David Mitchell on Japan, Flying and Being an Unpredictable Guest

The author best known for Cloud Atlas discusses Japan and his short story for our fiction issue

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the story?

One of my Twitter followers tweeted me a link to a report about a mysterious, slightly lawless neighbourhood of Tokyo I’d never heard of called San’ya. I read the article and thought, ‘Yes, I’d like to do something with that.’ On the very same day, you kindly invited me to write a story with an East Asian influence. The coincidence felt like a challenge.

How did parts of it reflect your experiences in Japan?

Directly, not very much – I certainly never sold illegal drugs to gaijins in Tokyo! The city landscapes, the bars, the alienation, and haunted old urban shrines come from my personal memories, however – as well as an expatriate’s fear that if you stay too long in a foreign country you will be forgotten by everyone you knew in the place you are from.

You lived in Japan and you’ve based several of your books there. How would you describe your relationship with the country?

Well, it’s an ongoing relationship: my wife is from Japan, so our two kids have Japanese heritage and genes, and we’re going to Okinawa for a holiday 10 days from now. I love the country, even though it can drive me crazy sometimes. (Doesn’t everything and everyone you love also drive you crazy?) Also, I have many memories of Japan I like to revisit. I have used these memories in my fiction, and will continue to do so.

As a travel magazine, we’re trying something a bit different by publishing an issue of original fiction. How do you feel fiction can inspire travel in a way non-fiction or travel articles don’t?

Non-fiction, ultimately, aims at the brain. Fiction, ultimately, aims at the heart. The heart makes decisions that the brain disagrees with – famously these are decisions about love, but also decisions about travel. Don’t you think?

What do you read when you’re on holiday?

Fiction or non-fiction that gives me a better understand of the place I am visiting.

What do you do when you’re on a flight? Are you a reader, worker, film watcher?

I try to be all three. I try to read 50 pages, then work for an hour, then watch a film. On a long-haul flight to Asia I might manage to perform this cycle three times.

What do you think about fiction in an inflight magazine?

I hope the idea takes off. (Pun intended: apologies to the Chinese translator.) Generally, inflight magazines can be a little generic – like airports themselves, they’re pretty much the same all over the world. There are adverts for products I don’t want to buy and destination articles that try so hard to be uncontroversial that the real flavour of the place is lost. Featuring fiction is quite brave of you. It’s like inviting an unpredictable guest to an innocuous family gathering, where nobody does or says anything unexpected. Unpredictable guests may get drunk and make an exhibition of themselves. Alternatively, the guest may tell you stories you’ve never heard before, or use language in new ways, or make you think about a familiar topic in an entirely new way. I hope that’s what A Forgettable Story does, and I hope more short stories will appear. I hope other airlines copy the idea.

Anything else you want to say about being involved in this project?

I enjoyed the challenge of incorporating into the story the fact that the story will appear in an airline magazine. It felt a little postmodern.

Finally, what are you working on at the moment?

Too many things.

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Discovery online brings together all the inspirational travel writing from our two inflight magazines, Discovery and Silkroad. Be sure to look out for the print editions when you next fly with Cathay Pacific or Cathay Dragon.
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