Quick questions with David Mitchell

11 October 2020 - 00:00 By sunday times books
Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

Published in the Sunday Times (11/10/2020)

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, though the realist in me knows that most world leaders would dismiss this superb account of climate crisis as an alarmist, liberal, neo-imperialist, fake-science media hoax. Trump's inability to read or think is self-evident. Putin is a murderous thug. Bolsonaro is a Putin without the cunning. Xi is a wannabe Mao. Johnson treats his prime ministership as an onerous three-day-a-week job. Could a book endow any of that shower with a conscience and a sense of planetary responsibility? The question, alas, is rhetorical.

What is the strangest thing you've done when researching a book?

Visiting out-of-the-way places and fantasising as strongly as I could that I wasn't myself but a character of my own creation. Is that strange?

Do you keep a diary?

I keep notebooks to store ideas, notes, facts, impressions, words, names and quotes that I don't want to forget; but no diaries. I'd rather direct the compositional energy into fiction.

You're hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who's invited?

Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2150.

The best book you've ever received as a gift?

My mum gave me a hardback Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass when I was eight or nine. She left it on my bed for me to discover. Then many years later an ex-girlfriend returned it to me. She'd kept it in a box of my old stuff which she hadn't dumped for 25 years, out of sheer cussed kindness. The "gift" element, as you see, is subtle and has accrued compound interest over time.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

The Bookseller's Tale by Martin Latham made me laugh out loud this very morning. It's a wonderful cabinet of wit and curiosities about books, reading and bibliophilia.

What are you most proud of writing?

I allow myself a half-day of pride when I receive a new hardback of a finished book, but pride is an unreliable friend who tells you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. The book I'm most pleased to have been involved with are the translations of Naoki Higashida's The Reason I Jump and Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight. I know these have helped people to understand autism better, because they tell me so.

What keeps you awake at night?

Regular visitors include the upcoming collapse of civilisation; the suicidal popularity of conspiracy theories; the gloating triumph of injustice; worrying about what happens to our kids after I'm gone; and revenge fantasies dating back decades. Usual monkey mind stuff.

What books are on your bedside table?

D: A Tale of Two Worlds by Michel Faber and Nijigahara Holograph by Inio Asano.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Daydreaming is fine, but don't waste time.

If you could be best friends with a character, who would you choose?

How would that work? Would I know the characters' stories before we become friends? Could I alter their destinies, or would I have to be a hapless bystander as they cruised to their inevitable endings? How could I know they'd like me? Would I be the age I am now, or is that negotiable? Am I overthinking this? Should I have just said "Doctor Who" at the outset?