|Interview by Ron Hogan|
David Mitchell traveled to Hiroshima eight years ago to teach English to junior high and high school students, eventually landing a university job, which he described as much more conducive to the writing career he was pursuing. "I got much longer holidays," he explains during a phone call from a Los Angeles radio studio during the publicity tour for his second novel, Number 9 Dream. The novel follows Eiji Miyake as he arrives in Tokyo in search of the father who abandoned him at birth, and it's hard to tell what's more fantastic, his experiences in the city or his wild daydreams. After the tour, Mitchell heads back to Japan, only to pack his bags and return to his hometown in England: "My wife will be giving birth in the middle of May, so I need to be somewhere where I know where everything is and how it all works."
Ron Hogan: Were you interested in writing when you first went out to Japan?
David Michell: Oh yes. I've always been interested in writing, and knew at the back of my mind that it's the only job I've really wanted to spend my life doing. I wasn't focused, though. Like a lot of people, writing was something I liked the idea of doing, without having sat down and applied myself, created the discipline necessary to write a whole book.
How did you find that discipline when you started your first novel, Ghostwritten?
I got rid of my TV--that was the first, crucial thing. You get it out of the house and you have all these hours open up that you didn't have before. You consciously cut down your social life; when people invite you out, you have to politely tell them, "Sorry, I have to write today." It's that simple, really.
How did the multiple settings of that novel come together?
I wrote the stories in the order in which they appear in the book, and I got the idea for the first story from a Japanese newspaper, an article about an Aum Shuriyka gas attacker who had hidden in Okinawa for months following the attack. I was interested in the end of fanaticism inside one person's head, and wanted to attempt to recreate the mental processses, the erosion of his belief system.
That story was a bit of an oddity in that it's the only story that has its own single seed. The others all came about as I traveled to the places that I write about. Whenever I travel, I write about what I see. Even just a few sentences about the place I'm in will allow me to remember it later in a much more technicolor way than a photograph can. Those notes make good material which I can later extend into narratives and eventually into stories. So the story ideas came from the things I saw as I was traveling.
The novel has a science fiction feel to it, but it's not quite science fiction.
I've been influenced by science fiction since I was a teenager. One of the qualities of science fiction that's both a weakness and a strength is that nothing is ruled out. You have a broad, infinite canvas to take your plot in any direction you choose. You're not confined by physical laws. If you're not careful, that can be your undoing, but with luck and application, you can do a lot with the form.
When is science fiction not science fiction? That's an intriuging question...I'm certainly not published as a science fiction writer, but one of the intriguing things about writing in general is the carte blanche you have to use anything you like. There are no rules about what you can or can't do, as long as you make sure it works.
Number 9 Dream is less science-fictional, but it still has a very alien, surreal feel to it, even though it contains real details of contemporary Tokyo.
The book's about the mind, which is the home of fantasy and imagination, the origins of the surreal. So to write about the states of the mind -- memory, imagination, nightmares, fiction, dreams, and so on -- will necessarily, at least for me, have a fantastical, surreal feel to it. I want to depict Japan in my style with as much clarity as possible, and the details are necessary to keep the novel's feet on the ground, even if its head isn't. The research was fun. I went to some interesting places in order to write as authentic a portrait as I could.
The first section of the novel has a number of false starts and rewinds that disorient the reader, raising questions about what's supposed to be real.
I do like fiction and films that fools me in some way, that wrongfoots me, and writers often enjoy doing what they enjoy having done to them when they read. I don't get to experience that disorientation, of course. I'm the one who put the red herrings in, so I don't know how they taste. The one thing your own work can never do is take you unawares, although the interpretations and analysis later can.
Unlike many Westerners who write about Japan from their perspective as a foreign visitor, you've written in both books from the perspective of native Japanese characters.
I have a problem with the way Japan is usually portrayed in the West, as the land of cherry blossoms, geishas, Mt. Fuji, and kamikaze pilots. I wanted to do what Haruki Murakami does, depicting Japan as it is, and finding the beauty in the ugliness. Using Japanese protagonists seems to be a more convicing way to go about that.
Another reason is that I'm interested in the challenge of it. It isn't the obvious thing to do. There's significant technical and cultural puzzles to solve to achieve it, and that's what attracts me. I'm much more interested in the things that I'm not sure I can pull off than the things I can write without too much effort or thought.
You mentioned Murakami. Who are some of your other favorite writers?
I find it's best to answer this question by plunging into it without thinking of it too much, so I will. Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, John Cheever, Yukio Mishima, Tanizaki, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alice Walker. The last book I just read was The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, which was a fantastic book.
What was your reaction to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize?
I was honored, and felt very fortunate. I was very happy for the novel. Once you've written a book and had it published, it's like your offspring, and you remain interested in how it makes its way in the world. At the same time, you do feel an odd detachment in that it's beyond your control. I suppose it's like having an eighteen-year-old who's starting to make his or her own life.
Your detachment must be intensified by your being halfway around the world from the British literary scene.
I probably always will be detached from the literary scene, though. I tend not to read my reviews, or even much contemporary fiction. I'm very well insulated from the outside world in Hiroshima, but I think it might be that I'm just that sort of person, and that my physical isolation simply reinforces my personality. And my personality won't change much when I return to England.
As you're preparing to return to England, do you see a shift in your subject matter and settings?
Probably not. It's healthy for writers to shift anyway. It wouldn't be good for me to keep writing variations of the same book over and over. And location is certainly one factor for a writer, but there's also one's changing relationship with the world, growing older, taking on different responsibilites. Being a father will probably have more impact on my writing, I think, than the change in geographic location. How my writing will change is impossible to say, though, until it happens.
Have you started writing a third novel yet?
I'm always at work on something. When I finished the manuscript for Ghostwritten, I mailed it to my agent and that day, I began writing Number 9 Dream. I wouldn't know what to do with my time if I weren't writing. I'm a little bit camera shy about talking about new projects, though, so I'm afraid I'm not going to give you any details.
Ron Hogan is the editor and publisher of Beatrice.com, a collection of interviews with authors of contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction.