Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What was the inspiration for "Cloud Atlas"?

In 2004 the Washington Post "Book World" interviewed David Mitchell about Cloud Atlas.

Asked, "What was the inspiration for Cloud Atlas?," Mitchell talked about as unlikely a trio of books as I can imagine in response to a single question:

There wasn't really a single Eureka moment. For me, novels coalesce into being, rather than arrive fully formed. That said, three important sources spring to mind. First, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino--an experimental novel in which a sequence of narratives is interrupted but never picked up again -- made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. I wondered what a novel might look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book like Calvino's so that the stories would be resolved in reverse.

Second, a mention of the Moriori people in Jared Diamond's multidisciplinary Guns, Germs, and Steel led to a trip to the Chatham Islands and an encounter with New Zealand historian Michael King's A Land Apart. His idea that there is nothing inevitable about civilization caught my curiosity. Knowledge can be forgotten as easily as, perhaps more easily than, it can be accrued. As a people, the Moriori "forgot" the existence of any other land and people but their own. When I heard this, my novelistic Geiger counter crackled.

Third, a book by Frederick Delius's amanuensis, Eric Fenby, Delius: As I Knew Him, was worlds away from the Moriori but gave me the idea of Fenby's evil twin, and the struggle between the exploited and the exploiter.

Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds--a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas for novellas, I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior--in the political, economic and personal arenas. These novellas seemed to marry well with the structure I had in mind: Each block of narrative is subsumed by the next, like a row of ever-bigger fish eating the one in front.

In this gem of a post, Wayne Terwilliger described Cloud Atlas as "simply brilliant: a technical high-wire act of styles and genres that embraces the widest scope of human history (& history still to come)."

--Marshal Zeringue