This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 1 December 2015.
David Mitchell is many things. He is the author and celebrity namealike behind this year’s novel Slade House. He is also, if Saturday night’s event at Blackwell’s bookshop is anything to go by, a tremendous geek. In conversation with journalist Susie Faye on Saturday night, Mitchell was immensely thoughtful, witty and well-spoken. The overall impression was of a man with an incredibly rich and detailed knowledge of his subject matter and literature as a whole. Over the course of the hour long talk about writing Slade House, Mitchell made it very clear that a lot of thought had gone into this book.
A sense of nerdy self-deprecation was established from the beginning, as Mitchell walked on stage thanking Doctor Who fans especially for coming to the event instead of watching that night’s episode. It was a remark particularly appropriate to the TARDIS-like interior of the Norrington room, and that sense of enthusiasm informed the ensuing conversation, as Mitchell talked about how his novel grew out of a short story he wrote last year on Twitter. “I wanted to use Twitter in a way that wasn’t a glorified notice board”, he commented. “So I thought, ‘How about fiction?’”. Originally told over a series of tweets around the time last year’s The Bone Clocks was published, Mitchell’s short story was “re-translated” into the first of the five stories which make up Slade House. Mitchell talked about the challenges of the 140-character that influenced aspects of the book: “The character ended up with a short name, because if you have a name like Benedict Cumberbatch it becomes hard to say much else in a tweet. There are no Englebert Humperdinks in the Twittersphere.” He spoke enthusiastically about @I_Bombadil, the twitter account created in the run-up to Slade House‘s publication, detailing the life of one of the book’s characters. Mitchell used the account to interact with fans, a process which became “a cyber version of Dungeons and Dragons”, as people asked him questions and requested information about the book’s setting. Mitchell told an anecdote of being asked by one follower for a picture of the door to Slade House, and commissioning an illustration from his publisher and posting it on twitter, still in character. That follower’s response? “Now take a selfie in front of it.” A ripple of laughter greeted this punchline; even in this off-the-cuff setting Mitchell can spin a good narrative.
Mitchell also talked about how his own reading informed his approach to writing horror for the first time. “I approached it as a taxonomist – I thought ‘What sort of ghost stories are there?’” Each of Slade House’s five sections represents a different sub-genre of horror, with that horror becoming increasingly uncertain and visceral as the novel progresses. This sense of genre instability is reflected in the novel itself – Mitchell argued that it takes about fifty pages for a ghost story to either become supernatural or commit to reality, in which case it becomes either a horror story or a psychological thriller. Slade House is structured deliberately to avoid that, to reinforce the reader’s sense of unease through its instability of genre. The inability to trust one’s own perceptions is a key theme in the novel: according to Mitchell he likes “having the carpet pulled out from under my feet by authors, as long as it’s fair, and the evidence was there beforehand.” The sense of gleeful play within genre rules informs a lot of Mitchell’s fiction, and Slade House is no exception.
Mitchell also responded to audience questions, with answers including a delightful extended riff on Japanese ghosts (borrowing ideas from other cultures is a kind of “unearned instant originality”, according to Mitchell) and a thoughtful reflection on vampirism in his work (“From their point of view, are they really doing anything wrong?”). Mitchell was quietly charismatic and charming throughout, giving thoughtful, honest answers, building a genuine rapport with the audience. It was, all in all, a quietly brilliant performance, and the audience’s enthusiasm was palpable. For all that Slade House got a bit of a rough ride from critics (including by myself earlier this year), the fact remains that Mitchell is an immensely talented writer and public speaker, and one gets the feeling he’ll be selling out events like this for years to come.