Stuart Kelly started this event by calling David Mitchell one of the most ingenious, intelligent and empathetic writers around. Mitchell seemed bashful at receiving this description, but immediately went on to prove it as extremely accurate. From the moment he stood to read from The Bone Clocks he was engaging, fascinating and always ready to poke fun at everything, including himself.
The reading began with him setting the scene by describing Scottish rain gods pissing onto the umbrellas of Charlotte Square, appropriate given the puddles and swathes of mud already in place on the very first day of the festival. The section he read depicted his character Crispin Hershey (also a writer) raging against a bad review, which had contained the phrase ‘Why is Echo Must Die a decomposing hog?’. As Hershey raged Mitchell paused to admit that “a little bit of this is drawn from life”. A short while later he paused again to joke that he would attempt a Scottish accent in Australia or England but he felt the door was a little too far away for him to attempt it here.
Kelly then launched the author-chair discussion with a question about the value of critics. Mitchell replied that a small group of them make important contributions to the ecosystem, said in a tone that had Kelly adding “like mulch”, much to the delight of the audience.
Discussion moved on to the fact that much of Mitchell’s work seems to inhabit the same universe, thanks in part to his fascination with recurring characters in the work of other authors. He feels that when you meet a familiar character in the context of a completely new book they bring a certain reality to the new text. When his Canadian publisher asked if he was essentially creating his own Middle Earth he laughed and had to say yes. He does like large-scale projects. However, he also wants each work to be a distinct entity, working in a way that allows him to be simultaneously maximalist and minimalist.
This led to discussions of genre and the potential pitfalls of fantasy, where you “can’t be wrong but you can be bad.” If you want to break the laws of physics you have to replace Newton and Einstein with something else for the world to be coherent. Often fantastical worlds need to be tethered to earth and the ethics and morality that come up in his work are his way of doing so.
Mitchell says he often has ideas that would be ridiculous cathedral sized books, which need shrinking before they can exist in a readable form. The Bone Clocks was originally conceived as a series of 70 short stories, one for each year of the life of the main character Holly Sykes. Then 10-15 stories in he realised why it had never been done. The rhythm of a short story is too different from the rhythm of a novel, and so The Bone Clocks became 6 connected novellas. He then provided his advice to young writers that sometimes the reason a novel isn’t working isn’t that the elements you love are actually bad, it’s simply that they don’t belong in that particular book. They need to be copied into a ‘useful’ file, where they might never again be looked at but at least they still exist.
The section of the event set aside for questions from the audience further enforced Kelly’s initial description of Mitchell. His answers had the fascinating rambling intensity that occurs when someone simply has such a wealth of knowledge that they cannot give short, direct answers because there is always too much to say. Speaking through the interruptions of Tattoo fireworks he revealed that he finds discovering the genre a book needs to be satisfying, as opposed to preferring a single genre to any other, and his satisfaction comes from translating the book in his head to one on paper with as much fidelity as possible. He also loves hearing that people want to see more of a particular story or character and gains a writer’s satisfaction from hearing that something he wrote made them cry.
On the subject of film adaptations he felt that it should be done when you trust the directors and with the understanding that certain changes have to be made because a novel works as a novel precisely because it is not a film. It must be translated, rather than adapted, if it is to work on screen and certain things are possible with film that are not possible in writing. The question is less is it an accurate adaptation and more is it an honourable translation?
Questions then ranged over the difficulties of writing a female character, and the need to study badly written female characters to decipher the mistakes, to the fact that writing characters who repeatedly alternate between male and female creates “headaches the size of Yorkshire”, and that Doctor Who has made writing original reincarnating immortality rather difficult. The recurring theme of the importance of the environment was raised and a well-timed bang led to Mitchell wondering about the carbon footprint of fireworks before discussing the fact that narrative can be used as a Trojan horse to introduce issues to readers.
The final few minutes of the event saw Mitchell stand once again to read from his upcoming novel Slade House, which was a gripping final testament to the truth of Kelly’s opening line. At the signing table afterwards he proved it once again by informing me he knew how to say Indigo in Japanese, writing it beneath the English version of my name before he signed his.