David Mitchell Talks About The Bone Clocks, September’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Photo by Paul Stuart

David Mitchell is the author of The Bone Clocks (Random House), the number one Indie Next List pick for September as chosen by independent booksellers nationwide.

The Bone Clocks has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, and two of Mitchell’s earlier novels, Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream (both Random House), were shortlisted in previous years. With the long-standing support of independent booksellers, Mitchell’s novels have also graced IndieBound’s recommended reading lists over the years. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House) appeared on both the July 2010 Indie Next List and Summer 2011 Reading Group List and Cloud Atlas appeared on the Fall 2012 Reading Group List and the September 2004 Book Sense picks. Mitchell, who lives in Ireland with his wife and two children, was born and educated in England. In 2007, he was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time.

Holly Sykes, a temperamental teen when The Bone Clocks opens in England in 1984, is an unknowing player in a centuries-old war between two factions of immortals: the Anchorites, who keep their youth by taking the life of humans, and the Horologists, who slip from one life to another in a loop of reincarnation. Over the six decades leading up to the 2040s, Mitchell takes his readers on a journey around the world, through the Swiss Alps — where the young Hugo Lamb is presented with an offer for immortality by the Anchorites — and on to Iceland, Australia, the Middle East, and upstate New York — where the resurrected Dr. Marinus formulates an intricate war plan to aid the Horologists. Along the way, each time period and location provides another peek into Sykes’ role in the ongoing battle of immortals.

Mitchell recently spoke with Bookselling This Week about how the idea for the novel germinated; his process for creating the expansive, 600-page tome; some of the characters readers might recognize from previous novels; and his own experience working in a bookstore.

Bookselling This Week: What inspired you to write The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell: Ah, inspiration. It’s so nice if you can have one simple creation myth. Sometimes you can say, “Well, I went to this museum and then I saw this ancient artifact from 3,000 years ago and thought that’s it!” Reality is a bit messier than that.

I was going through a midlife crisis, really. Hit 45, more years behind you than ahead. Death’s no longer this abstract concept in a distant place over the horizon; it’s there in the mirror, in your kneecaps, in the breathlessness when you take the stairs instead of the escalator.

At heart is this Faustian pact: If you do this deal and get to keep your youth, your health, and what beauty may have been endowed forever, would you? And what would you be prepared to pay for that? Would you amputate your conscience, for example?

This is the offer that is put to several of the characters in the book. Holly, the protagonist, is there as the exoskeleton, as the subject who moves through life from youth, ages in the natural way, and reaches old age in the west of Ireland as the world changes, as it is always doing. She has the parameter of life that you and I will have, but there are some characters in the book who don’t, who are born outside of that parabola or who are born into it but then get this proposal somewhere in the middle, like Hugo Lamb. So, in a very roundabout way, all of this is my response to my changing relationship with mortality. You need one. It will not do to put your head in the sand and have a “la-de-da-I can’t-hear-you” kind of relationship with death; you need something a bit more engaged than that. So that’s my inspiration: impending death.

BTW: What was your process for developing and writing such an involved, intricately detailed book?

DM: The same as ever, really: muddling through. You kind of feel what your book would like to be and what it could be, and you go searching for a way to take it from that inchoate thumb-sucking fetus in your imagination to a realized novel in text. You proceed by mistakes, by inspiration — whatever that is — by stumbling upon your ideas, by going wrong, working out how you’ve gone wrong and fixing that so you get it right. And stumbling across unexpected good bits, happy accidents, careful planning, getting inside the heads of your characters and seeing the world of the book as they would see it. Getting stuck and getting unstuck. Big messy muddle. That’s my process. Which doesn’t really deserve the name “process,” but that’s how it goes for me.

BTW: The Bone Clocks explores different places around the world, different time periods, and different genres of writing. Was it your intention to cover so much ground, to give the reader such an extensive experience, or do you go where the story takes you?

DM: It is my intention to go where the story takes me. I am by nature a bit of a maximalist. I like big, immersive novels. I like novels to be worlds that swallow you up; they’re my favorite kind of thing to read. Not that there aren’t great minimalists either. My favorite two writers are Conrad and Chekov and they only ever wrote short things, for the most part. But to me, even when I try not to, I tend to write quite large-scale things that have lots in them. I sometimes wish that wasn’t the case. You don’t get paid more for 650-page books than 250-page books.

BTW: You have a fondness for bringing some of your characters from earlier novels into new ones. Are there any characters in The Bone Clocks that readers might recognize?

DM: Yes, Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was surprising because that was set in 1799–1800 and this one is set in the present time — but you’re going to have to read it to find out how I do that. And Hugo Lamb is a character who my readers might recognize from Black Swan Green, where he is a 15-year-old precocious cousin. Little did we know...  And there is a certain gray cat that readers might recognize. There’s a few more, but I’ll stop there.

BTW: You tried out your bookselling skills while working at Waterstones bookstore in the U.K.?

DM: I did! I was there for 18 months, in about 1990–1991. I loved it! I have great memories of that time. I was in charge of fiction, which is, of course, a dream job. It’s like being a doctor. You’re sort of curing them of not reality hunger, but fiction hunger. You describe a book like The Leopard by Giuseppe de Lampedusa and they come back in a fortnight and they say, “My god, I loved that book, what a great kick, what a pleasure.” It’s a bit like when you have Friend A and Friend A has never met Friend B, and you introduce them and they get on really well and you somehow have increased their net quantity of friends in the world. It’s like that, but with books.

BTW: You’ve had the backing of American booksellers for several of your titles, which have appeared on the Indie Next Lists. You’ve worked in a bookstore, and you also seem to be an avid reader. Are independent bookshops and their booksellers an important part of your life?

DM: I love independent bookstores. I think in the States they play a particularly important role. You tend not to do arts councils or put public money into the arts and this means that American bookstores do fulfill de facto a lot of the roles that the arts council does, say, in the U.K. Independent bookstores are the brains trust of many medium-size, even large-size, American towns. You’re the arts centers of these towns. You’re even more than that; independent bookstores are places to go and often meet like-minded people.

It’s kind of like an airport terminal with a million destinations, with a million airport gates to a million worlds. You go and meet other people who’ve been to other places and you talk about the worlds these books take you to. And that’s invaluable. I’d even say it’s crucial to the mental health of a town to have a bookstore. It doesn’t have to be independent but inevitably independent bookshops are more idiosyncratic and there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter independent bookstore.

It’s really easy to say nice things about independent bookstores and booksellers. They’re precious. They’re an asset to any country. And long may they run.