Author Q&A: David Mitchell on Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks and great TV

Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell on books, great TV and what to do to beat jet lag

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 November, 2015, 11:24am


The writer of Cloud Atlas , David Mitchell, was in Dubai recently to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. "It paid for the house," Mitchell says of his 2004 sci-fi novel of six interconnected stories about the past and the future. Cloud Atlas went on to become a Hollywood film. His sixth novel The Bone Clocks was long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Mitchell has spent years teaching English in Japan. He has also taught in Italy. He prefers to not travel for book tours and literary festivals in some seasons. Domesticity requires him to be home with his wife and two children over the winter. During his session at the festival called "Writing Other Worlds", Mitchell disagreed with the view of fellow panellist Lauren Oliver who called writing "painful". Mitchell gently introduced a little perspective: painful is someone working in a sweatshop in the third world. Before he went on stage, Mitchell spoke to Nivriti Butalia.

So you are in Dubai for the first time. 

Yes. First time. Am a bit woozy. For years people have been saying you must watch The Sopranos, you must watch The Sopranos. And I had the box set on the in-flight. So first I watched Birdman, which was wonderful. And then I started watching The Sopranos. I know I should have been trying to sleep but it was only about midnight - 1am UK time, or Irish time. So I arrived with my head full of The Sopranos (laughs). And you can see how it's influenced The Wire and things that have come since. And even things like Mad Men.

You're obviously a drama series enthusiast.

Very, very selectively. We don't have a TV at home. We just have DVDs. I haven't really started Apple TV or Netflix or anything like that. I'm still stuck in 2002. I'm still getting DVDs. My friends laugh. But the best of the best or the most addictive - so Game of Thrones and Mad Men. I'm slowly working through House. They're very formulaic. But I can watch one a month. It's my indulgence on Friday nights. Saturday nights. I don't really go out much. I don't go out to the pub. So I reward myself … oh and Breaking Bad, as well.

I was going to ask you about but you've more than answered my question.

House of Cards, Game of Thrones, I often confuse the two. House of Thrones or Game of Cards … (laughs).

Best writing in a drama series on TV, any generation, any period?

You have to find individual episodes. I can't say … let's swap. This is fun.

OK. I love political dramas. , most recently. But I think that trumps everything.

I've watched Seinfeld on planes when there's not enough time to watch a movie and I have 80 minutes until touchdown. I agree. The writing of course is very intelligent. The set pieces in House of Cards … there're some stunning pieces. I still remember the bit where Kevin Spacey is addressing the church in about the second episode of season one. A kid has died. And he's there as a politician and there's some antagonism towards him in the church. The way he acknowledges that and turns it around … I replayed it three or four times just to get the musicality of the speech.

So you re-watch?

It's worth having box sets and DVDs, just for this reason. I like to study them. Good writing is good writing, [regardless of] where it's from or who did it or what the format is.

And you enjoyed ?

Very much. It was fabulous. I'm still watching it now in my mind. The difference between a four-star film is that you forget the next day, and a five-star film - you wake up the next day and you're still thinking about [the latter].

What about Arab writers in the region? Are there authors here whose works you're familiar with or would recommend or like to get to know?

Oh it would be arrogant of me. I am just a beginner here. But does Orhan Pamuk count? I think he's great.

Have you had time to go around Dubai?

Absolutely not (laughs). I'm experiencing a Dubai hotel. Not really experiencing the city. But it's still exposure. I had a great tip from my friend Pico Iyer. He said, 'Don't fight jet lag, use it'. So instead of lying there trying to get some sleep, get up and go downstairs and have a chat with the concierge … strike up a conversation. Even though it's not Dubai, it's a hotel in Dubai. Human beings everywhere have stories.

As a reader, how often do you put a book down half way?

I never used to. But at about age 40 you realise that life is pretty short. So now by about page 50, if it isn't ignited by then I don't think it ever will be. But this is with contemporary stuff. For stuff that has been in print 50 years, that's no accident. Even if it is slow-going, like Vanity Fair, you just know it's a classic. It's going to be worthwhile so you stick with it. I know that D.H. Lawrence is brilliant. But I won't be annoyed with myself if I die without ever having completed a D.H Lawrence. However, I have Marcus Aurelius just waiting on my bookshelf.

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