Author Interview: David Mitchell – Utopia Avenue, Or Psychedelic Psojourn

October 5, 2020

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By BRUCE DENNILL

David Mitchell‘s (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks) new novel, Utopia Avenue, introduces readers to four talented musicians – singer Elf Holloway, bassist Dean Moss, guitarist Jasper de Zoet and drummer Griff Griffin – brought together in the eponymous band in London in 1967. Kicking off their journey in one of the most exciting eras in music history, they enjoy (and endure) a professional and emotional rollercoaster en route to the cusp of greatness by the end of the following year.

Utopia Avenue – a “there to here” question. I read Slade House when it came out, not so long ago, and it was very concise, almost a novella, whereas Utopia Avenue is a wedge, a doorstop. There’s a massive difference in the scope of what’s involved, from the research onwards. Why that change, or the desire to stretch so much further?

Slade House was a ghost story – it’s a suite of five ghost stories, and those have to stay short. Once they become longer, they become crime fiction or horror, while a ghost story can only be about 40 or 50 pages before it turns into something else. Slade House has five different types of ghost story, all set in the same location and layering up a mystery, but about 250 pages is the longest I could keep it up for.

Utopia Avenue is the reverse. It’s the life cycle of a band. It’s pretty big; it’s a long trajectory. Actually, as it is published, it is about 150 pages shorter than the first manuscript. It’s shrunken; already been condensed. So really, it’s the genre that changed. In terms of those two books, it’s the genre that decided the length of the books.

 

So it’s almost a technical decision – to be true to the form?

I’d say that if you embark on a certain project, there are terms and conditions. In the instance of the two books you’ve referred to, length is one of the terms and conditions.

 

That’s interesting. I think most of us as readers assume that it’s only about what characters are doing, not anything beyond that. Speaking of which – the band in Utopia Avenue: authenticity was, or is, a goal for you there, and for me as musician, I think it’s realised. I think the music industry was a friendlier place in terms of potential goals at the end of the Sixties, where you’ve set the story, but it was still a mess in terms of ethics, loyalty, treating musicians as humans and all of that. Now, trying to get that sense of place and time right, and also introducing the kind of mythology that makes a band must be tricky. If we’ve spent our lives reading NME or Uncut, we know all about the Rolling Stones or whoever, but we also know that at least some of that material is myth and legend, and that nobody else was there to verify it. How did you go about introducing that element?

In a sense, I don’t have to worry about it. In a sense, mythology is the pearl that is layered onto the grit by time…afterwards. When it starts happening, the characters are still kids, pretty much, discovering their strange art and practicing it. If I’d set the book in the Eighties or Nineties or focused more on the present day, I might have thought about the mythology, but in the Sixties, in some ways it’s about debunking mythology rather than…um…bunking mythology? I hope that I was able to show that songs are not mythological beasts that come waltzing down to you from the mythological realm; that songs are things you make – you sit down and you graft. For instance, you have fixed patterns of folk-rock chords that act as a kind of handrail, but if you stick to those too much, then it’s not going to be original, so you have to work out how to subvert the patterns. As a songwriter, you know this, but I’m debunking the mythology. It’s also about showing that rock stars are people. They might be a rock star as well, but that doesn’t mean they’re a different species. In that way, the book is a myth-buster rather than a myth-maker.

 

A rock biography is not unlike fiction for most people – it has that aspect of reality versus aspiration. Now if you’re debunking legends, you still need to make what happens something to aspire to – whether it’s the characters’ success or confidence or the feeling of satisfaction when they reach a goal or all of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. How have you added that element?

When making fiction, you need readers to want to stay onboard. A very basic “Fiction Writing 1.0” method of doing that is to take your characters on a journey. It’s a journey many readers will be familiar with – certainly all music fans will – and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it’s a world we know about. If you’ve read even a few rock ‘n roll memoirs, you will have seen this track up this mountain, so I don’t have to spend pages and scenes on exposition explaining the terms of the world. It’s a bad thing because the track is already there, and it’s a well-worn track, so the challenge was to stray from this track while maintaining the journey up “Mount Fame”. That’s writing for you – your enemy is also your friend. Every decision you take has merits and demerits; assets and drawbacks.

The cameos I use [famous real-world musicians pop up frequently throughout the narrative] are less a reader lasso and more improbability avoidance. It was a small scene, and if among the dozens or hundreds of people my characters Elf, Jasper, Griff and Dean meet, some people who would later become household names were not included, that would seem like a plot creak to me. That would seem quite implausible. Mostly, they weren’t yet famous. We meet David Bowie in 1967, before he was anything, for example. But of course, there were lots of other people the band meet who did not make it big.

 

Most of those cameos parts are quite brief, though the interlude with Francis Bacon, goes on for much longer. That was interesting, with him obviously not being a musician. Were there people you found more interesting to play with? Brian Jones as a choice to represent the Stones? If you’d included Mick Jagger and he didn’t like it, he could’ve kicked up a fuss, I suppose…

That’s true. You cannot slander or libel the dead! Not that I’d want to, but it’s one less layer of legal complication. With Jones, the Stones are, famously, at least two bands. There is the chamber-pop Stones, who put together a run of about four great albums and who were substantially different to the Ruby Tuesday Stones or the You Can’t Always Get What You Want Stones. They were both great, but pretty different. It was actually the first one that interested me, though it wasn’t necessarily the best. Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, again, were a pretty substantially different Pink Floyd to the Dark Side Of The Moon band.

 

Both of those examples were from the time before either band became institutionalised, before they became brands and businesses.

True. Which in a nutshell is the difference between 1967 and, say, 1973. Relatively, they were making juvenilia in those earlier phases, as were Utopia Avenue. I think part of the myth-making, or a consequence of the myth-making, is that we forget how young they were. They were kids. Even when the Beatles split up, they were still kids.

 

That is incredible. Such a short career, relative to many other bands, and they changed the whole planet.

And perhaps that’s not accidental. Maybe when you don’t know what you can’t do, you just do it.

With the cameos, I wanted them to be more than just a face and a name, as that would then be celebrity birdspotting, but I didn’t want to get into hagiography and give rock stars hefty sub-chapters. I was looking for just the right sweet spot where there presence alters the trajectory of the scene, but not of the chapter. So that was my rule of thumb, with the exception, as you say, though, of Francis Bacon. Why? I wonder…

 

For me, he’s one of the more mysterious people of the time. He’s a very famous person, but not a very well-known person, if that makes sense?

That’s true. He’s something of a blank Scrabble tile, and you can assign the value and the letter you wish to him. “Famous but not well-known.” I may use that…

 

There’s also an aspect where those famous people are informing the perspectives of the characters or the perspectives of the reader about the characters, perhaps. So in the Bacon interlude, we get much more of a sense of Levon [Frankland, Utopia Avenue’s manager] than we have to that point. Up until then, he’s had his secrets, and you don’t really get told a lot about him, and in that sequence, he’s revealing all sorts of stuff, and also showing where his boundaries are.

That’s true, yes. Much of the story is put together using a songwriter’s structure and focusing on the band’s songwriters – Dean, Elf, Jasper, Dean, Elf, Jasper – so you get to know those three really well. However, the cost of that benefit, that recurring three-stroke engine, meant that is we necessary to give Levon and Griff their own short chapters.

 

Along with the rock star rollercoaster, there are elements of the book that could be seen as more designed. Dean is working class, Jasper’s upper-class, Elf is middle class – the diversity boxes are ticked; that kind of thing. How important was it for you to give the story balance in that way?

“The horse before the cart” is the cliché that works there. It wasn’t, “Ah, I have a cunning plan – an Anglo-Dutch aristocrat; the daughter of a bank manager; a working class kid and a Yorkshireman will broaden the demographic of my novel…I’m not that clever! I would be a richer man if I thought that way! It was a way of avoiding them coming from the same background or avoiding the cliché of say, the Beatles meeting at middle school or the Hollies meeting at elementary school. It just seemed more interesting if they were from different backgrounds; if they were a curated band. It makes Levon more interesting. He’s an artist too – he’s not a songwriter, but Utopia Avenue is his artwork and he has hand-picked the ingredients with care and cunning and calculation. So if anyone’s trying to appeal to the broad demographic here, it’s not me, it’s actually Levon! Which is an authorly evasion if I ever heard one…

 

It’s always interesting for a reader to understand that mindset in an author. At some point, this is a project for you; at some point, this is homework – and then it starts forming itself into art, and the characters start telling you where they need to go…

Before the homework, there is a hunger, a kind of amorphous desire to make a world and to write a book that’s set in this particular world, as opposed to all the other worlds that you could write about. That’s the mysterious bit for me – why this book? Why a late Sixties psychedelic folk-rock novel and not a 19th-Century Icelandic saga?

 

Right – it’s not like the late Sixties were something you lived through. If I’m doing my maths correctly, this period was somewhere around your birthday or just before.

That’s right. And yet, you’re drawn to some epochs more than others; some kinds of narrative more than others. I guess the answer is in the murky depths of psychology, and the answer to the question “Why?” is “I have no clue.”

 

I guess songwriting would be similar. In this curated band you have these different styles and these desires to say something different in each songwriter’s lyrics. They’re living in the same timeframe, but they’re not seeing things in the same way.

It’s part of my job to make them all different. Fiction is inherently unrealistic. Ideally a fictional world should reflect the diversity and range of the non-fiction world.

 

I have a quote here from a review of Cloud Atlas that I’d like to try and tie back into Utopia Avenue. It says, “Cloud Atlas is a monument to the struggle between those who hunger for power in the name of progress and the resistance of those who offer opposition to such progress out of a need to protect whatever it is that is meant by the word ‘humanity’. I suppose you could narrow that down to commerce versus art. I feel, in reading Utopia Avenue, that there is a similar conflict there; two sides of the coin trying to exist in the same place. Is that fair?

I think the conflict in Cloud Atlas is more “red in tooth and claw”; those who would eat and those who do not wish to be eaten, either literally or metaphorically. It’s about predacity, and the relationship between the predators and the prey, whether it’s tribal or corporate or national. In Utopia Avenue, I think that there’s a recognition that without the commerce, the artists are going to starve. If Utopia Avenue do get somewhat exploited by the label, then it is with their consent. That was also something of a cliché avoider. In most of those Sixties music memoirs, the artists get stunningly ripped off by a truly predatory manager. It seemed more interesting to me if it was on the Andrew Loog Oldham sort of level, where the manager is a bit of an operator, but he is kind of one of the band as well. He’s into the music. It isn’t as though the manager is into his fifties or sixties, wears a sheepskin-collared coat and essentially cut his teeth in the old music hall or variety booking world.

 

Speaking about the challenges and the shortfalls of fame – which the characters face throughout the book: they have to figure out where they are, what they’re willing to sacrifice and all that sort of thing. Touching on your own experiences in that regard: in 2007, you were on the Time magazine 100 Most Influential People list; you’ve had two Booker Prize nominations; you’ve been in the Hollywood spotlight from time to time, with Cloud Atlas and other projects; and now you have a writing credit on The Matrix 4… For you, as someone who doesn’t seem to be spotlight-seeking, how useful is notoriety?

I guess within the literary fiction world, I have a low to medium level of… I certainly wouldn’t call it notoriety, and I hesitate to call it fame. But I have, let’s say, a public profile. Outside of that world, I’m famous as a British comedian with whom I share a name, so I can’t really claim to have the level of fame that you’re referring to. I suppose I have enough to be able to extrapolate. So I do know what it’s like to walk into a room where everyone knows who you are, but you basically don’t know anybody. I do encounter, at just a local level, the asymmetry whereby, because people know who I am, I often encounter the assumption that I know them as well as they know me. I often don’t know who they are. So there are a few bits and pieces like that that I suppose I do have direct experience of. I also have the second-hand experience of all the books I’ve read, and that stage is always the most interesting part of a music memoir or biography – it’s the first third, where someone goes from complete obscurity to being on TV. I was able to draw on that as well. So perhaps, yes – to a degree – my own experience was helpful in constructing the first encounter with fame of my characters. But I have no delusions of being as famous as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro – names of that ilk. Margaret Atwood, is another. Of course, I don’t have that level of fame, so I have never been as famous as Utopia Avenue are becoming by the end of it. Or at least that’s the way I see it. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe I’m more famous than that, but I don’t really think about it, and neither do I wish to. It makes me quite uncomfortable.

 

You can hear it in the way you speak – which is a compliment.

I don’t think fame is good for novelists. We need to get to the motherlode of narrative. We’re slightly like journalists in that we need to put people at ease and make them comfortable in telling you things they might not normally tell people. And if you’re famous; if you’re a brand – if they are in a state of, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m here talking to this person? Wow, it’s actually happening! Am I dreaming?” If they think you’re all of this, then the barriers are up between you and the good stuff, which is their more interior material. One of the more obvious disadvantages of fame is that it quite easily turns you into an idiot; it quite easily inflates the ego. Aside from those more obvious problems, there is that particular one where it cuts you off from that motherlode of narrative.

 

The late Sixties were definitely a world-changing time in that…desire to change the world. Now, 2020 is kind of the other way. None of us had any input on the decision for it to be a world-changing year. In Utopia Avenue, the characters are trying to navigate the changes by being part of them. In 2020, with the pandemic, we will be changed by what has happened, but how do you thin we will come out of this, in terms of eras that have an incredible impact on society? What lessons might we learn? What mindset do we need to move forward from this?

Your question is, of course, valid in the sense that both ’67-’68 and 2020 are monumental, historic years. They are differently monumental, however – 1967 and, although things turned more violent in 1968, were of a piece, I think. Utopia was visible. In 2020, slow-motion, slow-burning dystopia has visited us. The world-changing nature of ’67-’68 was something you joined in with. You made a band; you made a demo. You got politically active; you joined a commune. In 2020, it’s passive, not active. It’s done to you. And we can choose to react one way or another, but we are reacting, we’re not acting. We are not the agent of the change. We are responders to the change, or to the new normal. There are question marks everywhere. At policy level: what’s the best way to respond to this? Should you go into lockdown? Should you go into lockdown now or later? Should we come out of lockdown now or later? What does the science say? Should we follow the science and the epidemiology and kill the economy? Or should we follow the economists and end up with a lot of dead people who wouldn’t otherwise be dead? The right thing to do is impossible to know with certainty. There’s no clarity.

Now, I’m not complaining. It’s ridiculous to complain. It’s “Hello, the pandemic is here, and it kills.” Certain and truth becomes a splintered thing, because only events and long-term science will make any kind of sense of this in hindsight, and if we made wrong decisions early on, these were uncharted waters. But people become more culpable when they refuse to learn from mistakes or even acknowledge that action A led to undesirable outcome C, D and E. That hard-won data is what makes them culpable; it’s not making mistakes in the first place. I don’t want to be this sort of armchair epidemiologist who sits back in September and lectures about decisions that were made back in March. I’d rather talk a little bit about hopes – and maybe that’s more in keeping in line with the theme of the book as well.

I hope that in the future, there will be less talk about an active state and a government of a particular size and capability being a bad thing. We’ve seen from this that there are things that only governments – ideally democratically elected and run governments – can achieve, and you cannot leave a pandemic to the markets to sort out. I hope the absurdity of that position becomes obvious for a generation or two.

I hope that piece of graffiti that appeared apocryphally early on, that said, “We can’t go back to business as normal, because business as normal was the problem” sticks. I hope that lesson is learned at a popular level as well as a policy and think-tank level.

I hope that we remember how nice it is to live in community; to keep an eye on your neighbours – especially elderly, vulnerable neighbours. And not just for their sake, but for you sake – it’s good for you as well, and I hope we remember that.

I hope that we remember that a healthy natural environment is essentially our lungs, both in terms of air quality but in how it affects us mentally. It’s good for us to see 25 species of birds in a garden and not just three. I hope that we remember that.

I hope that we remember who we needed during lockdown, and that it wasn’t accountants. It wasn’t CEOs of large corporations. It wasn’t the people who earn the highest salaries in society – and I don’t include novelists in that group, by the way! It’s actually the people who run the trains, or who re-stock our supermarket shelves or who delivered our boxes of noodles, who work in warehouses packing those boxes, who get the cardboard off the concrete. It’s actually without them that our society would have reverted to some kind of dystopian video game of cannibalistic zombie hordes. I hope we remember that. It’s the people that get paid the least that we needed the most.

I hope doctors and nurses never ever have to go on strike again to get decent terms and conditions.

These are my hopes. I strongly suspect that they’ll be disappointed pretty soon but, as in the book, at least we’ve had a little glimpse of what mattered and what was important.

 

Last question. The cross-referencing of your own work: it’s not a new practice for you – you’ve spoken many times of a meta-narrative or “uber-book” idea. With Utopia Avenue being such a big book, it is full of Easter eggs for fans. It strikes me that this is also a technique used by songwriters, where you can repeat a phrase, musically or lyrically, that continues a theme. James Taylor, for instance, has a descending guitar line in a number of his songs and you always know that the only person who plays it like that, so as it comes on, you know it’s him. What, for you, does that practice enhance? Is it the mood of the story? Is it potential longevity – that you might have fans who will pick something up in Book Two and be excited that it’s there in Book Five?

There are about three or four reasons why I do it. One, it pleases me to do it. I enjoy it when writers do it, as a reader, so this informs what I do as a writer. Characters appearing in different stories don’t come empty-handed to the novel. They’ve got a whole backpack full of stuff and associations and memories. They’re already well-formed as characters, and this means I don’t have to dream up a whole new idea. I do have whatever I’m working on coherent and followable to every reader who might be coming to my books for the first time. So it mustn’t be dependent on what’s already happened in the characters’ lives. But as it happens, if you have read some of the other books, you get a vocal stack rather than a single vocal line.

It also lets me a maximalist and a minimalist at the same time. Sure, Utopia Avenue is a bit of a doorstop, but it’s very focused in time and space – 1967 in Soho in London; in New York and the West Coast in the second half of 1968. So it’s quite specific in time and place, yet the existence of the uber-book also lets Utopia Avenue be a world-expander, like Middle Earth or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, which were always part of my imagination when I was a kid and first falling in love with world-building.

Finally, it’s generating raw material for a future book, when all of the loose ends – all of the characters and the one that got away get to come back. Jasper, for instance. Reading between the lines of what Elf says in the epilogue, it looks rather as if he’s fallen in with the Horologists – perhaps he’ll be a serial reincarnatee. So all of these are pieces in some kind of game. I don’t know what the game is or what the sides are or what the prize is.

 

And what a blessing from an author’s point of view in terms of potential writer’s block or anything like that to have something to kick off from.

I suppose so. I basically know nothing about writer’s block as I’ve never had it. I get stuck, but that’s not the same as imaginative depletion, it’s because I don’t know the characters well enough. It’s always that simple for me. It’s always just a matter of working out who the characters are, and then I’m not stuck any more.

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