Words and worlds

PUBLISHED: 06:26 06 October 2014

David Mitchell, photographer Paul Stuart

David Mitchell, photographer Paul Stuart


David Mitchell knows the value of words. As one of the most dazzlingly talented novelists of his generation, he creates entire worlds, frequently spanning past, present and future, and hurtling between nations and narrators. His books tend to be big – in size and philosophies and sales – and yet for years David struggled for words.

Today his stammer is barely perceptible in conversation but as a child he had to work out exactly what he was going to say in advance, to navigate away from any problematic sounds.

“You become adept at reading a mental Autocue of your next couple of sentences, spotting a problem and finding a way of avoiding it,” explains David, a proud patron of the British Stammering Association. “You have to become very skilled at learning three or four ways to say the same things. A stammer is a curse when you’re a teenager but if that teenager grows up to be a writer it turns into a blessing.”

David’s first novel, Ghostwritten, won national awards and rave reviews and his second and third, number9dream and Cloud Atlas (later made into a film, starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant) were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

His new book, The Bone Clocks, traces the story of reluctant psychic Holly Sykes. We first meet her as a teenager in 1984 and follow her through six decades, places and voices, across the world, and beyond into imagined worlds and an all-too-possible apocalyptic future. Alongside the compelling characters and plot of our physical world, are a shadow cast, fighting a battle beyond the confines of life and death.

Fans will recognise and embrace the vast range of, and disorientating switches between, locations, characters, voices and styles, created by this ventriloquist author.

“My ambition is to give a six-course menu of the book,” says David. “But I don’t have the repertoire of the other David Mitchell.”

He has become used to being mistaken for comedian David Mitchell. “He’s better known than me, so it’s probably more annoying to him then me!” says bestselling author David. “Occasionally I have fantasies that I do accept the invitations to do after-dinner speeches, but then I’d be in a position where everyone is expecting me to be hilarious.”

David once spent a summer in King’s Lynn, teaching English to foreign students. His first visit to Norwich was with a group of overseas teenagers, who were despatched to practise their new language skills. But when four arrived at the rendezvous with a police escort it became clear they had chosen shoplifting over shopping. David went on to teach English around the world and later visits to Norfolk were more auspicious, including a holiday near Hunstanton “with the young lady who eventually became Mrs Mitchell.”

David and his wife, who is from Japan, and their two children, now live in rural Ireland in a bilingual English and Japanese household. His young son was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. “It’s not the easy end of parenting. It’s quite a ride,” says David. “He’s very bright, but it’s a brightness which is not verbally expressed. You know how much you learn by being a parent? It’s that on steroids!”

He and his wife came across a remarkable insight into the world of an autistic person, by a 13-year-old autistic Japanese boy, and translated into English The Reason I Jump.

David is also intrigued by themes of reincarnation and, at 45, says he is increasingly aware of his own mortality. “I have been calling this book my mid-life crisis! It’s partly in response to looking in the mirror and seeing my father looking back and thinking, ‘Dad how did you get in there!’”

In his writing David can speak in the cacophonous voices of his cast of characters, whirling readers through dizzying, dazzling places, plot-lines, eras and philosophies. But he says he is happiest as himself, in the here and now, striving to be a better person, not a different person.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell is published by Sceptre, priced £20.

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