- 02 Aug 20
David Mitchell is among the world's most acclaimed literary stars, making his latest work Utopia Avenue a proper "global publishing event". Released six years after his last proper novel, The Bone Clocks, it tells the story of a rock band on the road to stardom - and in doing so faces the conundrum with which Hot Press writers are all to familiar. "How can you capture music's power in words?" he asks Pat Carty.
David Mitchell, perhaps best known for 2004’s Cloud Atlas, a head-spinner set in both the past and the distant future, has turned his attention to the world of music. Utopia Avenue chronicles the late sixties adventures of the titular band as the make their way from humble beginnings to at least some semblance of stardom. That hoary old quote - writing about music is like dancing about architecture - was alluded to as a starting point in the pre-publication publicity.
“It was one of those things that made the idea of writing the book attractive,” Mitchell explains, down the phone from his Cork home. “It's got this impossibility embedded in its heart. I'm not attracted to books that are easy to write, I am attracted to books that I think will have a paradox or a particular difficulty inside them. I started off and ran straight into it, I thought it would be there and I was right. That cliche exists because it's true. It is a particular challenge because writing and music are, both from the surface and deep down, really different things. In some ways, they're opposites. The song is interesting because the song also has words but, even if a song is lyrically interesting like 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', there's an enormous difference, experientially, between reading those words on the page and hearing it and feeling the music infect your skeleton, the way that song does. So, even though the song is something of a bridge between music and writing - it has words - it's still only a bridge , it isn’t the other shore at all. The diabolical aspect of writing Utopia Avenue was working out how to write, hopefully convincingly, about music and it not be as dull as ditch water because if it is, it doesn’t matter if it's convincing, it's still dull and you've lost the reader. The payoff is, if you can work out how to do that, then, to a large extent, that's your book written. A lot of the characters and the plot will come from your solution to that core problem.”
Mitchell is addressing some familiar conundrums here; how a seemingly inconsequential lyric can be transformed by the soul-rattling power of music, and how to capture that power on the page.
“Where does that power come from and what is it about sound waves that are clustered into bundles with just three or four instruments, that transform that monodimensionality, to import an eight syllable word at this time of the morning.”
I put forward the Bay City Rollers’ ‘Shang-A-Lang’ as a random example. Mitchell counters with a better offer.
“Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love', on the page it is nothing, sub-Hallmark prose, but then when it's looped to Giorgio Moroder’s rhythms, where does that sensuality come from? The answer is clearly music, but how can you capture that in words, how can you even begin to try?”
Some of us are doomed to attempt just such a thing on a regular basis. I put it to Mitchell that one could study of music theory for years, but that still doesn’t explain what happens when music hits our ears and our souls. It really is an inexplicable magic.
“Isn’t it?” he agrees. “There is a halfway house in musical scores, I've spoken to composers and conductors, as I’m sure you have too, and they can look at those squiggles on lines on a large piece of paper and can actually hear how it will sound when an orchestra plays it, and that's quite something.”
There's various examples of this power that music has over us in the novel – Avenue guitarist Jasper de Zoet says music frees the soul from the cage of the body, there's the way it helps characters cope with unspeakable grief, and Elf Holloway singing 'Raglan Road' to a immigration officer in order to gain entry to America.
“I suppose there are two different ways I went about it,” says Mitchell. “One was to write about music with full-on attack, but you can't do that for very long. I can have Jasper say a couple of lines like that because he's Jasper and he's weird, but once you've gone above half a page it’s goodnight reader, there's not going to be too many people around at the bar after you've used that kind of language for too long. Another strategy, an oblique strategy, to use a very obscure Brian Eno reference, is to show the effects of music on people, and maybe that's Elf’s strategy, in the club in Edinburgh when she's playing 'Prove It'. A friend came up with this idea actually, to show the power of the song by focusing on one face in the audience and describe what the music is doing to that face. The written word is better at faces then it is at music. The 'Raglan Road' scene is another example of writing about music’s effect on people.”
I wondered if Mitchell has specific real-life musicians in mind when he set about creating his four band members, He turns the question back at me.
“Just to make it more fun for me, can I ask you that first and then we'll see how you did? It's the interviewee's revenge.”
Put on the spot, I go for Sandy Denny when thinking of Elf, Syd Barrett and Peter Green in relation to Jasper, Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell when it comes to drummer Griff, and for singer/bassist Dean Moss – for me the hero of the novel who gains strength and character as the story progresses – I mention the working class archetypes of Dave Davies or even Keith Richards.
“I would give you a really high score there,” Mitchell generously offers. “The names you mentioned that are overt, I sought to camouflage by giving them a cameo. There’s so much of Sandy Denny in Elf that the only way to distract from that was to have Sandy Denny in the book. Likewise Syd Barrett. I was interested in what you said about Dean, I hadn’t really thought about him in those terms but yes, his journey from a morally flawed human being to someone you'd want as a godfather to your kids is the furthest of the four of them. Griff was, most consciously Ginger Baker, especially the jazz connection.”
I refer to Ginger Baker’s reputation as a well-known bollocks, whereas Griff isn't really like that.
“That's right, “ the author laughs “If you say a well-known bollocks with an English accent it doesn’t quite have the same glorious venom as when you say it! He was a complete arsehole. The way you say it has more of a musicality, language has a hidden music in it, but that's a different point. So Sandy Denny with Elf, Syd Barrett with Jasper, The well known bollocks with Griff, and I was thinking of the Davies brothers with Dean, I read Johnny Logan's book about Ray Davies and that was really helpful, however it's odd how things will feed in without you quite noticing. In Dylan Jones’ biography - if that's the right word - his book on David Bowie that came out a couple of years ago, which was almost an art project in itself - he didn't write it so much as he curated it, he did hundreds of interviews with everyone from his landlady when he was sixteen years old through to Rick Wakeman through to his wife and managers he had fallen out with, an astonishing piece of work, but I remember someone saying in that, that David Bowie had said when he was still David Jones ‘I can't go back, I can’t live the life I was supposed to live, where I was born, where I was, I can't live like that' - that's kind of what keeps Dean going through the darkest hours, he doesn't have any choice, he can't go back. He knows if he does it will kill him. Novels are palimpsests in that way.”
That’s also pretty good for this early in the morning. The mention of Johnny Rogan and Dylan Jones prompts me to ask if the research for this book was easier than, say, having a Dutchman in Nineteenth-century Japan in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
“In some ways yes because I was already doing it anyway. Like yourself, and everyone, I've had a relationship with music all of my life, that relationship has evolved and branched off and it is several things all at once. Music has been an identity container, a projector of alternative versions of myself, most of which I have preferred, it's been a mood changer, an aural drug, an upper and a downer, a lense and prism to understand the world. It's been all these things and I am therefore interested in it, why wouldn't I be, why wouldn’t anyone be? I do trawl through interviews on YouTube, it's fascinating to see how Brian Jones actually spoke.”
Another bollocks, if I might continue my line of Hiberno-Saxon.
“He was, people often are. The world is not short of bollocks in all the possible meanings of that, and it isn’t unusual for the best part of an artist to be in their work, because it sure as hell wasn't there in their roles as human beings, as fathers, husbands, mothers. daughters - but if we chose to let that negate the value of their work then I think our own experience of that art form, whether it be music or literature, is going to be impoverished. If someone stinks to high heaven, then sure, I would have a problem with that, but if they were young and stupid and this was the first time that this art form had really happened and there were no rules about how to do it - no positive or negative roles models - then it can kind of be in your own interest as a listener, as a reader, and as a consumer of the arts, to give them a little bit of a free pass, if you can.”
Revisionism is in the air, the public find out that such and such was a terrible person and decide that such behaviour totally negates the art they created. Would Mitchell agree with this?
“I think the answer is there in your question with the word totally,” he reasons. “That totality of interpretation, the ironing out of nuance, that seems, to use another word of the decade, quite binary to me. The problem in the first place was people were seeing blacks and whites and not greys and even those words have another layer of meaning. I do say bring down the statues. If it becomes evident that a founding father was also a slave owner, really how would you feel if you were a person of colour walking past that in an age when a white cop kneels on a black person's windpipe for nine minutes, killing them, knows he's killing them, knows he's being filmed, not care about it, and just smirk? If we are in that age then, sorry, but those statues need to come down. That's not airbrushing history, that's not denying history, if the interpretation of history in the past was horrendously one-sided and horrendously biased then I think what's happening now is a long overdue readjustment. It's depressing as hell that it takes a riot, a pent-up explosion to do this. I admire Keir Starmer's response with regard to the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in that it should have come down years ago.”
All The Madmen
Mitchell has already mentioned the fabulous background cast of real-life characters within the novel – Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, a memorable knees-up in the company of Francis Bacon, and Gene Clark are but a few. Could Jasper’s discussion with Bowie about schizophrenia be imagined to have inspired him to write of his brother’s condition on The Man Who Sold The World?
“You're talking about his brother Terry [whose schizophrenia greatly troubled Bowie]? It was real presence in his life. I don’t want to be so arrogant as to suggest that real life musicians did the great things they did merely because of fictional conversations that I put in my book, that would be way beyond the pale! Maybe it's more that I wish to show that artists draw on things that are already there, they tend to draw on a small cluster of archetypal themes and these themes are there because of their early formative years. It's possible for an artist of such a philosophical bent as Bowie to add to that cluster of themes, he had this endlessly curious mind. This is by the by, I was just looking at it the other day, but have you seen the 1999 interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight about the internet?”
I have indeed.
“I mean Wow! 1999! It's kind of hard to watch that and not think that he must have been a time traveller from now, who went back and just describes the effect the internet will have, twenty years before it does, it's amazing.”
I mention Bowie Bonds, where Bowie sold the future rights to his music, for a huge sum, just before the music business caved in on itself. He made out like a (time) bandit.
“If that’s true,” counters Mitchell, accurately, “then it makes him guilty of, to use your word, banditry. On the other hand, I have not been ripped off by record companies for years.”
Jagger turns up at a protest, but there’s a press conference where Jasper responds to a question about getting his long hair cut with the immortal retort, “and look like you?” This, one presumes, must be a direct pilfering from the famous Bowie Parkinson interview where he imitates Jagger’s answer to a similar admonishment?
“It's a pretty famous clip, you don't have to be a music head to know it, but it's too great, even my mum enjoyed reading that! Thank you, Mr Bowie, I just couldn't resist it.”
The name Utopia Avenue comes to Jasper in a dream, a possible reference to John Lennon on his flaming pie, and Beatles with an ‘A’?
“Interesting, I hadn't though of it, I do know the story. Specifically no, generally yes, artists sometimes get a freebie from a dream and it’s a special kind of freebie, it's not the same as reality, or eavesdropping, or two ideas glancing off each other like pool balls and getting that smack of a lovely idea - it's a specific kind of freebie, you’re not sure if who to feel grateful to. Was it you or wasn't it? I had a dream once years ago, and I've always remembered it. It was in the rainy season, I was living in Japan and it's really loud incessant rain that goes on for hours, replacing silence, and it's got an under-layer of clogs to it. I dreamt that I woke up and at the foot of my futon was a a wooden box. I opened it up and unrolled a piece of paper, and on it were the words ‘The language of mountains is rain' I thought ‘this is beautiful’, then I woke up with this sentence that in no way could I have thought of on my own, which i used it as a chapter heading in one of my books, because it was just perfect. When I'm in an interviewing or a semi-interviewing capacity with another artist, I like to ask them about their dreams, even what they think about them is valuable, even if it only gives you an insight into what they think of the unconscious, but it often takes you deeper than that. So, no, not a reference to flaming pie but I like the story and I like the idea.”
We Are The Dead
The Grateful Dead also, inevitably perhaps given the period setting of the late sixties, show up. Mitchell is never going to convince me they were any use, or is he?
“Controversial,” he pauses. “It's a question that warrants precision, so I'm timing my run up a bit here. I will preface what I'm about to say with this: when people say X is very good at what they do then that's usually damnation by faint praise, mingled with condescension. I wish to pre-extract the faint praise and condescension aspects of what I'm about to say. They were brilliant at what they did, which was free-form jazz improvisation applied to rock. Does this make masterpiece LPs? No, I don’t think it does. There are moments of masterfulness in their recorded work, but you could say the same about prog rock, you could say the same about the longer folk-rock works, eight minute Fairport Convention pieces. You could certainly say the same about Atom Heart Mother era Pink Floyd. It's a piece of a whole, rather than a whole.”
You had to be there?
“You had to be there,” he gracefully concedes, “and maybe there in a pharmaceutically enhanced state. I won’t try to convince you that their recordings are great albums, in the sense that Beggars Banquet or Blonde On Blonde or Kind Of Blue or Five Leaves Left are. However, speaking at gunpoint, I would try to convince you there are passages of greatness, and they were a great piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the counter culture. There one of those artists who are maybe more important than they are good.”
That’s as fair an answer as The Dead warrant. In the book, Syd Barrett speaks of the loneliness of the people who step outside of sanity, that we are an empire of ‘I’s rather than one person, and it lends weight to Jasper’s condition. Without wishing to give the game away, a reader unfamiliar with Mitchell’s earlier works might be shocked at what happens when things come to a head, so to speak.
“That whole strand with Jasper is a total switch. If you haven’t read A Thousand Autumns or anything else I've written, then it is schizophrenia.”
The whole episode can be read as taking place only in Jasper’s head?
“There's no proof that the whole thing was not just his schizophrenia. Even the trip back across New York might be imagined and he's just come down from his room. I want that interpretation to be possible and plausible. Equally, if you have read A Thousand Autumns then the toggle switch is in a different position and, if you like, the fantastical is real, and he really does have this genetic and karmic inheritance which has laid dormant in his bloodline for generations. I was attracted by the genre of that strand being dependant on what you have or haven't read of my other books. The crucial thing is they both have to work. I don’t want the quality of what I write to be dependant on the reader's knowledge of the uber novel, just the interpretation.”
This idea of bringing in characters from previous novels could be there as a payoff to long-time readers, or, perhaps, Mitchell is taking a page out of Flann O’Brien, using characters who already have their backstory built in.
“I'm glad you said that,” he laughs. ”I read At Swim-Two-Birds years ago when I worked in Waterstones in the early nineties and I'd forgotten he'd said that, you make me want to go back and re-read it. In the first instance, I enjoyed it when other writers did it, so I thought I'd have a go too, then I kind of reached the Flann O'Brien stage; ‘hey, this is useful, they're bringing back story with them, a shared history with the reader’. They bring luggage, and interesting things in that luggage, so why not do it? I realised it was satisfying a contradictory urge in me to be both a minimalist who wrote individual finely wrought novels about specific worlds, times, place and people, and also a maximalist, inherited from when I was kid drooling over Isaac Asimov's Foundation books or maps of Middle Earth, thinking God, I want to do something this enormous, this colossal, this gigantic.”
No girlfriend on the scene at the time then?
“Well, Sir, that may say more about you than me! Much more recently I've become aware that what it's now doing is assembling pieces in a greater game whose nature and size and stakes I've not yet decided.”
You mean The Horologists and all the rest of them are working towards some future conclusion?
“Yes, I have a suspicion it'll be an eight-hundred page conclusion, but yes. It makes sense if the ending of Slade House which is a foray into the ghost story where a particular character, a protagonist escapes from the book at the end, thinks they are escaping into a future... so yes, the short answer is yes.”
We’re constantly told that the late Sixties was a wondrous period for music, a pinnacle of the art.
“It wasn't the pinnacle but it was a pinnacle, and it was a singular pinnacle because it was the first pinnacle. No ground is as fertile as virgin ground and for those sort of magic three years, depending on when you start measuring and draw the closing boundary, so much happened for the first time - the LP as an art form in its own right, not just a storage unit for singles or for album tracks, but for a narrative and journey. This sort of hotbed scenius, to use a Brian Eno word where he portmanteaus scene and genius, that scenius of the music scene based in London although it had tentacles elsewhere, even a little bit in Dublin as well, where everyone was sort of connected in the same matrix, the same network and everyone was upping everyone else's game. Even The Small Faces put out a really interesting album – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake - so even, in my opinion, three star bands had five star moments. That was interesting.”
I know, I know, I don’t agree with him about The Small Faces being a three star band either, but let him continue.
“World music was happening - 'See My Friends' by The Kinks or George Harrison's stuff. That idea, I trying to find a word for it, in film it's like the invisible scene where one scene ends with perhaps a character saying "never in a million years will I be seen in such and such a place!" and then the next scene opens with that character in such and such a place. Between those two scenes, there's an invisible scene on the persuasion. The same thing happens on albums the way tracks can get sequenced, a fine example of this is where 'Within You, Without You' ends and 'When I'm Sixty-Four' starts. The propinquity - to use another impressive early morning word - the next-to-ness of them, that ending and that beginning, it makes a third thing, the awareness of that happened in recorded music at the end of the sixties. It's a spirit, if you could conceive it and you were sufficiently in with a record company who just had that right level of wanting to make a buck, you could do it. As EMI said about Pink Floyd, if they can fill UFO club then maybe they can sell records as well, so let's just let them do whatever on earth they want to for a while.”
It’s a different ballgame now.
“It's pretty different for the way it was by the early seventies, it didn’t last long, but my word some glorious flowers bloomed because of it, so it's all the above that pulls me to the era. How would you have answered that question if I had asked it of you?”
While I would agree that it is a pinnacle, I prefer the seventies, the first half in particular, when giants like The Stones and The Who and Zeppelin roamed the Earth, at the peak of their powers. Does Mitchell recognise any more recent pinnacles?
“I think it might be us in our generation, I think pinnacle sparseness is a conception common amongst ageing geezers - EDM is a pinnacle, but it isn't a pinnacle that coincides with our youth when we were immortal.”
This might well be true, but the late sixties doesn't coincide with my youth, or Mitchell’s for that matter, and it's still viewed as a high-water mark.
“That's fair point, but maybe past pinnacles from before we were born are more visible as pinnacles than later pinnacles which coincide with our decline and fall!”
I ask him to give some examples of the “glorious flowers” that bloomed in the period, and, be warned, things took a seriously muso turn.
“Hot Press is a music magazine, so I'll deliberately keep it obscure, if I may. I'm going to give myself a little bit of period latitude, so it's either music from that time or within the point of elasticity. 'Grantchsester Meadows' by Pink Floyd off Ummagumma (1969), which is a mysterious and beautiful thing, and Pink Floyd's great road not taken. I'm sure they're very happy with the roads they did take and I am too, but 'Grantchester Meadows' is strange, quiet, murmured folk piece like nothing else they ever really put on record. 'Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood' recorded by Sandy Denny on the self-titled album Sandy, which is a Richard Fariña tune [actually his lyric, set to the melody of ‘My Lagan Love’] from the earlier sixties. I think the album’s from the early seventies, but it kind of spans both extremes. It's Sandy multi-tracking her own voice, with Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. What a piece of music. I'll point to that. Do you know 'Midnight Rambler' by The Stones?
Yes, I've heard it once or twice.
“It's a lesser known Stones song, I nominated Beggars Banquet for a Waterstones vinyl thing, so I've been listening to Let It Bleed as well, which is bookended by 'Gimme Shelter' and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', which are both transcendent, but 'Midnight Rambler'! The Stones' reputation for artiness some times eclipses the artistry that they achieved and it shouldn’t. That track proves that the idea that they were better bad boys than artists is simply not true.”
Keith Richards once referred to ‘Midnight Rambler’ as a blues opera.
“I hadn't heard that, but there is something operatic about it, it's got movements within it. Keith Richards’ book may not have been helpful, as you suspected, in creating Dean, but it's possibly the best book by a major icon. I think it's really good.”
I lob in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles as another one.
“It's oddball, and I'm not classifying it as a standard rock memoir, because it's not. Richards’ is written so well, so it can't be standard, it breaks the mould by continuing to be interesting, even past the band's imperial phase, which is really rare. Most of them go down hill really quickly and when you’re on to their 2005 appearance at whatever festival, you're just wanting someone to put you out of the book's misery. Richards' is interesting all the way through, on page five-hundred as well as page fifty. Dylan's is kind of an idiosyncratically curated museum of Dylan's life, where most of the museum is closed off, but these fascinating few rooms that you didn’t think would be interesting are open and that's all that you've got. New Morning, I had no idea how interesting that album is, or his fifty page description of how Daniel Lanois transformed the recording studio for Oh Mercy into a New Orleans swamp-vibe. I wouldn't have thought that would have been so interesting, he chooses the moments in his career when actually things aren't going that well. It is a sui generis book, there's nothing else like it.”
The mention of Fairport Convention reminds me of a previous interview with the author Patrick McCabe. We were discussing The Big Yaroo, the follow up to his celebrated Butcher Boy, and McCabe produced the cover of Fairport’s Unhalfbricking, which he had brought to the interview to emphasise how important the song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ was to his narrative. His assertion was that the cover captured the shocking effect that Denny’s lifestyle had on her middle-class parents. Mitchell is, unsurprisingly, familiar with the record.
“That's the one where you see the faces of the band through the lattice in Sandy Denny's Mum's back garden? There's a great analysis of the album cover by Rob Young in Electric Albion, they're one of those bands that improve with time. They were kids, really gifted kids, they didn’t know better than to not try and, over time, those experiments have been vindicated and rewarded many times over. Those three classic albums sound even better now than when they were recorded, which is mad, how could that be so? It's exactly the same sound waves but time seems to be another ingredient of music, time and perspective and what happens next in the history of music, and society as well.”
This is lovely talk, which Mitchell then threatens to derail.
“I don’t know with what kind of regard the Canadian band Rush are viewed in Hot Press?”
Go on, I whisper, with great trepidation.
“Especially after watching that Netflix documentary about the band, there's a really strong argument to say that Rush, who might have been bracketed in with Supertramp or ELO or Dire Straits as a sort of geek’s band - never having a girlfriend - are one of the top ten bands.”
“Yeah, really! Just listen to Moving Pictures, it is perfection. There's nothing to add really, just in terms of reappraisal.The Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson Fairport albums deserve a similar reappraisal, and merit some type of retrospective greatness.”
I’d certainly agree about Fairport Convention, but…
“You're being diplomatic, you wouldn’t agree with me on Rush?” Mitchell asks.
I admit that I'm not as familiar with the works of Rush as I might be, so I can neither confirm or deny his assertion.
“Very diplomatic, just try Moving Pictures, listen to the drumming, there's only three of them, but they sound like seven people. It's that sweet spot, the lyrics are close enough to poetry to really transcend the vast majority of rock lyrics, but it's not so close to poetry that it gets pompous and pretentious. It's the production and the quality of the songwriting. The guitarist plays rhythm and lead at the same time, and Lee does this vocal thing that trios tend to have to do, especially when the vocalist is also the bassist - Jack Bruce and Cream as well - they have to sing an octave over the bass otherwise they keep tripping over each other's toes, and Lee does this throughout. It’s a Mercury-level vocal performance, the whole album, I would argue. Anyway, I shall leave that with you.”
In the interests of journalistic fairness, I’m listening to ‘Tom Sawyer’ as I type this. I’ve heard worse, I suppose, but the jury are expected to be out for some time.
We’ve been at it a while now, as you can probably tell, but before I let Mitchell go, there are two things I wish to discuss. First up is the idea of writing a novel that will not be read until the 22nd century. Mitchell has done this as part of the Future Library Project, a Norwegian idea that sees popular writers contribute original work which will remain unpublished until 2114.
“It's an art project that really appealed to me, I like the vote for humanity that it represents, it's a vote for the glass is half-full party, and that's an important party to vote for. I put this manuscript in a safe, like a message in a bottle for the future, and it's predicated on the idea that there will be people, literacy, museums and civilisation ready to collect the bottle, open it up, and have a look at what's inside, so all of this made me say yes.”
Was the book easier to write, because Mitchell didn’t have to suffer the slings and arrows of critical opinion?
“Yes, it was,” he laughs in response. “I could also quote Beatles lyrics in it without having to pay £25,000 for a few lines!”
The interesting times that we live in must change the view of someone who, at least in part, imagines the future for a living?
“It makes engagement more interesting, just when you think the times can’t get more interesting, they gets more interesting,” Mitchell reckons. “It makes the stakes higher. I was doing a Q&A interview for The New Statesman in the same media round as this, and one of the questions was what period, other than the present, would you like to live in, and it really stumped me; these are not interesting times, they are astonishing times. I can't think of a more astonishing time to live in so, even If I didn’t live now, I would want to if I knew about them. The ground rules are being changed on a six-monthly basis. Everywhere you look are uncertainties and unknowns and known unknowns and known knowns. I want happy endings, or at least non-dystopian endings, and I also know that every ending is just a beginning which must be a song.”
It must be. Mitchell continues.
“Assumptions that have been with us all of our lives have suddenly been turned to sand. American democracy been one of them, I didn't realise how much I would miss that, and I want it back. And, also for the glass half-full party, what were naive pipe dreams no longer look like that, but are possible solutions, and, in some cases, the only plausible solutions. Something like massive income distribution when Corbyn was proposing it as recently as last December was some wacko nut job Marxist nonsense, and now something very similar to that is being parachuted in by a Conservative chancellor, and if this is true for that then it could be true for environmental matters as well. Despair is where hope germinates!”
The 2012 movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas was directed by the Wachowskis, in collaboration with Tom Tykwer. Mitchell chipped in a bit of scribbling to the Wachowskis’ Netflix show Sense8, and is currently working with Lana Wachowski and Aleksandar Hemon on the eagerly awaited fourth instalment in The Matrix movie series. I offer him the opportunity to reveal the plot.
“I can't!” he screams. “They have scary lawyers who will take my children!”
Not the answer I was hoping for, but, alas, it is the one I expected. I ask instead about the differences between writing for the screen and the page.
“Well, I'm not doing it on my own, which is the first big difference, I am collaborating with friends, with whom I have a chemistry, so it contains that joy that working on my own does not have. Once you start interacting with the studio, the joy goes quite quickly, but at least in the writing room - the pit - with Lana and Aleksandar, it is very nourishing. Screenwriting itself is so expensive compared to a novel, every line has to work on multiple fronts in the same way that master cellists can play two or even three strings with one draw of the bow. Lines in screenplays have to not just describe what’s happening, they also have to develop the character or add mood or contribute to an idea or align with something else in the script or be a fore-flash or a backflash or gleam in a particular way or be beautiful or be sad, they need to do multiple things.”
“Novels can be big and baggy,” he goes on. “It doesn’t matter if you overwrite passages, and sometimes overwriting can be a virtue. Bonfire of The Vanities is a great novel in part because it's overwritten. You can't do that on the screen, in script land it is simply a vice and it's got to be cut back. I've had to learn that. Lana would ask me to write a particular scene that needed to be no longer that two pages, and I would turn in eight, which she then had to edit down in to two. I had to learn how to turn my eight pages into six then to four and now I'm down to about three pages for a two-page scene so this is part of the discipline too. It's all haiku like, screen writers have acute clarity. I've seen the mechanics of plot and character development and it’s been really interesting to try and learn that.”
The irony of Mitchell saying this is not lost on me, considering the length of this interview. I try to eke out more plot information by asking if the process corresponds in any way to his own work, in that characters we already know are reappearing, or are they?
“You are fishing!” he, quite rightly, accuses. “It's in the public realm that there are characters from The Matrix trilogy in Part Four, otherwise it would not be a Matrix film. The difference is they're not my toys, they are Lanas' creations, it's the Wachowski universe in which I'm operating.”
Is this restrictive?
“I don’t feel restricted. There are some new characters as well, the world has been expanded in Four, and the passage of time between then and now is brought to bear on the world, it's reflected in the world. It would be odd if it wasn’t, it would be a period piece, and why bother writing a period piece, especially with such a future-centric narrative? I'm very excited to see how it turns out.”
I thank David for being incredibly generous with his time, and he graciously thanks me for turning him on to Hot Press, and reflects on what’s gone before.
“That idea about pinnacles really stimulated me. I want to be the kind of older geezer who stays alert, and can at least enjoy pinnacles.”
That’s not an easy thing to do.
“It is hard. but I think a key part of staying clear-sighted about pinnacles is staying connected with the universe, and by that I mean staying connected to what people younger than you are up to, and try and see through their eyes. That’s my final thought.”
Utopia Avenue is out now. Click here for the Hot Press review.