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Using Words as a Doorway to Infinite Possibilities: An Interview with David Mitchell

Author, screenwriter, and television writer David Mitchell shares his thoughts about writing novels, co-writing 'Matrix Resurrections', choosing names for characters, and the difference between writing for film, television, and novels.

Author, screenwriter, and television writer David Mitchell is a friend of words. He’s comfortable with them and knows just the right ones to utilize for whatever format he’s writing in. After his stringent short or long-form journey with them, they invariably teach him something about himself. The award-winning English wordsmith is a wizard of worlds, a master of building complex realms and experimenting with conventional and unconventional narrative forms in his novels and short stories. Not one to be constricted to a particular format, he’s also penned a couple of opera librettos: Wake (2010) and Sunken Garden (2013).

He’s been shortlisted a few times for the distinguished Man Booker Prize and nabbed the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for his inaugural novel Ghostwritten (1999). He’s done television writing before with his hit series Sense8 but has now also ventured into screenwriting as a co-writer on the adaptation of Cloud Atlas (2012). He recently dipped back into the screenwriting arena with Matrix Resurrections, which he co-wrote with Aleksandar “Sasha” Hemon. The intertextuality created in the film is reminiscent of that in his novel Cloud Atlas, a metafiction diamond.

David Mitchell. Photo by Eoin OCONAILL.

David Mitchell. Photo by Eoin OCONAILL.

What first inspired you to write?

To give you a proper answer, I have to be persnickety about the word “inspired”...or do I? It's really simple. I just can't not. And by “can't” I mean it feels like a wasted day if I don't write and it feels like a well spent day if I do. I suppose also just books I read as a kid. Ursula Le Guin, whom I still love. Watership Down, the book about the rabbits. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read them and thought, “What an amazing book!” I also thought, “I want to do to someone what this book has done to me. How do I do it?”

You answer is a perfect segue to my next question. What do you think is an under-appreciated novel?

That's harder to answer because it relies on a knowledge of how widely a novel is appreciated in certain groups and in certain decades. One way to follow it is to follow a template of the world which is that the contributions of minorities tend to be underappreciated. James Baldwin. Richard Wright’s, Native Son. That's a tricky question because I have to come back at you with, "Underappreciated by who?" Maybe which novels or writers do I think are out of sync with the dominant narrative of their age? Just one more. Virginia Woolf is often seen as very white English, high-brow and therefore less worthy. But she's a beautiful, exquisite writer where not a single sentence is wasted and she's somehow out of sync with the age.

Could you throw one back at me?

I'd have to say Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Also, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill and Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg.

I'll throw another back at you. Rosemary Sutcliff. She essentially wrote children’s novels set in Roman Britain. The most famous one was turned into a film, The Eagle of the Ninth. She's amazing, she writes like a poet. You can eat her sentences like grapes! She's really good at understanding that what makes one era different from another is what's taken for granted.

I read somewhere that you don't really consider yourself a novelist. You feel like you write more novellas. Is that true?

I should qualify that a little bit. I think my natural narrative span is that sweet spot...40, 50, 60 pages. A bit too long to be a short story but not long enough to be a novel. It's not something I've decided but more something I've observed. Everything I write is made of blocks of that size. Longer narratives I write, novels, are made of these stone blocks of that size.

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What do you find is the difference between writing novels, novellas, and screenplays?

The first enormous difference is that I've never written a screenplay on my own. I've always written in collaboration with other people. And these other people have been friends. That is the first and the last difference and it's huge. I don't get to decide everything. Which sounds like a negative. On the positive side, I don't have to decide everything, which can be wonderful. If the chemistry with your co-writing partner is good, it can be like being in a band in its early days before the arguments start...![laugh] When I write by myself, the process is slower, more arduous.

Do you have a writing routine?

I have kids rather than a routine! I have to work around my responsibilities as a dad and a husband. I write when I can, that's my routine.

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How did you get attached to Matrix Resurrections?

Ten years ago, Lana Wachowski and her sister reached a stage of adapting my third novel, Cloud Atlas. They flew to Cork to meet me, which was very gracious. They've always been very gracious. A friendship began. On the basis of that friendship, we stayed in touch. Lana is one of those friends who helps me understand myself better. When Lilly wasn't able to work on Sense8 Season 2, Lana approached myself and Aleksandar Hemon to work on Season 2 of Sense8. That experience was a positive one and we evolved a fruitful way of working together. That rolled over into Matrix Resurrections.

What was the most difficult thing about writing the script? And how long did it take you guys to write it?

The second question is easier. A fairly intense three-week span in 2019 and 2020, over the holiday season. We reassembled in spring of 2020 to finish it off. We spent four weeks intensively, pulling together four months of part-time exchanges.

What not to put in was probably the most difficult thing. We probably generated enough material for three films.

What do you think are the key elements to world-building in a story?

Knowing it all, even things that won't get into the film. The world you see in the narrative is the tip of the iceberg and it has to be a really good iceberg for the tip to be any good.

How long did it take you to write Cloud Atlas?

Not as long as you'd think. I seem to have slowed down as I've gotten older...! Novels don't necessarily have neat starting points. They have a few end dates, about three. The start date might have been years ago, might have been when you were a kid. However, in the sense that you mean, probably only about sixteen months.

You worked on Sense8 with the Wachowskis. What do you find are the big differences in writing for television and film?

I guess it's an obvious answer, Sonya, but I'd say length. A film is a concise journey. There's a magic number of minutes, as Lana explained, set by American multiplex schedules. If it's under two hours and eighteen minutes, the standard multiplex will have four viewings a day. If it's over that, then you lose a viewing. This matters. For these external things to influence art is normal. Even Shakespeare had to keep an eye on the market. Contingency is always a part of narrative building. Film is more like a short story. Everything has to earn its place.

With a tv series, it's more symphonic. In a sense, more novelistic. You can have slow patches, long patches. You can have something happen that won't be referred to for another five episodes.

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What writing software do you use?

I write on an Apple, I use Pages. I have a favorite font, since I sense you're a font nerd...!

Yes, I am!

I use Georgia 16. I've used this for years but had to move from 15 to 16 once my eyes started to go! I'll be up to 17 soon!

What was an early experience you had where you learned words have power?

I've never been asked that. Let me give you a slightly later one. I was about twenty. I went to visit a friend. He had a part-time job at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Even at the age of twenty, he had kind of an aura. I went to see him while he was working. A dad had brought a little kid in. The kid wasn't well behaved. He was treating the place like a playground. My friend politely said, "I think it's best if you take your son out. These are expensive artworks." The man's response wasn't understanding. I still remember this 35 years later. The man said, "You're assuming that my child is going to damage one of these artworks." My friend's comeback was instant. "No, but I'm not assuming that he won't." End of discussion.

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How do you choose the names of your characters?

That's a question only another writer asks...! I choose the names of my characters by how adhesive they are to the eyeball. The higher the scrabble score, the stickier the name is. I have a rigorous selection process. They can't resemble another name in the narrative too closely. They have to not look too novelistic. They have to plausibly exist in the real world.

My final question is what projects are you currently working on?

A big new novel. It's a bit too early to say much about it. My last novel was set in the late 1960s. No title yet but it's my now novel. I’ve never really written about now. 

Matrix Resurrections is now playing in select Theaters and HBO Max.


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