AWF15: The Bone clocks, with David Mitchell; and Beauty of the Everyday, with Kim Thuy


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! 

Book Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_bone_clocks

The Bone Clocks is the latest novel from David Mitchell, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and told in six parts. Mitchell is undoubtedly a talented storyteller and prose artist, but the question I kept coming back to was this: who is Mitchell writing for? Who is The Bone Clocks’ reader?

Part one, “A Hot Spell”, is set in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984. It is told in the first person from the perspective of Holly Sykes, a mouthy, brave and likeable teenager who runs away from home. This first part feels like a Young Adult thriller: something mysterious and threatening is happening in amongst the usual teen angst of clashes with parents and failed romances. Holly hears voices; has blanks in her memory. The supernatural is there, but, like Holly, we’re not entirely sure what’s going on.

Part two, “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”, is set over Christmas/New Year 1991-2 in Cambridge and Sainte-Agnes (Switzerland). It is told in the first person from the perspective of Hugo Lamb, a sociopathically unpleasant undergraduate, and we meet Holly again. It feels like literary fiction; at some points the prose gathers rhythm and rhyme and turns into poetry, but it is typeset the same as the rest of the text, as if in disguise. The supernatural elements from “A Hot Spell” recur more strongly, becoming clearer.

Part three, “The Wedding Bash”, takes place in Brighton, 2004, with flashbacks to Iraq, from the first-person perspective of war journalist Ed Brubeck. It’s told as fairly straightforward realist fiction, with the explicitly supernatural absent: there is just a hint of something that can’t easily be explained. We see more of Holly.

Part four, “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”, is set between 2015 and 2020 in various international locations. It is told from the first-person perspective of Crispin Hershey, a famous novelist (“the Wild Child of British Letters”). This part is Mitchell as his most explicitly self-conscious: it is hyper-self-aware post-modernist fiction and a satire on the literary establishment. Hugo and Holly turn up again, as do some more hints as to the supernatural storyline.

Part five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, takes place in 2024 in the USA, with flashbacks to early nineteenth-century Russia, and in the occult realm. It is told from the first-person perspective of Marinus, a supernatural being. Here the focus of the plot has shifted away from the human characters and concentrates instead on the larger-scale metaphysical conflict. The genre shifts as well: we’re now into pure fantasy. More specifically; old-fashioned, 1950s-era pulp fantasy. The supernatural baddies are “the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass”; and the nails-down-a-blackboard neologisms just keep coming. It’s clearly a deliberate mockery; Mitchell’s pastiche of everything that is hysterical, derivative and just plain poorly-written in the high fantasy genre.

Part six, “Sheep’s Head”, is set in Ireland in 2043, once more from the first-person perspective of Holly. The genre has moved on again, this time to dystopian science fiction. The post-disaster setting is chillingly realistic and very well drawn. The action is almost entirely concerned with the human world. The plots and subplots of The Bone Clocks are, by the end, mostly resolved, and the ending is, more or less, narratively satisfying.

So far, so interesting − a varied and intelligent set of interweaving narratives, moving across time, continents, realities and genres. But with such a wide-ranging scope, who is the reader Mitchell had in mind when he wrote The Bone Clocks? Personally, I very much enjoyed the first four parts and the sixth, but the dullness and apparently deliberate badness of “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” really put me off. So Mitchell’s reader is not someone like me, who enjoys well-written fantasy.

I presume the reader of The Bone Clocks to be someone who enjoys YA, literary and realist fiction, hyper-self-conscious post-modernism, science fiction – and parodies of fantasy. That seems awfully specific, and a bit of a risk: even assuming your reader enjoys looking down their nose at fantasy, do you really want to force them to wade through 120-odd pages of the stuff? By that point, surely even the pleasingly smug feeling of knowing you were right has started to wear off, and your reader is just bored.

A quick review of reviews (see links below) reveals that the loved-it-except-for-part-five reaction is pretty common. Strangely, in writing “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”, Mitchell seems to be violating (deliberately, I presume) one of his own rules. In an interview with Mark Greaves in The Spectator, Mitchell said: “The fantasy material is ‘volatile’. It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air.” Very true. Why, then, does part five exist?

The best reason I can come up with is this: Mitchell enjoys writing parodies of fantasy, and doesn’t mind whether the reader will enjoy reading it or not. He’s clever enough to anticipate the mixed critical reaction: in “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”, he has a reviewer say of the novelist’s latest book that “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look”. In her review of The Bone Clocks in The Guardian, Ursula Le Guin calls this device “self-protective mockery”, and seems to mostly give him a pass. But I think the fact that Mitchell knows the reader won’t enjoy the fantasy parts of the book doesn’t excuse making them deliberately bad. It’s much worse than if, for example, he had tried in good faith to write fantasy well and had honestly failed. In fact, it’s almost as though the person for whom Mitchell is writing, the reader he had in mind for The Bone Clocks, was just David Mitchell.

In fair defense of The Bone Clocks I must say this: much of it is excellent. I really enjoyed my experience of reading most of it and I loved the character of Holly; I was on her side the whole way through. I even developed a soft spot for the posturing, self-parodying Crispin. Parts of The Bone Clocks are enthralling: funny, intelligent, moving, and beautifully told. But, ultimately, for all his talent, I can’t shake the feeling that Mitchell is belittling me, his reader, much as the supernatural baddies in his book belittle humans. I’m just a bone clock after all.

by Elizabeth Heritage, freelance writer, reviewer and publicist.

Other reviews of The Bone Clocks:
Ursula Le Guin’s in The Guardian
James Wood’s in The New Yorker
Ron Charles’ in The Washington Post
David Larsen’s in the  New Zealand Herald
Derek Thompson’s in The Atlantic
Brian Finney’s in the Los Angeles Review of Books
If you’ve read The Bone Clocks too, please let me know what you thought: @e_heritage

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9780340921616

Finalist Interview: The illustration of The Three Bears…Sort of, by Donovan Bixley

If you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out.

We have asked our fantastic finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand Young Adults all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses.

The Three Bears…Sort of, by Yvonne Morrison and illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ) is a finalist in the Junior Fiction category of the awards.

Thank you to illustrator Donovan Bixley for his generous responses:

1. What was your approach to illustrating this book?
Actually I didn’t know what to make of it at first. A very daunting proposition, as usually I have at least a few clear visions in my head and start working out from those. This led to a rather different approach than I usually take.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from storyboards to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in illustrating this book?
Three Bears was a particularly interesting project. Scholastic had a very funny manuscript but they didn’t know how on earth it could be illustrated, or who could illustrate it. When they offered it to me, I fell about laughing and immediately ran inside to read to my family. But I could see that it was going to be very difficult to illustrate.

cv_the_three_bears_sort_ofThis book was most unusual for me in the fact that I didn’t do any roughs or storyboards. Instead I did some very vague stick figure drawings and sent Scholastic a long letter about what I was THINKING I might do with this very funny post-modern text. The challenge was, interpreting the ever-changing voices in the text – which I envisaged as many different styles of illustration.

As often happens with good ideas, turning them into reality is often much harder than the vague foggy picture in your head. Normally I work out a whole book in advance, get those roughs approved, then the final illustrations are just a matter of knuckling down and making it happen – which can be a mainly technical process. For Three Bears, I had a tremendous amount of fun the whole way through the process, because each page was trying to figure out a new style, technique, composition and way of making it fit the text AND make it fit together with the previous pages. All that problem solving is the most fun part of my work. I had plenty of moments of self doubt – wondering if the whole thing was just going to be a huge mish-mash of styles and disparate ideas as I tried to visualise this journey from traditional storybook bears to realistic non-fiction bears and everything in-between.

3. How closely were you able to collaborate with the writer? Do you prefer to work this way?
In all of the picture books I’ve illustrated, I’ve never had much correspondence with the author. In some cases none at all. Funnily enough, I really love working this way. I like not being influenced by any preconceived ideas that the author (or publisher) might have. It requires a lot of sensitivity and understanding on part of the illustrator – and it could all go horribly wrong. But it also requires a lot of trust – that the publisher has chosen the right person to bring this particular text to life. I like that both creators are entrusted to contribute our artistic speciality – and maybe, just maybe, it might just have that strange alchemy that no one can predict (thank goodness, otherwise we’d all be replaced by robots!) and then the finished book becomes something magical and not some middling design-by-committee production.

4. Can you recommend any illustrators whose work you find yourself particularly influenced by?
As a kid of my generation it was hard not to be a fan of Dr Seuss. cv_the_weather_machingThe Lorax is one of my all-time favourite books – it was responsible for my desire to become an illustrator and an inspiration for my 2013 book The Weather Machine (right). I was also a big fan of Guillermo Mordillo and later discovered Graham Oakley’s Churchmice series – the influence of both can be seen in my work like The Looky Book and Dashing Dog, with all the background hidden images and in-jokes and layers that are there to be discovered or understood on subsequent readings. When I went to art school I discovered comics and became a big fan of this new young comic writer called Neil Gaiman and his long time illustration collaborator Dave McKean (the Picasso of comics). As well as those above, my favourite artists include Norman Rockwell, Edgar Degas, John Howe, Edmund Dulac, Bill Peet, Shawn Tan, Gennady Spirin and Chris Riddell.

5. What was your favourite thing to draw when you were at primary school – did you have a “party trick”?
Mum read me The Lord of the Rings when I was seven. I spent years obsessed with bringing Tolkien’s world to life, until about 16 when I discovered John Howe’s illustrations (which are just perfect) and I’ve never done a Middle Earth picture since.

don martinMy best friend (also one of the top drawers at school) and I were into recreating the big nosed Mordillo cartoons and Don Martin’s characters from MAD Magazine (pictured left, copyright Don Martin and MAD Magazine). Our projects were always dotted with colourful characters and elaborate hand-lettered fonts. We could get away with anything at primary school with work like that. Unfortunately in those days everyone used to get beaten up at least a few times a week by one bully or other. Luckily for me, I discovered that drawing trucks was a good way to keep the school bully on side. Funnily enough (just writing this now), I realise that I’ve always hated drawing cars and trucks. I’m much more into people and animals.

6. Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
This past summer at my parent’s bach at Ohiwa,cv_cloud_atlas just south of Ohope, I spent a few days sitting under the trees, with a soundtrack of native birds as I FINALLY got round to reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It really moved me, and I was glad that I could just sit there for hours afterwards in the cooling late afternoon and absorb it all (going through and reading passages entire again) – then spending hours talking about it all with all my family over dinner. My daughters went on to watch the movie and my eldest read the book (her first foray into serious literary fiction – and she loved it). It’s got a 5 star rating in my Book Book, along with Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Straight after that I read another long term ‘must read’ – William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. This was given to me by my eldest daughter, who is always bringing books for me to read. She’s great at predicting what I might like and both of us are big fans of Charlie Higgson’s The Enemy zombie apocalypse series.