I interviewed writer David Mitchell for the Holland Festival about his work for the opera Sunken Garden. Everything was translated into Dutch for that article; here you will find the complete interview in English.
MK: How was it to collaborate on the opera with Michel van der Aa?
DM: It worked really well. The chemistry of collaboration has to be exactly right, otherwise egos get in the way. I said yes to the project originally because, as a novelist, you get very lonely. You’ve got no colleagues. Well, you do have colleagues, but they don’t exist; they’re characters. Michel does exist, I think. It’s been really good. It’s like playing tennis with another person, batting ideas back and forth, instead of playing squash.
You’ve said that “stories are ways to answer questions that we want answered”. Which question does Sunken Garden try to answer?
What ties you to life? What keeps you here? In extremis: what stops you from wanting out?
So what is the answer that Sunken Garden proposes?
It’s actually the pain. It’s the bad stuff that happens to you, as the years go by. That, and the consequences of it. If you erase the pain, you also erase the thing that caused the pain. If you erase the bad stuff, you also erase the good stuff. You’ll numb. The subject we’re skirting here is suicide and depression. That’s dangerous territory of course. Do you have the right to try and get inside the head of somebody that wants out?
Is it a subject that touched your personal life, or Michel’s?
[laughing] Not until we read the review in the Telegraph.
No, it’s not actually, but you don’t have to experience it to be interested in it, or to feel weaker versions of it. It can still be explored.
Some imagery from Sunken Garden reminded me of scenes from Twin Peaks [TV-show from 1990, created by David Lynch].
You are informed by things that impress you, of course. Michel and I were talking about Twin Peaks as we were writing it. Twin Peaks, at its heart, is a dripping fantasy. A beautifully dark succulent delicious dripping fantasy.
Twin Peaks, like Sunken Garden, being very strong and lush in its imagery.
It’s beautiful. I saw it 23 years ago, but I still remember scenes very vividly. Twin Peaks was an encourager. It’s evidence that fantasy can be serious and dark, bordering on psychosis even. You allow things that deeply impress you to nudge you in certain directions.
You’ve done opera now on two occasions. Your book Cloud Atlas was made into a movie last year. Do you consider getting involved in television?
No, I’m going to get back to the novel. I’ve had offers for scriptwork, most writers get them. But for me, it’s back to the novel. Though I’d be happy to work with Michel again, if the opportunity ever arose. He’s a friend.
When did your fascination with writing start?
As a young teenager I’d write poems. I’d spend absorbed and happy evenings thinking about which word to use in this line and where to put a comma. Of course, as a complete secret, because if you’re 14 years old and write poetry, you’ll get your head kicked in. But my nerdish interest in language, I think, comes from stammering, my speech disfluency. You can’t necessarily say the word you want to say, so you need to think of an alternative. If you want to say ‘equivalent word’ but you can’t do the q-sound, then you need an alternative, like ‘synonym’. But if you’re 14 you can’t use fancy language like that, because again, you’ll get your head kicked in.
You have to be very creative in finding your path.
Yes, you have to autocue words ahead of time. You have to spot difficult consonants that are going to cause you trouble, reengineer your sentence so you can avoid those, and still fit the context. And not let the other person know you’re doing it.
Are some of those creative processes that you were forced to master at a young age useful in your current writing process?
When I write, I do think in terms of paths. There’s so many paths through the same thicket. Writing for me is: I write one path and I immediately notice another. I try that, I go back, I change it, etc. Writing isn’t locating the one path through the thicket, it’s locating which path I’m going to use. Because I can see so many, it’s bewildering. I spent three hours on a scene in a cafe earlier, before I had my nap, for my new book. It’s less than a page, but there’s so many ways to write it.
David pulls out his laptop and gives me a sneak peek of his forthcoming book. The scene: a boat, of the northcoast of Iceland. Date: September 9th, 2017. David is instantly walking down the many paths that he could choose for the scene: the first word of the page, a comma or no comma etc.
Is there a point where you will reach complete satisfaction with a path?Sometimes you get that, and what a great day that is. You look at it and think: I’m good. But then there are days, where it’s just: this is going to have to do. Otherwise you’d just never finish.
Fate is a recurring theme in your book, as well as in Sunken Garden. If you look at your own life, do you feel that fate has had a role in it, or is a coincidence simply a coincidence?
For me it’s a matter of almost religious faith: forks in the path as chance or fate. I’m more of a chance man, but that doesn’t mean that moments of chance are not binding. They’re really binding. Dance with a girl and suddenly these kids exist. The lack of a good programme on TV that encouraged you to go out to the dance where you met that girl. The shortage of funds at the TV company that ment there wasn’t a good programme on TV that night. It’s endless, it’s infinite. It goes back to the Big Bang.
And for you, in the end, this is not fate, but chance.
We live forwards, but fate only makes sense as a model looking backwards. It’s an understandable and probably useful instinct. We don’t like chaos, we’de rather have order, thank you very much. It makes it somehow more fair that there’s a script going on. Chance is more: the universe is this pinball game and the balls are whizzing around. Billions of them. I can see it’s a disconcerting thought. But it also has its own beauty.
And then, in your books, you can choose to create this world of fate.
Well, to create a plot, is to be God, constructing fate. I create the illusion of chance within a book, which is an act of fatemaking, within our universe which is governed by chance. Neat huh? Chance inside fate inside chance. Chaos inside order inside chaos. Wow, Vondelpark. [laughing] I feel like I’m 18 again, where I say this stuff and actually believe it.
So, when will you be back here to enjoy the Netherlands?
Actually, I’ll fly back here next week for the International Stammering Conference in Lunteren. I’m a patron of the British Stammering Association.
You seem to have conquered the stammering yourself. Though, I don’t know if ‘conquer’ is the right word to use here.
You read my thought. If you try to combat the stammer, you’ll do it for years. I’ve come to a working agreement with it. My stammer and I have good diplomatic relations now. We’re friends.
One last question. From the many ages that you have described in your works, from feudal Japan to futuristic and post-apocalyptic worlds, what is your personal favourite?
Those are two separate questions; I will answer as a writer and as a person.
To write about, my favourite is the end of the 18th century. Those are amazing decades, you could spend your life writing about those years and never have to leave. But I wouldn’t want to live there. The food was shit and it was a harsh life.
As a person: the time I want to live is now. Now is amazing. Amazing! We have these long blessed lives, if you’re born in a lucky part of the world. You can fly anywhere, do anything. It has the Internet. Astonishing. If you find now boring, there’s really something wrong with your curiosity. You need to take your curiosity to a hospital, quick. It’s an amazing time now.
David’s forthcoming book will be finished later this year. For the fans: it will take place between 1984 and 2057, and Sunken Garden works as a kind of prologue to it (with one recurring character).