David Mitchell: Short and tweet

By Hermione Hoby

The $100 million movie of Cloud Atlas bombed, but that didn’t halt the rising star of its author, David Mitchell, regarded by many as the greatest of his generation. now he is tweeting his latest work, writes Hermione Hoby.

David Mitchell has tightened his writing skills into the 'strait-jacketed' medium of Twitter.
David Mitchell has tightened his writing skills into the 'strait-jacketed' medium of Twitter.

David Mitchell was wordless for the first five years of his life. It's an irony of an autobiographical detail - which critics and interviewers cannot resist - that the writer, loved for his abundance of stories-within-stories, began as a child unable to say anything at all before growing into a teenager afflicted with a stammer.

Now, six books into his career and regarded by many as his generation's greatest writer, the twice Booker-shortlisted 45-year-old is applying his prodigious eloquence to what he calls the most "straitjacketed" form: Twitter.

The Right Sort is a short story being published in flurries of tweets sent from an account (@david _mitchell), which the author set up specifically for this purpose. Mitchell has explained that his choice of medium fits his protagonist, a young boy who steals his mum's Valium "because it reduces the bruising hurly-burly of the world into orderly, bite-sized 'pulses'. So the boy is essentially thinking and experiencing in tweets."

There's this, for example, tweeted a couple of weeks ago: "The pill's just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch."

It's just a tweet, but it also seems like confirmation of the specific talent that New Yorker critic James Wood praised in a lengthy panegyric in 2010. Namely that "he may be self-conscious, but he is not knowing, in the familiar, fatal, contemporary way; his naturalness as a storyteller has to do not only with his vitality but also with a kind of warmth, a charming earnestness".

Wood's review ran under the title: "What can't the novelist David Mitchell do?" Clearly, "prove that Twitter fiction can be art, not gimmickry" is just another one for the "can-do" list.

His tweeted story is an intriguing project in its own right, but it's also an appetite-whetter for the main dish, his sixth novel, due out in a few weeks.

Ireland is where Mitchell himself now lives with his wife and two children, but he was born in Ainsdale, near Southport, north-west England, to artist parents and grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire, in England's West Midlands. He downplays the artsiness of his upbringing, though.

Speaking to the Paris Review in 2010, he said: "When I talk about my artist parents people imagine a bohemian environment [ ... ] but we were as white, straight and middle-class as the next family on our white, straight, middle-class housing estate."

It was no surprise to his parents that their bookish son went on to study comparative literature. At the University of Kent, on England's south coast, he was taught by Jan Montefiore, who also employed him as a babysitter for her young sons. Mitchell wrote bedtime stories for them that featured, for example, an eagle that spoke in Chaucerian rhyming couplets. When she saw these, Montefiore was so charmed and dazzled that she told Mitchell: "One of those days I'm going to boast about having had you as a student."

Ten years later, Mitchell published Ghostwritten and Montefiore got her chance: the book was widely acclaimed the best debut novel of the year, if not the decade.

In truth, it wasn't his first. After graduating, he taught English as a foreign language in various countries and, while in Hiroshima, he wrote The Old Moon, a sprawling book of 365 chapters dense with characters and subplots. It was roundly rejected by agents, among them Mike Shaw, who deemed the manuscript "a mess", "out of control and over the top".

Sensing talent, however, he asked Mitchell to send him whatever he wrote next. When Shaw read Ghostwritten, he was astounded at how far Mitchell had come.

Since then, Mitchell's reputation has grown with each book. His second novel, 2001's number9dream, was a coming-of-age story set in Japan, then, in 2004, he published Cloud Atlas, a collection of "nested" stories in which each tale is read by the main character in the tale that follows. The novel's scope is enormous, moving from the remote South Pacific of the 19th century to a dystopic future Korea.

It's here that the novel's one ostensibly non-human character - a genetically engineered clone called Sonmi 451 - articulates the novel's central human truth: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future."

After this came 2006's Black Swan Green, which, with a 13-year-old Worcestershire lad who stammers as its protagonist, is Mitchell's most autobiographical work. It won him a fresh round of literary laurels, but perhaps the accolade that pleased him most was making it on to course syllabuses for speech therapists in Britain.

Then, in 2012, Mitchell experienced an even more unexpected honour when Cloud Atlas was adapted for film. As he put it: "This 8-year-old Russian doll of a novel by some British bloke nobody's ever heard of," became a $100 million movie. Directed by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer, the film was stuffed with stars - Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant - but suffered from being stuffed in every other way, too.

While the film version of Cloud Atlas, starring Ben Whishaw as Robert Frobisher flopped, sales of the book soared.

One critic complained: "It plays like a gargantuan trailer for a movie still to be made." And that voice wasn't alone in finding a movie thick with bombast and dazzle and thinner on emotional nuance.

Mitchell, ever sanguine, wrote a defence of the movie in the Wall Street Journal: "Adaptation is a form of translation, and all acts of translation have to deal with untranslatable spots."

Later, in an interview with the Guardian, he said: "If the film doesn't work, it doesn't hurt the book. If it does work, it helps the book."

In fact, sales of the book rocketed. Suddenly, this mild-mannered Englishman found his dense, complicated epic of a post-modern novel competing with Fifty Shades Of Grey on the New York Times best-seller list - a place that Mitchell, for all his wildly imaginative, geographically restless adventurousness, probably never expected to find himself.

In a review of Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men, Douglas Coupland sought to coin a new literary genre. Name-checking Cloud Atlas, he wrote: "Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader's mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present."

Kunzru, who, like Mitchell, was named a best young novelist in 2003 by British literary magazine Granta, is both a friend and a fan. He tells me: "His signature is a kind of ineffable sense of the cosmic interconnectedness of everything. I'm not sure what that amounts to. He seems to flirt with notions of reincarnation and a kind of transcendental consciousness - but it allows him to flow freely into imaginary futures and pasts, which is highly pleasurable for the reader. It's a hopeful position too. I think that hopefulness partly accounts for his popularity, along with a kind of gentleness, a basic ethical decency. Readers can tell he's a nice guy on the page."

Virtuosity and modesty do not, historically, go hand-in-hand, but in Mitchell's case they seem to come from the same place, namely a perennial boyish excitement about the world. One young character in The Bone Clocks, a teenage boy called Brubeck, confides in Holly: "Sometimes I want to be everywhere, all at once, so badly I could just ..." and he mimes "a bomb going off in his rib cage".

It's hard to resist reading that as pure ventriloquism from an author whose fiction continues that magic trick of being everywhere, all at once.

The Mitchell file

Born: 1969 in Ainsdale, Lancashire, north-west England, to a father who teaches art at a teacher training college and a mother who works as a freelance artist specialising in botanical imagery. Married with two children.

Best of times: In 2007 Mitchell was the only writer to make the Time 100 list, the magazine's list of the world's most influential people. He's in at number 16, between John Mayer and Kate Moss.

Worst of times: In 2008 his 16-month-old son was diagnosed with autism. Mitchell wrote about the experience, recalling emailing friends to tell them: "The replies come quickly but read awkwardly: condolences are inappropriate in the absence of a corpse, and there aren't any 'So Sorry Your Offspring Has Turned Out Autistic' e-cards."

What he says: "The reason we love the books we love - it's the people. It's the human mud, the glue between us and them, the universal periodic table of the human condition. It transcends."

What others have said: "Lavishly talented ... the persuasive vitality of his stories is strong enough to frighten off their own alienation." - Literary critic James Wood

The Bone Clocks (Random House, $37.99) is out on September 2. The Right Sort is available on Twitter (@david_mitchell).

- Observer

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