Given his tendency to experiment with form (in novels such as Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten), it’s probably no surprise that when we spoke with David Mitchell about his enthralling new book, The Bone Clocks, he had just written a short story to be published 140 characters at a time on Twitter.

“It was an absorbing enterprise,” Mitchell said of the story, “The Right Sort,” which is set in the same world as The Bone Clocks.

The soft-spoken English author isn’t typically active on social media and seems unlikely to dive headlong into the Twitterverse. In conversation, he’s almost the opposite of Twitter: thoughtful, expansive, engaged and generous with his replies. Still, he says, speaking from his home in Cork, Ireland, that Twitter “has the potential for beauty as well as anything else.”

That Mitchell would play with a medium known for its brevity and fleeting nature is especially fitting in light of The Bone Clocks, where time and impermanence are key themes.

The novel centers on Holly Sykes, who is a spirited teen when we meet her in Gravesend, England, in 1984. Holly has a huge fight with her mother that leads to another fight with her boyfriend, and impulsively, she takes off. Furious and heartbroken, she hoofs it along the Thames, not sure where to go. As she’s walking, brief flashbacks reveal that when she was a little girl, Holly heard voices—the Radio People, she called them—until she was cured by a mysterious Dr. Marinus. It soon becomes clear that the Radio People and their strange world have not quite finished with her.

For most of its 620 pages, over several continents and into the year 2043, the novel takes place in a realistic world that is recognizably ours. But strangeness lurks in the margins, where a secret war is going on among a handful of immortal beings with a particular interest in Holly Sykes. Without revealing too much, it’s safe to say that these immortals, or “atemporals,” are defined by youth: Some embody it, others feed on it. The battle at the heart of the book comes down to opposing views of the fair price for eternal youth. How far will someone go to fend off old age and death?

The battle at the heart of the book comes down to opposing views of the fair price for eternal youth. How far will someone go to fend off old age and death?

“It’s my midlife-crisis novel,” Mitchell says, only half-joking. He’s 45, and, he says, “these themes are knocking about in my mind a lot.”

“You have to get choosy about your photographs,” he adds, still joking—sort of. “You look in the mirror and your dad’s looking out at you.”

There’s a point about a third of the way into the book where the pace quickens and suddenly teenage Holly is grown: She has gray in her hair, she’s guarded, she’s a mother, her bones ache. You can’t help wanting to slow everything down—having so recently been so close to young Holly, the jump to an older version registers as a palpable loss. It’s extremely effective—the reader’s response is almost physical. But Holly is still Holly. If anything, she’s better, smarter, tougher. Gradually, the point sinks in: Aging scares us, but it isn’t the loss we imagine.

“We live in a youth- and beauty-adoring society that dismisses age as something of no value,” Mitchell says. “It’s almost a crime to age. And this is wrong, this is no good.”

“We live in a youth- and beauty-adoring society that dismisses age as something of no value,” Mitchell says. “It’s almost a crime to age. And this is wrong, this is no good.”

Writing The Bone Clocks allowed him to address the topics of death and aging in a world that prefers not to discuss it. Western cultures, like the U.S. and U.K., “do some things very, very well, but they’re pretty rubbish at death,” he says. “And the longer our life expectancies have become, the more afraid of it we’ve become. Our culture won’t help us with this. We have to do it individually, one by one by one. We have to make a relationship with death. And in a way The Bone Clocks is one step for me along the path of doing that.”

As Holly goes from teenager to middle-aged author to scrappy grandmother, doing her best to forget what she’s seen of the atemporals and their ongoing war, she crosses paths with some characters who will be familiar to Mitchell’s fans. Dr. Marinus made an appearance in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Hugo Lamb, who had a bit part in Black Swan Green, gets a leading role here.

Mitchell brings his characters back for several reasons. “I’ve lived with the people, of course, when I write them, so they never really go away,” he says. “They fade, but I remember they’re there. . . . I like to do it, that’s one reason.”

Secondly, encountering a character you already know adds a sense that what you’re reading is real: “So if you’ve read Black Swan Green already, and you believed in that world, and in walks this guy, the fact that you believed that Black Swan Green was real makes The Bone Clocks feel a degree or two realer.

“Thirdly,” he says, “it’s vanity, in a way.” Mitchell doesn’t want to spend his entire writing life making one huge Middle Earth-size world in a single book. “I’m too much of a magpie.” He prefers to write all different sorts of books. “However,” he adds, laughing, “I am vain enough to kind of want to. And I’ve realized that’s kind of what I’m doing; all of my books are sort of chapters in a greater überbook.”

Did he have a sense while writing Black Swan Green that Hugo might reappear?

“Never,” Mitchell says. “He was only ever a minor character. I’d started The Bone Clocks and then the vacancy came up and I thought, ‘I know who’s about the right age and who has the amoral, Ripley-esque credentials to fill that position.’ So, I invited him to the interview, and within a couple of minutes had decided that the job was his.”

And rightly so: Hugo, with all his charms and weaknesses, his coldness and his capacity to surprise, is an excellent villain. He’s complex, even sympathetic, and he perfectly embodies the icky wrongness of misplaced youth-worship.

He also provides Holly with a nice foil in terms of gender. Mitchell often writes female characters, though he says he does so “cagily and cautiously.”

“It’s a big divide, is the gender divide,” he says. “What gets taken for granted on one side is not necessarily what gets taken for granted on the other.”

Men are “kind of clunkier observers, I feel,” he continues. “And patriarchy does not do us favors. Patriarchy does not teach us to listen as attentively and observe as acutely as I feel that patriarchy obliges women to listen and see. I’ve got more lost ground to make up, as a man, I think.

“I should read more women,” Mitchell adds. “It should be 50-50.”

His reading habits are largely guided by what he’s writing, he says. Some of his well-traveled novels require months or years of research.

“It depends how far away the fictional world is to mine,” he says. “But it’s not a hardship, it’s highly enjoyable to read well-written books by people who know what they’re talking about.”

“You use a tiny fraction of what you learn, of course,” he adds, otherwise the book becomes didactic. “But somehow you still need to know it even if it doesn’t go in the book. You need to know a lot to know what not to put in.”

The idea that characters continue on after their main story ends—that what we’re reading is just a brief window onto a whole life—carries over into the ending of The Bone Clocks. Without, again, revealing too much, the story doesn’t have the tidy conclusion one might expect.

“It’s quite odd, isn’t it?” Mitchell acknowledges. “Well, I suppose one thing is that life does not end after momentous battles. There’s still years to be lived. In biographies of stars, I’m always interested in what happens afterwards, when the light of fame is fading. What do they do with that? That’s more interesting to me in a way than just the blaze.”

“It’s not an obvious ending,” he says. “But I feel it’s—if I can use this word in a book that is shot through with fantasy and the supernatural—it’s a realist ending.”

Ultimately, he says, the book is about survival: “who gets to survive, and why and how, what decisions do you have to make, what compromises do you have to make, and maybe what crimes do you have to commit to survive.”

Author photo by Paul Stuart

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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