Questions for David Mitchell on the novel Ghostwritten by David Gaston, Zoe Fen Koh, Maki Komatsu, Maria Lebed, Nobuhiko Matsusaka, Jun Ohashi, Erika Yamauchi
Tokyo University 12/01/2005
In Ghostwritten, we can’t agree which of your narrators is either the most or least successful. What do you think? And in a third category, which is your favourite?
Maybe written characters are similar to acted characters: if you can
forget that the illusion that this character on a page (or a movie screen)
isn’t a ‘real’ person, then it is successful. I think the most successful
characters in GHOSTWRITTEN are those who are culturally closest to me.
These are Neil Brose in Hong Kong and Marco in London. The furthest from
me, culturally, are probably the old woman in her Chinese tea-shack and
perhaps the woman in St Petersburg – these characters are probably the
dodgiest. My favourite? I have a soft spot for Bat Segundo because he’s a
music-geek and so am I, and maybe for Satoru in Tokyo because he’s a music
geek too and because he was the artistic grandfather of Eiji, the
protagonist in my second novel.
Do you believe in the end of the world, life after death, the significance
of the number 9? In no particular order.
The end of the world: yes, but not all at once, and probably not
complete. The history of our species is made of endings and beginnings.
But if the environmental scientists are right, the next ending will not be
Life after death: sadly, no, I don’t believe in it, but I hope I’m
wrong. The Buddhist model of reincarnation is particularly elegant.
I don’t believe in numerology, no, but I do believe in the aesthetics of
numbers. The numbers 9, 36 and 64 have a particular beauty for me. I don’t
know why, but maybe in aesthetics there is no ‘why’.
The Mongolia chapter supplies Ghostwritten with a kind of thematic and
self-referential climax, explaining in an elegant metaphor the process of
reading Ghostwritten. Was it a deliberate risk or experiment to place this
‘climax’ in the middle of the novel? And does it mean that the chapters
which immediately follow must necessarily seem disappointing, a mere
reversion to what has come before?
You’re right, Mongolia is a mini-GHOSTWRITTEN isn’t it? I don’t think I
noticed this when I was writing the novel, but you’re still right. I can
answer, then, that it wasn’t a deliberate risk. I hope the following
chapters don’t seem disappointing, but if they do, c’est la vie.
How do you approach the writing of female characters? When writing from the point of view of a woman, say Mo Muntervary or Margarita, do you change your methodology in any way?
I approach the writing of female characters with trepidation! It is
difficult to try, but difficulties in writing are fun, and if you can tackle
them you can find freshness and originality for your writing. I try to use
what I have learnt about being female from my relationships with girls and
women (students, girlfriends, relatives, my wife) and sort of use that as a
bass-line in the ‘song’ of a character. I also show all my manuscripts to
my wife and listen when she tells me I’m making a horse’s ass of myself.
(She uses more diplomatic language than that.)
Ghostwritten is a first novel, your first novel. There are instances when
the connections between chapters seem a little forced. Do you re-read your
novels? Would you consider re-writing them, and if so, what would you
change in Ghostwritten?
I can’t read GHOSTWRITTEN now, no! Last November I went to Hungary to
do a few talks organized by the British Council, and because GHOSTWRITTEN ismy only novel translated into Hungarian, it was suggested that I do a few
readings from that. Painful! As I was reading, I was editing and changing
This is a natural problem. As you work more in any science or art, you
learn more, and as you learn more, your previous work looks more and more
amateurish. I suppose if I could clone myself I would like to make my clone
re-write my work, yes. But because I can’t clone myself, I would rather
spend time writing completely new work and continuing to learn from my
If I rewrote GHOSTWRITTEN, I would find ways to remove the British
flavour from the non-British characters. I might be flattering myself, but
I believe I partly worked out how to do this in my second and third novels.
The Mo Muntervary section is too long, and now I live in Ireland so I can
see where I romanticised the culture in this section. I botched the Irish
accents, too. I probably wouldn’t worry about the connections too much…
I guess I think of GHOSTWRITTEN as a badly ironed, slightly out-of-style
shirt. But I think it’s a well-made shirt and I’m not ashamed to have it in
Your Japanese characters sometimes think and converse in ways that could be
identified as “gaijin”. Writing for Japanese characters clearly shows a
respect for Japan and an emphasis on the universality of human experience,
but is there a danger of over-using certain phrases and thought patterns
that are particular to British-English or an Anglo-Saxon lifestyle?
Yes, that danger exists, and in the cold light of day I think I am
guilty of having done this. Like I said, I made a better job of it in my
second novel, I hope, where the entire cast is Japanese. We live and learn.
It’s an intriguing problem to try to overcome, however. Normally
translators, not novelists, have to worry about this.
You taught English to Japanese school students. Did being a teacher, with
its daily awareness of the English language, benefit your writing when you
were starting out? Along the same lines, what language do you speak in your house now that you’re married?
Being an English teacher definitely benefited me as I was learning to
write, yes. It is usually difficult to make a living from your vocation
when you start out, because a certain level of ability is required before
people will give you any money for the fruits of your labours. The trick
is, therefore, to find a way to pay the bills that is not too far away from
your vocation. Teaching language is not too far from writing. Both work
with language and communication. Both are to do with observing people.
Both keep your brain awake. I used to teach writing using short little
stories that I wrote especially for my students. They never knew they were
my guinea pigs!
My wife’s English is loads loads better than my Japanese, so the more
complex stuff we discuss in English. She speaks Japanese to our 2-year old,
so our daughter is learning both languages. My parents-in-law send over
videos of NHK kids’ programs and we all watch ‘Yugata Quintet’, ‘Nihongo de
Asobou’ and ‘Okaasan to Isho’. I still try to study Japanese for 30 minutes
a day, and I’m currently learning this very funny song called ‘Kobuta no
Did you know that the Tokyo chapter of Ghostwritten is by some way the
easiest for a Japanese reader to understand? The language and
sentence-structures seem to correspond to about high-school text book level. Is this because Tokyo boys are simple? Or did you have another specific intention in creating this effect?
No, I didn’t know that the Tokyo section is the easiest for Japanese
readers to understand, and no, I don’t think you Tokyoites are any simpler
than us Hiroshimanians. (Go Carp!) I suppose I was trying to get around
the problems of portraying a non-English speaking character in English in
the first person narrative mode by keeping things as simple and clear as
In previous interviews you’ve talked about finding the beauty in the
ugliness of Japan. Did you have another go at Japan in number9dream because you felt you hadn’t sufficiently captured this in Ghostwritten? Is Japan now finished as a location for you as a writer?
I could spend the rest of my life writing books about Japan and never
feel I had captured it. Cultures are, by definition, vaster than books,
like a lake is bigger than any pot.
I wrote NUMBER9DREAM because I had learnt more about the country and itspeople by then, mostly through teaching students in a university; because Iwanted to use and preserve all the thoughts and impressions I had about thecountry; because I was itching to write it.
Japan doesn’t appear in my third or fourth novel, but my fifth, which I
will begin in summer, will be a monstrous historical novel set on Deshima in
Nagasaki between 1790 and 1810. Odd-numbered chapters will be narrated by gaijins, even-numbered chapters will be narrated by Japanese. I can’t wait to begin.
Oe Kenzaburo has taken Murakami Haruki to task for not dealing with the
lived experience of most Japanese people. You’re clearly influenced by
Murakami. At the same time, you’ve said elsewhere that you wanted to avoid the Japan of cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji. Is there any risk that using Murakami as a guide and model is equally dangerous, and falsifies your depiction of modern Japan? Could Murakami be a modern version of Mount Fuji?
Gosh, I’m kind of glad I’m not answering these questions on live TV!
I was infatuated with A WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE when I wrote
NUMBER9DREAM, but I’m a little more objective these days. (Plus,
Murakami-san hasn’t really written anything as good since, apart from the
short stories in AFTER THE QUAKE). I think it is fair to say that he was my
guide and model for a while, but I’m learning other things from other
Yes, you’re right, there is a danger that some people might confuse
Japan with Murakamiland, just as the USA is confused with Hollywood. I
suppose the only solution is for people like you to provide alternatives.
You’ve had a brilliant career, and in a very short time have become a
highly-respected and fantastically successful writer. Do you have any
Mmm, not sure if my accountant would agree with the ‘fantastically’ bit,
but thank you.
No disappointments, not really. ‘Disappointment’ is more a question of attitude than of fact. My last two books were shortlisted for the Booker
but didn’t win – if I wanted to, I could call those failures to win
‘disappointments’ but that would be to ignore all the good things that
happened to me and the books because they were shortlisted. If you are ever teachers yourselves, you may have the experience of teaching a class of 40 students where 20 students are asleep and another 10 not really paying much attention. But if you have 10 or 5 or even 1 student who is in tune with you, that class is rewarding. In a similar way, if I know I have a few
readers who enjoy what I write, that’s enough. I can earn a living out of
doing what I LOVE, and that makes me a lucky man. Disappointments shouldn’tbe carried around with you – disappointments should be learnt from and then flushed down the toilet as quickly as possible.