David Mitchell knows it would be helpful if he could serve up a tight and bright story about where his novels come from. “I envy authors who have the ability to tell a killer anecdote about the time they were on the train, and it was half past three, and the sun was going down, and this amazing thing happened opposite them, and that gave them the idea [for the novel],” he says, looking a little anguished during a FaceTime call. “It’s just never like that for me. It’s more molecular.”
This will not come as a surprise to fans of Mitchell, whose novels regularly sprawl across centuries, continents and modes of consciousness, and which together form a body of work he likens to a single novel he will spend his life writing.
And so Mitchell spends the next eight minutes unfurling a tapestry that, while not quite an autobiographical origin story, does draw on his life experience to illustrate elements in his latest novel, Utopia Avenue.
The explanation is as multilayered and engaging as the book itself. He opens with a tale about his adoration as a teenager for a certain Canadian prog-rock band; suggests exposure to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album – “the gateway drug into jazz for many, many people” – can lead to a taste for the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, which might progress to minimalism or the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu or the brainy popster Brian Eno; muses on the endocrinological effects of music; and likens the contemporary treatment of people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions to the way deaf individuals were believed to be intellectually stunted until the development of sign languages finally proved otherwise a couple of centuries ago.
But then, we have time for such discursions. It’s late June, and Mitchell, 51, is marooned with his wife and two teenagers in their house just outside the small town of Clonakilty, on the southwest coast of Ireland, in County Cork. Up until a few months ago, he’d been scheduled to be in the midst of a cross-North America tour right now, of the sort that was standard practice in the Before Times™ for bestselling authors of literary fiction (aka awards bait). He has twice been nominated for the Booker Prize (for 2001′s number9dream and 2004′s Cloud Atlas) and landed on its long list for The Bone Clocks in 2014.
“I’ve got nothing on for the rest of the evening,” Mitchell shrugged near the beginning of what was slated to be a 45-minute call. He wore a couple of thin and slightly ratty T-shirts, purple over brown, and, at least on FaceTime, seemed not to have shaved for a day or two. His tousled hair registered as faintly red in the light of his desk lamp; if you squinted, he might have passed for Benedict Cumberbatch after a rough few months.
“We’re fine if we overrun. And if we enjoy each other’s company, I can promise, you will be one of the most exciting things that happens to me all week,” he said. Almost two hours later, we were still going. He probably regretted his initial exuberance but was too polite to say.
Mind you, we had a lot to cover. Utopia Avenue, Mitchell’s first novel in almost five years, is a rollicking 592-page tale of a (fictional) psychedelic folk-rock foursome that emerges from the underground music scene in Soho in 1967, cutting their teeth in (real) dives such as 2i’s Coffee Bar and UFO Club, which helped launch Pink Floyd and other globe-conquering acts. Mitchell captures the scene convincingly: A London flat is decorated with “a mural of an elephant, a jade Buddha in a nook and an Ohm prayer flag hanging in the stairwell. The Freak Out! album by the Mothers of Invention boomed through a marshy pong of dope, lentils, and incense.”
Into this scene, he drops the down-on-his-luck bassist Dean Moss; Elf Holloway, a pianist from a once-rising folk duo looking for a new gig after being cast aside by her caddish ex; lunky drummer Griff Griffin; and Jasper de Zoet, a guitar prodigy with Aspergers and a mysterious mental-health ailment that may or may not – depending on your interpretation and your familiarity with Mitchell’s other work – launch the tale into the astral plane.
The four are brought together as Utopia Avenue by the Canadian-born band manager Levon Frankland, whom close readers of Mitchell will remember from a cameo in Bone Clocks; as is the author’s practice, other characters from previous books also appear. (Jasper, of course, is a descendant of the protagonist of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.)
And there are dozens of figures borrowed from real life, too, including rock stars (David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Sandy Denny), miscreants (Jimmy Savile) and writers (Allen Ginsburg, Leonard Cohen), who each pop in for a scene or two.
“I have been haunted by music all my life,” Mitchell begins by way of explanation, and then, seeming to realize that will be insufficient, interjects: “Who isn’t? ‘The man who didn’t like music’ – that would be a more interesting starting point than: Oh yeah, I like music.”
“Since you’re in Toronto: Rush. In my case, the way that Rush and other bands would project a possible future version of myself. Rush, in particular, because of Neil Peart, the lyricist – they made high-level vocabulary okay. They made it all right to want to make sense of a line,” like this one from “The Spirit of Radio”: “‘One likes to believe in the freedom of music.' One. One! Like, actually using the pronoun “one”? Guys, you’re a rock band! But they sang it, and it’s a killer song! It’s brilliant!”
He continues, quoting the lyrics: “‘One likes to believe in the freedom of music / But glittering prizes / And endless compromises / shatter the illusion of integrity.' I mean, that’s where I learned the word integrity. From a Rush song!” He catches himself, resets. “Sorry, I won’t Rush-geek on you too much.”
If fact, he does, but that’s okay: I mention a personal connection to Geddy Lee, the band’s lead singer, and promise to tell him an anecdote at the end of our call. “Oh go on, tell me now!” he coos. “Go on, go on, go on, go go go – go on, just a quick one!”
I demur, and then Mitchell looks up at something off-screen, his face lighting up with what seems to be pride and – faint embarrassment? Someone hands him something, which he accepts and sets down. Then he leans forward, the top of his head disappearing. “Thank you, mate,” he says. “Thank you so much. See you later.”
It was his son, a 15-year-old with autism, bringing him a half-grapefruit in a bowl. “He comes in to check on me from time to time. He gave me a kiss on the head right here, for no apparent reason. Which is a sweet little moment!”
We had been talking about the pandemic a few minutes ago, and Mitchell swerves back to it, to discuss the way his son has been coping with the lockdown. “It would be nice if we could get to Cork and go in the shops, just to interact with the world a little bit more, but he’s done really well. And we also forget, however bad things are for us, however irksome when we’re trying to [keep up our normal routine] and their behaviours are impinging upon that – if we think it’s bad, just try walking a mile in their shoes. We would be quivering jelly wrecks,” he says. “They’ve got no choice but to live there. This is their one shot at life, in this one brain they have. They can’t transmigrate out of it.”
Mitchell has had his own challenges with communication: He stammered badly as a child, still does sometimes, which was one of the spurs for his novel Black Swan Green, with its stammering teenage-boy protagonist. He acknowledges that miscommunication, impaired communication, is a recurring theme in his work.
“I think every writer has a pretty small cluster of archetypal themes that come back again and again. Even when you’re trying to keep them out, they’re back, because somehow they’re you,” he says. “And sure, my stammer was highly formative, and music was what we would now call a safe space.” After all, he says, there are three occasions when those with stammers aren’t afflicted: when they’re talking to themselves, when they’re talking to a dog, and when they’re singing. “One of my affinities of music comes from my stammer and my nervousness about mortifying myself whenever I open my mouth to speak.”
You’d never know it from his seemingly effortless prose. One of the pleasures of Utopia Avenue is Mitchell’s ability to bring scenes to life, such as one in which the band is listening to an advance copy of the Beatles’ groundbreaking 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As the stylus is lifted from the vinyl at the end of the final song, A Day in the Life, the band members proclaim its genius, using language Mitchell says he plucked from an account of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters listening to the album for the first time. It’s a variation of a technique Mitchell tries to deploy often, which he refers to by the neologism IWATH, for “I Was There.”
IWATHs are “a memory or a fact or a thing or an experience that you can’t really imagine into being.” He harvests these, “like panning for gold,” from first-person accounts. If he gets three IWATHs, he says, he can be fairly certain a scene will work.
Over the past couple of years, Mitchell has been moonlighting as a screenwriter, working with The Matrix co-creator Lilly Wachowski (who was also one of the three directors of the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas) and Aleksandar Hemon on the TV series Sense8. They’ve also collaborated on the screenplay for Matrix 4, which is in the midst of production.
His time in that world, says Mitchell, has influenced his work as a novelist, and vice versa. “Clearly, the [TV] box set influences contemporary novels, because so many contemporary authors have watched The Wire” and been affected by its narrative achievement.
There’s something else. “We were writing Matrix 4, and we were doing a chase scene, which are notoriously the most expensive, and [Lilly] said, ‘It’s about a million dollars a page at the moment.’” That night, Mitchell and Hemon each wrote their version of a scene and came back the next day. “I said, ‘I’ve got $6-million worth of scene here!' And [Hemon] said, ‘Ah ah, Mr. Mitchell. I have $8-million worth of scene!’” He laughs.
“Film is so expensive that every line in a screenplay has to be doing more than one thing. It has to be like when a cellist is drawing the bow over two strings at once. It’s a chord. Screenwriting has to be like that. You have to do at least two things.”
“So that was one more thing I brought back from my sabbatical. I try to approach prose in a novel like that: What if I could do that? All the time? Probably not. But a lot of the time? Let’s have a go!”
Rush-geeking with Simon Houpt and David Mitchell
Houpt: Alright, so here’s that Rush anecdote I promised you. Geddy is a distant relation, by marriage. His real name is Gary, as you probably know. And family lore has it that, when Rush were trying to get their start – this was the late ’60s, I suppose, maybe the early ’70s, when Gary was maybe 17 or 18 – his father had died a few years earlier, and his mother, who was trying to raise three kids on her own, was at her wits’ end about her son, who was spending all his time doing music instead of school. She asked my uncle to please talk some sense into Gary, to see whether he could get him to quit with the music. So my uncle sat down with Gary and said, ‘Listen, you know, you’re killing your mother. You are killing your mother. You have to stop with the music.' And sadly for my uncle and for Gary’s mother, Gary would have none of it. So, yes, there was an attempted family intervention which did not stick.
Mitchell: A care-vention, as they’re called. Wow! That’s a great story. And it’s a potential short story, where the music never happened. And then all these wonderful things, all the kids that were born from unions that occurred at a Rush concert.
Houpt: That gets into – what was that movie that came out a year ago, the Danny Boyle-Richard Curtis one about the parallel universe where The Beatles didn’t exist?
Houpt: Right – and some critics said, it’s charming as far as it goes, but - I believe it may have been Anthony Lane of The New Yorker and some other critics who said, But you know, the movie doesn’t bother itself with what you just outlined, which is – all of the other things that would have happened as a result of The Beatles not existing.
Mitchell: It’s a bit harsh. I mean, it’s only 90 minutes! I mean, what do you want it to do? For the five-season box set show, maybe, but come on!
Houpt: Spoken as a true creator and therefore someone who might be touchy about critics. But, yes, fair enough.
Mitchell: Still, thank you. Great story. My Canadian publisher, Louise Dennys at [Penguin] Random House, she apparently – and this doesn’t surprise me at all, that she would be on speaking terms with the great Mr. Lee. And the last time I was over there, she mentioned, “Oh, I haven’t seen him for awhile. Maybe the next time you’re over, if you’d like to, we could possibly meet him.” And I was, like, “Stay cool, stay cool, stay cool.” And I would love to meet him, but I also wouldn’t want him to feel like a captured Barbarian king being paraded through the streets of Rome as sort of a trophy for some visiting author. And sometimes the greatest compliment, and the greatest gift you could give to someone that famous, is just to feel the thrill that you saw them walk by, and you were there at the same time that day, and not to go up and not to say: “Hi, your music is so important to me.” I just – don’t do that. Unless it was in very special circumstances. It’s enough that the music’s there, isn’t it?
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