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  • A Conversation with David Mitchell
  • David Naimon (bio) and David Mitchell

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David Mitchell is best known for his intricately plotted novels—ones that venture across the globe, from Ireland and Mongolia to New York and Iraq—but also for novels that span multiple time frames, from an eighteenth-century Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor to a futuristic dystopian Korea. From the get-go David Mitchell’s talent has been widely recognized. His 1999 debut novel, Ghostwritten, received the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for the best work of British literature by an author under thirty-five. A. S. Byatt declared it one of the best debut novels she had ever read. In 2003 Mitchell was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, and in 2007, after critical acclaim for his novels Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, takes things a step further. [End Page 47]

It’s a book that not only travels around the globe and through time, from the 1980s to the 2040s, but also one that takes time itself as its central subject matter.


What compelled you to write a book that not only spans time but contemplates it?


How could you not be interested in time? It’s like being a fish and not being interested in the sea. It’s where we live. Wheeler, an American astrophysicist, said, “It’s what stops everything happening all at once.” We live in it. We live through it. It ages us. It changes us. It turns us from tiny little one-celled beings, from birth through the seven stages of man, and into the care home if we are lucky, old age being a privilege that is denied to many.


You’ve mentioned that The Bone Clocks is a midlife crisis novel of sorts or a novel that is a taking-account of one’s life at midlife.


Maybe not so much time in a metaphysical sense but mortality in a visceral, physical sense is what the book’s heart is.


One of the questions that the book proposes is “What sort of Faustian bargain would you accept to not have to confront mortality?”


Would you be willing to have your conscience amputated to make yourself immune from the aging side effects of time, if to make the deal would cause others to suffer for it? Would you make the deal if every ten or fifteen years you had to fake your own death and move on and start somewhere else before people began to notice you weren’t getting any older?


And what is a “bone clock” exactly?


It’s us. You and I are bone clocks. There is a cult in the novel who engage in this Faustian pact with a gnostic occult machine set up many centuries ago. You can’t tell from their faces how many [End Page 48] years they’ve lived or how many years they have to live, whereas with our faces you can guess our ages. Our faces tell the time of our lives. They [the cult] disparagingly call us “bone clocks” because they are not bone clocks.


At first glance The Bone Clocks seems like an epic. I tried to keep a list of locations. I’m sure I didn’t get them all. We’re in Cambridge, Switzerland, Manhattan, Vancouver, Russia, Colombia, Shanghai, Iraq and Iceland. We spend time in the England of Margaret Thatcher, the Iraq of now, and a future dystopic post-oil Ireland. But if you look closer at the skeleton of the book, it really only spans the course of one specific person’s life. This fact almost feels hidden beneath all the larger movements in the book. Tell us about this person’s bone clock that we are following.


I like your metaphor because skeletons are hidden, and Holly Sykes, the protagonist of the first and sixth parts (and the narrator of...


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pp. 46-60
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