Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Silver Daggers and Russian Dolls – David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, in interview.

“I’ve never entirely made up my mind about this. There obviously is a barrier and some prejudice. I guess that’s where I’d start. I remember a while back a newspaper asked the question ‘What is Science Fiction?’ and they’d get 20 different answers from 20 different people. And the best answer I can recall is ‘Whatever is published as science fiction’. It sounds like a neat, pat answer but it’s actually saying something quite worthwhile, which is that genre is largely created by the industry. So approaching genre fiction, I think, the only question that really matters is, is it any good? I think, for example, James Ellroy is good, Margaret Atwood’s good, Ursula Le Guin is good. And whatever the semiotics of the cover are saying to me in terms of what genre this book is a member of, that’s almost a distraction that you have to make an effort to ignore”.

“Nevertheless, for a book like Cloud Atlas, the existence of genre can both be quite useful and pose a problem. It’s useful because it provides this readymade arsenal of motifs and allusions you can tap into, exploit, and play with. It can be clichéd but the thing about clichés is that they only need a very slight adjustment and you can get something startlingly original. That’s the advantage of genre. The disadvantage of genre, say with a piece like the Luisa Rey story–and this is a point raised by my American editor–the more you succeed in making it true to genre, the more faithful you are, the less original it will be. So that’s the bonus and that’s price you have to pay when writing using genres”.

So has he ever been tempted to take the Iain Banks route and invent a different persona to write out-and-out genre works? He’s not tempted the write a space opera, for example?

“I am! In my idler moments I anticipate writing the third Luisa Rey mystery and actually getting it printed by, if not Sceptre, the Hodder imprint I’m with here in London, then with their crime imprint. I don’t know if I’ll ever do this, but it would fun just to go the whole hog. The crime writer manqué in Cloud Atlas is called L. V. Hush who actually submits the Luisa Rey mystery to Timothy Cavendish [another Russian Doll moment in the novel], so if I were to write one I’d like to use the name Hush. And have it embossed on the cover in big gold letters along with a slogan like ‘The new master of crime.’”

I suggest that if he won the Silver Dagger (an industry prize for best crime novel) with such an effort, he would be unlikely to be popular with the seasoned pros in the field.

‘I think if I were to win a dagger, I’d probably find one sliding in between my shoulder blades.’

The recent reports on Mitchell’s next release suggest he’s working on an autobiographical novel about his childhood. Will it feature the same kinds of innovations that have characterized his fiction up
until now?

“I ought to try to quite uselessly quash the idea that it’s autobiographical. It’s sort of 34.6% autobiographical and the rest is ‘real’ fiction. It’s relatively straightforward–the only source of possible structural wackiness is my self-imposed stipulation that each of the chapters has to be a theoretically extractable short story. In other words, when extracted it would feel like a short story and not an extract taken from a novel. I’m putting them end to end, and that makes a novel”.

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