British writer David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas has attracted many readers in China. Murdo Macleod / for China Daily
The acclaimed writer David Mitchell says he had no idea that his books were popular in China - until he saw that his events in Beijing were well attended by readers, whose questions for him would range from literary queries to gossip.
On an author's tour of China last month, Mitchell took part in two well-received discussions about the appeal and challenges of fiction with Chinese writers Xu Zechen and Li Er.
Mitchell's Man Booker Prize-nominated third novel Cloud Atlas has been turned into a film with a stellar international cast, featuring Hollywood luminaries such as Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry as well as Chinese actress Zhou Xun. As a result, Mitchell is even more recognizable to Chinese readers, who were instantly charmed by his humor and humility when they met face-to-face.
"Back then there were many bicycles and few cars. Now there are many cars and few bicycles," he says, recalling his first trip to China as a backpacker in 1997.
"As a writer, everything I do and everywhere I go adds to the reservoir of raw material for my present and future books, especially this singular country."
Mitchell, 43, lives in Ireland with his Japanese wife and two children. An English native, he met his wife at 24; he would later move to Hiroshima and stay there for eight years. In 1997, he traveled through China via Hong Kong, Macao, Yunnan, Sichuan, Beijing and Inner Mongolia. These travels formed the basis of the China chapter of his first novel, Ghostwritten.
"I went climbing in Emei Mountain with a Mandarin-speaking British friend. We met an old lady who explained about this magic tree in her courtyard that has different fruits on it. At the time, I thought she was mad. But later, I figured it was possible. She was the seed of the story."
Japan and Asia in general have been frequent topics in Mitchell's works. Ghostwritten featured Japan, Mongolia and China; Cloud Atlas envisions South Korea in the far future, and his latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, portrays the 18th-century Japan. These novels, as well as Black Swan Green, are available in Chinese.
On his most recent trip to China, he visited Shanghai as part of his research for his next book. On Sina Weibo, he described the city as having a "skyline from a science-fiction movie, air warm and wet like hot shower gel".
Mitchell has written five novels at a fairly young age, two of which have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but he does not consider himself as someone who had been born with the ability to write long novels.
"When I started coaching myself to write, it seemed to be an enormous, huge, big wall that I couldn't climb over. I thought I can't write a novel, but I can write stories. So I started with short ones and built them up like Lego," Mitchell says.
Mitchell says he is a family man who writes when his kids are at school or asleep, and during the weekends. His wife is the first reader of his manuscripts.
"Men often go through life without knowing how women think. So my wife is especially helpful in sorting out my mistakes with my female characters," he says.
"I can tell the quality of the manuscript by the quality of food, actually. If I gave her something to read, and then there is an elaborate evening meal, then I know the work is no good because she'd rather cook than read it."