And Stephen King was there. (He’s Joe Hill’s dad, though he’s probably more often described as the author of The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Under the Dome, Joyland, Mr. Mercedes…)
Joe Hill started off with a short but sweet introduction, comparing The Bone Clocks to the Escher-esque Way of Stones in its fifth part: “a dizzying climb.” David Mitchell protested that his head had become so enormous after this intro that he’d need a second plane ticket for the way home, then he launched into reading from the third section of the book, set in 2004, narrated by war reporter Ed Brubeck. Mitchell interrupted himself frequently to “translate” from British to American, apologize for his Yorkshire accent, accuse anyone who recognized the word “Silurian” of watching too much Doctor Who, and make other self-deprecating remarks, and he concluded the reading with a teaser: “If you want to know if they find Aoife [Ed's daughter] or not, you’ll have to go to your independent bookstore…”
Hill began the Q&A by asking about genre. Mitchell views genre as “a set of preexisting formulae” that writers can tweak, change, invert, and conjoin. “Genre is dangerous to deploy,” he said, and one of the dangers is reviewers who have negative attitudes toward genres (“I don’t do elves”). However, he said, he doesn’t write for reviewers. “People can tell when books are riskless…and haven’t caused the author psychic pain.” His ideal bookstore wouldn’t have genre signs in it at all; “I don’t like these divisions,” he said. “Surely the only question that matters is Is it any good or not?“
Hill’s next question had a geology metaphor; not “where do your ideas come from?,” but “if you drill down through your novel, what’s at the bottom?” Mitchell listed five elements of the novel: plot, character, style, ideas/themes, and structure. Plot and character are propulsive; style and ideas are…”What’s the opposite of propulsive?” (The audience shouted out ideas. Mitchell suggested this would be a fun game show. “What’s the opposite of a peacock?”) Structure is neither propulsive nor its opposite, but the neutral vehicle itself.
“Novels need ideas like bread needs yeast” – a little bit makes the whole thing rise up.
Structure, for Mitchell, is key: “When I find that key, the doors open in relatively rapid succession.” But you can’t impose a structure just for the sake of it; the structure must harmonize with the ideas in the novel. Cloud Atlas‘ Russian nesting doll structure suited its ideas perfectly, and may be part of the reason the book is Mitchell’s best-selling one. (“Cloud Atlas will probably be on my tombstone. It will probably pay for my tombstone.”) Black Swan Green‘s structure may be the most conventional of all Mitchell’s novels, with thirteen sections, one per month, January to January. (Hill to Mitchell: “There’s twelve months in a year, but you were close.”) Why such a radically different structure for each new book? “I’m vain enough to want to be original. Or maybe it’s not vanity…I wish to avoid cliche.” Hill commented that Mitchell’s structures make his books architectural, which chimes nicely with my own idea of each of Mitchell’s novels being like a room in a house, with characters wandering our of one and into another.
Next came the “speed round,” a series of short answer questions. “Why don’t you Internet?” Hill asked. “I do Internet. I don’t do social media,” Mitchell replied. “I don’t have time.” (If you’re going to crank out a 500+ page book every World Cup and raise children while doing it, this is probably true. Think what the rest of us could get done without Facebook and Twitter!) (Probably none of us could write The Bone Clocks, but we could do something better than “liking” pictures of friends’ cats, no?)
Hill asked if Mitchell wrote on a computer or on paper; Mitchell answered that mostly he typed, but he started new novels on paper. “I can doodle my way” into a novel on paper, but not on the screen, often starting with sketches of characters’ faces, he said.
A couple more “speed round” questions: What’s the first book you remember reading and loving? A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent favorite book? The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. (Mitchell didn’t list any other contemporary titles, but added that the book he would “run into a burning building to save the last extant copy of” is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.)
Hill then turned the mic over to the audience for a few questions.
What’s your advice for writers whose characters are very different from them? Get your characters to write you letters. Consider what they have to say about money, class, prejudices, sexuality, work, religion, the state, society, early childhood experiences, health, fear of death. “People give themselves away in language all the time.” (This letter-writing advice is almost word-for-word the same as that which Crispin Hershey gives his students in section four of The Bone Clocks.)
When you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, did you already have the whole concept of the Horologists and the Anchorites? Did you know Marinus was a Horologist? “I knew Marinus had a flexible contract with mortality,” Mitchell answered, but he hadn’t invented the whole cosmology yet. (Marinus, along with Timothy Cavendish, is one of Mitchell’s favorite characters, and one we may not have seen the last of.)
Do your beliefs inform your writing, or does your writing inform your beliefs? If he’s anything, Mitchell said, he’s a Buddhist. “It’s a thing you work at all your life really,” he said. “We need a healthier relationship with mortality.” We’re a “youth-adoring” culture, and that doesn’t serve us well. (The 49 days between the Horologists’ deaths and reincarnations is a number from Japanese Buddhism.)
Timothy Cavendish (from Cloud Atlas) appeared in the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of The Bone Clocks, but was edited out of the final version. Does this really have to do with entertainment lawyers? Partially yes, but he’s been replaced by a character who is featured in Mitchell’s next “significant” book, set in SoHo and Greenwich Village in London in the ’60s. (I assume he meant the 1960s, but one can never be sure. Also: will there be an “insignificant” book in between? Or is he just preparing us for a high page count?)
The Bone Clocks wasn’t on the Booker Prize shortlist. (Not really a question.) Mitchell quoted Julian Barnes, who’d said, “The Booker Prize is posh bingo.” Mitchell then noted that Barnes said that before he won (for The Sense of an Ending in 2011), and might not say the same now. Mitchell did mention that his books had been on the list in previous years (The Thousand Autumns longlisted in 2010, Black Swan Green in 2006; Cloud Atlas shortlisted in 2004, Number9Dream in 2001), and didn’t appear bitter that The Bone Clocks didn’t appear on this year’s list.
“If I were the Beatles, Number9Dream would be the White Album.”
His goal, he said, was that if his name were removed from his books, that no reader would be able to tell it was the same author who had written them. (Although some of the character names would be dead giveaways.) He’s always trying something different, which he allows can be trying for his publishers. But the roomful of readers in Cambridge tonight wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thanks: to LibraryThing for an ARC of The Bone Clocks; to Porter Square Books for setting up the event; to Joe Hill for sharing his thoughts on Doctor Who; to the nice people in line; to David Mitchell for signing two books; to David Ebershoff for a few minutes of nice conversation after the signing.