Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

One on One with David Mitchell

Before the evening’s main event, our own Daniel Bezalel Richardsen stands at the lectern to launch the latest issue of Foment , the Festival’s literary review magazine that is now in its fourth year of being. For Daniel and the other Foment volunteers (myself included) it has been a labour of love, and something we are all extremely proud to be a part of.

The man we are all here tonight to see is David Mitchell, who starts with a short reading of a passage from his most recent book, Slade House . In the passage, a young boy named Nathan is visiting the mysterious Slade House with his mother in 1979. He has befriended another young boy called Jonah and together they are playing a game called Fox and Hound. As they play, the garden of the house starts dissolving before Nathan’s eyes, and Jonah transforms from innocent young boy into a snarling beast – but is this real or due to the fact that Nathan is high on Valium? We are left wondering.

The evening is hosted by Peter Schneider, a long-time friend of the Festival. Schneider opens the conversation by asking Mitchell about the libretto that he wrote for his Dutch composer friend, Michel van der Aa, for the 3D opera film Sunken Garden.  Schneider commented on the similarities between the material for the Sunken Garden and Slade House.  Mitchell responded that he hates to waste material, it evolved into a new story within Slade House. He wanted a go at a ‘ghost novella’, the novella being a unique form to conquer this genre, by shortening the typical word count of the average ghost fiction. This is simply Mitchell being Mitchell – subverting the status quo and flipping it on its head.

When Schneider commends Mitchell on the fully dimensional characters within his novels, Mitchell balks at the praise, describing the compliment as something akin to likening him to ‘a giant among pygmies’.  He believes that to do anything less than provide his readers with fleshed out characters with distinctive voices, would mean that he wasn’t doing his job as an author very well. This modesty further endears you to Mitchell, whose self-deprecating charm has already sucked me in, all the more.

Though Slade House is a shorter work than Mitchell’s other novels, it is no less richly imagined. Schneider questions Mitchell about his attention to structure, pattern, and design, which is prevalent in all his works. Mitchell settles in for a lengthy discussion – he loves talking structure and jokes that he could talk about it all night. He states that structure is the author’s chance to be truly innovative – it is the casing for the narrative, which makes the novel better. On the subject of structure, Mitchell mentions Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as an example of a book he read whose structure he was greatly impressed by.

Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years in the 90’s, and Schneider questions him about the impact the country had on him as a writer. It is clear he is influenced by the country, as he wrote his first two books there and he says that his early novelistic role models were all Japanese. His lack of the Japanese language contributed to the discipline of his writing, he described himself as “linguistically infantilized”, saying that having no one to talk to made him more introspective and insular. Mitchell talks about the dichotomy of the country, saying that it’s almost as if there are two Japans – the ancient Japan of wisdom and silence, and the neon, futuristic Japan of today. Despite their differences, they blend together to create a country of immense depth and history.

During the hour-and- a-half chat between Schneider and Mitchell, many deep and thought-provoking topics were discussed – the rise of technology and the effect it is having on children today; conformity versus individualism; the bond that story-telling creates between generations of humans; and finally Mitchell’s work towards heightening awareness about autism, and how having an autistic child has made him a more enlightened parent. With every new topic, Mitchell gave all of himself to the conversation, holding nothing back and speaking honestly and openly about his opinions and experiences. I believe this quality of his personality attributes to his astounding success as a writer – his ability to feel deeply and to express himself eloquently and profoundly.