David Mitchell, a biography
Born in Southport, Lancs, David Mitchell moved to Worcestershire aged seven. His parents are both freelance artists. He studied literature at the University of Kent from 1987 to 1990. His MA in Comparative Literature, shards of which have dropped into his novels, was financed by a British Academy grant and working for Waterstone's in Canterbury. He moved to Japan in 1994, and teaches "very basic" English to technical students in Hiroshima. Ghostwritten (1999) won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize; number9dream is now published by Sceptre. David Mitchell writes for fun; his partner guarantees the well-being of their relationship by reading all his manuscripts.
David Mitchell lopes into the hotel lounge, his ginger hair undimmed by London's miserable drizzle. Tall and lean, smartly trimmed in leather and jeans, he apologises profusely for being seconds late before bouncing off to sit for the photographer. This genial first impression floors the mental picture I had built up of the author of Ghostwritten, his intense debut; a thriller by turns sinister and exhilarating, whose stories roll restlessly over an undercurrent of violence. The novel gleaned high praise from literary heavyweights including AS Byatt and Lawrence Norfolk, and has confirmed the promise that Norfolk and Tibor Fischer noticed when they included Mitchell's work in their New Writing 8 anthology. Ghostwritten has rarely left the bestseller tables of high-street bookshops since publication in 1999.
Both praise and commercial success for Ghostwritten are justified. Mitchell's close reading of Japanese manners, informed by his seven years' teaching in Hiroshima, yields a grainy close-up of his characters strongly reminiscent of Haruki Murakami.
I asked Mitchell if his style, and particularly the chapter set in a jazz bar which alludes to Murakami by name, was in some respects an hommage. Flattered, he demurs, but does suggest another connection. Murakami's first bestseller, Norwegian Wood, was named after the Beatles song, and Mitchell admits to lifting another John Lennon number for the title of his new novel: number9dream (Sceptre, pounds 9.99).
Mitchell describes Lennon's "gorgeous" song with evangelical fervour. "It's an undiscovered gem from the Walls and Bridges album, which was made over what's called `the long weekend', when John and Yoko temporarily divorced. Yoko Ono's agent called the other day requesting a copy, which is quite exciting," he grins - "unless she decides to sue me". "It's a beautiful, visionary song which coincides with some of the themes in my novel about levels of reality... Perhaps one of the finest things he ever wrote."
The novel number9dream fooled me from the first page. Eiji Miyake sits in the Jupiter Cafe, swirling cream into his coffee and smoking Kools, planning his assault on the PanOpticon building, during which he will extract a crucial file from the ultra-secure office of legal supremo Akiko Kato. Lennon's "Imagine" floats from the stereo (how did I miss that?) as Miyake choreographs his Bond-esque escape through security firepower.
It is, of course, all in his imagination. For 20-year-old Miyake is a rural yokel in Tokyo searching for traces of the father who has disowned him since birth. The high-octane tone of the introductory set piece is sustained, more or less, throughout number9dream, setting it apart from the more intricate narratives that made up Ghostwritten. But although the novels possess very distinct ambiences, Mitchell admits to the many similarities in his style.
"I didn't really plan the recurrent theme of power and control in Ghostwritten," he explains, "but it does seem to be there. Throughout the novel, events happen because of different levels of power, rather like the inevitable effect of different levels of water in a lock." Eiji Miyake also finds his quest squeezed by violent forces: he is embroiled in Yakuza turf wars which make Reservoir Dogs look like musical chairs. …