Novelist David Mitchell talked about his new book, Utopia Avenue (out on July 14th, 2020) at Hay Festival Digital, in conversation with John Mitchinson, head of research for BBC’s QI series.
Set in the world of rock music in 1967-8, featuring real people such as Francis Bacon in walk-on parts and iconic venues such as the Marquee Club in Soho, the title of the book is the name of a (fictitious) band. It must have been “immense fun researching and writing it,” said Mitchinson, observing that Utopia Avenue “is a David Mitchell book, but also something of a departure.”
“I had enormous fun,” said the author. “I want to make my books different from each other. This was an era we’re familiar with, or overfamiliar with. I thought I was … legends get in the way – our collective cultural memory obscures grottier truths that the legends have grown out of.”
The core of the book is how the band comes together – four “waifs and strays,” found by a manager figure. Mitchell didn’t want too much “Spinal Tap or testosterone,” so he has created female vocalist Elf Holloway, blues bassist Dean Moss, guitar virtuoso Jasper de Zoet and jazz drummer Griff Griffin.
Each of the chapters is named after a song and has the point of view of the band member who wrote it, and for each one Mitchell listened to that particular style of music while writing. Mitchinson was surprised to learn that the novelist had never been in a band. “No, I’m not a musician. Took some guitar and piano lessons and still continue with the piano.” But most of the ‘authenticity’ in the book comes from speaking to people who had been in bands a lot – he “harvested IWATHs (‘I Was There’s’)” from them. He also watched “some great documentaries and interviews, read some music memoirs.”
Mitchell talked about the term “scenius”, coined by Brian Eno, the idea of genius being embedded in a scene, rather than a person. This could be applied to the late ‘60s, when “art and business, media, socioeconomics combined in one geographical location. Soho was a “bizarre, sordid, provocative psycho-geographical square mile of London … not on any administrative map, it is a place and isn’t … an idea and concept, as much as a place you walk through. Utopia Avenue was his attempt to “build a time machine” and travel back to this era of “great music.”
John Mitchinson marvelled at the 18 months between The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and White Album. To him it was “inconceivable that anything so seismic could happen again.” What must it have been like to live in that time and hear Sergeant Pepper for the first time? Or hang out in the Colony Room with Francis Bacon? “Luckily it’s within living memory,” said Mitchell, who was able to call on his ‘IWATH’s.
Utopia Avenue has been described as ‘the great rock and roll novel’ (Tony Parsons). What were the other contenders? Mitchell mentioned Kill Your Friends by John Niven and Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But there weren’t many – why? Mitchell quoted “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” (attributed variously to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello and actor Martin Mull). “Music is an art form beyond language,” said Mitchell. “How to capture it? It’s an oxymoron … ooh, it’s hard. It takes a Houdini-esque feat of escapology to produce a description of a live band … a poor, meagre imitation of the real thing.” Most novelists don’t even try, because “they have more sense than me.”
Were any supernatural elements retained in the new book?
Mitchell: “if you’ve read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or The Bone Clocks, yes (Jasper de Zoet shares a name with Jacob), but if you haven’t read anything the answer’s ‘no’.”
What comes first, characters story or physical place?
“When and where – the physical world. I start with the world, plot and characters work in tandem. I require the one to catch up the other. It’s a kind of walking race between plot and characters.” This question was “a pint of beer and half-an-hour question.”
Mitchinson: “David Bowie makes a couple of important appearances in the novel. He has important truths to impart to Jasper …”
Mitchell: “He needs to do something, not just be eye-candy. But he can’t have a pivotal role either … all these people are no longer with us, but they have families …
If you could choose a supergroup which musicians would be in it?
Lisa Hannigan as singer; David Gilmour on guitar; Neil Peart or Ginger Baker on drums. Or Charlie Watts or Mick Fleetwood; Geddy Lee from Rush on bass.
Mitchinson: Music obviously matters to you, it’s a genuine passion …
Mitchell: “Tunes can allow you to overlook less inspired lyrics. Songs are mysterious things: life-enhancing, mood-shifting, politically-rallying. The book of love has music in it … some of it is transcendental; some of it is really dumb.”
Who would be your dream music writer to talk to you about this book?
“I almost wouldn’t want an eminent music writer … would prefer to talk to Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon or McCartney and ask them how they do what they do, this mysterious thing.”