David Mitchell: ‘I like to be the first to give a child The Very Hungry Caterpillar’

The Cloud Atlas novelist on the inspiration of Italo Calvino and learning from Chinua Achebe and Simone de Beauvoir

The book I am currently reading
I’m juggling, as usual. Madame Zero, Sarah Hall’s recent collection of short stories, which I can’t praise highly enough; Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel, a gritty non-fiction account of the lives of US veterans; a proof of David Peace’s new novel, his best to date to my mind, Patient X, about Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa; and The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories.

The book that changed my life
Some books I read as a kid made me hungry to write – notably Ursula K Le Guin’s– and so gave me a future to day dream about.

The book I wish I’d written
The only way to write a worthwhile book by a person who isn’t you is to have lived that person’s life. This “life-swap” isn’t going to happen this side of a Philip K Dick story, so is not this wish a strange and unfulfillable desire? Envying other authors’ royalty statements, of course, is another question entirely.

The book that influenced my writing
Some of my novels are “in conversation with” certain books – like Cloud Atlas and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller – but that’s more to do with inspiration or research than influence.

The book that changed my mind
Many, many authors have made me aware of the ignorance I didn’t know I was labouring under: Ta‑Nehisi Coates, Chinua Achebe and Sam Selvon; Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf (in A Room of One’s Own) and Rebecca Solnit; George Monbiot and Rachel Carson; but isn’t this what reading, ideally, should always be about?

The Eagle (2011) based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth.
The Eagle (2011) based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth. Photograph: Focus Features

The last book that made me cry
Census by Jesse Ball, a Chicagoan writer. It’s a near-uncategorisable kind of fable about, yet not about, the author’s late brother, who had Down’s syndrome. I finished it on a plane yesterday in economy class, in the middle seat of a row of three, so there was nowhere to hide. I had to pull my woolly hat over my face and looked like a bank robber who’d forgotten to cut out the eye-holes. Before that it was Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. I finished it on the old reading sofas in Waterstones in Cork and wept silently until a kind bookseller came to ask if I was OK. I showed her the book and she just nodded like I was the tenth one that week.

The last book that made me laugh
Humour and wit make me glow while I read, but to laugh so hard you wish it would stop, I tend to need interaction with a live human being. That said, I distinctly snickered at a scene in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies when the protagonist goes to confession. If you’ve read it, you’ll know the scene.

The book I give as a gift
When a friend has a baby I like to get in first with Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but it should be the thick board edition so it can double as a teething aid. Book-devouring kids tend not to know Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy because they were first published so long ago, but her best work is brilliant and has a “not designed for kids” feel that kids often pick up on and appreciate. If someone hasn’t read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita I try to foist a copy on them. They either love it or bail when they meet the talking cat with a machine gun.

The book I’d like to be remembered for
The last one I write before I’m driven to the crematorium in a box and my career goes up in smoke. At least I’d finish on an upward trajectory.

• Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8, with an introduction by David Mitchell, will be published in paperback by Sceptre on 22 March. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP £8.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


David Mitchell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Nicholls: 'Gifting books feels like changing the music at someone else’s party'
The author and screenwriter on being inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, feeling gloomy over Moomins and rereading Franny and Zooey

David Nicholls

10, Aug, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Fatima Bhutto: ‘David Foster Wallace on David Lynch is pretty funny’
The novelist on admiring Maggie Nelson and Rachel Kushner, and being irritated by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

Fatima Bhutto

26, Apr, 2019 @8:59 AM

Article image
Laura Lippman: ‘Hitch-22 taught me that I am a very reluctant atheist’
The crime writer on learning to reread with Lolita, giving up on books and growing up with Dick and Jane

Laura Lippman

23, Nov, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
David Lammy: ‘The book I’m ashamed not to have read? Animal Farm’
The MP on missing out on Orwell, his love for Arthur Miller, and the book that made him cry

David Lammy

13, Mar, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Maggie O’Farrell: ‘Life is too short to waste time on books you don’t like'
The award-winning author on being inspired by Angela Carter and struggling with Henry James

Maggie O’Farrell

03, Apr, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
David Peace: ‘My comfort read? Old Labour party manifestos’
The novelist on the brilliance of Bulgakov, the Japanese short story that changed him, and wanting to live in Pogles’ Wood

David Peace

30, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Elif Shafak: ‘No one does sisterhood and resilience like Audre Lorde'
The Turkish novelist on finding a sense of freedom with Orlando, crying over James Baldwin and her love of cookbooks

Elif Shafak

29, Nov, 2019 @9:58 AM

Article image
Margaret Drabble: ‘Lee Child does all the things I could never do. I’m awestruck’
The novelist, biographer and critic on laughing at Muriel Spark and never reading any Harry Potter

Margaret Drabble

18, Jan, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
David Baddiel: 'I don't really have shame as an emotion'
The writer and comedian on admiring John Updike, crying over Station Eleven and laughing at Alan Partridge

David Baddiel

03, Jul, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
David Sedaris: 'Alan Bennett's Talking Heads is pretty much the best thing ever'
The comic essayist on crying over Olive Kitteridge, his love for Richard Yates and the books that make him laugh

David Sedaris

08, May, 2020 @9:00 AM