David Mitchell traveled to Hiroshima eight years ago to teach
English to junior high and high school students, eventually landing a
university job, which he described as much more conducive to the writing
career he was pursuing. "I got much longer holidays," he explains during a
phone call from a Los Angeles radio studio during the publicity tour for his
second novel, Number 9 Dream. The novel follows Eiji Miyake as he
arrives in Tokyo in search of the father who abandoned him at birth, and it's
hard to tell what's more fantastic, his experiences in the city or his wild
daydreams. After the tour, Mitchell heads back to Japan, only to pack his bags
and return to his hometown in England: "My wife will be giving birth in the
middle of May, so I need to be somewhere where I know where everything is
and how it all works."
RH: Were you interested in writing when you first went out to Japan?
DM: Oh yes. I've always been interested in writing, and knew at the back of my
mind that it's the only job I've really wanted to spend my life doing. I wasn't focused,
though. Like a lot of people, writing was something I liked the idea of doing, without
having sat down and applied myself, created the discipline necessary to write a whole
RH: How did you find that discipline when you started your first
DM: I got rid of my TV--that was the first, crucial thing. You get it out of the
house and you have all these hours open up that you didn't have before. You consciously
cut down your social life; when people invite you out, you have to politely tell them,
"Sorry, I have to write today." It's that simple, really.
RH: How did the multiple settings of that novel come together?
DM: I wrote the stories in the order in which they appear in the book, and I got
the idea for the first story from a Japanese newspaper, an article about an Aum Shuriyka
gas attacker who had hidden in Okinawa for months following the attack. I was interested
in the end of fanaticism inside one person's head, and wanted to attempt to recreate the
mental processses, the erosion of his belief system.
That story was a bit of an oddity in that it's the only story that has its own single seed. The
others all came about as I traveled to the places that I write about. Whenever I travel, I write
about what I see. Even just a few sentences about the place I'm in will allow me to
remember it later in a much more technicolor way than a photograph can. Those notes make
good material which I can later extend into narratives and eventually into stories. So the
story ideas came from the things I saw as I was traveling.
RH: The novel has a science fiction feel to it, but it's not quite science
DM: I've been influenced by science fiction since I was a teenager. One of the
qualities of science fiction that's both a weakness and a strength is that nothing is ruled out.
You have a broad, infinite canvas to take your plot in any direction you choose. You're not
confined by physical laws. If you're not careful, that can be your undoing, but with luck
and application, you can do a lot with the form.
When is science fiction not science fiction? That's an intriuging question...I'm certainly not
published as a science fiction writer, but one of the intriguing things about writing in
general is the carte blanche you have to use anything you like. There are no rules about
what you can or can't do, as long as you make sure it works.
RH: Number 9 Dream is less science fictional, but it still has a
very alien, surreal feel to it, even though it contains real details of
DM: The book's about the mind, which is the home of fantasy and imagination,
the origins of the surreal. So to write about the states of the mind--memory, imagination,
nightmares, fiction, dreams, and so on--will necessarily, at least for me, have a fantastical,
surreal feel to it. I want to depict Japan in my style with as much clarity as possible, and the
details are necessary to keep the novel's feet on the ground, even if its head isn't. The
research was fun. I went to some interesting places in order to write as authentic a portrait
as I could.
RH: The first section of the novel has a number of false starts and
rewinds that disorient the reader, raising questions about what's supposed
to be real.
DM: I do like fiction and films that fools me in some way, that wrongfoots me,
and writers often enjoy doing what they enjoy having done to them when they read. I don't
get to experience that disorientation, of course. I'm the one who put the red herrings in, so
I don't know how they taste. The one thing your own work can never do is take you
unawares, although the interpretations and analysis later can.
RH: Unlike many Westerners who write about Japan from their
perspective as a foreign visitor, you've written in both books from the
perspective of native Japanese characters.
DM: I have a problem with the way Japan is usually portrayed in the West, as the
land of cherry blossoms, geishas, Mt. Fuji, and kamikaze pilots. I wanted to do what
Haruki Murakami does, depicting Japan as it is, and finding the beauty in the ugliness.
Using Japanese protagonists seems to be a more convicing way to go about that.
Another reason is that I'm interested in the challenge of it. It isn't the obvious thing to do.
There's significant technical and cultural puzzles to solve to achieve it, and that's what
attracts me. I'm much more interested in the things that I'm not sure I can pull off than the
things I can write without too much effort or thought.
RH: You mentioned Murakami. Who are some of your other favorite
DM: I find it's best to answer this question by plunging into it without thinking
of it too much, so I will. Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, John Cheever,
Yukio Mishima, Tanizaki, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Townsend Warner,
Alice Walker. The last book I just read was The Bird Artist by Howard Norman,
which was a fantastic book.
RH: What was your reaction to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize?
DM: I was honored, and felt very fortunate. I was very happy for the novel.
Once you've written a book and had it published, it's like your offspring, and you remain
interested in how it makes its way in the world. At the same time, you do feel an odd
detachment in that it's beyond your control. I suppose it's like having an eighteen year-old
who's starting to make his or her own life.
RH: Your detachment must be intensified by your being halfway
around the world from the British literary scene.
DM: I probably always will be detached from the literary scene, though. I tend
not to read my reviews, or even much contemporary fiction. I'm very well insulated from
the outside world in Hiroshima, but I think it might be that I'm just that sort of person, and
that my physical isolation simply reinforces my personality. And my personality won't
change much when I return to England.
RH: As you're preparing to return to England, do you see a shift in
your subject matter and settings?
DM: Probably not. It's healthy for writers to shift anyway. It wouldn't be good
for me to keep writing variations of the same book over and over. And location is certainly
one factor for a writer, but there's also one's changing relationship with the world,
growing older, taking on different responsibilites. Being a father will probably have more
impact on my writing, I think, than the change in geographic location. How my writing
will change is impossible to say, though, until it happens.
RH: Have you started writing a third novel yet?
DM: I'm always at work on something. When I finished the manuscript
for Ghostwritten, I mailed it to my agent and that day, I began writing
Number 9 Dream. I wouldn't know what to do with my time if I weren't
writing. I'm a little bit camera shy about talking about new projects, though,
so I'm afraid I'm not going to give you any details.