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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001

David Mitchell experiments with success


Like his complex and cleverly constructed novels, a conversation with British writer David Mitchell is enjoyably cerebral and full of references to books, music and out-of-the-way places he has visited. Sitting in the famous sunken garden Shukkei-en in Hiroshima, the city he now calls home, Mitchell, 32, recounts his debut as a novelist and the excitement surrounding the nomination of his second novel, "Number9dream," for this year's prestigious Booker Prize.

The short-listing caught Mitchell by surprise. It "feels a bit like being Iceland in the World Cup," he says with a laugh. He attributes the nomination to experimentation in the novel, also evident in his 1999 debut novel, "Ghostwritten." Parts of "Number9dream" were a big risk: "I wanted to test the point of elasticity in what I was writing," he explains.

The novel, named after one of Mitchell's favorite John Lennon songs, is a kind of coming-of-age story that follows 20-year-old Eiji Miyake around Tokyo as he searches for the father he has never met. Mitchell says the architecture of "Number9dream" is based on "different modes of the mind."

There is a complex mix of fantasy, reality, childhood flashbacks, a wartime diary and the challenging James Joyce-style stories penned by one of Mitchell's characters. Besides Eiji, a likable hero, memorable characters from all corners of contemporary Japanese society appear.

Mitchell says he left England seven years ago with an explorer's urge. "I wanted to turn maps into reality and add new words to my world vocabulary." He didn't come to Japan to be a writer but "that was part of the luggage I brought with me." He began his life here as an English teacher, something he still does, having moved on from what he labels the "McDonald's-style" conversation school to lecturing at a university. It was in Japan where he made the conscious decision to focus and become a professional writer.

A six-month trip Mitchell took in 1997 produced the ideas and notes for "Ghostwritten," as he traveled from Japan to China, Mongolia, Russia and Ireland. "I have always written instead of taking photographs. I like the challenge of coming up with words that would be as evocative as a picture." The first couple of chapters secured him an agent and the book had already been sold to a publisher before he had finished writing it.

"Ghostwritten" was awarded the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys prize and garnered praise from writers such as A.S. Byatt, who predicted that he will "go far." Mitchell describes "Ghostwritten" as "an interconnected novel about interconnectedness." One critic calls it "a cyber-thriller with mysticism." Each chapter is based around the theme of causality; there are nine different narrators, ranging from a member of a Japanese cult member to a Mongolian spirit, and a wealth of history, art and quantum physics.

Mitchell's parents are both artists, and growing up he could see that you could "earn a living from art or the product of your mind and imagination." As a child he enjoyed reading books. Going through a "bad adolescent poetry stage" was useful, he says, for his apprenticeship as a writer: "I was learning to love words." Later on at university, he studied English and American literature and wrote his Masters thesis on the postmodern novel.

Writing, Mitchell says, is always a pleasure. "Finding perfect words and molding them into a perfect sentence, that is just bliss! I'm certainly in it for the long haul because nothing is as fulfilling for me." He says he is obsessed with plot lines and character biographies. He always carries a notebook and often stops in coffee shops around Hiroshima to write notes.

Japan has had a major effect on Mitchell's development as a writer. "It's given me space. I can switch off to kanji and advertisements and so I'm free from a lot of unwanted compulsory engagement and distractions." He would also like to think that he has absorbed some Japanese artistic principles, "suggestion over detail," and that being here has allowed him to read, absorb and be influenced by many Japanese writers.

The Booker nomination has also drawn attention to Mitchell as a novelist living in Japan and writing in English. His success will soon allow him to give up teaching and devote himself full-time to writing. Recently married and already immersed in his third book (he describes it as "a Russian doll-structured historical detective multimedia novel, set across three continents"), Mitchell says he has "loads of ideas" and at least five more novels planned.

Sally McLaren is an Australian freelance writer living in Kyoto. "Number9dream" is published by Sceptre (2001).

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