‘What’ll happen if I try this?’: David Mitchell on writing Cloud Atlas | Books

Big books are made of many ingredients, and Cloud Atlas is no exception. All these years later, those I recall going into the book include: my millennial anxiety about how the new century would unfold, especially now I was a father, and had genetic skin in the game of civilisation outlasting me; a wish to see how many narratives I could embed, in a fractal sort of way, in a single novel; a fondness for Herman Melville and sea narratives; the story of Frederick Delius and his amanuensis, Eric Fenby; California’s hardboiled crime fiction; Jared Diamond’s study of human history Guns, Germs, and Steel; trips to the Chatham Islands in the chilly South Pacific, to Seoul and Busan in South Korea and to Hawaii; Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker; curiosity about the mutability of language through time; the alienation of living on my own in an apartment block in Hiroshima; of needing to navigate a foreign society without the language skills to do so; being an obscure British writer on my first and second book tours in the US, with time to go on urban hikes through San Francisco, Seattle and New York; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Russian dystopia We.

Those are elements that are specific to the book; also in the mix are themes that occur across my novels, even when I try to keep them out. Namely, the relationship between predator and prey; general word-nerdery and linguistic malfunction; islands. That so many disparate ideas can coexist in the same artistic space is a testament to the capacious “broad church” nature of the novel as a form. The Russian-doll structure gets remarked on a lot, often with the word “ambitious”. I can’t truthfully claim I set out to be ambitious: it was much more a question of, “What’ll happen if I try this?”

‘A remarkable work of art’ … the 2012 film adaptation of Cloud Atlas.

‘A remarkable work of art’ … the 2012 film adaptation of
Cloud Atlas. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

What came out of Cloud Atlas was my most commercially successful novel; a certain reputational boost, I suppose, that does a youngish writer no harm in the business of publishing, and a few years of relative financial security that encouraged me to believe that if I carried on writing I could find a few years more. These days, what feelings I have about the book are centred on gratitude. Whether the novel’s popularity lasts into future decades, or whether Cloud Atlas is of its time, isn’t a question I ever consider. What would be the point? I’ve revisited passages in recent months – usually to synch up characters and events to my novel in progress – and I found nothing that made me grimace. I’ve evolved as a stylist, but I’m not going to look down on my 32-year-old self for not writing like my 51-year-old self. I’m grateful that Cloud Atlas continues to connect with readers I meet around the world. I’m grateful that three of those readers were the Wachowski sisters and Tom Tykwer, the directors of the film adaptation, which to my mind is a remarkable work of art.

I’ve read and heard readers, reviewers, critics and academics describe Cloud Atlas as an early-ish blurrer of lines between highbrow literature and middle- or lowbrow genre fiction. As a teenager whose literary imagination was nourished by Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and JRR Tolkien as much as Tolstoy, Austen and Shakespeare, I would take quiet pleasure in the “brow-blurrer” claim being true. I get a particular kick from writers in their 20s or early 30s telling me that they have successfully used the argument: “Well, look at Cloud Atlas for heaven’s sake!” on their own paths to publication. Hearing this makes me feel as if I’ve given something back to this three-century-old rambling building – the novel – that has sheltered and sustained me.

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