Inside David Mitchell's World

Dissecting the outlandish literature of the ultimate 21st-century novelist.

For an author whose novels range exuberantly across time and space, David Mitchell has a deceptively simple view out his window: “There’s a horse in the field next door, and the fields are fallow. So it’s just grass and buttercups and a hawthorn hedge,” he observes via phone from County Cork, describing the rural Irish landscape he’s called home for the past 12 years. It’s the perfect place to practice the deep, subtle writing of his heroes­ John Cheever and Anton Chekhov.

Mitchell’s fiction, however, pushes well beyond the established boundaries of your typical minutely observed novel, venturing to 18th-century Japan’s Dutch trading concession in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (all titles mentioned are published by Random House); postlapsarian Hawaii in Cloud Atlas; the spirit-haunted plains of Mongolia in his debut, Ghostwritten. Even in the semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, grounded in Mitchell’s suburban English upbringing, a penchant for synesthetic metaphors—e.g., “to dent the morning’s shine”—lends an otherworldly cast to his emotional acuity. Yet wherever this hyperbolic imagination takes him, Mitchell grounds the ambitious flights of fancy in the keen psychological portraiture more often found in 19th-century Russian literature.

The combination has made him a publishing phenomenon and that oddest of birds: a literary writer whose work is indisputably fun. “I love the eight-cylinder, high-octane imagination of a graphic novel…and I like these delicate, probing, subtle character studies,” he explains­. “I’m greedy; I want to do both.” His latest book, The Bone Clocks (Random House), keeps up the pace, interweaving the vividly imagined inner life of a runaway teenage girl in Thatcherite England with a Manichean struggle between psychic cabals that spans continents and centuries. As per usual, Mitchell mixes culture, geography and genre like literary stir-fry. He’s as adept joking about Justin Bieber’s fifth divorce as he is discussing Icelandic sagas qua embryonic novels.

He also jaunts between settings like a location scout and globe-trots for inspiration: “I’ll go to a place and get thoughts there about the landscape and the people and write these down. These then become the recyclable compost for my imagination.” This time that list includes western Australia, the Swiss Alps and Iceland’s lunar landscape. He even drafts the Sheep’s Head peninsula near his Cork home into service. Of course, this being a David Mitchell novel, the bucolic haven morphs into an outpost of Western civilization disintegrated by climate change. “There are too many really brilliant Irish writers for me to take on directly,” Mitchell jokes. That quip, however, belies the author’s deep geopolitical understanding. In the book’s final section, he extrapolates trends we read about daily in headlines, imagining a New York flooded by rising seas and a dominant China scouring the globe for increasingly scarce resources.

But the foundation on which Mitchell sets all his work is that attempt to fuse the probing insight of Chekhov with the mythos building of Neil Gai­man. That may strike some as a contradiction, Mitchell concedes, but for him it’s a necessity. “Can something be highbrow and mass-market entertainment at the same time? I’m bothered by the notion that it can’t be,” he says. “It would depress me if that were true.” Of course, bringing that level of psychological depth to a universe as large as Middle Earth would create a doorstopper of a tome. Thus Mitchell views his collected works as an over­arching “über book”: Characters reappear and events occupy a single reality—sort of the Marvel universe by way of Tolstoy. A key character from The Thousand Autumns reappears in The Bone Clocks as a hero, just with a different body—and a different gender.

You could call it the quintessential literary project for the 21st-century author. But for Mitchell that fusion transcends mere postmodern experimentation. It’s the imperative behind all his work: “Stylistic wizardry isn’t enough…in the pecking order on the totem pole, character is higher.”