Last month a group of writers, English professors, philosophers, and doctors medical and academic gathered at St. Andrew’s University in Fife, Scotland, where they discussed the one thing they all have in common: A deep appreciation for — and fascination with — novelist David Mitchell’s writing.
The event, David Mitchell Conference 2017, was the second-ever conference dedicated entirely to Mitchell, who also participated in the discussions. The day was organized by Dr. Rose Harris-Birtill of St. Andrews School of English, who’s no stranger to deconstructing the British author’s work — Harris-Birtill’s doctoral thesis was titled “Mitchell’s Mandalas: Mapping David Mitchell’s Textual Universe.”
Rose was gracious enough to talk to Ghostwritten about the event, her own love for Mitchell’s novels, and some moments of levity as the attendees discussed the books with the man who wrote them:
Ghostwritten: Could you share your “David Mitchell origin story”? How did you find Mitchell’s work, and what sort of things about it spoke to you? At what point did you say to yourself, ‘This is something that I can explore through an academic lens’ and make the transition from David Mitchell reader to David Mitchell scholar?
Dr. Rose Harris-Birtill: I was working in London as a writer, and I used to spend my commute reading all sorts of stuff – not just fiction, but academic criticism too. A friend recommended Cloud Atlas and I picked up a copy – and my head exploded. It was one of those rare novels that just stays with you.
I was searching for possible authors to look into for my PhD at the time. I’d been reading Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick … all brilliant writers, but that alone isn’t enough to justify three years of research! Cloud Atlas engaged with so many huge and fascinating ideas that I thought that I might be on to something. I raced through Ghostwritten next, hoping that I wouldn’t hate it – and I wasn’t disappointed. Then I found Dr. Sarah Dillon’s fascinating academic essay collection, David Mitchell: Critical Essays, and it was from reading this – and the rest of Mitchell’s novels – that my own research project started to emerge.
Ghostwritten: For you, what’s the difference between reading as an admirer of Mitchell’s work, and reading as an academic? Do the books “feel” any different when exploring them from a scholarly angle?
Dr. Rose Harris-Birtill: For me — and everyone will have a different answer to this — I think we’re all simultaneously readers and critics, to a degree. We judge as we read, and if we’re confused, or we like it, we instinctively re-read to try and find out why. For me, academic reading is about magnifying this process – reading and analysing, using as many critical ‘tools’ as we can to help figure out what’s going on. Narratives are made of chains of events that we join together to make sense of the overall story – and once we’ve understood what’s going on, we ask why it’s noteworthy. Why would someone tell this story, and why now? What can we learn from it? How does the author’s worldview fit in with our own? Having critical theory training, I do struggle to take my academic ‘hat’ off when reading, even if it’s unrelated to what I’m researching – but that’s also the beauty of it. And once you start looking at the world around you as itself made entirely of competing narratives – not just books, but politics, newspapers, films and adverts, which themselves form a larger, ever-evolving narrative of how you and others see the world – it’s difficult to stop doing it!
Ghostwritten: How did the conference come together?
Dr. Rose Harris-Birtill: I found out about the first David Mitchell conference from David Mitchell: Critical Essays, which mentioned that the conference had taken place at the University of St Andrews in 2009. During my research, I’d uncovered a lot of rare material — original footage of David Mitchell’s libretto for Wake in performance, unpublished short stories, collaborative art works, essays — and I had my own unpublished interview material with the author, the composer of Wake and the cast of Sunken Garden (the author’s other libretto). It seemed a shame, having found these materials so useful for my own research, that other interested readers didn’t know about them.
So I started putting together a collection, helped by some generous funding from the University of St Andrews School of English and Special Collections to buy in the more expensive pieces. Once I’d got it together, I thought that a conference would be the perfect way to get the word out, as well as bring together the growing field of Mitchell scholars. I’d found over a hundred pieces of published academic criticism on David Mitchell’s work from researchers across the globe, but I hadn’t found any international events that brought them together. I also wanted the day to be as accessible as possible, and bring together not just experts from the field, but also interested readers from other disciplines.
I thought that it might be popular, but I was amazed at the sheer amount of excitement and interest in the day. The conference sold out nearly three months in advance, bringing together twenty speakers from ten countries, and there were waiting lists for both speakers and attendees. As well as literary critics, it was attended by philosophers, psychologists, physicists, a cognitive neuroscientist, a medical doctor, a filmmaker… so it was brilliant to have so many different perspectives there.
Ghostwritten: Mitchell himself is a famously humble and self-deprecating kind of guy. How did he initially respond to the idea? Were there any interesting or funny moments when he interacted with the participants?
Dr. Rose Harris-Birtill: David was brilliant from start to finish – he is such a genuine, warm-hearted individual, and he’s been a real pleasure to work with. He was brilliant in readily agreeing to come along to the conference, which I appreciate must have been a strange experience! He took the time to chat with attendees individually, listening to papers on his works and answering questions throughout the day, as well as treating us to a reading of three unpublished short stories in the evening.
There were lots of interesting moments, and several funny ones too. I scheduled a group discussion as the final group slot before our trip to see the rare works, in order to allow us to come together and have some time to talk about how the experience had been. I was chairing the session, and started by asking how we should go about working with living authors in light of Barthes’ theories on the death of the author. One front-row participant quickly quipped ‘kill the author?’ – meeting with much laughter from the group, and a slightly anxious chuckle from David!
Ghostwritten: “The Bone Clocks and the Lego Novel” sounds interesting, I’d love to watch footage of the panel on stammering, and I see panelists also dived pretty deep into the evolving meta-text of the Mitchellverse. How can people learn more about those panels, and did any new ideas form from the discussions?
There were too many interesting new ideas to mention individually here! The associated conference publication is a David Mitchell special edition of the journal C21 Literature that I’m guest editing, so I’ll be writing a piece on the day for this, and it’s my hope that some of the speakers will submit their ideas for this too, so hopefully you’ll be able to read more about this there as well. For anyone that wants to learn more about the conference, or the special edition, the official conference website at http://davidmitchellconference.wordpress.com/ has more info, whilst the day was live-tweeted using the hashtag #DMcon2017, so that people that couldn’t make it could still follow the day.
Ghostwritten: How many people attended, and is this a one-off or do you anticipate it’ll become an annual thing?
There were fifty attendees, which was the full capacity of the venue. I would certainly like to run another ‘DMcon’ in future – perhaps in a few years though!
Ghostwritten: What’s next? Anything to plug that our readers and David Mitchell fans should know about?
I’d certainly encourage anyone who is really interested in David Mitchell’s works to have a look at the wealth of critical essays out there; there are several accessible papers and books with some fascinating ideas on everything from climate change and globalisation to biotechnology, cannibalism and cosmopolitanism. As well as the C21 Literature special edition, which should be out in 2018, there’s another new publication due out shortly with essays on David Mitchell’s work, David Mitchell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives edited by Dr Wendy Knepper and Dr Courtney Hopf, in which I’ve got a book chapter on the author’s writing for opera, if anyone wants to learn more about this. I’m also hoping to publish my own book on David Mitchell’s textual universe in the not too distant future, so watch this space!