The big gift of writers’ festivals is that they stimulate the brain, combining the pleasures of reading and conversation. One of the things this Auckland Writers Festival has really got me thinking about is the way that being on stage with an author and getting the best out of them takes both chemistry and skill.
This morning we were treated to a lovely session where the host/guest mix was just right: British novelist David Mitchell in conversation with Catherine Robertson. Conversation flowed naturally; they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company; there were a lot of big laughs; the audience was on side; and we all learned something about topic of the session (Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks).
Mitchell was charming: articulate, witty, relaxed, and knowledgeable. No one could accuse him of modesty, but he stopped just short of arrogant. He’s a very talented writer – and a good public speaker – and he knows it.
One of the first topics Robertson brought up was metafiction. It’s an intriguing area, and one that Mitchell explores very fruitfully in The Bone Clocks. He pointed out that the simultaneous broadcast of the session on the big screen behind them was a metafictional projection. Mitchell then said to Robertson “it’s a great interview and it’s going swimmingly” – that is, he talked about the way they were talking about a book that he has written that is (partly) about a writer who writes books and goes to literary festivals to talk about the metafiction in his books. (And, of course, in this review I’m adding another layer again.) Such metacommentary can be absolutely maddening in the wrong hands, but Mitchell brings a genuine joy to this kind of knowing layering that saves it from pomposity. Again, he’s just on the right side of the line.
A compulsory topic when talking to Mitchell about his writing is his concept of the ubernovel; the way all his books fit together – without being a series – and feature recurring characters. He said “I do have this impulse to make something enormous”. Mitchell wants to give the reader “that cool throb of recognition” when they spot a character from one of his previous books in The Bone Clocks, and said those characters bring with them a suitcase of credibility. He said there are doors, wormholes, tunnels and bridges between books. The Bone Clocks is the only one of his I’ve read so far, but I bought Cloud Atlas this morning, and, when he signed it for me, Mitchell said he was glad I was reading them in that order.
One of the big things of The Bone Clocks that Robertson rightly spent a lot of time on, is the way it’s written in six different genres. The general critical consensus is that Mitchell largely succeeds, except in part five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, which is written – badly – as high fantasy. In my review, I concluded that this was a deliberate parody, but I was wrong. When Robertson questioned Mitchell about it, he admitted it was fantasy (as though that was something to be ashamed of?), saying “I hope the benefits of putting [fantasy] in there outweigh the costs”.
The other time Mitchell really got my hackles up was when he claimed that it’s easier for women to write male characters than for men to write female characters, on the grounds that women spend more time thinking about male minds than vice versa. The gender gap, Mitchell claimed, is bigger one way than the other. This bizarre, sexist statement was an unfortunate bum note in an otherwise enjoyable session.
Talking about the writing process near the end of the session, Mitchell referenced the scene in Shakespeare in Love when the poet writes something, sits back, reads it, and exclaims with deep satisfaction “god I’m good”. That’s it, for Mitchell. That’s what keeps him writing – the confident recognition and enjoyment of his own talent. And suddenly all the metafiction, all the self-referentiality – even the living quietly “in a cave” in Ireland away from everyone else – made perfect sense. If you loved writing and were able to unashamedly love what you write, why would you not want to celebrate that? Why would you not want to build a world of your own writing, constantly connecting it back to itself and to you, its creator? Why would you not just want to always experience that joy? In a way, it’s selfie culture writ large – and very, very well.
I wrote the above, and then I met Kim Thuy.
Her session, Beauty of the Everyday (in conversation with the wonderful Kate de Goldi), was to be my treat to myself; my little rest. I took no notes; I gave myself permission to switch off from the high-speed absorption, analysis and publication of information that reporting on a writers’ festival requires. I tweeted no tweets, I booked no face, and this is not a review.
This is just to say: Kim Thuy is an extraordinary gift to the world. She survived the American War (in Vietnam), communism, hunger, refugee camps, privations epic and personal. And she is the most joyous person I have ever seen in my life. The legacy of all that horror, she says, is that she must be happy, every minute of her life. I loved her story of trying therapy one time and being asked not to come back. She seemed to think it was her failure, but I imagine that therapist, whoever they were, spent that time with her and then wept.
The physicality of her joy, the dance-like gestures, the bubbles of laughter, the sitting forward, the touches on de Goldi’s arm. Her speech, her unself-conscious poetry, blessing us with beautiful phrases even as she honestly bemoaned her poor English.
I will buy her books, and I will eat them like guava. And then I will pass them around the table to my family as a mark of love.
reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Mitchell will be part of the session at 9am Sunday 17 may, on the art of the novel. It will be well worth catching!