David Mitchell and Joe Hill talk writing

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…)

boneclocksJoe 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?

cloud_atlasHill’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.

blackswangreenStructure, 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.)

thousandautumnsWhen 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?)

number9dreamThe 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.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

For a short summary and review, please see my review for the Robbins Library on Goodreads.

For a more complete summary (spoilers included) and quotes, please see my review on LibraryThing.

“You only value something if you know it’ll end.”

I did not read any reviews before reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I wanted to come to it fresh, unbiased, with no preconceived notions or other people’s opinions clouding my view or telling me what to look for. I devoured its 620 pages in four days, and then I looked at what reviewers had said about it. I started, perhaps unwisely, with James Wood’s review in The New Yorker (about which more below); the most understanding thing I can say about it is that, with his obvious contempt for the science fiction and fantasy genres, perhaps he was not the best reviewer for this book. (“Every book its reader; every reader his/her book.“)

I thought Ursula K. Le Guin’s review for The Guardian might be more sympathetic, but she calls Mitchell’s writing “anxious” and self-conscious. She wrote – surprisingly for a fantasy/sci-fi author – “I find these radical shifts of time and person difficult, and, though willing to suspend disbelief, am uncertain when to do so. Am I to believe in the hocus-pocus of the secret cult of the Blind Cathar in the same way I am to believe in the realistic portrayal of the death agonies of corporate capitalism – or should I believe in them in different ways? How many novels is it? If it is one, I just don’t see how it hangs together. Or maybe its not hanging together is the point, and I’m not getting it.” Le Guin also probes, not unjustly, at Mitchell’s choice to narrate in the present tense. I know some readers who are particularly sensitive to present-tense narration, but in this case at least, I didn’t find it troublesome. Rather the opposite: by using the present tense, Mitchell anchors the reader in each of six presents.

Joanna Kavenna, in the Telegraph (UK), is generally positive, though she doesn’t sound entirely pleased for David Mitchell that he has entered that “lit-fic kingdom of heaven” where one is both “critically acclaimed” and “wildly popular.” Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, provides more of a summary than any other reviewer; her review is mixed, praising the realistic parts of the novel and dismissing the “silly mumbo-jumbo” of the more fantasy-heavy sections. I found the “mumbo-jumbo” fairly easy to decode, but I could see how readers might have trouble with the denser paragraphs of it. Considered individually, the words Mitchell makes up or repurposes are all logical, even if he does sometimes use a noun as a verb (e.g. hiatus).

Pico Iyer’s take in the Sunday Book Review aligns most closely with my own, though he puts everything better. Unlike Le Guin (“How many novels is it?”), Iyer writes, “with Mitchell it’s the whole, the way he stitches the pieces together to make something greater than their sum, that makes the work unique.” He admits that the fifth section strays too far into “Marvel Comicsdom” for his tastes, adding generously, “[Mitchell’s] take on everyday life is so alive and so much his own that it seems a waste when he starts inventing realities, as so many other writers do.” In his final paragraph, Iyer concludes, “Other writers may be more moving, and some may push deeper, but very few excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”

Back to James Wood’s review in The New Yorker, in which he displays his condescension for fantasy and science fiction. He gives a head-nod to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Mark Haddon’s Boom! (“a terrific little book I enjoyed reading to my son a few years ago, but which I didn’t bother to treat as more than a nice bedtime game”), but clearly he believes that fantasy and sci-fi are for children (who, apparently, only read or are read to for diversion, not to set their imaginations on fire and develop worldviews).

Undoubtedly, The Bone Clocks has elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and no reviewer who scorns these genres as less serious than “literary fiction” can review it fairly. (Besides, as Holly’s father points out to her partner, Ed: “Life’s more science-fictiony by the day.”) Wood’s lack of interest in these aspects of the novel led to his misunderstanding in at least one case: there wasn’t a “schism” between the Horologists and the Anchorites; they are fundamentally different creatures. The Horologists are reincarnated; the Anchorites practice animacide (not “animicide,” as it was printed in The New Yorker. Anima = soul).

cloud_atlasFurthermore, Wood seems to disparage storytelling itself. In the opening paragraph of his review, he writes, “As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling…flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive.” I would argue that storytelling is central to the human experience, and good stories – the stories we remember and retell – do have meaning. Mitchell’s novels, particularly Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, have more meaning than most of the other contemporary novels I’ve read. Wood barely addresses the sixth and final section of the novel, wherein Mitchell imagines a realistically grim version of 2043.

Some of Wood’s criticisms are fair; he writes that “[Mitchell’s] characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike.” It’s true that Holly Sykes (at all ages), Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey, and Dr. Iris Fenby (a.k.a. Marinus) are all clever, witty, insightful, and observant, but their dialogue and their thoughts are unique enough to be distinct. (Mitchell has already proved, in Cloud Atlas, that he’s capable of writing in many different voices and dialects.) And it’s not as if character was sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, either; Kakutani calls Holly “a thoroughly captivating character,” and I’m inclined to agree.

blackswangreenThough it is by no means easy reading, I love spending time in the Mitchell universe, where every novel belongs to one “‘Uber-book,’ in which themes and characters recur and overlap.” Seeing these characters reappear is like running into an old lost friend at a Christmas party: unexpected recognition, a delighted sense of “oh, it’s you!” In The Bone Clocks, nearly everyone makes an appearance: there are cameos from Jason and Julia, Alan Wall, and Nurse Noakes (Black Swan Green), Timothy Cavendish (Cloud Atlas), and the omnipresent moon-grey cat; there is a larger but behind-the-scenes role for Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas); and Marinus (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and Hugo Lamb (Black Swan Green) play significant roles.

So, what is The Bone Clocks about? It is about the life of Holly Sykes, fifteen when we first encounter her in 1984 and seventy-four when we last see her in 2043. It is about the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, which is really a war about the value of life; the Horologists’ aim is to prevent the Anchorites from committing animacide (killing) in order to preserve their own youth. Mitchell has called The Bone Clocks his midlife crisis novel, and one can’t read it without considering aging and death on the ordinary human scale as well as the “Atemporal” one; as Nurse Noakes says to Hugo, “You’d think old age was a criminal offence, not a destination we’re all heading to.”

According to David Mitchell himselfThe Bone Clocks is about survival. And it is about the future we are all headed for if we don’t begin making drastic changes now: a scarcity of resources and a consolidation of power, lawless zones and fear, a time when we’ll remember clean water and electricity as luxuries. Of course, both survival and life can be considered on more than one scale: in The Bone Clocks, there is the individual, the species, and the Atemporals. The Horologists and the Anchorites may be pure fiction, but we still have to worry about the rest. Will 2043 look like it does in Mitchell’s vision?

11/7/14 Edited to add: Stephen King makes a similar point about literary critics and genre fiction, specifically citing The Bone Clocks, in this Rolling Stone interview. He says, “Michiko Kakutani, who writes reviews for The New York Times, is the same way. She’ll review a book like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which is one of the best novels of the year. It’s as good as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, has the same kind of deep literary resonance. But because it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, Kakutani doesn’t want to understand it. In that sense, [Harold] Bloom and Kakutani and a number of gray eminences in literary criticism are like children who say, “I can’t possibly eat this meal because the different kinds of food are touching on the plate!”

Usability and Visibility

Last fall I wrote about Google’s redesign (which actually increased the number of clicks it took to get something done). Sure, it’s a “cleaner, simpler” look, but how did it get cleaner and simpler? To put it plainly: they hid stuff.

For those who are continually riding the breaking wave of technology, these little redesigns cause a few moments of confusion or annoyance at worst, but for those who are rather more at sea to begin with, they’re a tremendous stumbling block.

Today in the library, I helped an 80-year-old woman access her brand-new Gmail account. She signed on to one of the library computers with her library card – no problem there. Then she stared at the desktop for a while, so I explained that she could use one of three browsers – Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer – to access the Internet. “Don’t confuse me with choices, just tell me what to do. Which one do you like?” she asked.

I suggested Firefox, and she opened the browser. The home screen is set to the familiar Google logo and search bar, surrounded by white space. I pointed up to the corner and told her to click on Gmail:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.44.07 PMThen came the sign-in screen, asking for email and password; at least the “sign in” button is obvious.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.48.45 PMNext, we encountered a step that asked her if she wanted to confirm her account by getting a mobile alert. I explained that she could skip this step, but she clicked on it anyway, then got frustrated when her inbox didn’t appear.

Now, here’s something that anyone who has ever put up any kind of signage probably knows: People don’t read signs. They don’t read instructions. Good design takes this into account; as Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) says, “Design is really an act of communication.” Good design communicates with a minimum of words and instructions.

In this case, I canceled the prompt for her and we got to her inbox. I showed her that she had three e-mails – informational, “welcome” e-mails from Gmail itself – and upon seeing she had no mail, she wanted to sign out. “Do I just click the X?” she asked, moving the mouse up to the upper right hand corner of the program. I explained that clicking the red X would close the browser, but that she should sign out of Gmail first (even though the library computers wipe out any saved information between patrons).

But is there a nice big button that says “Sign out”? No, there is not. Instead, there’s this:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.01.12 PMHow on earth would a new user know to click on that to sign out? She wouldn’t. And the thing about new users (very young ones excepted, usually) is that they don’t want to go around clicking on random things, because they’re afraid they will break something, or make a mistake they can’t correct or backtrack from.

I think the above scenario will be familiar to anyone who works in a public library, not to mention anyone who has tried to help a parent or a grandparent with a computer question. It’s easy to get frustrated with the user, but more often than not the blame really rests with the designer – and yet it’s not the designers who are made to feel stupid for “not getting it” or making mistakes.

And it isn’t just beginning users who run into these problems. Sometimes it seems as though designers are changing things around just for the sake of change, without making any real improvements. Examples spring to mind:

Think the latest “upgrade” to Google Maps. If there are checkboxes for all the things you already know are problems, why push the new version?

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.25.28 PM

Even Twitter, which is usually pretty good about these things (and which got stars across the board in the EFF’s most recent privacy report, “Who Has Your Back?: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests”), is not immune to the making-changes-for-no-reason trend:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.18.00 PM

But perhaps the most notorious offender of all is iTunes:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.21.11 PM

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.17.07 PM

To quote Don Norman (again), “Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful. You have to know when to stop.

To this end, I would suggest to all designers and front-end developers: please, run some user testing before you make changes, or as you’re creating a new design. Get just five people to do a few tasks. See where they get confused and frustrated, see where they make mistakes. Remember (Norman again), “Designers are not typical users. Designers often think of themselves as typical users…[but] the individual is in no position to discover all the relevant factors. There is no substitute for interaction with and study of actual users of a proposed design.

Edited to add: WordPress isn’t immune, either.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.41.47 PM

Is it “easier”? Is it “improved”? How so? I’m OK with the way it is now, thanks…but soon I’m sure I won’t have a choice about switching over to the new, “easier,” “improved” way.