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My Writing Life: interview with David Mitchell

David Mitchell, one of the judges on this year’s Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, shares details about his life as an author

Why do you write? What prompted you to first sit down and tell a story in words?

I write because doing so brings me a particular vintage of pleasure which nothing else provides; because a day when I don’t write feels like a wasted day; and because, frankly, I’m not much cop at anything else.

Nothing really prompted me to first down and tell a story in words: I just wanted to do it. I still do. That’s not an erudite reply, but it is the truest.

Where do you write? What’s your routine like, on a normal writing day?

In the back bedroom when the weather cold; in a hut in the garden when it’s mild or warm; waiting in the car; when I’m travelling (when travel is possible). First thing in the morning, after I wake up, I think about the scenes I need to get written that day. Last thing at night, too.

My routine fits around whatever else I have to do that day. The evening and the nighttime is a good time to write, when the world is quieter.

What do you love most about writing? What keeps you returning to the page, even when it might all feel as if it’s going nowhere?

The pleasure of working out what I want to say, and how best to say it; and of finding ideas, images and combinations of words that I haven’t seen before.

I keep returning to the page because there’s no such thing as a narrative that goes nowhere: ‘all’ you have to do is make it go somewhere good, and make it go well.

Have you experienced any kind of “failure” in the world of writing? How did you overcome this? Did it lead to success further down the line?

The very first manuscript I completed was rejected, but when I realised I hadn’t ripened yet, I was grateful, with no ‘overcoming’ required. I was already working on the next book, that turned into my first published novel.

Bad reviews can feel like failure, but I’ve learned to ‘pre-overcome’ those by not reading the bleeders. You’ll be amazed when you can train yourself to ignore.

Getting stuck in the course of writing something can feel like a kind of temporary failure too, but that comes under the ‘bumps’ of the next question, so read on.

Without getting too self-helpy, failure is how you learn, and learning is how you succeed. QED, there’s no success without failure. No tennis without nets.

What words of encouragement might you offer to other writers, those at the start of their careers perhaps, or who are experiencing bumps along the way?

It isn’t supposed to be easy. Candy Crush or trouncing beginners on is ‘easy’ – but it’s also a waste of life, so why bother?

Don’t worry about perfection first time around: writing a vomit draft (the technical term) is way better than writing nothing. Metaphorical artistic vomit is, in fact, improvable. A blank page is not. (No more vomit.)

Bumps are good. Bumps are signposts, keys, doors and raw material in disguise. Befriend your bumps. Curiosity is your best writing partner.

What’s next in terms of your own writing? What are your priorities for the next few years? Are there any curveballs on the horizon?

A collection of short stories. A possible TV show, like pretty much every other writer I know at the moment. More novels for as long as I’m here.

Has the pandemic impacted your writing in any way? Positive or negative?

The pandemic has enabled me to collaborate with directors and screenwriters who might ordinarily have been too busy. Likewise, the virtual book tour is now officially a thing, so I’ve had the chance to hold zoomversations with people whom I may not have met during the old normal. I am missing festivals, events and book tours, however. I’d like the world back.

Are you enjoying the process of judging the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award? Have there been any surprises along the way?

Very much so, yes. We’re still in lockdown in Ireland, so zooming my fellow judges constitutes a fair chunk of my social life. We’ve encountered some great stories.

We have diverse perspectives and opinions, but the process is as considered and respectful to the stories and their authors as it should be. Decisions can only be subjective but our choices are not at all arbitrary. Surprises come courtesy of the stories – the plot twists, turns of phrase, thoughts, moods and images.

My favourite short story?

This answer is arbitrary, but that’s not my fault – it’s like asking for the favourite moment of your life. Many people reading this will know Chekhov, Munro, Cheever and the other already-famous greats, so I’ll share the love and nominate Sarah Hall’s CASE STUDY 2 and Kevin Barry’s ROMA GIRL because both are indelible and – to my mind – literally flawless.

Interview by Sophie Haydock

David Mitchell’s novel, Utopia Avenue (Sceptre, £8.99), will be published in paperback in May

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