From its opening minutes, the imagery invoked at Symphony Space on Wednesday night was memorably scenic. Billed as “An Evening With David Mitchell,” this event — opening the latest season of the Selected Shorts series — found the author at the end of a brief stint in the Northeastern United States, timed to the release of the cinematic adaptation of Cloud Atlas, his third novel. Granta editor John Freeman evoked the “ozone scorch of new images being born” in Mitchell’s fiction in his introduction; that was only a precursor to the parade of Eminem-coiffed teens, rakish composers, and badly wallpapered cottages that followed.
The evening’s first half found Mitchell, a charming presence throughout the night, introducing a pair of short stories that he admired. His approach to this favored transparency — namely, reading some of the stage directions. “7:35: You talk about what you read and how it connects to your work,” he said wryly. What this led to was a quick run-through of his influences, beginning with the “holy trinity” of J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, and Ursula K. Le Guin that inspired him in his youth. (Mitchell noted later that his fondness for Le Guin’s fiction was a lifelong constant.) He cited Anton Chekhov as “my #1,” and later invoked Mikhail Bulgakov (his name drew applause; “only in New York,” Mitchell remarked) and Haldór Laxness. In the case of the latter, Mitchell singled out the Icelandic writer’s novel Independent People, speaking rapturously about it.
The first story up was Michael Faber’s “Vanilla Bright Like Eminem,” read by Daniel Gerroll. Mitchell referred to it as a kind of “shaggy-dog story,” and noted that “I’m never sure where I’m supposed to laugh.” Faber’s story follows an American family on vacation in Scotland, and its opening suggests that we’ll be meeting a family of central-casting-prescribed Ugly Americans; there are references made to the size of the family, and to the surly teenage son’s Eminem-inspired hairstyle. (In this case, Gerroll’s precise delivery of the phrase “an icon of Colonel Sanders” during a flashback didn’t hurt.) From there, though, Faber’s story turns archetypes into thoroughly human figures; a series of temporal jumps reveals previously-unseen dimensions to the characters, and ultimately makes their tragedies, their flaws, and their moments of bliss that much more resonant.
In introducing Claire Keegan’s “The Burning Palms” (read by Patricia Kalember), Mitchell noted “a sort of Schrödinger quality to her writing.” Later, he commented that it “lassos the Northrop Frye within.” Keegan’s story didn’t surprise in the way that Faber’s had; in her story of a boy and his father and grandmother moving through life numbly in the aftermath of something horrible, the notable moments came more from certain details: the blurred glass in a house’s windows; the crooked application of wallpaper. There’s a flashback that places certain inscrutable events in a context, and there’s a late moment of catharsis to draw the narrative to a close.
The second half of the evening focused more on Cloud Atlas — the book and the film. Mitchell and Freeman opened the proceedings with a short interview; Mitchell spoke of creating empathy within the confines of a genre. Freeman brought up Mitchell’s practice of creating autobiographies for his characters before he begins work on his novel. Did those, he asked, ever become books on their own? Mitchell responded that they tended to become scenes in books, and then compared his first drafts to reservoirs. His working method, he explained, found him going to this reservoir and “fishing for the real book.”
After more ruminations on his own creative process — one of which found Mitchell speaking in what he referred to as “my asthmatic Bob Dylan impression” — questions turned to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Before introducing what was billed as a clip of Cloud Atlas (it turned out to be a trailer for the film), Mitchell referred to the novel as “the most unfilmmable book I’ve ever written,” and spoke with admiration of the work put into adapting it for the screen.
The trailer played, and then Campbell Scott read an excerpt from the novel — a passage that introduces Robert Frobisher, a young, dissolute British composer tracking down Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive composer, in the Belgian countryside. Scott ably conveyed the agitated mental state of a character for whom nearly everything — both dreamed and tangible — can be raw materials for musical translation. The comparison to Mitchell’s own work doesn’t seem far off: whether exploring interconnected lives, Europeans traveling across the globe in the 18th century, or a young man coming of age in contemporary Japan, Mitchell’s work casts a new light on the familiar, and reworks the expected. In pointing out his influences and the sources of his admiration, the evening’s program provided some outline for his own process — enlightening and entertaining in equal measure.