One of the fun things about reading David Mitchell’s books is spotting familiar characters from previous works who pop up again in subsequent narratives. Sometimes they show up in cameos. Sometimes they’re only mentioned. Sometimes they play major roles, like Marinus has in Mitchell’s last two novels. And sometimes they’re animals imbued with magical powers. (Hello there, moon-gray cat!)
In an interview before the Ottawa International Writers Festival, the CBC’s Alan Neal asked Mitchell about how he mentally juggles such an extensive cast:
Neal: Is it a lot of work for you to be mapping how all these characters are going to intersect, play roles in each others’ lives, pop up in other books later on? Or is this something that came naturally to you?
Mitchell: I don’t map them.
Neal: You don’t?
Mitchell: I don’t. When birds migrate, apparently one section of their brain expands and another smaller section decreases, so they have the mathematical ability to do the navigation involved in their migration. Then when they get to the other end and they have to think about finding fish and having sex, that navigational part of the brain shrinks and the more immediate [needs take over] … Those parts of the brain apparently expand.
Something like that [happens] with writing. When I need to hold these connections in my head, then I can do it. But the moment the examination is over, you leave the examination hall, it’s sort of gone until the next time. Well, there’s a vacancy for a character here, about 40 years old, somewhat literate. Have I written anyone who would fit that job and what’s their CV looking like these days?
Neal: And have I killed them off already? (laughing)
Mitchell: Or if I did kill them off, would it matter? It might be before their timeline, it might be early on in their timeline when they were still alive. It’s just a matter of going back and reading their things in earlier books to find what they were up to and what they were about. And if they apply for the job and they look like a worthy candidate, then yes, I would like in-house work.
There’s a character who drives his car over a cliff in The Bone Clocks, and I mention that he has one of his sisters, and then I wondered how old she’d be. She probably would be at university about 1997…I didn’t see that one coming. Of course, it’s a bit of both. I mean, I do go out hunting for them, so I shouldn’t be surprised when I find people that I’m hunting for. But I don’t know who they are ahead of time.
That last bit references Jonny Penhaligon, a character who appears in The Bone Clocks as a Cambridge buddy of point-of-view character Hugo Lamb. Hugo and an associate work together to put Penhaligon in major debt during a series of high-stakes card games, and Hugo believes Jonny will eventually resign himself to selling his vintage Aston Martin — a gift from his late father — to settle the debt. Hugo even goes so far as to visit a London dealer to ask about the car’s value in anticipation of Jonny settling his gambling debt.
But Hugo’s plan doesn’t quite work the way he intended it to — instead of settling his debt by selling his beloved Aston Martin, Jonny commits suicide in dramatic fashion by driving the car over a cliff.
In Slade House, readers are introduced to Jonny’s sister, Fern Penhaligon. She’s described as “a future A-lister” by chapter protagonist Sally Timms. She’s a confident young woman who accompanies five other members of her university’s paranormal club in search of the mysterious Slade House on Halloween night in 1997. Like the other Slade House victims, Fern, Sally and the others step through the aperture and into the Slade House orison, and never return. But not before Fern and Sally have a heart-to-heart in which Fern confesses she’d do anything to know for sure that there’s an afterlife, and that she’ll see her brother again one day.
The poor Penhaligon family. Note to surviving Penhaligons: When Mitchell puts out his next casting call, hide!
Interestingly, this is not the first time Mitchell has compared his characters to job-seekers. In March he told The Guardian how he settled on The Bone Clocks’ Richard Cheeseman as the protagonist of a short story, “My Eye On You,” to accompany a London exhibit by artists Kai and Sunny: “A character from my last big novel, The Bone Clocks, applied for the job, and he was the perfect candidate.”
In honor of Mitchell’s process of “interviewing” his own characters for positions in current works, here’s how we imagine a few of those interviews might go:
Pauses. Makes an interested noise as he looks over the CV.
“It says here you’ve done a bit of soul stealing. Were you with Enimoto Sensei?”
“No, sir, I signed a multi-year contract with the Anchorites. I helped capture more souls than anyone else on the team, and I still managed to make it to the local nursing home every Tuesday to read to the brigadier.”
“What an industrious young man.”
“Is that a dart board?”
“Yes it is.”
“Fancy a game with a small wager? You’ll probably wipe the floor with me. I’m the worst of my Cambridge buddies, but I just can’t resist a good game. I wouldn’t want to waste your time with a paltry bet, however. I can tell you’re a guy who doesn’t do things on a small scale. Make it, I dunno, 2,000 quid?”
QUASAR, aka KEISUKE TANAKA:
“What would you say your greatness weakness is when it comes to your job?”
“Sometimes I awake with impure thoughts, which is unworthy of one of His Serendipity’s acolytes. So I meditate on my anima beneath his portrait until my mind is cleansed.”
“Good old meditation, huh? Does the trick?”
“Yes. After reciting the 312th Sacred Revelation, “The unclean sheep are just a bunch of haters,” I imbibe a vial of His Serendipity’s sperm and immediately I feel better.”
“Uh. Okay then.”
“And why do you think you’re right for the position of magical cat who watches over my characters?”