Author Interviews
3:20 am
Sun August 31, 2014

'Why Not?' David Mitchell On Mixing Fantasy And Reality In 'Bone Clocks'

Originally published on Sun August 31, 2014 11:31 am

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell's newest book — he's best known for 2004's Cloud Atlas, which was made into a movie with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Mitchell's many fans have been eagerly waiting for this new one, hoping it would present the same kind of fascinating puzzles as Cloud Atlas, which featured a very complicated set of nesting plots.

But Mitchell's done something different in this book — building it around one character that we follow for several decades: Holly Sykes. Mitchell tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that Holly starts out as a rebellious teenage punk in the first section, "and she's there either as the narrator or a minor character turning into a major character in each of the six novellas that the book is made up of." Writing a female protagonist was a challenge, but an attractive one, he says.


Interview Highlights

On the influence of Dickens on Holly Sykes and her name

He's a master, of course I've read him, of course if you're going to write a large, complex, teeming kind of novel, you're a fool to ignore him. So if this book works in the ways I hope it does work, it's in large part because I'm standing on the shoulders of giants, and one of those giants is him. I chose "Sykes" ... just because, thanks to Dickens, it kind of smells slightly of the East End of London. Holly starts out in one of the less salubrious exit points of London, on the South Bank of the Thames. It's also quite a spiky name, don't you think? Holly is already a spiky name, thanks to the plant, and Sykes is quite close to spikes ... it did take a long time to find that name, but until you get just the right name for a character, they're not properly alive.

On The Bone Clocks' abrupt turn into alternate reality

That's what I like as a reader, I like being surprised, I liked having the rug pulled from under my feet. The rules have to be fair, and I have to trust the writer that it's not being done gratuitously ... I'm interested in genre, I think it's an underused set of colors in a writer's paintbox. I think interesting things could happen if a book moves through these sort of rooms of genre, these chambers — if, within the books's own terms, this is logical, if it has its own reasons for doing it. Then, I kind of think, why not?

On mixing literary fiction and fantasy

It's what the book wanted to be — I know I'm in charge of it, I'm not trying to shirk my responsibility here, but this book wanted many diverse things in it. It's a big commitment to write something, it takes three or four years. I have to be deeply in love with it to get through that amount of time and still want to show up at my desk in the morning. And with an easier, safer, more predictable book, I just can't get excited enough.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

"The Bone Clocks" is David Mitchell's newest book. Perhaps his best known is the "Cloud Atlas," published several years ago and made into a movie. And Mitchell's many fans have been eagerly waiting for this new one hoping it would present the same kind of fascinating puzzles as the "Cloud Atlas," a very complicated set of nested dolls or nested plot. Now the new book is out. Mr. Mitchell is talking about it. He joins us from Cork in Ireland. Welcome to our program, and congratulations on the new book.

DAVID MITCHELL: Thank you very much, Linda. It's great to be here. So thanks for having me on your program.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that you have done something different in this book. You've built it around one character - a girl named Holly Sykes, who's a teenager when we first meet her and an elderly grandmother at the end of the book. First of all, could you tell us about Holly and why you made her your hero?

MITCHELL: Well, yes. Holly is, as you say, she's a rebellious teenage punkette in 1994. And she's there either as the narrator or a minor character turning into a major character in each of the six novellas that the book is made up of. She's obviously a she. That was a challenge for me. This was the first time I've had a female protagonist who's sort of the glue of the narrative the whole way through. And the difficulties in doing that, as you can hear as a guy, were attractive ones.

WERTHEIMER: So this is a book, as you said, in six part - six novellas you called it. There's teenage Holly. Then there are three sections of Holly as seen by three men in her life. And then we and Holly take a sudden dunk into a magical syfy world followed by a nasty dip into a dystopian far-ish future. And the thing that was interesting to me, among other things, was that you don't prepare us for these adventures. You just turn the page, and whoopsy daisy, you're in another world, in another place with another set of realities. I wonder if you could talk to us about why you did that.

MITCHELL: Because that's what I like as a reader. I like being surprised. I like having the rug pulled from under my feet. The rules have to be fair, and I have to trust the writer that it's not being done gratuitously or just for the sake of it. I'm interested in genre. I think it's an underused set of colors in a writer's paint box. I think interesting things can happen if a book moves through these sort of rooms of genre or these chambers.

WERTHEIMER: Now I suppose I get this next idea from the name that you've given Holly. She is Holly Sykes. And you're creating a cast of characters here that do remind me of Dickens, you know. Bill Sykes, his big hero in "Oliver Twist." His books are character driven. This one is character driven. I almost feel as if you - you know, you demonstrated your considerable talent at creating acrobatic plots in the previous books. And now you've turned to creating characters, which I must say, you do wonderfully well.

MITCHELL: Well, thank you very much for those quite enchanting compliments that you smuggle through in your question there, Linda. That's really kind of you to say. But of course, he's a master. Of course, I've read him. Of course, if you're going to write a large, complex, teaming kind of a novel you're a fool to ignore him. I chose Sykes also just because thanks to Dickens, it kind of smells slightly of the east end of London. It's also quite a spikey name, don't you think? Holly is already spikey thanks to the plant. And Sykes is quite close to spikes. It's sibilant. It's got a Y and a K and G. If you look at the word, it's got a stick pointing down and a stick pointing up. I think about this endlessly in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. It did take a long time to find that name, but until you get just the right name for a character, they're not properly alive.

WERTHEIMER: Now I have to say that the last two sections of the book, I'm not so good on syfy cosmology dystopian future stuff.

MITCHELL: Oh, OK.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. There's a lot of politics in the very last part, you know, the global warming and so forth. But I, you know, I have to say that I'm kind of standing with one of the characters who suddenly observes - he suddenly asks, didn't you just cross the border into the land of the crazy people? And I must say, it did, you know, it did feel sort of sudden to me.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Guilty as charged, really. But it's what the book wanted to be. I know I'm in charge of it. I'm not trying to shirk my responsibility here. But this book wanted many diverse things in it. It's a big commitment to write something - takes three or four years. I have to be deeply in love with it to get through that amounts of time and still want to show up at my desk in the morning. And with an easy, safer, more predictable book, I just can't get excited enough. I'm an innate maximalist. I wish I wasn't because believe me, I go too far away from reality for my own good. But this is how it is I just need to write these big things and to see if I can put these elements in them that, apparently, like, matter and antimatter, don't belong together within the same book jacket. But I want to try and see if I can engineer a way to make them fit.

WERTHEIMER: Do you know where you go from here? I've read you've said something about an uber novel that might encompass a number of your books written and unwritten.

MITCHELL: Well, yeah. The uber novel is the novel that all of my novels makeup. So where I go from here, I do know what the next four or five books are, which is kind of why I regret the fact they're so long. And I only seem to be able to get one out every World Cup here. I do need to speed up or I'll be into my mid-60s before I know it. And that's just to get to the end of the cue of books that are waiting to be written.

WERTHEIMER: The new "The Bone Clocks" is officially out next week. Mr. Mitchell, thank you very much.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: B.J. Liederman composed our theme music. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.