Author David Mitchell: Writing a music novel is 'impossible'


David Mitchell

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Paul Stuart

Author David Mitchell has a prediction: “There’ll be a pandemic of art about the pandemic.”

The award-winning writer of novels including Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks says: “I’m not sure we’ll ever be writing anything that hasn’t got a whiff or a shade or a colour of the pandemic for the rest of our lives.

“The pandemic will always be in the creative process of every artist who has lived through it.”

Coronavirus has already had an impact on him. His new book, Utopia Avenue, was supposed to be published in June.

But its appearance was delayed and Mitchell has been locked down at his home in Cork in Ireland.

“How do you launch a book in an era where festivals aren’t happening, when book tours can’t happen? How do you do it?” he says via a Zoom chat.

Utopia Avenue, which will now be published on 14 July, is Mitchell’s eighth novel. It charts the rise of a British “psychedelic-folk-rock” band from Soho clubs to stardom in the US in the late 1960s.

‘Hiding to nothing’

Mitchell took inspiration from real life musicians to create his band members, including Ray Davies of the Kinks, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones and Ginger Baker, the drummer from the group Cream.

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(L-R) Nick Mason, Rick Wright, Syd Barrett and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in 1967

Sandy Denny, who sang with the British folk rock band Fairport Convention shares the DNA of one character. While there is some of Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd in another.

“So maybe as you read it, if you are a music-head, then you can have fun spotting these sources or these echoes or these chimes with real bands.”

But Mitchell says anyone attempting to write a rock ‘n’ roll novel is “on a hiding to nothing”.

“Really great novels about music, about the music scene… there are not many at all.”

To write about music is “this impossible thing,” he says.

“There is that famous quote, that’s now pretty much a cliché, writing about music is like dancing around architecture. And they are in some ways opposites.

“Prose isn’t that good at describing music. After three or four sentences it becomes as intolerable as listening to someone else’s dreams.

“TVs and cinemas have speakers. Novels don’t. Somehow when you write, you have to put a speaker into your novel, so you can hear the music.”

Real band

Nonetheless Mitchell says the challenge is what drew him to the subject and he enjoyed trying “to outwit the impossibility of the situation, using words to describe something that is non-textual”.

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David Mitchell says his ambition is to write a “a great game novel”

He also clearly loved the research, getting stuck into “a goodly mountain of music memoirs, biographies, autobiographies… to try to understand what musicians know that us civilians don’t know about song writing, recording and performing. He thinks he read “maybe 50, maybe 60 and all of them fed into the book in one way or another”.

And the book is peppered with real musicians who make cameo appearances including Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen.

Mitchell said he wanted “to show the world that my characters are moving in”.

“John Lennon was at that party, Syd Barrett was at that party, they did meet David Bowie on that stairs. It’s real.

“I want, if I can, to pass off Utopia Avenue as a real band, to just raise a little spectre of doubt in readers’ minds – ‘Was this band real or not? Have I somehow missed them?’

“So the cameos lend texture and substance and maybe robustness to that aspiration.”

The novel also connects with his other books. Characters from previous novels including his debut Ghostwritten, the structurally-ambitious Cloud Atlas and the historical saga The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet have walk-on parts in Utopia Avenue. Even a cat drifts in and out.

“I enjoy it and it’s fun,” says Mitchell. But he also has a much grander plan.

‘Salivate at Middle Earth’

He is, he says, building up to “a great game novel”.

“Every time I have a recurring character, every time I have an protagonist who gets away at the end of a novel, then it’s lining them up. They’re becoming a part of some novel in the future where all these things will come to a head.

“A a kid I would salivate at my poster of Middle Earth or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, this great big cathedral-size piece of prose that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I wanted to do that. I wanted to throw everything I was into building something that big.”

He is well on the way. Mitchell has sold more than 2.5 million books around the world, which are read in 36 languages. Utopia Avenue is his first major novel for six years and is eagerly awaited. But with the pandemic forcing the postponement of promotional events even he is worried about book sales.

A recent survey about the impact of coronavirus on writers conducted by the Society of Authors indicated 80% had future events cancelled due to Covid-19 and 60% of authors revealed their earnings had decreased since the outbreak.

“It is a worrying time for a lot of writers,” he says. “It is a worrying time for a lot of people.”

But he points out that people are still reading. “I believe book sales are up 30%” since bookshops were forced to close, “and even before then they were up 5% on last year”.

“So it’s not a good look if I sit around saying ‘woe is me’. There are people in much less fortunate positions.”


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