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Q&A: Book World Talks With David Mitchell

Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page BW03

We found the author of "Cloud Atlas" in the Irish fishing village of Clonakilty, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Born in the English town of Seaport 34 years ago, he also has lived in Sicily and Hiroshima, Japan.

BW: What was the inspiration for "Cloud Atlas"?

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DM: There wasn't really a single Eureka moment. For me, novels coalesce into being, rather than arrive fully formed. That said, three important sources spring to mind. First, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino -- an experimental novel in which a sequence of narratives is interrupted but never picked up again -- made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. I wondered what a novel might look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book like Calvino's so that the stories would be resolved in reverse.

Second, a mention of the Moriori people in Jared Diamond's multidisciplinary Guns, Germs, and Steel led to a trip to the Chatham Islands and an encounter with New Zealand historian Michael King's A Land Apart. His idea that there is nothing inevitable about civilization caught my curiosity. Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori "forgot" the existence of any other land and people but their own. When I heard this, my novelistic Geiger counter crackled.

Third, a book by Frederick Delius's amanuensis, Eric Fenby, Delius: As I Knew Him, was worlds away from the Moriori but gave me the idea of Fenby's evil twin, and the struggle between the exploited and the exploiter.

Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds -- a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior -- in the political, economic and personal arenas. These novellas seemed to marry well with the structure I had in mind: Each block of narrative is subsumed by the next, like a row of ever-bigger fish eating the one in front.

BW: What did you learn in the process of writing it?

DM: I learned that art is about people: Ideas are well and good, but without characters to hang them on, fiction falls limp. I learned that language is to the human experience what spectography is to light: Every word holds a tiny infinity of nuances, a genealogy, a social set of possible users, and that although a writer must sometimes pretend to use language lightly, he should never actually do so -- the stuff is near sacred. I learned that maybe I should have a go at a linear narrative next time! I learned that the farther back in time you go, the denser the research required, and the more necessary it is to hide it.

BW: Did you write it as six separate stories?

DM: I did, but put indications where I would later cut and paste the novel into its final shape. The day I decided to do it that way was one of the major finishing posts of the novel. (I went to feed the ducks.)

BW: What was your model (which is something quite different from inspiration)?

DM: Each of the six sections has a model. My character Ewing was (pretty obviously) Melville, but with shorter sentences. Frobisher is Christopher Isherwood, especially in Lions and Shadows. Luisa Rey is any generic airport thriller. Cavendish is Cavendish -- he has a short part in the "London" section of my first novel, Ghostwritten. The interview format for "Sonmi" I borrowed from gossip magazines in which a rather gushing hack interviews some celeb bigwig. Zachary owes (of course) a big debt to Riddley Walker, a novel by Russell Hoban, though some reviewers point to "Mad Max 3." (Thanks guys.) I can't claim that Don DeLillo's monumental Underworld is a model for Cloud Atlas, but reading him always encourages me (like drinking) to take literary risks. (Both books, I just noticed, have upbeat endings, against the odds.)

BW:What, in your mind, distinguishes this book from your others?

DM: It has more of a conscience. I think this is because I am now a dad. I need the world to last another century and a half, not just see me to happy old age. •

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