David Mitchell: 'Moscow smells of the future'

David Mitchell (L) and Alexander Ilichevsky(R) in Moscow. Source: Alexandra Guzeva

David Mitchell (L) and Alexander Ilichevsky(R) in Moscow. Source: Alexandra Guzeva

Authors David Mitchell, Evie Wyld and Alexander Ilichevsky met in Moscow to discuss literature and to share a few of their writing secrets.

The group meets at Pashkov House, a mansion located near the Kremlin and which Bulgakov enshrined in “The Master and Margarita” (incidentally one of Mitchell’s favorite novels), and soon get to grips with the topic “Literature: somewhere between truth and fantasy.” 

This is Mitchell’s second visit to Russia, “a great country with a rich culture, fascinating and paradoxical,” as he characterizes it in an interview with Izvestia newspaper. 

He describes his knowledge of Russian literature as being “at least like any well educated Englishman’s. But as a writer I feel compelled to say that Chekhov is a trophy; Tolstoy is magnificent; Pushkin - unbelievable; Dostoyevsky - staggering; and Gogol - extraordinary. And then you have the poetry, which is incredible even in translation,” says Mitchell, who also told Izvestia that Russia in the 19th Century “won the literary battle. There was simply nothing better.” 

No surprise then that while talking about his work “Cloud Atlas,” the author draws a very Russian comparison. "For ‘Cloud Atlas’ I wondered what it will look like when you structure a novel like a matryoshka doll…” 

The host of this tea-time circle, literary critic Konstantin Milchin, teases out a few more secrets of writing mastery from the guests. 

"What constitutes the art of fiction is a complicated question,” admits Mitchell, citing what he sees as the five essential elements: “What happens in a story, who it happens to, what the story is really about (the very idea), how the narrative of a story is constructed (the structure or architecture), and the style.” 

Evie Wyld, listed by The Daily Telegraph as one of the 20 best British authors under the age of 40, admits that she has difficulty separating plot, structure and characters, since she feels all of these simultaneously. "I don’t like the theory, writing is for me much more emotional. When I believe in my own characters, it is some kind of energy for me.” 

“Characters are the key, first of all I work on them, and only then do I think about the plot,” elaborates Mitchell. “When you know who is acting, you know how he will act in the plot.” He then reveals that he often writes letters to himself from his characters: “It’s literally Dear David, Hi. I am…” This way he explores their relationships – with money, God and the other characters.

“We spend most of the time communicating with non-existent people. It’s hard to live with it,” he jokes.

Alexander Ilichevsky, laureate of the Russian Booker and the Big Book prizes for his novel “Perses,” talks about the process of his novel about the military campaign into Persia in 1920: He had before him “a photograph of the comrades of my great grandfather, who took part in this campaign. They looked at me, in their uniforms, and I at them, and this helped me switch on my imagination.” 

Wyld says she considered her very first book as her last chance to become a writer: “It took two years to determine which characters it would include. In the end, everything was totally different from at the beginning.” 

And Ilichevsky adds that sometimes a novel really does goes beyond a critical point and then it “starts to compose and write itself.” 

All three writers are heavyweights in their own right, and do not believe for a moment that the novel is a dying genre. They discuss the tendency to shorten works because of the pervasive influence of social media and the Internet in general. Mitchell says he believes that, “While the world is becoming more fragmented and art is cropped, it doesn’t kill our appetite for deep art. We are still hungry of strong works,” he says, citing the top 10 bestsellers in the U.K., which include “Game of Thrones,” works of J.K. Rowling and other weighty novels. "Long live the book and long live the writers of the long books!” he concludes. 

Ilichevsky agrees and advances “Cloud Atlas” as proof that the future of large, complex stories is healthy and that no amount of Internet and social forums will change that. “Our civilization was created with the aid of the word rather than visual images, and that’s why the word will never disappear.” 

As the group starts to wind down, Mitchell considers one last, unusual question posed to him: “What does Moscow smell of?” The question is asked since, in one of his novels, Tokyo smells like a “pocket turned inside out.” 

He pauses briefly for thought and says: “Moscow smells of great human potential and of a fulfilled future which perhaps will be greater than the past.”

Ilichevsky cuts to the chase and alludes to some less inspiring smells of Moscow. But he agrees too that there is something of the future wafting over the capital, while Wyld chimes in that it also “smells of very expensive perfumes.”

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