Cloud Atlas author talks originality

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

According to novelist David Mitchell, crafting great literature is akin to escaping from a straightjacket.  To write a truly original novel, one must untangle paradoxical and difficult ideas.

Mitchell, who has authored five books — including “Cloud Atlas” and “number9dream,” which were both shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — spoke about the process of literary creation to an audience of 50 at a Morse College Master’s Tea on Tuesday. English professor Alfred Guy moderated Mitchell’s talk, which included advice for budding authors and a discussion on the power of shared experiences.

“We have different lives, but there’s overlaps as well. It’s the periodic table of the human condition,” Mitchell said. “We’re made of the same elements — brushes with mortality, falling in love, being dumped, intellectual stimulation, creativity, jealousy, hate.”

Mitchell explained that he tries to write works in a variety of genres and styles. This “omnivoracity,” as he called it, allows for literary longevity.

He advised aspiring novelists to embrace and write about difficult ideas, in order to be original. Still, he cautioned against deliberately making one’s work too difficult to understand.

“When you encounter something that gets you excited, there’s a good novel in there somewhere,” Mitchell said. “Keep your curiosity vital about the world.”

Mitchell said novels share a basic composition because they are all made of five key components: characters, thematic ideas, style, plot and structure. These elements are fundamentally interconnected, he said.  For “Cloud Atlas,” which contained six different stories and settings, Mitchell said he used ideas like glue to hold the vast structure of the book together.

When asked about the film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell said he appreciated what was done with his sprawling work within the time limitations of a film. But one of the key differences between film and literature is the holistic sensory experience in literature, which is translated to mere “audibles” in film.

“Music in texts is perfect — it is never spoiled by being made real,” he said.

One defining characteristic of Mitchell’s works is that characters in one novel may appear in another, at a different stage of life. Mitchell said that he was inspired by William Shakespeare’s use of the character Sir John Falstaff, who appears in several of his plays.

All of Mitchell’s works are in conversation with each other, he claimed, adding that all his novels are “individual chapters in a mega-novel.”

Finally, Mitchell spoke about the balance between writing for an international audience and remaining true to one’s origins. In a sense, what makes a novel one’s own is the presence of self-indulgence, he said.

At the end of the talk, a swarm of audience-members rushed up to Mitchell for book signings.

Hannah Friedman ’17 said that she found Mitchell’s meandering path of ideas to be a refreshing divorce from the scripted answers people often give in interviews, and Claire Grishaw-Jones ’17 thought Mitchell was an inspiring and articulate speaker.

“You can really tell that he was a writer just from the way that he talks. I’m an English major, and things like this make me want to go forward with it because it shows you what you can be,” Grishaw-Jones said.

After the talk, Mitchell also spoke in William L. Harkness Hall as part of the John Hersey Lecture and Schlesinger Visiting Writer Series.

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