Travel a decade back in time and check out the Bat Segundo podcast’s 2005 interview with David Mitchell! Sharp-eyed fans will realize the podcast was named after the last “narrator” in Mitchell’s debut novel, Ghostwritten, a glib New York City radio host who takes it upon himself to calm an entire city’s nerves on the eve of the human race’s possible extinction.
Sharp-eyed readers will also remember some of Segundo’s callers in his Ghostwritten chapter: Among them are Luisa Rey, in her first appearance within Mitchell’s meta-text, the “Zookeeper” artificial intelligence, and His Serendipity himself, the Japanese cult leader from Ghostwritten’s first chapter, “Okinawa.”
Fittingly, a podcast named after a Mitchell character features Mitchell as its very first interview. (And a bit of trivia for hardcore Mitchellites: David explains why he took the unusual step of writing Bat Segundo’s chapter in dialog-only format. He’d never been to New York at the time he was writing the book, and didn’t want his lack of familiarity with the city to reveal itself in the prose. All is forgiven: David’s book tours eventually took him to New York City, and a significant portion of the action in 2014’s The Bone Clocks takes place in Manhattan and New York’s Hudson Valley region.)
We recommend you listen to the whole thing, but here are some highlights:
Q: You’re very interested in islands, whether it’s Clear Island in Ghostwritten, the island where Eiji is in number9dream, and of course, the infamous islands in Cloud Atlas…apparently your fourth book has a man-made island of Dejima. Why are you attracted to islands?
A: “They keep rearing their heads. And it’s not really because you’re consciously putting them in, book after book after book, but there must be another group of me’s inside of me that make themselves manifest when I write in the same way that we have the common experience…when we dream. Why? You’d need to ask a psychiatrist that I do not have that question, I think.
Islands keep cropping up in my work. I count 10 in my first three novels. In the novel I want to start on this year will be based entirely on Dejima, a Dutch East Indies Company outpost near Nagasaki. My earliest books were actually maps of imaginary continents. Obviously not literary books, but that’s sort of how I, when I look back on my childhood forms of play, I think the part of my brain that now writes novels, that’s how it was occupied when I was, say, 11 years old or something.
My parents were artists, so there were always big sheets of cartridge paper around the house. Just one sheet could keep me happy for hours and hours as I invented archipelagos, topologies and toponymies. Islands are perhaps a geological expression most similar to novels. They’re both protected from and cut off from mainland reality. They often have their own customs, dialects, flora, fauna, a limited cast of characters, and the pubs have their own licensing hours.
The past tends to be more visible on islands. Family roots tend to be deeper and more bound up in the landscape, because it costs too much to cast away heavy rubbish. It just tends to be left to decompose gently in the elements, reminding everyone what and whose it once was, like public momento moris.
Lastly, it’s no accident that utopias and paradises are usually set on islands.”
ON STYLIZED LANGUAGE
Q: I wanted to talk about your use of language. For example, the use of corporations as verbs in the Sonmi-451 section, the dropping of the letter e, the highly stylized language of Sloosha. Where do these language exercises come from, and do you often find yourself overwhelmed by your own imagination?
A: I would as like to be as overwhelmed as possible by my imagination, as often as possible.
“The different dialects of Cloud Atlas, they are there because I wanted one of the themes of the novel to be the continental drift of language over time. How one generation’s respectable English or any other language becomes the next generation’s set of archaicisms, or neologisms in one generation becomes the next generation’s normal speech. I love this. It’s great how you can go around the country and just get a plethora of different versions of purportedly the same language. I also have a page in my notebook especially for Americanisms, and it’s been one of my busiest pages over the last few days.
So given that that was one of my themes, it simply made sense to write the novellas in a contemporaneous form of English. So really, this was dictated by the same. I’m fascinated by language in a way now that I wasn’t when I wrote my first two books, when I was a younger writer and a less mature one. Language was something I didn’t really think consciously that much about, but now, thanks to and during the writing of Cloud Atlas, I’ve come to understand more how language is this holy, sacred, almost mystical thing that we use all the… It’s vernacular stuff. Every word goes back and back and back, and its meaning might have changed, but these noises that you and I are just making at each other…how come these noises mean things? How come this fairly narrow band of sounds that our vocal chords and tongues and lips and teeth are busy at work on, can represent complex abstract thoughts? How come? It’s come to fascinate me. And it isn’t just, the spoken word is equally fruitful as written words as well. So it’s a growing hobby that is threatening to turn into an obsession.”
“I’m really impatient with purist British English apologists who regard Americanisms and Australianisms as somehow corrosive. They’re wonderful and rich, and language-broadening, and therefore concept-broadening. So I start from a standpoint of admiration.”