British-born novelist David Mitchell gained an international audience and glass-raising critical kudos for his first three novels — Ghostwritten (2000); Number9Dream (2002); and Cloud Atlas (2004) — each one sprawling and intricately plotted with a network of characters. Mitchell’s new novel, Black Swan Green, is a noticeable change: it follows a single 13-year-old boy, Jason Taylor, on a single spot of the globe. We met in San Francisco, a stop on his North American reading tour. Mitchell talks about writing the new novel, developing characters throughout time across different novels, and the musical variances between words like canoodling, snogging, and making out.
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Many of the reviewers writing about Black Swan Green are talking about how it feels like a first novel, although, obviously, it’s a fourth. What do you think about that observation?
I completely understand why people feel that it does read like a first novel. And I did use the form of the semi-autobiographical first novel about the cusp of boyhood. But I hope that in subtler ways I was able to subvert that form, and, with luck, transmute the lead of cliché into something a little more unusual.
I suppose the other thing I have to say is that for years, the writer that I am was informed by the young man that I was — a young man who left where he grew up and didn’t really want to go back. Mongolia was much more interesting than Worcestershire. But the older person I’m becoming now maybe feels that everywhere is equally interesting if you look at it in the right way. In some ways, the place you’re from — the place you thought was just this dull, ditch-water hole in the middle of the world you never wanted to think about again — is actually one of the most interesting places of all, because it’s informed who you are.
One of the real treats of the Black Swan Green is the language and voice of the narrator. His verbs are particularly choice — “flies grandprixed over the water”, for example. But there are sentences that contain larger ideas — “Something smashed without being dropped”; “Often I think boys don’t become men. Boys just get papier-mâchéd inside a man’s mask.” As you developed the character of Jason Taylor, how did you walk the line between making him capable of saying these types of really interesting, sometimes profound things, and still making him a 13-year-old kid?
Yeah, well, you walk that line by walking the line. And when you are veering off too far into Holden Caulfield territory, and when your kid is becoming a child-genius, you have to be strict with yourself. Also, when they veer the other way — toward tedium, I suppose, from their lack of maturity, you have to reign that in as well. And remind yourself that one has to be a plausible 13-year-old, but also that you are asking highly intelligent adults to spend 300 pages with him.
You put your finger on something as well, though. If I was able to walk this line for the whole of the novel, then it lay in the language; in the first-person narrative, that’s all you have. One thing that’s working for you with kids is their lack of expertise in time-tested, adult models of language, which you and I are employing right now without too much thought. Kids don’t have a well-rehearsed array of sentence structures, of collocations — the rules about which word goes with which word — on their fingertips. So they have to invent.
Oddly enough, this is what a poet tries to do. A poet will try to smash and crunch words you don’t normally see side by side, to see what comes forth from that coupling. Kids [do the same], for a totally different reason. It’s not a kind of hyper-sensitized expertise; it’s a lack of expertise. They have no option, in a way. That’s something that writing a 13-year-old had in its favor. And that’s not just true for use of language, but for insights. I suppose for wisdom.
You and I will have a thought, and then think about it before we open our mouths. We think about the consequences of saying it. We think about if we’re going to offend someone in the room by saying it. We censor it, edit it, test it to see if it’s [pause] completely true? Largely true? A bit true? As often as not we’ll end up not saying what comes to mind — or modifying what we thought might’ve been true before it leaves our lips. Again, kids don’t have that software very well downloaded, up and running. They’ll blurt out something that we would not. But there might be some truth in it.
And of course with Jason, it comes after a great amount of care from you.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that’s my job. I have to do a lot of work, and then make all that work completely invisible. If that invisibility is lacking, then it’s a clunky, mannered, precious book, and that’s no good.
It became clear after 50 pages or so that the chapters are not only continuing with this boy’s life, but that they were independent from each other. I initially stumbled on this, but it made sense after a while. And that was partly because with a boy retelling this time in his life, gaps would be appropriate; a character a boy meets during a walk in the woods might not be met again. Tell us about this very straightforward story – it doesn’t shift centuries and continents — but keeps the chapters flexibly independent.
By keeping it independent, by keeping the chapters as theoretically extractable short stories that would have to work on their own and make their way in the world, I hoped to raise the bar on the quality of writing. And in fact, I did place three of them in magazines to encourage me to stay true to that discipline.
One answer is that it’s a kind of quality-control. Another answer is that it’s a way of — this goes back to your first question, really — it’s a way of writing a first novel without writing a first novel. Using that formula, then subverting it. So that actually, it is a little bit different than anything a reader might’ve read before. That’s my aspiration; I don’t know if I’ve succeeded.
Thirdly, when you’re a kid, all of a sudden, everything’s different. All the rules of the world you thought you knew and worked are different. All of a sudden, half the kids in the class are a foot taller than you. All of a sudden, girls have breasts. All of a sudden, jokes that would’ve gotten you laughs yesterday earn you derision today.
It’s a sort of jerky motion. It isn’t a smooth transition, from boyhood to teenagerdom. And so pneumatically, the structure that you’re referring to is more in tune with the themes and mood and nature, the arc of Jason’s development. It’s a jerky arc, it’s not a smooth arc.
Is this a character that you’ve been nurturing in the notebooks for a long while? Or did he come to you chronologically, after you finished your previous three books?
Even before the notebooks. I wrote an execrably bad few chapters of a very early thing in my early 20s. When I was included inGranta‘s “Best of Young British Novelists” list, they wanted a bit of homework for that issue of the magazine. I’m not the kind of writer who has heaps of things lying around that I instantly knock into shape. What I really had were these ancient — from ten years before then, literally — abortive attempts at an early novel. But there was enough in the first chapter for me to be able to cannibalize and stitch together, which became an early version of the first chapter of Black Swan Green.
I liked the voice. I was going to do a totally different voice after finishing Cloud Atlas, but because of his voice, and — again, back to an earlier question — rising interest in me to look at where I’m from, [I went forward].
Were there certain books that were helpful to you in planning or thinking about or writing this story?
Sure. In terms of mood, one that is referred to in the book: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier. That’s just one of those books that fills you with a lust to do something. Something that good, with such surely distilled nostalgia. Yet without ever seeming cloying. It’s a highly refined nostalgia, but not a trace of sentimentalism in it either. There’s a sort of a Huckleberry Finn mood in a chapter called “Bridal Path”. You can’t really read that book and be unaffected by it.
Catcher in the Rye [J. D. Salinger, 1951] was useful because it marked a border into which I didn’t actually want to go. It’s a wonderful book, I don’t want to criticize it. In fact, Salinger is one of my favorite writers ever. But nonetheless, I didn’t want Jason to be like Holden Caulfield.
He doesn’t come across like Caulfield at all. You’re on a reading tour right now. I think if I had met you on a tour for Cloud Atlas, I would’ve pleaded with you to in some way bring back the young composer, Robert Frobisher.
Sure, sure. He was a character that just broke my heart. Other readers I’ve talked with had a similar reaction.
Thank you very much.
Frobisher does come in Black Swan Green in a way. Tell us about that character in particular, and also what draws you to spread your characters out across your books.
Two interesting questions there. I also think that the “Letters from Zedelghem” section in Cloud Atlas is probably the best-written one.
Well, I’m learning, and wouldn’t call it fabulous myself. But thank you very much. Some people have their favorite sections of the book. But if I were to try and look at it objectively, I think that’s the best written one.
[Pause] I suppose it’s useful in that in a way, Frobisher is a possible future for Jason. Kind of an overly sensitized young man in the arts. And in way he’s a cautionary tale, I suppose, for readers who read both books. For the first time, in fact, right now — and I’m happy when this happens — there are people who read Black Swan Green first amongst my books, then work back through the other three. I get a kick out of the bi-directionality of the books, and how my habit of having one or two characters from one book wandering into another can create two directions from which a reader can first get to know them.
I hadn’t thought about it that way.
It’s something most people don’t spot because it’s been a long time since my first book came out. I don’t make a meal out of it in the same way that I do with Madame Crommelynck, but the wheeler-dealer and bully in Jason’s school is Neal Brose. He’s the kid who gets his calculator crushed, in Jason’s “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore” moment. He is actually the stockbroker in the Hong Kong section of Ghostwritten, if you’ve read both and remember both.
They have to work independently as well, though, otherwise what you’re producing is a vast array of sequels and prequels. But that not withstanding, for the reader who has read both, it gives things a poignancy to know that this 13-year-old kid is going to be dead in approximately [pauses] 17 years and six months. It’s got the potential to subvert the emotional connection with the character in one book with the former emotional connection with the character in another one. That’s one reason I do it. Another is that it can be enormous fun.
Another reason is that when a character exists in a book, and therefore in a reader’s mind — if the character’s well-written — they accrue [pause] not quite reality, not quite realism, but realness. They feel real for the reader. If the illusion of fiction has been done well, they are real. And when they next appear in another book, they don’t just bring themselves, they bring all the realness that their incarnation earns. That realness spills into the new book, and makes that book feel real as well, I believe. So my theory goes. That’s a kind of artisan’s reason why I like doing this.
How have the reading’s been going on this tour?
I’ve been enjoying them very much. I can’t speak for my audiences, obviously, but it’s lovely doing events in the States. People are very eager to ask questions at the end. Whereas in the UK you almost have to hit people with a stick to get a question from them. I don’t know if this is true all the time, but I’m really impressed with the age range, and gender range, of people who come to readings here. In the UK, it’s mostly women in their late-30s, 40s, and 50s. I have no beef with this; it’s not a problem or anything. But it is noticeable in the States that there are teenagers in the audience, and people in their 60s. And that makes me feel honored.
In Black Swan Green, one of Jason’s many intelligent offerings is that “Music’s a wood you walk through.” I’ve been going back through all your books, and music is continuously present. In Ghostwritten, an apartment is described as “Muted Sibelius rather than thunderous Wagner.” The Clear Island section refers to the Goldberg Variations, and the Night Train chapter has lots of references since the main character’s a DJ: Chet Baker, Bob Dylan, Graham Parsons. Number9Dream is from a John Lennon song, and in the text we get Scarlatti, Debussy, and others.
And then there’s Cloud Atlas, where we have the extraordinary composer Robert Frobisher, and his nods to Liszt, Stravinsky, and many more. The language you use to describe Frobisher describing music — the making, the listening to it — is the language of someone who really listens to music, really engages with it. It’s not as if you’re simply plucking names out of a musical encyclopedia and inserting them. Tell us about your life as a music listener, and the presence of music in your work.
Sure. I’ll have a go. One, music is an excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing. Really, everything I could say about music is also true for art in general. And, by extension, true about writing. I must say I’m very interested in writing — it’s my vocation. It’s the one thing I love doing more than anything else.
But there is kind of a taboo that I’m not totally immune from about a writer writing about writing. You get accused of incest. Or even of self-gratification, if you do so. However, if you write about music, then you’re freed up from that taboo. It’s a good way to have that particular cake and eat it.
Two, writing is a kind of music. And I mean that very nearly literally. Or at least, I mean it metaphorically. It’s nonetheless a metaphor, which is truer than the obvious. A sentence [pause] is a musical phrase that your eyeball can hear. Words are musical notes that, again, your eyeball can hear. Not a sound, but a nuance. And even words that mean the same thing.
In the reading I did last night, there was a very nice diversion with the audience. I wanted to check that they understood the word ‘snog.’ Which I think is originally a British word [pause]
Yeah, exactly. Now, ‘kiss’ is a kind of generic act. ‘Snog’ involves tongues and clunking teeth and a bit of fondling, groping of breasts as well. It’s an engaged, gritty kind of kiss that continues for a long time. And the audience was throwing out alternatives
.I was just thinking of some.
Well, run them by me.
The most obvious one is ‘making out’.
Which, in the UK, can actually mean sex as well.
Ah, I see.
Another example from the audience was ‘canoodling.’ Now, all of these words mean kind of the same thing. So in a way you could say that they’re the same musical note. But they’re also microtones different. ‘Canoodling’ is a slightly higher, more elegant — ‘Let’s canoodle, my dear…’ It has a sort of an elevated nuance. It’s also quite an amusing word. It has a humorous microtone, as well, hasn’t it?
‘Neck’ — well, my ears are relatively ill-tuned to exactly what the nuances of necking are. So I probably wouldn’t use it, because of my background. So I think you can see that words are musical notes, with microtones between them. Even words that ostensibly mean the same thing. And the eyeball picks these up. Even the shape of a word. Even though we don’t read aloud. ‘Canoodle’ is somehow a more pleasing, elegant word than ‘snog’, which is more animalistic, out of control, well, it’s uglier.
[Pause] In a way I’m going one level deeper than your question asked me to. This is one thing I have to say about writing about music. I love music. I don’t play — I want to put all my energies into learning how to be a better writer. On the sleeve liner notes to Bill Evans‘ recording called Alone, which has a just transcendent version of “Never Let Me Go” on it, he writes about how the most intense pleasure of his life is actually listening. Presumably, that includes listening to himself, which is a roundabout way of playing, of making music. Nonetheless, it’s very interesting.
When I was a kid and into rock bands like Rush or whatever, I would listen so intently, in those pre-CD LP days. As a kid, you could maybe buy about three or four LPs a year, and you had to make every one count, didn’t you? You listened to those LPs in a way that in these iPod days you never do. This intensity, pleasure, that you can get from getting inside a piece of music, and looking at its architecture and its textures and its decorations and its structures — ahh, it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without music.
In an article you wrote about living in Japan, right about the time Ghostwritten published, you wrote: “This lack of belonging encourages me to write: I lack a sense of citizenship in the real world, and in some ways, commitment to it. To compensate, I stake out a life in the country called writing.” You’ve lived in that country, England obviously, Ireland, and I believe you’re now in Holland. Clearly, you’re able to cocoon yourself and get your writing done. But I’m curious how this lifestyle affects your writing — your observations of the world, the types of people you see in the street, the history of the region you’re familiarizing yourself with now.
I’m curious, too. And this isn’t something I totally feel I really understand either. I’m not sure if I wouldn’t want to accuse my younger self of saying things that he felt sounded good rather than were things he strictly felt were true. I don’t know. What I do think, however, is that seeing the way different societies do the same thing — design a bus; organize defense; interact; greet people in the street or don’t greet people in the street; speak loudly in the elevators or be silent in elevators — they need to be done in all societies. We are human beings with the same fundamental and complex needs. But the way they’re done in different societies is, well, what makes a society a different society. It’s exactly these things — these largely unspoken things that everybody takes for granted.
But of course, you can’t take for them granted when you’re new to them. By getting a range of experiences about these [pause] phenomenologies, maybe that’s a good way to learn about them. By living in countries where people’s relationships with their government is dramatically different, say in the south of Italy and here. That’s a good way to learn about the social contract. Each time you see how something is done differently, you are learning more about that thing.
I’m not sure I would’ve articulated this as a younger man. I simply wanted the exotic. In order to get the exotic, you obviously have to not stay where you are, kind of keep moving. Because once you get used to a place, the exotic is gone. That was probably my less mature, less laudable motivation then. [Pause]
About writing and isolation, though [pause]. My characters do tend to be outsiders who don’t fit in that well. I think that’s actually a demand of fiction. The same way how once some writers tend to stop being younger, and get married, and have kids, and they’re really happy with life, they tend to not have much to say. And often the quality of their work lacks an edge that it had when they were younger and miserable. In the same way, fiction, when it’s about a person who hasn’t got any problems, who’s quite happy where they are, a well-integrated insider — I don’t know how to make such fiction get airborne, really. [Laughs] The petroleum of narrative is indeed conflict. That’s what the Greeks knew. They were right, and everyone has worked it out since.
You earned a graduate degree focusing on the post-modern novel, and I’m wondering what the post-modern novel, or maybe even a few novelists you might mention, brought you as a reader and as an on-the-job novelist.
Umberto Ecco, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, a little bit of Salmon Rushdie, John Fowles, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is out on his own, really, because, well, he’s become an adjective. You can now say ‘Borgesian,’ like ‘Kafkaesque’.
He’s always an invaluable, metaphysical tool in anybody’s tool kit. What did they bring me? I suppose just the hunger to experiment, which was a hunger that informed my first three books to a significant degree. But I’ve become more interested in people now. Perhaps that’s because I’m a dad.
What I think of as the four elements of a novel — plot, character, idea or theme, and structure — postmodern novelists are particularly interested in exploring the untapped resources of the last one, structure. And seeing how that can harmonize with the other elements of the novel, in interesting and sometimes discordant ways. I guess my attention to that element has relatively subsided recently. My interest in character, people, has gotten stronger. We change. It’s good to change. It’s the wonderful thing about being a writer. You’re allowed to change.
Black Swan Green was your fourth book. What do you think you’re getting better at, as a novelist, since you first started writing?
It’s a difficult question without sounding immodest, and I don’t want to do that. What I hope is that my books are teaching me more about writing. That’s a generalization, and you’re asking about specifics. In a way, it’s the blindingly obvious things, once you stumble upon them. Things you could probably get from a creative writing course, or a book about writing. I haven’t done the former, and I don’t read the latter. So I have to learn them from my books. Sort of craft-level theories of understandings about writing.
For example, begin a scene slightly after the beginning and end it slightly before the ending. Parallel to your plot line, keep a reader-emotion line, where in every paragraph in every scene, you ask yourself, what do you want the reader to be feeling right now. And never quite take your eye off that ball. It doesn’t have to be in the foreground, but it always needs to be in the background. Don’t do something just because you can do it. This is the sin of the second novel, really, of many people’s second novels. Things are done because the writer can do them and not necessarily because they should.
The thing I said about originality lurking in cliché. Cliché’s a very good place to look for something that’s never been done. Just inside it. Gently subverting it can give you something completely new. Be honest and brutal about amputating really beautifully written sections of prose, some fantastic ideas, but which nonetheless do not fit in the book. Out with them. It hurts like hell to do it, but then afterwards you don’t think about it ever again. [Laughs] So it’s not so much an area I’m improving on, but it’s a hope that these sort of bite-sized realizations about writing are raising my game.