David Mitchell (Web | Twitter) is an English author of six books of fiction including the international bestseller Cloud Atlas (2004), which you may recall was made into a film starring Tom Hanks. Recently, our paths crossed when Mitchell was in Houston reading from his latest work, The Bone Clocks(2014). If you aren’t familiar with his work, both I and the literati highly recommend it.
Following his reading, Mitchell spoke with author Mat Johnson, observing that at age 45 he’s had an epiphany: He’s not a novelist but rather a novella-ist. As with Cloud Atlas, The Bones Clock is a series of novellas that reference and situate one another to tell a larger narrative – in this case, a woman’s life from birth to death. Even though “people don’t buy novellas,” he prefers the format as it allows him the privileges of the short story without carrying on past its “natural” conclusion. (I think we can all name a few works that, like some dying animal, resists the end).
When Johnson asked if he noticed certain themes or tropes appearing throughout his work, Mitchell answered that there were two: The first was predatory and the other miscommunication. As he identified instances of these in his work, he added that every author is merely a handful of archetypes. As these stem from the author’s experiences, this limitation is not a bad thing. All it means is that one has to keep finding novel ways to orient them – through new environments, characters, and so on.
After his reading I waited around to get him to sign my copy of Cloud Atlas — and that was when I made the ask. Even though the woman behind me (rudely) groaned and, under her breath, kept telling me to “hurry up,” Mitchell drew what I regard as The Little Prince fan-fiction. I present to you: The Planet of The Giraffe.
As I said to him afterward, “If your writing career ever sours, I don’t think illustrating is an option.”
For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.
So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by him. Having read his short biography on Albert Einstein last summer, Einstein’s Cosmos (2004), along with some work by Hawking, Feynman, Sagan and so on, I was obsessed with the guy. Naturally, this all led to long hours on YouTube watching interviews and clips of old Nova programs.  So the moment I learned that Kaku would be making a stop in Minnesota for his Physics of the Future (2011) book tour, every calendar I owned was marked marked marked and any scheduling conflict would have to be skipped skipped skipped.
(My apologies, Seungho, for missing International Law)
Arriving at the UMN book store at 6:20pm, I had more than enough to pick up his book I reserved online along with the two tickets for the reserved seating that came with it. Worried that I may not be able to get a good spot – a sizeable crowd was already forming – I was actually quite surprised to see that most of the reserved seating (the first three rows of about twenty) was essentially empty. For those unfamiliar with Minnesotan culture: even when we have reserved seating to see someone that we admire, we want to be close but not that close. Sitting near the very front, I’ve included a picture to show how uncomfortably close I was to the signing table, the point at where I could probably reach out and touch him as he spoke at the podium.
Pictured: the reason why I am not a photographer
After forcing small talk for a while with one of the physics kids next to me, one of the booksellers addresses the crowd: “The event is not starting yet, but I just have to inform everyone that while Professor Kaku was in Switzerland last week he caught a cold and has laryngitis …”
My heart jumps a beat – That motherfuckin’ bitch stood me up.
“… And because he wants to be able to answer everyone’s questions …”
I’m sorry, baby. You know I was just a little upset.
“… He has asked us to find someone willing to give his PowerPoint presentation. We do have a script so it wouldn’t be too hard.”
Impulsively, my hand goes up and she thanks me and hands me the script. It’s only when I realize that I’m now holding the script that I understand the full implications of what I have just done. My hands begin to shake. I’m becoming nauseous. Dear God, what the hell have I done?
But I take a deep breath.
I’ve given speeches to large crowds before and I have more than enough time to go over the script and the notes for the 51slide PowerPoint. On the plus side, I can technically put “Lecturer of Theoretical Physics and Futurism” on my resume. Also, at least he can’t turn me down for a giraffe without being a total jerk.
Some time passes and I’m becoming more and more confident in my abilities by the time Kaku takes to the podium shortly after 7:00pm. He introduces himself, talks briefly about the 300 interviews he conducted with some of the best scientists and thinkers around for his book and then apologizes for not being able to give his presentation himself: “When Einstein went to Sweden he left with an equation; when I went I left with a cold.” At this point one of booksellers asks me to stand. I’m given no further direction and now I look like a complete asshole.
I approach the nearest microphone, which is a little distant from the podium but not enough to really cause me any problems. When I ask one of the tech people if the microphone works I’m reminded that the entire event is being recorded and that I should just go to the podium.
I take a deep breath.
Kaku thanks me for the help and when I look out to the crowd I feel a little claustrophobic (later one of the booksellers will tell me that she estimated a turnout of over 500). I forget to introduce myself even though I consider the shamelessly plugging this website (I don’t) and begin moving into the presentation. For anyone that has ever done public speaking, the first few paragraphs are often the hardest to spit out, but the moment they are done confidence balloons and one even becomes a little cocky as you incorporate inflection, intonation and ad lib and unnecessary facial gestures all while mentally revising Cicero’s epitaph to read: “Yeah, he was OK, if you’re into that.”
Or something like that.
Before I know it the presentation is over, I shake his hand and then take my seat high as hell. There’s a brief video followed by questions and answers, which goes by smoothly, and now he’s finally ready to begin signing books. Already at the front of the line I decide to try to cash in the chips I earned through the evening and make the pitch …
A point made all that much clearer by the fact that this uni-giraffe is apparently evolving bipedalism.
 I purposely use his latest books (of the 8+ in his repertoire) as demonstrative of the “coolness” in science specifically because I imagine his textbooks and 170+ journal articles have the exact opposite effect.
 I was going through a serious physics/astronomy phase that, thank God, I have now fallen out of and substituted with heavy drinking.
 If anyone is curious about his handshake: it’s disappointingly weak.