Acclaimed author David Mitchell showcases fiction at UMMA

By Kayla Upadhyaya, Senior Arts Editor
Published October 30, 2012

It took three people to adapt and direct the new sci-fi film “Cloud Atlas,” but the novel on which the genre-bending epic is based all sprouted from a singular mind: British novelist David Mitchell.

“Cloud Atlas,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004, intertwines six different stories. Most of those who gathered at the University of Michigan Museum of Art for a reading with Mitchell — the latest writer in the Zell Visiting Writers Series — had the bestseller tucked under their arms as they waited in line to have them signed before the reading.

“I like that he plays around with a lot of different genres,” said LSA senior Sean Flores, clutching his own copy of “Cloud Atlas.” “He’s able to have six different types of stories in there that are all really different in terms of not just the content, but also the way it’s written.”

Even those new to Mitchell’s work took an interest in his visit.

LSA sophomore Angeline Dimambro hasn’t read any of Mitchell’s novels, but when her professor, Laura Thomas, told her about the event, she went out and bought a copy of “Black Swan Green,” a semi-autobiographical book Mitchell published in 2006.

LSA seniors Kathryn Beaton and Megan Vance were also encouraged by their professors to attend the event. Beaton noted that Mitchell is coming to her English class, “Twentieth Century American Literature,” on Tuesday in addition to giving a lecture Thursday evening.

Perhaps to the dismay of those who turned out for the event, Mitchell did not read from “Cloud Atlas.” Nor did he read from his most recent book, the historical novel “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.”

“I’m actually sick of reading from my last book; I’m sick of reading from all of my books,” Mitchell said to the crowd, opting to instead read three recent standalone pieces.

The first short story Mitchell read was written for Kai and Sunny, the artists who did the illustrations for the UK covers of “Cloud Atlas” and his earlier novel, “number9dream.” The designer duo asked Mitchell to write the story, called “The Gardener,” for their 2011 floral-themed exhibition “The Flower Show.”

Mitchell wrote the second story for a special collection of short stories commissioned by Fighting Words, a literacy and creative writing campaign launched by Mitchell’s friend, Irish writer Roddy Doyle. Mitchell advocates for Doyle’s literacy cause in Dublin.

Only 150 copies of the collection — which also features stories from Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and John Banville — were printed for the fundraising effort.

Mitchell ended with “The Massive Rat,” a tale of a married couple whose relationship problems are heightened by the presence of what they believe is a very large rat stuck behind their fireplace.

Before beginning the story, Mitchell realized that all of the pieces he had selected to read were somewhat sad and noted that he’d have to tell some jokes afterward, but the mood in the UMMA Apse was hardly somber. The layered humor of Mitchell’s work isn’t lost when he speaks in front of a crowd.

In response to his placement as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2007, Mitchell said his wife doesn’t think he’s even the most influential person in their house. He’s fifth — after her, the two kids and the washing machine.

LSA junior Mary Kossarek was impressed by how charismatic and laid back Mitchell was.

“I just think he’s a really eloquent author, but also really relatable,” Kossarek said. “A lot of times, authors come off as really aloof, and he’s really personable and friendly.”

After the reading, Mitchell hurriedly opened the floor for questions, promising to keep his answers to “Twitter length.” In many more than 140 characters, Mitchell explained he doesn’t think about movie potential when writing a novel, and he advises that others do the same.

“Just write the book,” he said. “The biggest question you should ever be asking is ‘how can I make the damn novel work?’ ”

He explained the technique with one of his favorite fancy literary terms: metalepsis, the recurrence of characters throughout a body of work.

“I think of all of my novels as little individual chapters of my uber novel,” he explained.

Mitchell will be leading a fiction workshop in Angell Hall Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. and he will host a smaller, more extensive Q&A in the Hopwood Room Thursday at 2:00 p.m. Later on Thursday, he will return to UMMA for another book signing as well as a lecture in the Helmut Stern Auditorium, where he will discuss what fiction is made of.

He gave a little sneak peak of the lecture, explaining that in addition to the usual story components such as plot, character and style, fiction is made up of “little bits,” which, according to Mitchell, is a technical term.

But don’t stroke his ego. Mitchell doesn’t think he’s as clever as everyone makes him out to be.

“I’m going to have trouble flying back, because my head is going to exceed my baggage allowance,” he said.