“Cloud Atlas” Author David Mitchell: “What a Bloody Mess We’ve Made”

The brilliant British novelist on his latest book, “The Bone Clocks,” and his dim hopes for human survival.

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British novelist David Mitchell is best known as the guy who wrote the great novel that was made into the challenging movie Cloud Atlas. Yet the screen fails to convey the true brilliance of Mitchell, who has been widely hailed as one of the English language’s best prose stylists. He so convincingly captures the patois of disparate characters that one might mistake him as the charismatic frontman for a creative writer’s guild.

Over a 15-year career, Mitchell has earned a cult following for the way his work seamlessly bridges historical, contemporary, and science fiction. Readers of his latest novel, The Bone Clocks, won’t be disappointed. It offers a genre spanning, multistranded narrative that begins in an English pub in 1984 and ends in 2043, when the oil runs dry and a war wages between bands of immortals.

On a recent drive together through San Francisco, the 45-year-old author told me about his “midlife crisis novel,” and why he’s not so confident about the survival of the human race.

Mother Jones: How does it feel to be back in San Francisco?

David Mitchell: It’s where I did my first solo book event ever [in 1999]. I was living in Japan. It was my first ever time in America, my first book event, first everything. Back then there was no one that wanted to meet me. So I did an urban hike, with trees and a steep hillside and these steps and ended up at the ocean. I had my first meal in a real American diner by the sea.

MJ: The architecture of your books involves interconnected novellas whose characters often turn up unexpectedly. Which comes first, structure or character?

DM: The structure is the attention grabber, and somewhat unusual, but emotional resonance should be something all novelists should want to create. If you don’t care about characters, you’ve got dead bodies on your hands.

For the same reason you can’t make yourself laugh by tickling yourself, you never actually know if you’ve achieved empathy for the character. I start by making the character want something and yearn for something—and what are the holes in their lives? That’s a key to making that bond with the reader. But I needed a theoretical place for the characters to go; they couldn’t all be there at once—which brings us back to structure.

MJ: There’s a musicality in your writing, an elegant single-mindedness. Is this a conscious effort?

DM: I think long and hard on each word, and then I’m revising, revising, revising. For me, and for a lot of writers, writing is mostly rewriting. And for me, at that level, if assonance and alliteration and dissonance feel right, then that’s what I do. I go with those words and not others.

MJ: Talk about your Bone Clocks protagonist.

DM: Holly’s an amalgam girl, a compilation girl, a mixtape girl. She’s pretty solidly working class, though in the middle era of her life she’s writing books. She’s rebellious, says no more than I ever did as a boy, more than I do now—with gay abandon even. My daughter’s not quite the right age yet, but any father of a daughter becomes more feminist than he was before. I hope this knowledge gives me a slightly different way of looking out.

“Is it not a kind of a malady… equating being over 40 with being on the threshold of the old folks home?”

MJ: Recently, you’ve thrown an interesting conceptual bone at the reader by suggesting that your novels all form one über-book, in which characters and themes may overlap and reoccur. If this book is part of a larger universe, then who are you still thinking about?

DM: Right now I think about Hugo, because I realize he’s out there, he’s aging. It’s the end of The Bone Clocks and he’s got the body of a 24 year old. [He was] born around the same time as me, in the late sixties, and I wonder what he’s up to. At the end of The Bone Clocks, he gets to have his thirties, when most of his contemporaries are in their 60s. He’s a future character.

MJ: Have you heard of the movement, popular among libertarians, called Transhumanism?

DM: Once the book is handed in, the characters are in cryogenic suspension. That belongs in that Transhumanist tradition, doesn’t it? With West Coast attitude, you can cheat death. In a strange way, it peculiarly belongs to the tradition of The Bone Clocks. Is it not a kind of a malady? Is it not indicative of our beauty-obsessed culture, equating being over 40 with being on the threshold of the old folks home? Stop feeling envious of beautiful, healthy young 20-year-olds—not a sideways envy, but a painful blade in the guts. That’s the enemy of the contemporary life, especially when you have other things to be dealing with in the domestic sphere.

MJ: Do you think we handle aging poorly?

DM: If you were an alien anthropologist studying a TV program, you wouldn’t be aware of anyone with white hair other than an occasional anchorman. Terror makes you profoundly age averse. We become sort of mean to seniors: “Why are you holding up my queue?” And so they venture out much less. Japan’s not much better. It’s a Confucian country where in theory they equate age with wisdom and not decrepitude, but you can’t survive as an old person in the middle of Tokyo—you’d get trampled. And so, you don’t see them.

MJ: The last section of your book presents a dim view of what’s to come for us humans. What do you think our future holds?

“Imagine if you’re in a drought in a loose network of failed states and the place is awash with AK-47s.”

DM: I’m a country boy and I love trees. The World Without Us talks about how what a great benefit to the planet Earth, the disappearance of human beings would be. It would be lovely, in a really quick time frame—except the nuclear reactors. They, of course, are monstrous and melting for millennia to come, without a power grid to cool the water, to cool the nuclear waste. We’ve damned the planet by failing to keep a lid on radioactive waste. I see myself not just as a citizen of a state but also part of a life form and ecosystem: Humanity is a sentient life form with a wherewithal to be conscious, and what a bloody mess we’ve made.

MJ: Do you think technology could avert disaster?

DM: They can use a [computer] virus to deactivate Iran’s reactors but a virus can’t stop plutonium from being radioactive. The only way to stop it is not to synthesize the stuff in the first place, but it’s a bit late for that. The best thing about nature is what Agent Smith says in The Matrix: Humans spread and breed until the natural resources are used up, and then move on. What’s the only other life form that does this? The virus.

MJ: The immortals in the story, besides shedding light on our ageism, made me think about the relationship between resource scarcity and climate change. Care to elaborate?

DM: Resource wars can take religious guises or political guises but if there was enough going around none of them would happen. You’re in a drought in a pretty well functioning state, but imagine if you’re in a drought in a loose network of failed states and the place is awash with AK-47s. Gosh, this is getting to be a gloomy thing. But, overpopulation may usher in the Endarkenment. Civilizations do end. That’s why there are new ones. It’s a zero sum game.

At this, Mitchell leans back with a smile, and suggests a question: “What’s your fantasy air guitar solo?”