David Mitchell talks about Utopia Avenue

This afternoon I listened to a conversation between author David Mitchell and interviewer Heather McCormack of Bibliotheca. David Mitchell’s books are some of my all-time favorites, and I inhaled his new one, Utopia Avenue, as soon as it came out. In the “Mitchellverse,” a common thread runs through his books, connecting them, so new books are a chance to catch glimpses of familiar characters, fill in puzzle pieces, or add to the mythology/theology of the fantasy element in his work. (I am always on the lookout for the “moon-gray cat.”)

Screenshot of David Mitchell
David Mitchell, making the bold choice to have a blank wall as a background instead of his bookshelves.

Here are my notes on the conversation.

Q: Why were you compelled to write a rock ‘n’ roll story?

“There is essentially only one story”: the cliche is a band’s rise from obscurity to riches, then down the other side. But a cliche can also with something to work within and against. Take “the tendency of something to splinter” and play with it. The manager [Levon], instead of being crooked, “wants to make an artwork composed of musicians.” The band, instead of being all men, of a common background, has Elf for female energy, and each of the musicians has “different reasons to make this work (dignity, self-respect, a way out of poverty, a way to grasp on to sanity).” They’re very different kinds of people.

In the book and in the conversation, Mitchell uses the quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This band didn’t exist, you can’t “hear” their music because it doesn’t exist. “A near-impossibility”  “You can use cliche as a strategic weapons…you can deploy the reader’s expectations”

Unlike Cloud Atlas‘ overlapping sextets, Utopia Avenue’s structure is built around three LPs, though each character’s sections may include past or present times in their lives.

Utopia Avenue is about “disparate souls coming together.” The band is more than the sum of its parts.

Screenshot of zoom event with David Mitchell; Heather holding up a checklist
Heather McCormack holding up a “You’ve written a rock ‘n’ roll novel if…” checklist

Q: Are writers jealous of musicians? What kind of larger effect did you want to create for the reader, reading about musicians making music?

Mitchell envies “the speed with which a song can be written, and the feedback loop between the musician and the audience.” Authors are “rarely present when our work is consumed.” At best, they get the “afterglow” (at book festivals, author events, fan mail, social media, etc.). He’s also envious of collaborative aspect. “When musicians are working, they are the coolest things to look at on the face of the earth….There is nothing photogenic whatsoever about a writer at work….Writing a book is the closest I can get to being [a musician].”

Q: Characters, including real life figures, included in the book [I didn’t catch this question because I was needed to help with a jigsaw puzzle]

Writing about a British band in the 1960s, it would be impossible to avoid other well-known musicians on the scene at that time. Mitchell’s “utility rule” to achieve the “Goldilocks spot” was “Not make the cameo so small it’s like bird-spotting….They need to be substantial enough to change the direction of the scene.” (I particularly liked that we encountered Bowie twice, literally on his way up the stairs and on the way down.)

utopiaavenueQ: Do you write with [genre] restraints? Is Jasper the spiritual center of the novel?

“Jasper is the porthole into my other novels…he’s something of a door.”

“All art forms are influenced by other art forms.” Mitchell believes that long-form television drama is the most ascendant art form right now, but “demise [of other forms] is not inevitable…the novel is still going strong.” He admires that long-form TV is “not embarrassed about using ‘backflash’ or ‘foreflash'” (flashbacks, foreshadowing, etc.). That’s why there’s so much “back-and-forthing” in Utopia Avenue. “When working on a character, it’s not enough to think about their relationships with other characters” – you need a top 5 or top 10 (you need to know about them as individuals). What’s their relationship with time?

Q: What’s your writing process?

“Writing is largely editing” Will leave gaps – sometimes there’s something you can’t get over; leave a space and go on, maybe you’ll find a key and you can unlock it from the other side.

“Genre’s a useful map”: it’s useful for bookshops, book shoppers, publishers…they are cartographical devices, however…genre should only be a guide, not a boundary – it shouldn’t keep people from reading a book. He made an analogy to colors for an artist (“Well, I’m not using purple…purple is only for people who like purple”). Dogmatism can keep you from reading “timeless, beautiful books.”

Q: Do you have tunes in mind for the songs in your books?

Avoided writing lyrics for a long time, thinking they wouldn’t be as good as the imagined lyrics in the reader’s head, but eventually realized he would have to. Wrote 5-6 songs in the book. “I was about to say no….” Would take an existing song and write completely new lyrics to fit that melody. (“Wedding Presence” was written to Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz”)

Q: Do you imagine your stories taking place in our world or a parallel one?

“Complex question…it’s both. I committed an original ontological sin with Luisa Rey; she exists in a manuscript with Cloud Atlas…unless I go back and fix that, which I intend to do, [and make it nonfiction]…” Other issues: In Ghostwritten, the world ends by comet smashing into the Earth in 2000-2001, which it didn’t… “If you write about the future, the near future, then of course as our timeline catches up with the literary timeline, there are divergences” (e.g. no mention of 2020 pandemic in Bone Clocks). “I’m going to be playing a game with this in about two novels’ time – hang in there and it will be explained.” (!!!)

Q: What’s your connection to Gravesend, which has showed up in a few of your books?

Went to University of Kent at Canterbury, lived in Whitstable. “It’s a haunted, desolate, strange, ghost-laden, politically curious, ancient part of the country” “How to describe? It’s beautiful, it’s poor” [poorest area in richest region], it’s Roman. Echoes of Dickens, Conrad. “There’s something about the place that gets me.”

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