Thinking Polyphonically: A Conversation with David Mitchell

By Mitch R. MurraySeptember 11, 2020

Thinking Polyphonically: A Conversation with David Mitchell
AFTER ABOUT HALF A MILLENNIUM, what does the novel still do for us? David Mitchell has some answers. His novels, each a stand-alone narrative, accrete into an ongoing meta-project he calls an Über-novel. Mitchell’s novels offer us micro- and macro- at once, bounded reality and expansive universe. For Mitchell, no subject or genre seems out of bounds: a historical novel of a Dutch trading post in 19th-century Japan or of the 1960s’ psychedelic rock scene, a narrative of a young poet, a Matryoshka construction of distant pasts and futures, or his own Middle-earth-sized fantasy. 

Especially as our world increasingly re-compartmentalizes, the novel can offer an antidote to the often narrow, and narrowing, narratives on which we lean to make sense of our individual realities, beliefs, politics, and values. Perhaps this is why Mitchell’s Über-novel is such a timely project: the novel’s expansiveness invites us to see our likenesses among others, our standpoints in relation to society, and the fact that these things are historical, not static. The novel relates: it lets us go places other genres of prose and other modes of thought do not. The novel is, quite literally, this thought process in motion, in narrative form. If the novel has a superpower, Mitchell says, it’s the power of “polyphony.” 

Shortly after the publication of Utopia Avenue, I spoke with Mitchell about his Über-novel, the status of the novel, music, genre, television, and the possibility of the pursuit of Utopia.


MITCH R. MURRAY: I’m intrigued by your whole accumulative “Über-book” project, as you’ve called it before, the increasing interconnections and links among your novels both to date and to come. Can you pinpoint when that project came into being? Was it a gradual realization of what you were doing, or were you always meaning to make this interwoven, proliferating narrative? What does such maximal writing offer to you, as a novelist, that self-contained narratives maybe can’t?

DAVID MITCHELL: The Über-novel has grown from a series of accidental discoveries. After my first book, Ghostwritten, I just thought it would be neat to put one or two things from that into number9dream. I borrowed the idea from Haruki Murakami who has a few recurring characters and names, and also from The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch. I remember little about the latter, except that characters we’ve known intimately from one section walk in as brusque semi-strangers in other parts of the narrative. This aspect of the novel interested me. In Ghostwritten, I applied the same principle to plot: you get little flashes, flickers, or hyperlinks. Something happens in every chapter in Ghostwritten that sets off a line of dominos that enable, or become, the next chapter or a later chapter. Ghostwritten is an early miniature model of the whole of the Über-novel in that sense.

Later, in Black Swan Green, I brought back Madame Crommelynck from the “Letters from Zedelghem” sections of Cloud Atlas. She serves as an artistic mentor to Jason Taylor, and in return, in his fumbling way, he enables her to resolve feelings of guilt about Robert Frobisher’s suicide five decades earlier. In a way, Black Swan Green resolves this 50-year-old, dangling plot line. That’s when I first realized that by having characters cross between my novels, they bring their emotional baggage with them — baggage that a brand-new character couldn’t bring unless you write them a backstory.

The danger was, and is, clear: what if someone hadn’t read Cloud Atlas? Narrative coherence of Book B cannot be contingent upon having read Book A. That’s the rule. As it happens, I have no wish to devote my creative years to writing instalments of a single mammoth work the size of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, thousands and thousands of pages where you have to read them all. I’d feel trapped. However, if you have encountered “returnees” from previous novels, their words and actions will be weighted a little differently to the experience of meeting them for the first time, and so the time you spend with them will feel a little different.

Reason Three emerged for me as I wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I had had this idea for an involuntary immortal, Marinus. He, or she, is a human like the rest of us, with no obvious superpowers, but who wakes in the body of a child — a new host — 49 days after dying. Recurrently, from the fifth century to the present day. Somewhere in my notebooks is a list of all Marinus’s lives, from his origin in San Marino to the latest iteration in The Bone Clocks. Even before I began Thousand Autumns, I knew I wanted Marinus in there as a major character. That resolve was the first instance of my planning the Über-novel “forward,” rather than crafting it retroactively.

After all these iterations, does the Über-novel create new kinds of constraints for you? You’ve spoken of Cloud Atlas before, saying that you just decided to write the book you wanted to write. Do you still get to do that, write the books you want to write? Or does the Über-novel now make too many demands on you to fit new novels around the reincarnation or — in the case of non-immortals — reinstantiation of earlier characters?

The opposite. I feel unconstrained. If I wanted to write a novel with no reference to the Über-novel whatsoever, there’s nothing stopping me. As it happens, however, I enjoy bringing my characters back from the cryogenic chamber, so that’s what I do.

Far from constraining me — and I’m up to Reason Four here — the Über-novel frees me from having to choose between maximalism and minimalism. I was having a drink with my Canadian editor in Toronto after The Bone Clocks, and she said, “I know what you’re doing, you’re making your own Middle-earth. Aren’t you?” I began to deny it, but then realized she was right. I was one of those kids who drooled over a map of Middle-earth. I had a big poster version on my wall. Or the maps at the beginning of the Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin. Or just the scale of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov.

I have a Middle-earth map on my wall too.

Did you find the places around the edge of the map tweaked your imagination more than the places the novels describe? Above the Blue Mountains and Grey Havens, or over by the Sea of Rhûn? The edges of the maps enthralled me. That’s still true now.

Anyway, the point is: I felt an urgent excitement at the idea of creating a world that enormous — a feeling that never quite went away (despite my not wanting to do a Dance to the Music of Time). However, as I matured, I also wanted to write self-contained narratives about milieus with boundaries, like a small Dutch trading post in Nagasaki Bay in 1800. The Über-novel lets me fulfill both aspirations simultaneously.

Last up is Reason Five: the Über-novel is adding up to something. Characters keep escaping from my novels with radically altered trajectories just beginning: there’s Hugo Lamb for example, who’s 50 but has the body of a 25-year-old because of a Faustian pact he makes in The Bone Clocks. Or Nora Grayer at the end of Slade House, who takes up residence in the body of a fetus to extract revenge on Marinus for — from Nora’s viewpoint — murdering her brother. Unresolved characters with unfinished business like these feel to me like pieces in a game whose rules, nature, sides, and prize I have not yet ascertained. They are setting up a war novel to be set on the timeline of The Bone Clocks. Maybe my next big book, or maybe the one after.

Talking about the edges of the map, the ways Marinus and your other immortal characters, the Horologists, enable your novels to chart time and space, I also wonder about the importance of genre fictions in your writing. Many of these — from proto-novelistic romances to today’s fantasy and science fiction — solicit narrative expansiveness, world-building beyond what’s been charted. Such genre elements that cut through your work enable a vaster reality that overarches the otherwise bounded milieus of your characters and narratives. You mentioned not being constrained by the Über-novel, and it seems to me that several other great authors are adopting a similar attitude precisely by writing genre tales. For example, among my favorites now is N. K. Jemisin, whose work seems to say, the hell with whatever is dominant or normal right now in so-called literary fiction. Marlon James started an epic fantasy series after he won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings. And in an interview, he said something very similar to what you said about Cloud Atlas, about wanting to write the book he wanted to read rather than the book he thought he should write. It seems, through genre fiction, these authors have tapped into a version of what you describe. They write in these generic registers that give them as much pleasure as they do narrative latitude. How would you say genre serves as an inspiration to your work?

Which came first, the dragon or the genre? (Clue: The answer has wings and breathes fire.) In the recent literary past, if a book had a dragon in it, it would automatically be called fantasy, and many “serious” readers wouldn’t touch it because it belongs in the fantasy section, where the un-serious books and readers are corralled. The semiotics of the cover design and the font would say, “This book is for adolescents who never got past Tolkien in their literary development.”

How reductive. To think this way is to allow preconceived notions about the quality of fiction contained in any given “genre box” to deprive you of encountering some great — truly great — work.

Of all the things a narrative is made of, genre is the oddest. Fiction is not not “made of” its genre. I can’t say, “There’s no SF in The Left Hand of Darkness.” Yet, unlike theme, structure, character, plot, or style, the genre isn’t a “thing” that Ursula K. Le Guin put into the story herself. She made decisions about plot and setting that steered her narrative into SF, for sure: but the genre wasn’t a thing she added. Genre is a taxonomical attribute, imposed (that’s the right verb) from without: publishers, booksellers, readers, and sure, maybe the author too. Yet to the narrative itself, the fact of it being SF is — or should be — no more relevant than the zoological designation “amphibian” is relevant to an ocean-going turtle. Genre shouldn’t be a factor that determines whether or not you read “a certain type” of book. Yet, it often is. To readers’ detriments. I fear — actually I know — that readers will see the artwork on the jacket of The Left Hand of Darkness and think, “Um, not for me” and put it down without ever realizing they’ve just passed by the most eloquent and ahead-of-its-time exploration of gender fluidity in the Republic of Letters — just because of the letters “SF” on the spine or a picture of an alien sky.

Nineteen Eighty-Four. Brave New World. Poe. Gulliver’s Travels. Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Calvino. Borges. García Márquez. Rushdie. Atwood. Cormac McCarthy’s The RoadThe Plot Against America. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Rasselas. We can go pre-novel and point to much of Shakespeare, much of Chaucer. Beowulf. The (fantastical) Icelandic sagas. Hopefully I’ve made my point: what we now call “genre fiction” has been with us forever, and to consider genre fiction inherently juvenile and non-genre fiction inherently superior is to dismiss swathes of great writing. Sure, much genre fiction is trope-y and clichéd: but as Theodore Sturgeon said (wearily) decades ago when it was his turn to defend all SF against the blanket charge of meritlessness, “Ninety per cent of everything is crap.”

Don’t think, “What genre is this?” Rather, think, “Is this any good or not?”

Bookshops and libraries are big places, and genre is a handy sort of map. But it’s only a map. Let’s not mistake the map for the reality it depicts. Let’s remember that the mainstream realist literary novel is a relative Johnny-Come-Lately; that novels themselves were not a very respectable art form until the 1860s or so; and that loyalty to realist mimesis is no valid reason for a superiority complex. If you want to ridicule a genre narrative purely because it has a ghost, a dragon, a Scandinavian detective, a witch, an alien, or an immortal, then you’re painting yourself into a parochial corner. Go ahead, but it’s your loss.

I’m in total agreement with you. Even realist mimesis is exactly as fictional as a dragon or an involuntary immortal. Now, one of the things that hooked me on your books when I first started reading them was that they had coexisting genre elements throughout, not that they were self-identifying as this or that thing. When you described Ghostwritten as a kind of miniature of the Über-novel, I was thinking the same of Slade House. Each section has its own genre element, but they also have their own bounded milieus and point of view. That book encapsulates, for me, again in miniature, how these genre elements all work within the totality of the Über-novel while never determining it.

Sure, Slade House is my most “committed” genre novel — the genre here being the ghost story. And, as genres have subgenres, Slade House is a five-movement symphony, each corresponding to five ghost story subgenres.

I really like that description. Because in music composition, each movement is of a different order, but they are all part of the whole. Someone might describe a genre story as simply repetitive or conventional: if you’ve read one, then you’ve read them all. But with Slade House, that is very much not the case. It has this overarching model — the ghost story — but each movement, each section of the book, is totally different.

Thanks. I did my best. Maybe that’s a part of the deal of writing in genre. You agree to put on a particular straitjacket then come up with your own escapology tricks to get out of it. Utopia Avenue is a rock-’n’-roll novel, and in that genre there tends to be a single archetypal plot: a band begins in obscurity; they climb the wobbly ladder of stardom; encounter sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll along the way; the double-edged sword of fame and success; and “leave” the ladder at the end. But to sign up to this deal is not — or shouldn’t be — to condemn your novel to life in Cliché Prison. Clichés can be the wellspring of originality. Originality hides inside cliché. Clichés can be inverted, imploded, disassembled in new ways. You can use cliché to wrong-foot the reader, to allow the reader to think, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve read this a hundred times before, I know what’s going to happen next … Yawn…” — and then pull out the rug and send that sucker flying. I love it when a writer does that to me. I try to emulate that effect.

The band Utopia Avenue, then, isn’t a band of brothers who met at school or formed at art college: it’s a hand-curated quartet of disparate individuals (musically, socially) assembled by a manager who doesn’t fleece them. They’d never form organically: it takes an ambitious manager who sees the band as his art medium. The band dabbles in drugs — it would be implausible if they didn’t — but nobody ODs. The band is not four guys against the world: it’s three guys and one woman against the world. The reasons they want to succeed vary, and so do their struggles. The band is more harmonious than dysfunctional. Groupies are around, but nobody is comedically promiscuous. Nobody bites off doves’ heads on stage. Nobody smashes a guitar. Success is not the angel of destruction. Most of the characters’ estrangements from “normal life” and family occurred before the band’s ascent, not during.

Art is the alchemy that turns the cliché of lead into gold. Genre is a reliable supplier of lead. No lead, no gold.

Utopia Avenue is a novel about making art. This factor is present throughout all your novels — with Jason, or Frobisher, or Crispin Hershey in The Bone Clocks — but here artistry and art making are most explicit.

Yes, that’s true.

There are even these mini-artist manifestos. At one moment, Utopia Avenue’s guitarist, Jasper de Zoet, says, “The artist rejects the dominant version of the world. The artist proposes a new version.” And Dean Moss, the bassist, adds, “The best music is a kind o’ thinking. Or a kind of rethinking.” This very concisely captures the way you’ve just described cliché and genre. From within those constraints and predeterminations, you find ways to rework what the reader comes to expect from a certain type of novel. Now, this passage in Utopia Avenue really made me pause: the best music is a kind of thinking. What kind of thinking is music? And let me do a simple substitution here: “The best novels are a kind of thinking.” I’d say the statement still holds. What kind of thinking does the novel do? What does reading or writing a novel help us to think that other types of knowledge or thinking can’t?

That’s a cool idea I haven’t thought about before. My answer may be a bit woolly. I’d like to start inside my novel, with Dean, because Dean is from a background where men don’t discuss art, abstract ideas, or emotions. Dean values the band because it gives him what we might now call a “safe space” to articulate things that he can’t say, or is forbidden to say, in other zones of his life. He’s a bit like Jason in Black Swan Green at Madame Crommelynck’s house. Dean doesn’t even need to present fully formed ideas. He can voice ideas that are true enough to be worth saying, knowing that they won’t get picked to pieces if they’re not entirely battle-ready. 

Perhaps music can be thought of as a kind of thinking where emotions get expressed, wordlessly. Is that not one reason music works; and one thing music if “for”? Words are pretty good at emotions, but however ingeniously deployed, they remain symbols of emotions, or “translations” of emotions into spoken or written language. Music is the native tongue of emotion. Music specializes in the periodic table of the human heart. This periodic table has elements that there aren’t really names for, where prose can’t really go. Maybe narrative can get there, but compared to a narrative of many pages, a musical phrase, or even a whole song, is laser-guided. I warned you this would be woolly, but as an example of what I mean, play The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams, then try writing a piece of prose that defines, encapsulates, and glows with the emotions that the music defines, encapsulates, and glows with.

So then, might novelistic narrative think in ways other forms of prose or narrative cannot?

Got lost down a different rabbit hole for a while there, sorry. A novel thinks things ordinary prose can’t differently. Its superpower is polyphony, with neat sidelines in nuance, complexity, and simultaneity. Us Homo sapiens are individuals stuck from birth in one head. If we are “typically neurotypical,” we impose order onto chaos by reduction. We yearn for a simple, “defensible” position about complex issues. Climate change: liberal hoax, or planet-wrecking reality? Trump: American messiah, or treasonous fucking liar? Drug prohibition: common sense, or a 50-year-old gift to drug cartels? People — we — are averse to accepting that different standpoints can contain germs of truth. We seem driven to identify the One True Position. Sometimes one viewpoint is truer than its competitors. Often it isn’t. There are advantages to reduction. It lets us vote. It allows a meeting to end with a spreadsheet of actionable takes. But losses are also incurred by our quest for a fixed position. We kiss goodbye to much of the naturally occurring plurality of the world. We tear up our license to change our mind about a shifting reality. In politics, adapting to emergent realities is called “flip-flopping” by opponents who use it as a weapon to hit you. (This popular notion that a politician who changes their minds on anything in the course of a long career is deranged: I only respect politicians who change their minds and am scared of those who don’t or won’t.)

Fiction gifts its reader a break from reduction. Moby-Dick is both a great white whale and a symbol. Huckleberry Finn is both a great novel and a novel marred by lazy racism. Jaime Lannister is both a cruel sadist who deserves to lose his sword arm and a victim who didn’t deserve to lose his sword arm. My point is, fiction allows opposite truths to coexist at once; or for several to be, at least, partly true. This sounds like reality to me. And to my mind, at least, it can be called a type of thinking.

So can a related quality of fiction: its gift of allowing you to exit your life and circumstances, and temporarily take up residence in another’s. When I was 12, growing up in Worcestershire, I met exactly zero black people. Not a one. The only black people on TV were the rather dim, excitable extras in loincloths on Tarzan films. I knew more about Bilbo Baggins — literally — than I knew about the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Then I read Native Son by Richard Wright, thanks to an English teacher — and for a while, I saw the world from Bigger Thomas’s point of view, and felt the bruises of racial inequity on his skin, because the novel clothed me in his skin. Of course, I know it’s only a novel; of course, what a middle-class white English kid “experienced” as I read the novel was a tiny fraction of the suffering and indignities “real life” Bigger Thomases felt, and feel; but when one’s ignorance is total, even a tiny fraction represents a quantum increase. Surely this is — to use your phrase — “a kind of thinking”?

A novel can be a moving train of thought. A novel can be one’s own private Enlightenment. A novel can help one become a kinder, wiser citizen of the world — never mind that the phrase is newly unfashionable in our wall-building times. But to quote the English songwriter Nick Lowe, What’s so funny ’bout peace love and understanding? Try building a society without any and let me know if you still want to live there.

I don’t think that answer is woolly at all. Certainly, your novels are structurally polyphonic. They demand that you think plurality, that you hold contradictory positions within a single thought. They demand a reeducation of yourself that most other forms of writing and thinking don’t. As introspective and passive as reading a novel can seem to be, I think it has a centrifugal force that pushes you to proliferate meanings beyond your standpoint and to try to inhabit them all at once. And utopia has always been a presence — or, since utopia is no place — a structuring absence in your novels. What does the term or idea of utopia mean for you and your work?

In one sense, the answer is simple: Utopia is a direction you head in if you value a society built on, and of, equality, sustainability, and justice. Utopia is a flame you glimpse. You glimpse it and move toward it. To head toward it is to improve the world — but not perfect it, never that. Perfection is the preserve of autocrats and it never ends well. By heading for (what I’m rather poetically calling) the Utopian flame, societies slowly, grudgingly abolished overt slavery; enfranchised women; taxed the powerful as well as the poor; created national health services so the non-rich can also survive disease; passed a thousand enlightened laws and struck down a thousand unjust ones which, collectively, make the 21st century the one I’d rather live in than any other in history.

The Utopian flame flickers. We lose sight of it. We backslide. This is happening right now. The benefits are not evenly distributed. People disagree over whether any given cause is Utopian or the work of the devil/socialists/dangerous radicals. (Hint: If you’re ramming peaceful demonstrators with your car, your cause isn’t Utopian.) Our 21st century won’t feel very Utopian if you’re a Uyghur slave in a Chinese gulag; or the North Korean subject of a vampiric dynasty; or sleeping in a doorway; or X, Y or Z, ad infinitum. The Utopian flame gets snuffed out, all the time. But I stand by my conviction that every improvement to the human condition originated in these glimpses of Utopia. Religious tolerance, anti-imperialism, racial equality, environmentalism, feminism, civil rights, democracy, a free media, the notion that Might Is Not Inherently Right — all these were once instances of whack-job Utopian idealism. God knows, the struggle to implement these causes fully and fairly is never won: but at least the struggle exists. At least the Utopian side gets the upper hand for long enough to nudge civilization in the right direction for a little while. Down the centuries, it adds up.

What’s all this to do with my fiction? Both not a lot, and everything, depending on how you look at it. Another trick of the novel is to dream of how things could be; to depict them; to explore the logistics, the flaws, the parabolas. Novels can be thought experiments. As is a Utopia — which is, of course, the name of Thomas More’s proto-novel. More’s Utopia, ironically, looks pretty fascistic by modern standards. It was even written in Latin to keep the plebs away — a neat reminder that a phrase, label, brand, or slogan is not necessarily the thing it purports to be, and that Utopia is in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I’ve spent longer writing about dystopias than Utopias — dystopias are conducive to drama — though I hope there’s a Utopian aspiration in the way my fiction works and dreams.

I think if there is a master plot to all your fiction, it’s the story of that very struggle toward utopia. I think about this moment in the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Cloud Atlas, in the post-apocalyptic future. There’s a ruin with a statue of Sonmi-451, and you realize that Sonmi’s revolution happened, maybe even fanned the flames of future revolutions that were successful. It was significant enough that she was enshrined, commemorated, and made a historical figure. But then there was the backslide, whatever brought on the apocalypse, and her image was co-opted by anti-utopian powers. But even with the backslide, we’re reminded of that continual grind toward utopia. So, in your fiction — what, for me, really drives the Über-novel — is this singular and deeply moral commitment to utopia. But again, it’s polyphonic, full of minor successes, absolute failures, historical hindsight and foresight. Utopia, here, is never moralizing. It doesn’t say, “This is the side that needs to win and how.” It’s not programmatic, I should say. It’s more like the Über-novel thematizes the unending struggle itself, how utopia might become, how it might exist, even fleetingly, how it might be kept alive, and how it might regress or collapse in reactionary or apocalyptic disaster. But at least, over and over throughout history, people tried to create a fairer and more just world.

I can only agree. “To moralize” is a pejorative verb, but even if it were neutral, I couldn’t apply it to myself because I don’t think I’m sufficiently decisive about morally complex matters. I’m too easily swayed by rhetoric and confirmation bias. I guess that’s why I’m a novelist, not a polemicist. The novel, as we’ve discussed, is roomy enough to hold both thesis and antithesis. What do you do with a circular firing squad of contrasting opinions, all of which have merits and flaws? One answer is, “Put them in a novel.” They can coexist there. Perhaps that’s one reason for the form’s longevity. They’re very us.

Other narrative forms can do nuance and ambiguity too. There are times when you root for Walter White and times when you think, No, you’re a monster, you need to be stopped — sometimes within the same minute. When this happens, however, I can’t help but apply the adjective “novelistic” — which, being a novelist, is a compliment.

Are you much of a TV watcher? In fact, Utopia Avenue has these uncanny parallels to FX’s Legion, an X-Men adaptation about Professor X’s god-powered mutant son who’s diagnosed with schizophrenia. But in fact, he has a mutant living as a parasite in his brain. The series is also indebted to psychedelic rock and has a Syd character, referring, like your Jasper, to Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. It’s a superhero story but not in the kind of moralizing, good-versus-bad way. Instead, it’s novelistic in the way you describe. There’s no villain/hero dichotomy because, well, who’s ever the villain in their own story?

I don’t know Legion, but after hearing that, I’m adding it to the queue. I like your question, “Who’s ever the villain in their own story?” Nobody — except maybe Iago in Othello who sees villainy as an art form and himself as a virtuoso. And yet, the narratives that are wholly incurious about how the antagonist-in-chief considers him/herself form a hefty majority, surely. I guess there’s a market for them, but I can’t get excited enough about them to write one. Two-dimensionality, and people congenitally incapable of introspection, are exhausting.

You’ve written scripts with the Wachowskis for the Netflix series Sense8. How has screenwriting transferred into your novel writing? How do the two mediums play off each other?

The novel evolves because the world evolves, and because novelists experience other kinds of narrative. One of the reasons the 2020 novel differs to the 1920 novel, say, is the invention of film, TV, and long-form small screen drama, which 10 years ago I could have called the box set; now streamed show will have to do. The finest do things with narrative I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a novel do; or they do differently. I enjoy these techniques. I wish to emulate them, if I can. One example is the invention with which Better Call Saul uses time: the backflashes and future-flashes. My admiration here is one reason Utopia Avenue is pretty backflash heavy.

Novelists don’t get too old to write, but we can deplete ourselves if we don’t find ways to keep topping up the “compost heap” of experiences. One reason I was interested in writing for the screen was to benefit from a kind of professional development; to learn new things about storytelling which I could apply to my novels. One example is a concision through visual storytelling. The first scenes I wrote for Lana Wachowski were overlong by a factor of four to one. Now I’m down to two to one. Happy days. Another example is scene cutting. Screen drama — whose true smithy is not the film set but the editing suite — often starts and ends a scene in a difference to where a novel would start and end it. Similarly, screen drama has a keener eye on scene juxtapositions. There’s the allusive cut, like the famous spinning bone/space station from Kubrick’s 2001. There’s the expositional cut (I’m making these terms up by the way) where a canny choice of where scene A ends and scene C begins can eliminate the need for scene B in a satisfying way. End scene A with a petty crook eyeing up a Porsche covetously; open scene C with the crook driving the Porsche along a highway, and we don’t need scene B, where the theft occurs. Screen drama does this all the time. Novels less so, but thanks to my sabbaticals in writers’ rooms, time in Utopia Avenue is a boomeranging thing.

Speaking of other mediums, I was compelled through Utopia Avenue by the cameos of rock stars and other musicians I admire, like Nina Simone or Leonard Cohen. As I was reading, I thought, I’m not just reading a novel by David Mitchell. I’m also being invited to reconstruct this musical milieu, so I began make a “Utopia Avenue” playlist on Spotify to listen to as I read. There’s an artistic generosity about the novel. It asks you to look further, again to go beyond the map, to “read” this whole other cultural library beyond its pages. It invites you to make a kind of augmented reality experience.

I’m glad you think so. I don’t regard myself as having an exceptional level of cultural expertise — simply, the world is full of art and its consumers; and what’s in the world is in my writing. The first Utopia Avenue playlist happened because Spotify made it easy to compile it; and second and third because Twitter made it easy to source late ’60s semi-forgotten music.

Are you able to talk a little bit about your next novel or work?

Two words which contain multitudes: “short” and “stories.”

Author photo by Stuart Hall.


Mitch R. Murray is a Canadian teacher and scholar living in Florida, where he is also a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida.

LARB Contributor

Mitch R. Murray is a Canadian teacher and scholar living in Florida, where he is also a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida. His scholarship appears in ASAP/Journal and Public Books, among other venues. His co-edited book, William Gibson and the Futures of Contemporary Culture, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press.


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