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An interview with David Mitchell, the author behind 'Cloud Atlas'

October 26, 2012|By Carolyn Kellogg

I didn’t really think that far. What I think about is how can I make this damn book work? Because it’s killing me. How can I make it work? ....The metaphor I often think of is, it’s sort of like asking a duck-billed platypus if  it’s an egg-laying mammal or a bird with mammalian aspects. It doesn’t care, does it? It just does its little duck-billed platypus business, catching things to eat and mating and digging tunnels, that’s what it does. I should probably stop this metaphor now...

Perhaps to invert your question, who says art does have to be highbrow or lowbrow? Who says it has to be one or the other? This film isn’t. This film’s both. It’s got lines, if you wish to stop to think about them, there’s a lot to unpack. It’s also got a flying snowmobile that shoots lasers! [laughs with delight] This comes from books I like: “The Master and Margarita,” “War and Peace.”

There was totally a laser snowmobile in “War and Peace.”

It has! It has! It’s got battle scenes. It’s got John Cheever-like falling-in-love scenes, where he’s walking around totally smitten....The best things that really endure do endure because they do do both. They stroke your brain and milk your adrenaline gland at the same time.

In your books you use language to define place, vernacular. You did that in “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet,” right? That’s not how anyone would speak – but it creates a time and place.

I’d say that’s true, isn’t it. I was already answering the question I thought you were going to ask – you started talking about making a place with words – that led me off one track, then you talked about vernacular, which is also interesting. They’re equally interesting, and I’d like to do both if I may.

The former, making a place with words: When I go to a place I get a number of free gifts. I get some good lines about the environment. If I was here for long enough, and could have a little time to walk around more thoughtfully, I’ll get five decent sentences. Or halfway decent sentences, or sentences I can make worthwhile. About the place; they’re textual photographs. I’m just in the habit of taking them. Maybe because it was a long time before I had a camera.

Do you jot them down?

Yeah. It gives you something to do in restaurants and not look like a sad sack. And also makes the staff nervous that you’re a reviewer, so they’re nice. You should try it, it works! If you get these free gifts, use them in the text, use them in the prose, use them in descriptions. Put them in and they’re lovely little things to find on the forest footpath of the story, of the book. That’s what I thought you were going to ask.

But you asked something even more interesting: the relationship between dialect and place. That’s really rich. I can’t think about the north of England without thinking about the Northern accent, like this, [does the accent] they speak up in Manchester, Yorkshire, Lancashire, where I was born. Where I were born, because of course the grammar is different too…. Dialect is a landscape feature. If you’re doing the scenery, it’s a matter of professional pride to have a stab at getting the dialect right.

If you get it perfectly, oddly enough, you fail. If you actually write 18th century English in a historical novel set there, oddly enough it’s unreadable. It’s like “Blackadder”; it’s comic at best, or incomprehensible at worst. You start to have footnotes; then pop, your book’s dead, because you’ve reminded the reader it’s not real. This isn’t my invention – Walter Scott worked this out way back when – you make a dialect which I like to think of as bygonese. It’s plausibly authentic…. You use some archaisisms, – “shall” more than “will,” “lest” more than “in case,” avoid contractions –  and you’re already halfway there.

You’ve created these complex imaginary worlds: you’re thinking about character, plot, setting, creating a different universe through language. Which parts come out of you naturally, and which do you tend to upon revision?

My first drafts are awful messes. First drafts are to fill the reservoir, which I then go fishing in. Writing is probably one-fifth coming up with the stuff, and four-fifths self-editing again and again and again. I only know when to stop when the new revision is actually just changing it back to the penultimate revision. That’s when I know I’ve reached the end.

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