David Mitchell‘s bestselling 2004 novel Cloud Atlas sold millions of copies, and garnered ample critical praise (I have mixed feelings about it). What I found most interesting about the novel was Mitchell’s recounting of its genesis:
The germ of the opening (and closing) Adam Ewing narrative, about a notary crossing the Pacific in the 1850s, comes from a section in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel…For mid-19th-century language I ransacked Herman Melville, in particular Moby-Dick and his superb sketches of the Galápagos Islands, The Encantadas….Robert Frobisher, the louche second narrator of Cloud Atlas, can trace his ancestry to a book called Delius As I Knew Him by the frail composer’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby….Frobisher’s language comes from Evelyn Waugh and Christopher Isherwood….Luisa Rey, an American investigative journalist, is a mix of the 1970s TV detectives I enjoyed as a kid, All the President’s Men and James Ellroy, whose plot-velocity always impresses me….The care home that Cavendish finds himself incarcerated in comes fromOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a young man’s fear of senescence….Architectural features from pioneering SF classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and The Machine Stops by EM Forster…are present, with rich dollops of Blade Runner. The university where Sonmi is housed is a carbon copy of the technical college where I worked in Japan…. The question/answer format for the story was inspired by…those interviews you get in Hello! magazine
Note that Mitchell does not say the ideas, characters and language for Cloud Atlas sprang fully formed from his mind, and in a sudden burst of primal creativity–that owed no debts to any cultural formations around him–transformed themselves into the written word on a blank page. He does not make himself out to be a writer that is a creative singularity or a fount of originality; he is, in short, not suggesting he is that creature so beloved of ‘intellectual property’ defenders the world over. Rather Mitchell is simply acknowledging what every honest writer knows is the case: to write is to borrow; the more you read works written by others, the more you draw upon them in your writing to enrich it; no one is truly ‘original’ or ‘creative’ in the primitive, fantastical, magical sense imagined by deluded artists and IP lawyers. Mitchell has lifted plots, or characters, or language with varying degrees of directness; his writing bears the impress of his reading, his cultural immersion. His skill as an author, acknowledged by many of his readers, and some of his critics, lies in his expert transformation of that material into something simultaneously distinctive and revelatory of its provenance.
What is remarkable about the excerpt above is that Mitchell is able to articulate some of the influences on his writing quite clearly; most artists cannot do so quite distinctly and thus are able to convince themselves of their ‘originality.’ It is a fair bet Mitchell would admit there are numerous other literary and cultural inferences–not so clearly noted–that have also found their way into his writing.
A good writer is a good magpie, building his nest from materials brought home from afar.
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