David Mitchell: ‘Reading my early books is pretty excruciating’
Author of Cloud Atlas on his new rock ‘n’ roll fable set in late 1960s London
English novelist David Mitchell at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at St Mary’s Cathedral on August 26th, 2017. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images.
We’ve officially pressed pause on the dystopian. David Mitchell, British-born author of ambitious, expansive novels like Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, might have a taste for the speculative (he’s recently worked on Lana Wachowski’s Sense8 and the forthcoming Matrix 4), but even he admits that now might not be the best time for dark Ballardian visions. Fortuitously, his new novel Utopia Avenue offers precisely the kind of escapism required by the present moment, being a rock ‘n’ roll fable set in late 1960s London, a time of considerable social turbulence but also Aquarian optimism.
Rock biopics and novels tend to over-egg conflict as drama: the power grabs and internecine arguments between musicians, romantic partners, management and fans. What Mitchell’s book nails is a sense of a band as a surrogate family, with all the love and dysfunction we normally associate with sibling relationships.
“They have to be fractious enough to not feel like some weird agreement cult, but not so dysfunctional that it becomes implausible that they’d spend any time in each other’s company,” Mitchell considers, speaking by Zoom from his West Cork home. “My American publicist got an inquiry from someone in the media that made me happier than perhaps any other piece of feedback I’ve heard about the book, which was, ‘Sorry if this is a silly question, but was the band actually real?’”
Real life experiences
The antidote to cliche, Mitchell found, was talking to musicians about their real life experiences, buying drinks for drummers in the bar after the World Fantasy Convention on The Bone Clocks campaign, panhandling for what he calls IWATHs - shorthand for I Was There - “a nugget of insight or an experience or piece of knowledge or micro-event that only someone in a given field knows about.”
For all the Cameron Crowe I’m-a-believer fervour though, there are darker elements manifest in the new novel. Utopia Avenue’s prodigious but troubled lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet is plagued with a form of ancestral possession that presents as incipient schizophrenia. Jasper, somewhere between Syd Barrett and Jimmy Page, is your classic Mitchell character: non-verbal, somewhat dissociative, an outsider. Mitchell himself has had a complicated relationship with speech and language, having stammered since childhood. He’s also father to an autistic boy, which, I suggest, must have been difficult during lockdown.
This isn’t a poor-me thing: I now view my stammer as a strange kind of gift
“Autism is one of those words that should be talked about in the plural, like intelligence,” he responds. “There is, as you will know, a plethora of autisms. As it happens, my son is not at all routine dependent. He does like to know what’ll be happening in the next few days, but it doesn’t have to be the same sequence of events that happened in the last few days. We all have and need a map of the recent past, present and future. If we’re more in control of fates as adults then we get to write that map, and if we have some neurotypical apps that sift the recent past, present and future for us, then we are instantly excused that Doctor Who/lost-in-space-and-time disorientation that I think many autistic people live with, which makes them heroes, because if we were somehow transplanted into their nightmare, we’d probably be sectioned by half past five this afternoon.
“But yes, you do identify a cluster of my characters who have this atypical relationship with language. The stammering protagonist in Black Swan Green, he has a much thornier and more intricate relationship with language than anyone around him would guess, unless they’re a speech therapist or close family member. And I would also agree that one of my archetypal themes is mixed or flawed or non-communication, or the psychological effects of not knowing whether you’ll be making a monumental public laughing stock of yourself by the act of trying to verbalise thought, of trying to say a sentence.
“This isn’t a poor-me thing: I now view my stammer as a strange kind of gift. It damn well felt like a curse when I was thirteen years old and dreaded having to say my name when a new teacher would ask me to, because I didn’t know whether I’d be blocking on it or not. But as it happened, it was a crash course in vocabulary expansion and in lexical register, which I use to this day when I write dialogue.”
What techniques does he use to keep from blocking on problem words?
“There are various ways to say the same thing in many languages, escape routes. SLTs just call it ‘word avoidance’. You don’t stammer at random, you stammer on hopefully a small number of, usually, consonants. I would have a hard time with words beginning with a sibilant ‘s’ and a hard ‘c’-slash-‘k’ sound. So if there’s a key word coming up in a sentence, you kind of autocue the sentence that’s about to be said and you scan it for a block consonant, and you see if you can put in a plausible by-pass or reroute around that word to disguise the fact that you can’t say it. You become a master of the thoughtful pause, where you’re not actually thinking for the next word, but you’re trying to approach the block sideways, trying to lull it into a false sense of security so it’s not going to ambush you.
“You do all these sorts of things, you internalise all these strategies. You also learn that not all of them are appropriate to the linguistic time and place you’re in. If you’re a kid you can’t get away with the word ‘mellifluous’ even if you know it, because that will raise more eyebrows and maybe bring down a more serious hail of mockery than just stammering - unless it’s accompanied by a Johnny Rotten sneer. This is the stuff of potentially lush, rich, realistic dialogue, and this is why that curse, three, four decades on, is kind of a blessing.”
Utopia Avenue took five years to write, a long time by Mitchell’s standards, although he’s hardly been idle. As indicated, he worked on Sense8 with Wachowski and Aleksander Hemon (the three have nicknamed their writing team ‘The Pit’), which led to the development of the fourth Matrix movie.
The human body doesn’t stand still, but also tech doesn’t stand still either
“Filming began in San Francisco just before the virus,” Mitchell says. “The rest of it will be shot mostly in Berlin, and the team is reassembling there. I wouldn’t be involved without Lana, she obviously was one of the three directors of Cloud Atlas, and our friendship grew out of that.”
How does a writer approach a mythology as rich as The Matrix’s after a twenty year lapse?
“With respect. The Pit generates certain mantras because they’re useful. One of them is ‘own the difficulty’ or ‘co-opt the problem’. Everyone is 20 years older. You can either pretend that hasn’t happened, or incorporate that into the plot, the world. There’s not much competition between those two approaches: there is narrative gold in dilemmas, so mine it, deploy the fact that twenty years have gone by, that the human body doesn’t stand still, but also tech doesn’t stand still either. What was cutting edge 20 years ago inevitably now looks clunky and cute. Acknowledge that back in the day you had to find an analogue telephone with a plastic handset to escape down, and now there’s no bloody phones anymore! So, incorporate that.”
Mitchell’s seminal works, Ghostwritten, Number9Dream and Cloud Atlas, were also conceived, written and published almost two decades ago, in an era when British speculative fiction still seemed split into rival camps: post-’60s fantasy versus tech-savvy post-cyberpunk, Michael Moorcock versus Jeff Noon. Mitchell, like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman before him, seemed to casually vapourise those bipolarities, co-opting elements of mythology, alternative history and hyper-realism into his narratives. His body of work is a metaverse populated by recurring characters and cameos. How does he feel when he looks back on those early books?
“It’s pretty excruciating when I read the first couple, to be honest. I just see things I’d do differently now. I made my peace with it by telling myself they were the best books that the who-I-was-then could have written, so I’ll give him a pass and not beat myself up for his gaucheness of style and over-keenness of metaphors and similes. I now view (those books) as storehouses of characters and ideas that I can, not recycle, but maybe update and utilise in new contexts and see what that apparatus, what those conceits, those characters, those worlds, what 20 years have done to them. It’s like updating the Dalek. There’s some kind of a trade-off. When you’re younger you have ideas shooting out of every orifice. That subsides; with luck it’s replaced with technique and craft and an awareness of why otherwise good writing can ossify and fail, and, with luck, the sum of the trade-off is in your favour as you age.”
Utopia Avenue is published by Sceptre Hodder & Stoughton.