Friday, July 16, 2010

The Wide World of David Mitchell

If there's a more inventive, most linguistically alive mid-career writer than David Mitchell, I've not read him. Best known as the author of the century-jumping, continent-hopping cult novel Cloud Atlas, he'll be appearing at Skylight Books on July 23 to read from his new novel, set mostly in the late 18th c., The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.


I was able to speak to the English-born, Japan-obsessed, Ireland-dwelling novelist for my first LA Weekly pieceStruggling artists take heart: During the early '90s recession, Mitchell was not able to land a fast food job.  "I got known as the guy who couldn't make the grade at McDonald's," Mitchell told me. "If you had that to deal with, maybe you'd go off to Japan, too."


Mitchell talked to me about Japan, the best and worst qualities of Philip K. Dick, the meaning of the word "literary," his love of the Talking Heads, and other subjects.


I reached the author as he was getting ready for a "tidy towns competition" in his rural stretch of the Cork coastline, which he described as being about "well-cut flower beds and cleanly cut grass." I got the sense of someone who was modest and deeply internal, who lives mostly in his head and puts the rest of his energy into his family. The stutter he had as a kid drove him inward.


Here he is on genre fiction: "Genre is a possibly underused but perfectly valid range of tints and shades and textures in the narrative paintbox. Use them as you wish. It's good because they bring along their own baggage, their own sense of expectation, their own cliches. You need to tweak them a bit. Inside every old chestnut of cliche you find a kernel of originality there."


On Philip K. Dick: "Fantastic ideas man, but his prose... you really have to wade through it. But what a mind -- there are only one or two of him a century. To come up with the idea for The Man in the High Castle," in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II and carve up the U.S., "is good enough. Then you've got a science-fiction writer writing a book in which the Allies win the war -- that's the Philip Dick touch. It makes me green with envy."


And on taste in music as a kid, some of which is chronicled in the bittersweet coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green: "Narrative pop music, really, which was really uncool. Rush. And I was into Yes. I'll argue that the cool-uncool thing is a circular spectrum that doubles back on itself." 


As for Rush: "They play with such aplomb, with such indifference to rockstar cliche... If you are referring to Coleridge in a pop song and singing in a high falsetto -- I don't think that's uncool."


More in this week's LA Weekly.