in Malvern, Worcestershire, he published poetry under a pseudonym in the parish newsletter. Does he have any copies still? ‘God no, no no no. Maybe my proud mum does in a box in the attic somewhere. But no – it would have been awful.’ Does he remember much? ‘Only very dimly. But no, not going there. Sorry!’
Instead, he asks what I wrote as a teenager, and, under some pressure, I admit I wrote a song called ‘Shackles of the Sociological Jungle’. He erupts with delight. ‘Fantastic! Fantastic! Jungles don’t even have shackles…’
Mitchell comes across as a lovely man. I ask, because I can’t imagine it, what makes him angry. ‘Lots of things,’ he says. ‘What sort of scale are we on? When we do a favour for another driver and they drive off without waving their hand, or are we in a North Korean sort of situation where a political clique is feasting on the potential of millions of people just to keep themselves in Pizza Huts and iPods? Both those things make me angry.’ Does he get angry at strangers? ‘Yeah, sure,’ he says. ‘Sure, we all do, me too. People who abuse their power. Thoughtlessness and inconsideration. But I do that. Glass houses and all.’
Mitchell is worried, too, about the planet. It comes with being a dad, he says. ‘I no longer need the world to be OK only until 2050.’ He says it should alarm us that the world we are handing on to our children will be ‘grottier, impoverished, less biodiverse [and] hotter’.
I turn off the recorder and Mitchell carries on chatting and asking questions. Before long he is taken away to a photographer. After that I imagine he will dig out a pencil, a notebook, and resume the hunt for another perfect sentence.