The Saturday evening of the Marlborough LitFest weekend, brings a special treat for followers of the world-renowned novelist David Mitchell – and of the short story.
David Mitchell is best known for his novels Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. Having spent many years abroad – notably in Japan – he now lives in Ireland with his wife and their two children.
He is bringing to Marlborough three short stories which are exclusive to the LitFest – they will centre on gardens, autism and time’s elasticity. After the readings there will be a question and answer session.
Marlborough.news could not wait for Saturday, September 30. So with elbows to the fore, we have jumped the queue to get in first sending a series of questions to West Cork, which David Mitchell has kindly answered – as a preview to an evening that will be another first for LitFest and a certain delight for the audience.
Cloud Atlas could be seen as a complex series of wonderfully inter-linked short-ish stories – what made you turn to the short story?
I haven’t really ‘turned to’ the short story as much as ‘I take short holidays’ with the short story. I still think of myself as a novelist, but a decent short story gives me a ‘hit’ of creative fulfillment without needing to spend three years on it. This isn’t to imply that the short story is a lesser, slighter form – if anything, the reverse is true.
Why have you chosen gardens, autism and time’s elasticity as the three topics for your short stories?
A couple of artist friends, Kai and Sunny, often send me their artwork for upcoming exhibitions, and I write them a short or very short story in response which they put in their catalogues – in lieu of the impenetrable prose that usually appears in art-show catalogues.
Gardens, because the sense of calm a garden brings is pretty wonderful, and beyond language. Autism, because my son has autism, and the better I understand it, the better I understand him.
Time’s elasticity, because I went to a superhero film with my daughter and loved a sequence seen from the point of view of a character whose superpower was the ability to run multiple times faster than a bullet. (I think it was either The Flash or Quicksilver – I get them muddled.)
He zoomed around an exploding mansion, removing or throwing the dozens of individual occupants to safety just before the fiery ‘wave-front’ of the explosion reached and consumed them. It struck me how, from a bystander’s perspective, the character flew by in a blur: but from his point of view, time had slowed to a crawl – as if time is not an absolute but a function of velocity. Woah!
How could I not write a short story about that? (See the kind of paragraph you attract to your quiet market town, Marlborough, when you cultivate a literary festival in your midst?)
Your mixing of period and genre seems to be one of your trademarks – is it a technique to keep the readers on their toes and alert to the subtleties of you stories?
I’m not that calculating or clever, Tony. Wish I was! Really, I like to mix period and genre because reality likes to mix period and genre. I like to mix period and genre because you might discover new colours or sounds.
As a stammerer did you turn to writing as a preferred, non-verbal way of self-expression?
Looking back, yes – though again, it wasn’t so conscious a process at the time. Expressing yourself clearly is good for your growth and self-esteem. A clearly-expressed true idea tends to win the argument – even if it’s shouted down, it’s still won.
Often the shouters sense they’ve lost, hence the shouting. Being a conduit for truth – whether it’s about the human condition or about a snowdrop in the corner of the garden – nourishes you. Because of my stammer, I couldn’t do any of that expression, nor win those victories, verbally. On the page, the stammer-tilted playing-field gets levelled.
You have spoken about stammerers’ technique of finding words they (we) can say – the thesaurus syndrome: how have the years of doing this helped your writing?
A mental thesaurus is to a writer what a laboratory is to a chemist, or what a garage is to a mechanic. The better equipped it is, the more jobs you can do, and the better you can do them.
Again, I didn’t realise it at the time, but all those years I was living in fear of public humiliation inflicted by my stammer, and practising all the tricks I needed to find linguistic detours to its roadblocks, my mental thesaurus was getting bigger and craftier and almost sentient.
Now I work for it as much as it works for me. If anything, it’s tilted the playing-field in my favour. Sometimes the only difference between a curse and a blessing is twenty years.
Finally – and a bit off the LitFest agenda – you’ve lived in England, Italy, Japan, England again – why Ireland?
The only evidence I feel the need to present, Your Honour, is West Cork. If you’ve visited here, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, daily flights direct from Bristol to Cork, only about eighty quid if you book four weeks plus in advance. What are you waiting for?
David Mitchell will be at the Town Hall on Saturday, September 30 at 7.30pm.
You can book tickets online using the LitFest link on marlborough.news’ main page – or by phone 01249 701628 – or in person at the White Horse Bookshop (cash & cheques only)
Brewin Dolphin are the lead sponsor for Marlborough LitFest 2017.