Saturday, 8 May 2010

The thousand authors of Foyles

The other day I went to see the generally rather ace Mr David Mitchell at Foyles. By David Mitchell, I don't mean the modern voice of sarcasm from Mitchell and Webb, but the modern voice of, er, voices: the scribbler of Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas and BlackSwanGreen (although I haven't read this last one, because I tend to hide from things that are 'semi-autobiographical', which is the literary equivalent of the cinematic warning sign 'based on a true story'. Special exemption for Empire of the Sun, though).

For those unfamiliar with this deeply clever and unreasonably talented fellow, he tends to write novels built from fragmented but interlocking parts, in which themes, places and characters saunter in and out of focus. This leads to magnificent variety, with plenty of different places and periods, from dystopian futures to Victorian pasts, and it's all carried off equally (very) well.

(As an aside, I also like him because he's one of the growing number of authors who combine serious literary talent and critical appeal (two Booker nominations, for example) with a willingness to muck about with genres: he clearly digs science fiction. See also Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Michael Chabon, for starters. There's definitely going to be a future post on this.)

Anyway, the talk. All three of the novels I've read spend some time dealing with seeing Japan from the outside, particularly number9dream. The new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, continues this theme. It's about the interaction between Dutch traders and Japan in the 18th century, and I haven't read it yet (bookshop hardbacks are expensive!), so I can't really say anything more about it. Sounds good though.

The talk, however, I can mumble about. Mitchell started off quiet and a little worried, spending long silences thinking about his answers to the Foyles interviewer's questions. Pretty soon, however, he got into the swing of things, basically seeming to be an exceedingly bright, pleasant and witty chap. This particularly came out during the audience questions, when he really talked to the questioners, rather than just responding to their queries and moving swiftly on. When someone asked him what authors he liked, he turned it into a conversation rather than a list, insisting on asking them the same question back.

Illuminating comments on being a writer, being an outsider, and lots about the new book, which I really want to read. He was suitably abashed by the Foyles bod's extravagant (and justified) praise, and pleasingly amusing yet bewildered when talking about the recent academic conference held about his work.

If his tour takes him round your way (whoever you are) he's worth a look/listen. The friend I went with enjoyed it, even though he hadn't read any David Mitchell books. Even if you've missed the tour, check out the books - he's a fine author, and one I recommend heartily. Cloud Atlas is probably a sensible starting place, despite the Richard and Judy sticker you might find plastered to the cover.


  1. It was, indeed fab. Though I can't help but think that Foyles should have arranged a David Mitchell- David Mitchell double act.

  2. That would be amazing. Maybe they could solve crimes together?