'I won a lottery ticket'
For a man listed by Time magazine list as one of the most influential people in the world, David Mitchell is an author of disarming modesty. Life in Japan and west Cork has given him great characters but, he tells Hilary A White, membership of Ardfield Tidy Towns is worth more to him than a literary prize
When I tell David Mitchell about the Dublin-Cork rivalry (you know, the one that only Cork people know about), he cackles loudly and knowingly. "It's interesting what you say," he says, settling himself. "I've got a friend from Clonakilty who's a Dubliner. He says as a young Dubliner you can spend your youth travelling, trading on and having drinks bought for you for being Irish, and it's wonderful. Now, in adult life, he's moved down to Cork where he's just a berk! Talk about being humbled!"
Sitting in a quiet corner of the Imperial Hotel in Cork city, Mitchell is animated and poignant when talking about west Cork. The twice-Booker shortlisted author has called Clonakilty home for the past eight years, and maintains a gushing affection for the area.
"I certainly don't do the local author thing," he says on his role in the community. "In that respect I do keep myself to myself. But on the other hand I've done my two years with my kids' parents committee in school and I'm the newest and possibly proudest member of Ardfield Tidy Towns committee. I was really honoured to be asked and I thought, 'Yeah, that's kind of worth more than a big literary prize.' It's important not to radiate 'accept me' vibrations because that puts anybody off. There's lots of blow-ins in west Cork anyway -- it's well known for it. The two worlds co-exist well, but the longer you're there the more porous the border becomes."
He begins with the practicalities behind the move. "My wife Keiko is from Japan and the idea of living outside the UK was attractive -- so when the plumber doesn't come on the third day she can't point at me and say, 'It's your fault, your culture!' I'd come here around '95-'96 on a little holiday and I remembered how beautiful it was. At that time, the south coast of England looked prohibitively expensive and west Cork looked relatively affordable. And it's always a bit disingenuous if I don't mention the favourable tax policy for artists here. However, I'd also say that I was certain it would be abolished in the last budget. This is home now, and if midwives and teachers and police officers have to pay tax it's quite fair that artists do as well."
He stops for one of many extended pauses during our meeting. With mouth ajar, he'll squint at some unspecified object across the room. "Have you been to west Cork?" he finally gasps. "It's beautiful. Why would anyone not want to live here? I love it when you're driving along a country lane, you meet a car you recognise and you wind down your window, have a little chat. In England you wouldn't stop in the first place, and woe betide you if you're caught blocking the road to have a conversation with a friend. Here that's just normal. And waiting a minute for the people in front of you is also normal. You can't put a price on it. It's wonderful."
For somebody once listed among Time magazine's most influential people in the world, David Mitchell is disarmingly good company. He will chat thoughtfully and insightfully about anything, from the volcanic ash crisis ("a compulsory pause button that's been pressed") to The Wire ("Shakespearean, Chaucerian and Dante-esque, and that's not over-icing the cake"). He can take a range of forms; a 41-year-old, happily married father of two; a joke-cracking dreamer who may suddenly hover away on the back of his imagination; an erudite and worldly devourer of knowledge.
For most, he is one of the most discussed writers of his generation. In 2004, he handed his publishers a manuscript that would not only become a huge bestseller, but also one of this millennium's first great literary achievements. It was called Cloud Atlas.
"It won the lucky lottery ticket of Richard and Judy," he shrugs, referring to the afternoon show's endorsement at that time. "If you win a lottery, are you surprised? Surprised isn't quite the right word. You're pleased and if you're sensible you don't take it for granted. On the other hand, as a book even now I can see there's long stretches of it that still work pretty well."
Sales are one thing, but frothing critical acclaim from most angles is another. "It still makes me a little uneasy because it feels as if they're taking a permanent marker and drawing an archery target on my forehead and writing 'open season'. But on the other hand, how churlish would it be to complain about it?"
Another pause. "You can see the difficulty of the situation," he sighs. "It's an honour. I'm really pleased that people think highly enough of my work to want to include me on the Time magazine list. However, if I began to believe it ... when I told my mum that I was one of the most influential people on the planet, she spent about 90 seconds helpless with laughter. That's healthy. A measure of genuine humility is essential with writing. If you're an arsehole, people simply won't tell you their stories. And we need the stories --
that's our raw material. A bit like a journalist, you need to get people's guards down."
The author's first visit to Ireland provided such nutrition, and ended up being embroidered into his 1999 debut, Ghostwritten. One of the story's strands is about a scientist called Mo Muntervary from Cape Clear Island. His latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, features a distant ancestor of hers called Con Twomey, a brash Corkonian in the 18th-Century mould.
"All characters are amalgams of people you've met -- how could they not be," Mitchell stresses. "There's so much material with which to build in Cork. He didn't really come alive until I got his name right which was very late on -- no character's quite alive until you've got the name right. In Clon, I was caught at the roundabout at the Supervalu one morning in peak-hour traffic. And it was on my mind -- what am I going to call this character? Then a van drove by with 'Con Twomey' on the side and I said [adopts praying pose] thank you, thank you! I hope he's not offended that I've borrowed his name, but this is a good place to say 'Mr Con Twomey of Clonakilty, west Cork, I hope you don't mind!'"
Set at the turn of the 19th Century, the novel tells of a Dutch clerk sent to investigate corruption on a man-made island near Nagasaki called Dejima. There, the titular clerk becomes obsessed by a local girl, all the while trying to negotiate the many blurred lines and manipulations of the language barrier. This is not the first time the theme of communication has cropped up in Mitchell's work.
"Possibly, it's one of the things that's central in a lot of my work," he admits. "In Black Swan Green, the book I wrote before this, the protagonist stammers like me. And that's also a variation on the theme of not being able to say what you want to. I think all writers have a certain number of themes that, even if they try not to put them in their books, still appear like whac-a-mole animals."
I ask him to describe his younger self, growing up in Worcestershire and he answers with a list of bullet points. "Bookish. Shy. Stammering, but mostly able to conceal it. Imaginative. Able to sulk. Not with a particularly strong backbone or thick skin. Shy with girls but who isn't." A fascination with constructing "just the right phrase from just the right words" germinated around this awkward age and soon became an addiction.
Mitchell travelled to Japan after University and worked as an English teacher for a number of years. He attributes the move not only to the availability of work, but also "a young man's wanderlust and an association with a young lady". Like Jacob de Zoet, a stark culture shock awaited him there. "The population density gets to you," he recalls, "especially if you're a country boy. Emotions must be repressed and they are, otherwise the place would be a permanent riot, and obviously it isn't -- it's a very successful society."
It's hard to imagine a more jarring transition than Japan to Clonakilty, especially for a young family. Mitchell acknowledges that it just had to be done.
"The other thing in Japan is the gender divide. I'd go and collect my daughter from school and be the only guy doing it. Here in Clon, half of us would be dads and when the kids have parties, the dads kind of do them. I love it! It's good for dads, it's good for the kids, whereas that can't happen in Japan because I'm meant to be working my butt off in an office for 15 hours a day, and you're not a proper male if you don't. So this is yet another reason why we're staying in west Cork.
"My wife appreciates the advantages as well. If Japan was where France is, it'd be great because it's expensive and problematic to get back, even when there isn't a vast volcanic ash cloud threatening global civilisation!"
Mitchell's next project he describes elusively as "a book to do with the recent past, the present and the near future". For now, he's happy to be an honorary Corkonian, a husband and down-to-earth soccer dad.
"I'm a writer when I work, and when I'm not, I'm a dad or 'the English fella who owns the yellow house up the hill there'. I'm just me, but that's OK with the place -- west Cork allows you to be 'just me', whoever you are."
'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' by David Mitchell is published by Sceptre, €25.05