The first person I went to see at the West Cork Literary festival was David Mitchell, one of my all time favorite writers. Most famous probably for ‘Cloud Atlas’ which was made into a film. He arrived straight from the airport for a very late appearance at 9.45 pm, having agreed last minute to join in, as Marina Warner had to cancel.
David’s 7th novel ‘Slade House’ has just been published but he began by reading a short story ‘My eye on you’ because he had just finished it and wanted to try it out. You could see that the story excited him still and though it was long, it was captivating from start to finish. It was a play on the idea of non-linear time which is a pet interest of mine and he is an excellent reader, engaging and understated. Some writers should never be allowed to read their own work but thankfully he is not one of them.
Some of the things that stand out from his interview – his good humour- he said that he is basically lazy and only publishes a book every World Cup year; he likes to write with abstract music in the background for example 17th century lute music.. His new novel ‘Slade House’ shows his attraction to the supernatural, the idea that death is not the end. He talked about the ‘Austrian ‘death cafes’ which arose out of a need among older people to talk about death and their own impending deaths when their own children and grandchildren wanted to avoid the subject. Ghost stories serve a need because ghost stories are predicated on the premise that there’s something after death.
He talked about drawing on his ‘personal compost heap’ – all of the experiences and knowledge that we gather day by day from an infinite variety of sources. All our experiences vegetating there waiting to be used for stories. People are hardwired to engage with narrative- stories with a beginning, middle and end. Hyperlinks- a term borrowed from computer speak was the term he used to describe his tendency to have characters from earlier books making appearances in later ones, like when you meet someone you went to school with years later and take up where you left off. Which makes for a deeper and richer experience-
The richness of our language in Ireland – ‘a linguistic shoplifters paradise’– what a great expression! His example was what gave rise to the title of this blogpost- someone had just told him that day about the old Irish expression – ‘he wouldn’t give you the steam off his tea’– to describe an unfortunate personal trait- and probably everyone in the room except him knew that the real expression is ‘he wouldn’t give you the steam off his piss’ which of course I proceeded to tell him when he was signing my book, hence the great inscription! Today I’m wondering if really he knew it but because he seemed such a refined polite person didn’t like to say the real thing…or if he was being funny in substituting ‘tea’ and none of us got it.
Such a joy to be at the West Cork Literary Festival in the sunshine- today I walked down steps from where we are staying in Ardnagashel to the sea and lay out on the grass and watched the seaweed drunkenly swaying in the waves- (and not my head thank God- last week I had my first and hopefully last, really bad attack of vertigo) and listening to the sounds of insects and waves and maybe the distant drone of a chainsaw. What bliss, sometimes it’s so good to be alive.