An interview with David Mitchell, the author behind ‘Cloud Atlas’
David Mitchell came to Los Angeles because of an 8-year-old book. Thanks to the movie by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas” has landed on American bestseller lists -- right behind the decidedly less literary trilogy “50 Shades of Grey.” Mitchell sat down with the L.A. Times’ Carolyn Kellogg -- in this extended interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, he talks in detail about his writing process, what makes a book last and the “Cloud Atlas” adaptation. The movie opens nationwide today.
It seems like if anyone could make a movie of “Cloud Atlas,” the Wachowskis could. But did you actually think they could translate the book into a film?
I didn’t really think about it all that much. Writers are so used to books being optioned and then it never happens. It’s a beginner’s mistake to assume oh, great, it’s optioned, when will it be at the multiplex? That’s usually never.… I’m a novelist, that’s how I make my livelihood, and I concentrate on the novels. To avoid the unhappiness of stressing about who’s saying what in which meeting, it’s best to stop thinking about it. When you live in the west of Ireland, Los Angeles feels like a very, very, very long way away.
I didn’t really think about whether it could not be done, because I assumed it probably wouldn’t. I first saw the screenplay, two, two and half years later.... Shortly after that we had a meeting; they flew to Cork, talked about their ideas for multi-role acting, and that was my answer. The moment the “how” became something that likely would need to be thought about, the answer was already there.
At that point, they could have come up with an all-mime version, and you didn’t actually have much say about it. You didn’t have any right of refusal.
That is one of the things you sell. Of course it’s helpful to a filmmaker if the writer’s on board, especially with this kind of book. The Wachowskis were gracious enough to involve me.
The book is pretty anti-corporate. The film seemed to back off some of that criticism. Instead of a sony, Sonmi-451 has a Samsung. It was interesting that “sony,” lowercase, had become a generic in the book; but it was clearly changed to Samsung.
You’d have to ask the directors if any money was involved. I don’t know. But if I was writing the book now, I would use Samsung. It makes sense. It’s a better word, and it makes a better noun. And it’s Korean, of course, whereas sony is Japanese. [smiles] I’m smiling because when Doona [Mae] was on set, she kept going samSUNG! like this [thrusts hand in the air in a military salute] Apparently in the late 1970s there was an ad on Korean TV, quite cheesy and militaristic.
One of the things I like about your work is a real delight in how words function, how they look on a page, how they sound. You said Samsung is a better word than sony. Why?
It ends on a hard g, Samsunggg. That’s great. Sony – don’t know what I was thinking of, really. Y is about the weakest letter of all. Y can’t make up its mind if it’s a vowel or a consonant, can it?
You’ve highlighted something really at the heart of writing, I think. It’s all about decisions – you make a thousand decisions, at different levels. Structural ones, those are more macro decisions about plot, character, cliché avoidance, better still, cliché inversion, or cliché implosion. They’re wonderful. Also, micro decisions – about where the comma goes, words. You must have noticed sometimes, you know when to use maybe and when to use perhaps. There’s no way on earth you could codify that rule or how you know, but you know....
It sounds pretentious to say, but even though it sounds pretentious, I believe it. I think words operate like musical notes that the eyeball hears. That is at the root of why writers take these micro decisions about maybe and perhaps, which after all mean the same thing…. I think it’s because of this: You get to know the tastes or musical tastes of words themselves, and this informs your choice, whether you use them or not.
You’re doing all these things with language in “Cloud Atlas.” But it’s also very rooted in genre; science fiction or speculative fiction, adventure. If there was a shelf of books that you wanted your books to be sit beside, what would be on it?
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.
To answer the question you just asked; what part is me being my duck-billed platypus and what part is me doing stuff more consciously? After 10 years of writing it’s actually all me…. All the things you said and probably a few things more.
What’d I miss?
You have to know what the major characters think of each other. You have to keep in your head fictional autobiographies, what they think about, sort of a top 10. Sexuality, spirituality, work, money, language, class, that’s six – there’s a few more. Keeping that in your head at the same time. It’s an amazing job, and I love it.
And it’s not far removed from several mental pathologies. If they were somewhat exaggerated, it would be full-blown schizophrenia, the one where you have difficulty knowing what is real. It would be full-blown multiple personality disorder, because you do need to believe in these people, because no one else is going to believe them if you don’t. Um, hang on – obsessive compulsive disorder; you do need to be able to do it for four years, and neglect other areas of your life, to really get that belief that this is so real. And that takes energy and time, more than you have to do this and life really well as well, so you have to neglect life a bit. But I love it.
How much is reading a part of your job?
I read if it’s around the area that I’m working on, if it’s something I can use. I read people who I know – it gets embarrassing pretending that you’ve read people whose books you haven’t. I’m 40 and I’m still doing this. Why? It’s like being 18 and not having read your homework. Trying to say vague things about the character development. Everyone knows that; writers also know if the example you cite is from the first 15 pages – that means you haven’t read the book. The third category of reading is the lucky dip. Not quite lucky – a please to the serendipitous god who sometimes puts the right thing in your hand at the right time, and he or she does it surprisingly often.
What did you read when you were younger that allowed you to not think about high and low separately?
Ursula LeGuin is a fine example of a writer who is not highbrow, not lowbrow, not middlebrow, not nobrow. She’s allbrow. She, more than any other writer, is probably why I am a writer. Not because we write in a similar way, but because she made me ache to do what she had done. I’d read “The Disposessed” or “Earthsea” books by her and I’d just [breathes in] – I’d just feel this kind of a lust to make something that would do to other people what that had just done to me.
In that there’s a little bit of creativity, a little bit of envy, but also a little bit of power.
Oh, that’s the other pathology: Megalomania. You want to be a horrid little god in your own world and get to control everything, which picked-upon bookish kids don’t really get in their real lives.
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