Chasing Horses

David Mitchell on the craft of writing

When David Mitchell was a boy, he heard a family story he’s never forgotten: his grandparents, planning to travel by ship to India, had a choice of two crossings: in August or October. They decided to go in August. On the October voyage, the ship sank. The experience of hearing that story, and realizing that a different decision would have meant no David Mitchell, seared itself in his brain, and seeded a lifelong interest in the ideas of ‘causality, miscommunication – communication going wrong’.

‘Themes and ideas come from you as a writer,’ Mitchell told the on-line audience for the first Arvon at Home event. ‘You can trace your themes to who you are.’

Writers and readers of course know who Mitchell is: best-selling author of eight novels, including Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and most recently Utopia Avenue, in a literary career spanning 21 years. He was in conversation with Front Row presenter Alex Clark, discussing the craft of writing, and offering practical advice.  

He began with the five building blocks of a novel: plot; character; theme/ideas; style; and structure. To understand how they work together, he suggested imagining an old-fashioned arcade game, with five horses racing round a track. As soon as one’s ahead, the game’s mechanism will rein it in, and another will take the lead. It’s the writer’s job to ‘keep them all within hailing distance of one another’.

Plot and character keep the story moving; style and structure don’t. Different writers are interested in different aspects – ‘Philip K Dick, for example, is interested in ideas.’ But ‘it doesn’t matter if you’re a character or ideas person – you have to get the balance right.’ This involves ‘a multitude of decisions, from the macro to the micro’; each one ‘will have a cost/ payoff’ – even if it’s something as simple as whether to use ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’.

Mitchell agreed that his writing combines an eye for detail with a speculative world of infinite possibility. This allows him to be ‘maximalist and minimalist at the same time’. Writers shouldn’t mix fantasy and realism, but apart from that, ‘give it a go. See if you can do it. What would it take?’ Here was the excitement of his creative process: ‘the more devious the straitjacket, the more audacious the escapology’. He showed us how, working on The 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he solved the puzzle of how to get a woman – ‘the love interest’ – into the tiny, male-only trading post of Dejima. The series of ‘what if’ questions he asked himself was fascinating.

He admitted, his ‘on-board editor never takes a rest’; anything that isn’t ‘a four- or five-star metaphor’ is cut. But not deleted: it all goes into a Useful Bin, with the thought that it can be used again one day. Although ‘I’ve never actually gone back to retrieve anything from it.’   

He seems reluctant to let his characters go, and agreed he’s happy to see them when they reappear in subsequent books, in his ‘ubernovel’ project of linked works. Replying to a question about characterisation, he suggested using real-life experience: thinking of real people as potential fictional ones. He advised writing a letter, to yourself, from the character: better than making notes, because ‘you get their voice. If you find out something about them they don’t know, use square brackets – that can go in the plot.’

Our new, strange lockdown world may have brought productive isolation for some, but it’s increased domestic pressure for many. Answering a question on finding writing time, Mitchell acknowledged this, and advised, ‘Take all the things that are stopping you from writing – and use them as your material.’ And make notes! He quoted that other famous Mitchell, Joni: ‘If you don’t write it down, it never happened’, adding, ‘Don’t let amnesia be the decider of what’s a killer idea.’

The evening flew by; too soon, it was time to cut the Zoom link and return to our individual worlds. For a short while we’d gathered round the fire, sharing the joy of creativity, and celebrating the craft of storytelling.

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