A Conversation With "Cloud Atlas"
On the connections within David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas", how they reach out and into the wider world, and my attempt to reach back to this book.
This is the story of my one disastrous encounter with David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas. The admonition not to meet one’s heroes is sensible, in some cases, not because they might let you down but because you might let yourself down. This is also the story of how Mitchell wrote Cloud Atlas, his novelistic sextet spanning continents and centuries. This is, at the same time, the story of how books connect with other books, and how books connect to readers, and writers with readers, and cultures with other cultures and with themselves (strange loops of conversation that they are). This is the story of how all of those stories and others overlap to create a greater epic, a concept that is itself the story of Cloud Atlas. After all, what is any story, to paraphrase another idea, but a multitude of stories?
Having crossed an ocean
Graham Greene begins The End of the Affair by noting that “a story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”. True to the dictum, David Mitchell is required to begin Cloud Atlas at some point in time, and although the metaphysics of his novelistic universe include reincarnated souls that might have existed since time immemorial and he could, hypothetically, have begun the book with a story set at the dawn of humanity, Cloud Atlas opens in the mid-nineteenth century.
“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” lays the groundwork on which a palimpsest story will be built, a story of overlapping and recurring lives. It is told as the personal diary of a man who, having crossed an ocean and endured terrible hardships, develops a social conscience. We will later discover that we readers of Cloud Atlas are not the only ones reading Ewing’s tale of journeying from the Chatham Islands to Hawaii, from passive observer to ardent activist; this journal will be discovered half a world and half a century away by Robert Frobisher, in the book’s next section. This, then, is the first of the many connections that will be woven throughout the book to come.
T S Eliot opens the second of his Four Quartets proclaiming, “In my beginning is my end.” In Cloud Atlas, too, the ending is written into the beginning. The narrative from Adam Ewing’s journal will be cut off at its midpoint, as will the story that interrupts it, as do all subsequent stories in this book. But they each return, these second halves told in the reverse order in which they first appear – meaning that this first story is also the last. We end where we begin, just as the beginning determines which ending will be arrived at, just as all things return and are renewed, much like the souls in this book.
The writing of Cloud Atlas might be said to begin – allowing for Greene’s maxim on arbitrary beginnings – in the ’80s. We discover in that decade the aetiology of the structural concept on which the novel hangs. The conception of Cloud Atlas can be attributed to a union between Italo Calvino’s postmodern babushka doll of a novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller... and the natural curiosity of a young writer. Calvino’s innovation was to write a book comprised of the opening chapters of ten different novels. Having discovered this literary invention at university, Mitchell considered a twist on it: placing a “mirror” at the end of this sequence of first-halves and moving in reverse order through the second-half of each story. If Calvino’s novel is a Russian doll opened to reveal the figures each figure contains, Mitchell’s is a Russian doll opened in the same way and then, doll by doll, closed again.
In 2016, David Mitchell was at Hay Festival for a public conversation with the Icelandic novelist Sjón (after which I would meet Mitchell and make an idiot of myself, but that story is yet to come). During the discussion, Mitchell made reference to the “pile of influences” on which every author sits, an accumulation of material for future stories. The two authors talked about their influences, which ranged from Saturday morning cartoons to accounts of the Spanish flu. Each of their novels, they agreed, dipped its hand into this massive heap and pulled out the pieces that it was to be made out of.
Amongst the various materials that went into building the nested dolls in Cloud Atlas were Mitchell’s “fondness for Herman Melville”; the composer Frederick Delius’ criticism of his amanuensis – “He cannot even take down a simple melody!” – which echoes off of Mitchell’s page; books by “hardboiled crime” writers and books by Jared Diamond, Russell Hoban, and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Also swirling within this brew of inspiration is Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, James Ellroy, Aldous Huxley, All the President’s Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and, of course, the experience of being a human alive at any period in history as well as specifically this one.
Like Cloud Atlas, which is Ariadne’s thread weaving itself through the warp and weft of several stories to create a unified whole, Mitchell connected – with the staples of imagination – his various influences to create a greater totality. In doing so, he became like his own character Adam Ewing, who passively takes in the world at the start of his story, imbibing life as if he is only an audience to living, and by the end of his tale is an active participant, motivated by what he has witnessed to effect change in the world around. Mitchell took components of the world that he had absorbed as a consumer of life and produced something to give back to and change the world.
Mitchell’s final readings of his own novels begin “when the FedEx man brings the page proofs to be checked”. Because this proof-approving stage for Cloud Atlas happened way back in 2003, Mitchell now tends to remember the book less well than the many readers who have read it since. The book is, in some ways, more theirs than his now. There is often a sense for writers that the book published is the book delivered into the world like a parent bidding farewell to a teenager leaving home. The book has other journeys to make with new readers, and they will transform the author’s vision into something of their own.
Death in an empty bath
Every reader of Cloud Atlas has their favourite section, one of the six storylines that speaks to them (in whichever idiosyncratic style Mitchell has gifted it with) in a way that resonates along the nerve-endings of the soul long after the book is closed. My preferred section, for a variety of personally esoteric reasons, has always been the one called “Letters From Zedelghem”.
Robert Frobisher, being as precarious financially as he is morally, convinces a once-great, increasingly deaf and dependent composer to take him on as his amanuensis, for a “small salary”. As Frobisher ingratiates himself into the maestro’s life, connections between the previous story and those to come begin reaching out, root-like, establishing links of causality and reverse-causality between the lives of the Cloud Atlas players. Frobisher discovers the torn-in-two journal of Adam Ewing, while the elder composer dreams of a “nightmarish café” where “the waitresses all had the same face”. This is the setting of the fifth section in Cloud Atlas, making this a connection that looks forward even though the reader will understand it only by looking back.
What I find most deeply moving in this story is Frobisher’s transformation from social parasite to the source of something profound and important. By the end of his story, Frobisher will have put himself aside in favour of a greater work he will gift to the world, a concerto for six overlapping soloists. His life poured into the music, all that remains is his death in an empty bath; as he writes to the love of his short life, “Cloud Atlas Sextet holds my life, is my life, now I’m a spent firework.”
The first time I discovered this strange book called Cloud Atlas was also the first time I heard of this particular David Mitchell. From where I wandered among tables stacked to regiment height with the latest paperbacks in my local Waterstones, I glimpsed a shining hardcover book on display, winking reflected light at me as if to get my attention. The book’s Pepto-Bismol cover, an unearthly neon pink laced across the top with fluorescent blue swirls, enticed me to pick it up. I thought at first that this novel had been penned by the British comedian of the same name whom I’d seen on television. It hadn’t, and I hadn’t been the first to make that prosaic mistake.
I didn’t buy the book that day: My wallet being just full enough for one purchase, I went for some other title by some other writer. As time went on, my attention was continually drawn to the shininess of newer books, and as Cloud Atlasbecame older my interest waned, an indictment only of my absurd sense (at that time) that the new was always more important. I would read, years later, Mitchell confessing that longevity was not a prime concern for him:
“Whether the novel’s popularity lasts into future decades, or whether Cloud Atlas is of its time, isn’t a question I ever consider.”
Whether he considered it or not, I am one of many for whom Cloud Atlas has endured. It waited for me, as all wonderful books do, patiently sitting on shelves in bookstores and then purring contentedly on a shelf in my own home, happy to wait until I was ready for it. I became ready for it while wondering how in the hell my life had led me to Mexico, where I was trying to write a novel I would be remembered for, and where I floundered socially in the shallow end of language, watching my partner swim with confident strokes of conjugated verbs and compound prepositions as I splashed and paddled with over-enunciated English and hand signals. My brother came to visit from England and left with me his recently-read copy of Cloud Atlas.
There in Mexico, in 2017, thirteen years after the book was published, seven years since I first read Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, and one year since I had met David Mitchell and lodged my foot as far as I could stuff it into my mouth, I finally read Cloud Atlas. The experience altered the drift of my life and set it on a more definite trajectory in two ways.
First, it gave me the confidence to write a novel that I desperately needed to write, despite that it will likely never be read by strangers – it is sprawling in the sense of being an epic novel with multiple storylines, but also sprawling in the sense of being tossed out unevenly in a spreading mess. Call it a cleansing of the creative palette; I needed to tip the mess of my mind freely onto the page before I could sift through it for things worth working with.
In a piece he wrote for The Guardian, Mitchell says that he is pleased when a young writer tells him that they have successfully mustered publisher approval for an audacious literary experiment with the line, “Well, look at Cloud Atlas for heaven’s sake!” This gratifying fact makes him feel as if he has “given something back to this three-century-old rambling building – the novel – that has sheltered and sustained [him]”. I did not get a publisher on side, but Mitchell’s book did give me the courage to conduct my novelistic experiment.
Cloud Atlas also informed this project that is Art Of Conversation, which in part came out of my fascination with the way Mitchell’s novel spoke to other novels and genres, and my own desire to talk about this with others. I knew from the start that I would one day “talk back” to Cloud Atlas by writing something that expressed what the book had meant to me, that interrogated some of my own obsessions with its themes, and that turned my consumption of that novel into a small offering to readers of Art Of Conversation and, if it’s not too conceited, to literature itself.
After a forced swim
The third section of Cloud Atlas – “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” – ferments in the hardboiled crime tradition and brims with thriller tropes. Here, we begin to see that this book, already riffing on literary forms such as the faux-journal and the epistolary novel, is deeply connected to genre. Cloud Atlas is in conversation (and argument) with the many styles and subjects that publishers and bookshops have labelled “mystery” or “sci-fi” or any other number of tidy terms and sold to us as concrete categories.
This story has hitmen-for-fire, plucky journalists, government conspiracies, and car chases that culminate, after a forced swim to escape death, in a shootout on a yacht. The Luisa Rey section clearly situates itself in the terrain of a type of novel that knows what it is and happily churns out replicants of itself with the cheery refrain, If it ain’t broke ... In this, Mitchell glimpsed the gleaming edges of a two-sided blade: His American editor raised the point that “with a piece like the Luisa Rey story ... the more you succeed in making it true to genre, the more faithful you are, the less original it will be”.
This problem is diminished if you happen to enjoy the genre in which Mitchell is writing here. The authenticity of this section so transported me to a younger self who thrilled at a good thriller (“good” meaning it ticked the boxes of what I wanted from a Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy novel) that my baseline experience was one of simple joy, augmented by the clever connections in this story to the rest of the novel and to literature itself.
In an interview with Bold Type, we learn that Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, began as a set of three unrelated stories that Mitchell describes (with a unique appropriation of a cinematic term) as being written “on location”. Each of these stories was conceived and birthed in the place in which it is set, and they would have retained the borders between their national identities had Mitchell not seen the “narrative potential waiting to be tapped by linking the stories”.
From this beginning, Mitchell developed a particular architecture with which he tends to work: vignettes that function alone and yet come together to form a new working whole, independent stories that find new life in interdependence. What makes this whole edifice so distinctly Mitchellesque (Mitchellian?) is not the distinctions between stories in his books but the links that unite them. Ghostwritten works as well as it does because of its thematic unification.
Much has been said of Mitchell’s “über-novel”, an expansive project in world building in which a central cosmology accumulates, like dust into Saturn’s rings, around the gravitational centre of psychics, souls, and predation. I won’t add much more to what has already been said of this except to point out the elation I felt at recognising that the same kind of overlapping self-reference that fleshed out Ghostwritten was being carried across novels. My first inkling of it came while reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and a sentence echoed familiarly:
“West to east, the sky unrolls and rolls its atlas of clouds.”
I suspected I was stretching to think this was definitely a reference to his previous novel’s title, until I read this in number9dream:
“... I buy a pack of Hopes, sit on a post, and watch the traffic stop and start. Twenty years translated to two minutes. I smoke one, two, three. The cloud atlas turns its pages over.”
After this, I discovered the network of reappearing characters whom I would repeatedly meet as I read more of Mitchell’s novels. What impressed me was the way in which he used the shared universe and its crossover characters as a literary laboratory in which to explore concepts of connection, reinvention, and unification. It is a bit of a cheat to quote myself but, given that we are exploring the idea of connections between seemingly disparate things, why not link this essay to one I wrote a few years ago? In that essay, I wrote:
“Each possible variation of reading-order offers a unique view of Mitchell’s universe. Starting with The Bone Clocks – the book that lays out the foundational narrative against which his universe unfolds, as well as examining some of the physics of this cosmos – will offer one particular view of the other books. On the other hand, there is a certain element of mystery in those other books when read first, because you don’t know about the nature of souls and immortality in this realm. On the other other hand, reading The Bone Clocks before the other books gives the reader an added insight into the reincarnation featured in Cloud Atlas and the crossover characters of all the books.”
In other words:
“Discovering Marinus in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet after encountering him in The Bone Clocks does not progress the micro- or macro-stories much at all, but it fleshes out, challenges, and changes our understanding of that character and his place in this shared universe.”
In Mitchell’s work, interconnectedness is more than a gimmick or a literary trick. It is central to the human experience and to literature itself. Mitchell describes the strange ontology of fiction as something that “occurs between the imaginations of complete strangers who will stay complete strangers”. This is, on a salient level, materially true, though it is hard not to feel – even if this is little more than the kind of magical thinking that fiction inspires – that by sharing this connection via a particular novel we are a little less complete in our “complete stranger” status to one another. Perhaps the interconnectedness of our imaginations, the links between author and readers, as well as those between reader and reader, bring us just a little closer together.
We enter new territory in the fourth section of Cloud Atlas. Here is the ridiculous figure of Timothy Cavendish, publisher of murderous thugs and mugging victim of “three pre-pubescent lollipop girls”, regaling us with his semi-absurdist memoir, in the hyperbolic style commonly associated with the elderly and the posh. Who else would offer their reader advice regarding the possibility of inheriting one of London’s costliest properties, or describe their sense of well-being, in the face of teenagers littering, being “utterly V-2’d”?
There are numerous ways in which the Cavendish section contrasts with other parts of this book. For one, the comedy is front-and-centre, which is not to say there isn’t levity and even humour in previous sections – I adore, for instance, Frobisher’s wry description of the natural landmark at Dover: “... versified cliffs as Romantic as my arse and a similar hue.” But here in the Cavendish tale we are given capitalised Comedy. Vaguely surreal in tone, rising to manic in stylistic pitch, and totally mad.
It makes perfect sense why Mitchell would include this in his book. What atlas of humanity, shifting like clouds and covering such expansive terrain, could leave out laughter? Cavendish laughs at those around him, and in his smug superiority, frequently undermined by his own senescence, he is often the butt of an existential joke. To laugh at the world makes us strong enough to get through it; to laugh at oneself is to learn something along the way.
It is a stubborn fact that the book in the mind of the writer is never the book that ends up on the page. Something is always lost in translation, although much is often found in it too, and as long as the result is true to the ineffable spirit that initially moved the writer to wrestle with words, it is not a failure.
What is a mystery to me is that there are people who are able to communicate even an intelligible sliver of the ideas that boil and bubble in their heads with little apparent toil or trouble in speech. Not only do they manage to express something of their internal worlds, they manage it with flair, and the resulting speech is both informative and beautiful. Case in point: the 2016 Hay Festival event at which David Mitchell sat down with fellow writer Sjón and the two of them articulated important ideas with envy-inducing ease.
At one point, Mitchell made mention of a common phase, almost a rite of passage, for many readers in their late adolescence, in which the urge to prove oneself as a “serious reader” leads to shunning anything with the faintest whiff of “genre” about it and reading, exclusively, obscure French writers who seem to hate the world as much as they hate plot. (I am lightly paraphrasing.) The criticism was not of such writers and their books or the people who read them, but of the unfortunate and restrictive fear of judgment that constricts a young person’s reading.
Having gone through such a stage between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three (when I first read Mitchell’s Ghostwritten), I thought about this as I stood next to a friend in line after the festival event, waiting to have her copy of Cloud Atlas signed by Mitchell. I had resolved to let the writer know that he had been instrumental in removing the unwarranted shame I felt about enjoying books on a visceral, in-the-gut, makes-me-want-dance-cry-laugh kind of way. His books had given me more to do as a reader than coolly dissecting subtext so I could tick another title off the list called Classics Of Existentialism You Must Read Although You Won’t Like But Enjoyment Is Beside The Point As Long As You Get It. Mitchell’s are books with style, substance, the full range of human emotion, that leave my mind and emotional stomach full, and are simultaneously a joy to read. That is what I intended to say.
The queue moved until we were standing in front of him, David Mitchell beaming at my friend before scribbling his name in her book, and then turning to me because I had not wandered away in the wake of my friend’s praise for his work and thanks for the signature. Instead, I hesitated, a blip of time that was nothing on a cosmic scale and also, to my mind, a solid decade off of my life as I felt the needling cold of sweat spreading in my armpits.
First, I handed him the black Moleskine notebook I carried in my pocket, then I asked if I could give him said notebook. “To sign,” I clarified. He was gracious and smiled. “Of course.” Then, head down and eyes on the notebook as he lifted the cover, he said jovially, “I’m going to do something very mean now ...” Another decade off my life as he scanned the scrawl of my words on the first page. He pointed down at the notes and looked up at me.
“Fiction?” he said.
“Yes. It’s ... Yes.”
I was impeded from saying more by my understanding that there is a certain kind of young writer who bores everyone they meet with speeches about their as-yet-undiscovered work of genius. But then, he did ask. Probably being polite. I was now halfway through the most uncomfortable silence of my life. Thank Christ he was busy jotting down a message on the front page of my notebook.
“I wanted to say,” I began before good sense could silence me, “that I went through that sort of period, you know, in my life, when I only read very serious literary books,” this delivered with what I hoped was a tone of self-deprecation, “and then reading your books, well, I remembered – I mean, your books reminded me – how much fun reading can be.” This is not a verbatim transcript of the verbal mulch that fell out of my mouth, but it’s close enough to convey why I believed I had just inadvertently told David Mitchell that his books weren’t serious or literary, but they were (and I can hear this in no tone other than condescending) good fun. He smiled, I flailed mentally trying to interpret the smile – was he offended? amused? wondering what brings all the weirdos out to these events? – and then he stood and shook my hand. I turned and walked away from Mitchell and any self-confidence I once had.
I consoled myself later with a strong drink and recalled Nabokov’s declaration: “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” I make no claims so bold regarding the first two categories, except to say that, by comparison with how true of me the part about inept speech is, I am relatively articulate on the page and in my head.
Against those born in the water
After the comedy of errors that befalls Timothy Cavendish, we have a briefly disorienting switch to “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, the tale of a dystopic slave state in which the central protagonist is a genetically manufactured “fabricant” built to serve the “purebloods” who run society. Those born naturally are encouraged to turn their prejudice against those born in the water of “wombtanks”, which mark their original sin (for which they are left without “souls”) as being the product of an unnatural process.
Sonmi is rescued from her slave existence as a fast-food waitress with no autonomy and given an education of sorts, one that even comprises a liberal-arts component: Sonmi watches a classic movie from before the world went mad, a comedy called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. This is all so that she can “ascend” to self-consciousness. Eventually, Sonmi writes a series of abolitionist “declarations”, a manifesto that the world will be changed by.
What writer, filmmaker, musician, or artist of any kind has not desired exactly that for some piece of their own art, if not their entire body of work? Who has not looked at one’s own child or one’s niece, nephew, or any little life in bloom and not hoped to have some positive effect on the shape that life takes? Who, in full view of where they have come from, has not wished to make better the future they are heading into? With her determined spirit of hope, Sonmi is the soul in all of us living in faith that tomorrow can be brighter and that we can be instrumental to that change.
Who is Sonmi’s audience?
It might seem that Sonmi speaks to those in power, to those we look up to and assume will carry out any social change that might occur. And to some degree, she and all writers must have the powers-that-be in some corner of their imagined audience when they put pen to page. David Foster Wallace (paraphrasing Cesar A Cruz, who was appropriating an expression from Finley Peter Dunne) once said that art “should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Knock the powerful from their pedestals, yes, but speak solace and strength to the rest of us who were always at the bottom.
Noam Chomsky has criticised the idea of speaking “truth to power”. Better, he argues, to speak truth to the powerless. Those in power often already know the truth and conceal it. It has been claimed that slaves in the Roman empire were not given a uniform, so that when they were out in public they had no way of recognising who around was also a slave, and they would not realise that they vastly outnumbered their masters. Knowledge of that kind might have been revolutionary.
How might a person communicate truth?
If you are a slave-clone recently endowed with self-consciousness, you might write a political manifesto and have yourself martyred, à la Sonmi. However, few of us find ourselves in her situation.
If you are a gifted storyteller with a penchant for the preternatural, you might write an epic novel in which the truths you wish to communicate – about the interconnected nature of humanity, the recurrence of good and evil, and the innate desire to burn like a firework to light the way, briefly but brightly, for others – are not simply expressed but are lived. You might take your reader on a journey to experience the truths you as the writer have connected with. Fiction is sometimes the best medium by which to meet with reality. As Alan Garner once put it:
“The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth. But what we feel most deeply can’t be spoken in words alone. At this level, only images connect. And here, story becomes symbol; symbol is myth. And myth is truth.”
And if you are an essayist with a few readers and a desire to interact with the books that have inspired you, you might write a long-form piece responding to the truths discovered in one of those novels.
Is a wide reach necessary to speaking a truth?
One soul saved even for one moment is usually as much as any individual can hope for, but it is not nothing; if I can change one mind, I have increased the odds of spreading my Great Idea in this world. Better still – if I can change one life, I have made my own existence worthwhile. I have always been persuaded by Horace Mann’s dictum that “until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.”
It might be only one person I affect for the better or convince of my idea, but what is any society but a multitude of people? Such is Adam Ewing’s view, at the end of Cloud Atlas, when we return to his story and see that he has taken up a grand cause without being dissuaded by the fact that his influence might be minimal. He will most likely be a mere drop in the ocean – but, he asks, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”
Of course, Cloud Atlas has countless readers, been adapted into a movie, and was ranked number 9 on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the twenty-first century...
Well, massive success is not a failure. But we can’t all be David Mitchell.
Before life on an island.
The final section of Cloud Atlas, which falls in the middle of the book and acts like a centre of gravity around which the other tales orbit, takes us to the far future and the distant past at once. Just as life swings its pendulum arc between two voids (Nabokov’s “brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”), humanity now hangs between an unknown tomorrow and stories from long ago. And as all things pass away and are remade new, the past in Mitchell’s story is returned to and reimagined as a dystopic future.
What remains of humanity has reverted to tribalism – one group descending to cannibalism, another to primitive agriculture and the worship of a goddess known as Sonmi, both tribes studied by the technologically advanced Prescients. The world has been reduced to a few Hawaiian islands, the result of the “Old’uns” who “tripped their own Fall”, compelled by greed to “rip out the skies an’ boil up the seas an’ poison soil”.
But it is not only the sins of the father that have remained; the voice of the mother and her message of liberation – which in every incarnation is one of hope – survives. Sonmi’s revelations reverberate through history, travelling into the future where her words speak again, her message renewed. Sonmi’s compassion is the compass that guides the “atlas o’ clouds”.
But what good is an idea if it is only heard, if it does not inspire action, if it does not reach out of the voice to touch and change the world? “A half-read book,” Frobisher writes in one of his epistolary attempts to reach his lover, “is a half-finished love affair.” The stories of Cloud Atlas, broken at their midpoints, are incomplete by design. They are an offering made by the first half of the book, accepted and returned by the resolutions offered in the book’s second half. This is the deepest (in my reading) message of Cloud Atlas: The world reaches out to us, and we must reach back out to the world. In this, connection is finally made.
The friends I have made since the day I briefly met David Mitchell in 2016 are often surprised at my telling of that story. They are incredulous when I say I used to be very shy, that I struggled to look people in the eye and to speak my mind with any measure of eloquence. That person existed until as recently as four years ago. In four years I have travelled halfway around the world, worked on my public speaking, and settled with quiet confidence into my self-description as a writer. That meeting with Mitchell (the memory of which seeded and subsequently cultivated my resolution not to see myself as lesser than anyone else) and my meetings with his books, especially Cloud Atlas, were all important waystations on that journey.
I still have that notebook I took to the Hay Festival, the one with Mitchell’s note on the front page. The message is simple, sincere, and does some heavy lifting in spite of its brevity by bringing me a deep sense of motivation and resolve. The words Mitchell wrote for me are a message of encouragement for my writing. Some days this sentiment is all that I need.
So I read and write. I listen and speak. There are many voices that deserve to be heard, and it is readers who consciously seek those voices and give them new life by listening. As Louise Glück, poet and winner of this year’s Nobel prize for literature, has written:
“When you read anything worth remembering, you liberate a human voice; you release into the world again a companion spirit. I read ... to hear that voice. And I write to speak to those I have heard.”
Cloud Atlas is an enduring reminder not only of the very many voices still and always to be listened to, but to speak back to those voices we hear. Conversation of this kind is how we connect.
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• Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
• The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)
• Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’, T S Eliot (1940)
• Guardian book club: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, David Mitchell in “The Guardian” (2010)
• “What’ll happen if I try this?”: David Mitchell on writing Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell in “The Guardian” (2019)
• Silver Daggers and Russian Dolls – David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, in interview, Shane Barry in “threemonkeysonline.com” (2004)
• An interview with David Mitchell, Catherine McWeeney in “Bold Type” (2001)
• The Voice That Thunders, Alan Garner (1997)
• Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
• Proofs & Theories, Louise Glück (1994)