Michael Magras: There’s a significant paranormal component to your new novel. What fascinates you about the paranormal? Do you have any favorite examples of that genre that you used as guides or inspirations as you were writing The Bone Clocks?
David Mitchell: I’m interested in mortality because I’m going to die at some point, and I wanted to think about this from the point of view of immortals, whose relationship with death is a lot less final than ours. As far as is widely known, immortals exist only in the realm of the fantastic, so the novel got shunted toward the paranormal by default. Not so much guides or inspirations, but the fact that Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Robert Louis Stevenson or most of Atwood or chunks of Dostoevsky or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books successfully deploy the paranormal to explore the “real world” we live in reassured me that while it’s not easy to break the laws of physics and still retain literary credibility, it can’t be altogether impossible.
In Cloud Atlas, the composer Robert Frobisher says at one point, "How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false." Now, in The Bone Clocks, we have two groups of quasi-immortals, the Horologists and the Anchorites, vying against one another and using the protagonist, Holly Sykes, as a weapon in their power struggle. Is it vulgar to hanker after immortality? Are the Horologists and Anchorites versions of vulgarians?
No, it’s not vulgar to hanker after immortality — we’re genetically driven toward survival, and we only reach the middle stages of our lifespans because of this drive. The thing is, then what? We evolved during historical periods when there was no “then what?” because our ancestors would have died in their 30s of infections or illness easily curable in the modern age. Nowadays we feel kind of shortchanged if we don’t reach our 80s. In this context, our wish to survive becomes less a practical reflex to do with the maintenance of our species, and more a ball-and-chain: we don’t want to die, but we’re going to, and as we age and age into our fifth, sixth, and seventh decades, we have less and less to do but contemplate the decay of the bodies that used to serve us so much better. Who wouldn’t want to opt out of this, given the chance? The devil, however, is where he and lawyers can reliably be found, in the details. Whereas the Horologists are harmless souls who get reincarnated in new bodies whether they want this or not, the Anchorites’ immortality has to be paid for by other people. The Horologists are vegetarians, the Anchorites carnivores. My novelist character Crispin Hershey hankers after immortality of a literary kind, of course — I would view that as a vulgar aspiration, as well as misguided. Writing for future generations rather than your own is probably the best way of guaranteeing your own eternal oblivion.