David Mitchell’s local supermarket makes a memorable cameo appearance in his 2014 novel The Bone Clocks, in which the Sheep’s Head peninsula in Co Cork has become a Chinese-held outpost in a post-apocalyptic society ravaged by ecological catastrophe and ‘Ratflu’. Did Mitchell ever envisage that six years later, he would be standing in the same establishment, stocking up on supplies ahead of a pandemic lockdown?
Mitchell chuckles when I mention the (frankly terrifying) section in The Bone Clocks and its reference to the (fictional) bygone days of the famed Scally’s Supervalu in Clonakilty, before oil has run out and food is in short supply.
“The week the lockdown was announced, it was in the air that it would be happening. I was doing a bit of shopping at Supervalu and a friend shouted over, ‘This is just like your book…’ I just said, ‘I’m sorry, next time I’ll write something with a happier ending’.”
He may have spent a lot of time navigating the darker recesses of his imagination but Mitchell is a funny, modest and engaging interviewee. The British writer moved to Ardfield, near Clonakilty, with his Japanese wife Keiko Yoshida almost 20 years ago, and they have a son and daughter. He is very conscious of the benefits of countryside living during a lockdown.
“Lockdown in our corner of the country was relatively sane. It probably didn’t have as noticeable or dramatic effect as it would if we had been living in the city. It is almost impolite to other people to complain too much,” he says.
Mitchell came on holidays to west Cork in the late 1990s, and its beauty made an indelible impact.
“I went to Cape Clear, I was just about young enough to still be a backpacker…the beauty of that place stayed with me. A few years later, we were hoping to find somewhere a little bit cheaper to live than the south coast of England. I came to Ireland town-hunting rather than house-hunting. I got the boat over to Wexford and drove along the south coast, stopping at all the towns and giving it a kind of ‘pipe dream’ test, could I see myself living there'.
That is my ‘falling in love with Clonakilty’ story,” he laughs.
Mitchell has become known as a master of the multi-layered narrative, crafting an intricate and mind-bending meta-verse throughout his books, from his 1999 debut Ghostwritten, through to the acclaimed Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.
His latest book, Utopia Avenue, follows a more traditional narrative, chronicling the rise and fall of a rag-tag group of musicians who form a band in late ’60s Britain. Mitchell has expertly captured the sights and sounds of the era, and the book features a host of cameos from musicians including Janis Joplin and David Bowie. Given his love of music in all its forms, it is the novel he has been waiting to write, he says.
“It wasn’t so much a case of doing a whole tranche of research for this book as much as legitimising activities I was already doing so I could call them research,” he says.
“I’ve been spending more time than I’m being honest about going down YouTube rabbit-holes, hunting out clips of Brian Jones doing an interview in 1965 or David Bowie speaking to Jeremy Paxman in 1999. I’ve always been interested in our relationship with music.
"I did a virtual event with [singer] David Byrne last night, him in New York and me here. I asked him a near-impossible question to answer: ‘what is music for?’ He said it’s a connector.
"And that is what music is for — it connects us, either within ourselves, the different parts of our mind, body and psyche, or with other people.” Of course, being David Mitchell, he is also fascinated by the relationship between music and time, something on which he has been reflecting on recently.
“I’ve started going back to my piano teacher after lockdown, and I’m working on a piece by Bach. When I sat down to play it, I thought of all the other people who have also played it in the 350 years or whatever since it was composed… I felt a strange atemporal connection.
Mitchell has compiled a Spotify playlist to accompany Utopia Avenue, a process which he has clearly enjoyed. He isn’t at all offended when I suggest that the level of musical detail in the book will be particularly enjoyed by a certain type of music fan, or rather, anorak.
“I would call myself that with pride. Among other things, I hope the book is a safe space for music anoraks to be their true selves,” he says.
However, wherever musical fusion or prog rock goes, there is always the shadow of parody, particularly a seminal musical work which comes up via a tangential discussion about early Genesis.
“Spinal Tap [spoof musical documentary] certainly haunts any narrative about music…it is always in the room. I had to jettison an earlier draft because it was too close, too spoofy,” he says.
“The phrase ‘to turn something all the way up to 11’ has entered the lexicon, everybody knows what you mean. In some ways, I made the final draft work by running as far as I could in a completely different direction from Spinal Tap….I’ve got a drummer who doesn’t die in a bizarre gardening accident,” he laughs.
For the moment, Mitchell has been working away in his writing hut in his garden.
“I am working on a couple of screen-related projects that I have been intending to work on with a couple of friends for quite a few years but it never happened because we were never all free at the same time.”
While acknowledging the difficulties faced by the arts because of the coronavirus, Mitchell is optimistic about creative opportunities.
“I think the next couple of years will be a bit of an artistic Golden Age. On the one hand, film, theatre and more expensive art forms are in for a rough ride for a while, but I think for art that people are able to do at home or via Zoom, it is a fertile time.”
While a significant number of people head down his direction on holidays, this summer Mitchell is hoping to explore more of the country he calls home.
“With much of the rest of the country on holiday here, the beaches get a bit busy, which, of course, by British or Japanese standards is not busy at all. It would be nice to get away in August, I’ve never properly been to Dingle, and maybe we will explore some places along the Wild Atlantic Way. Inland can be beautiful as well, Kilkenny, is such a beautiful town…”
And with that, Mitchell is journeying through a mental atlas of Ireland, as he goes on to sing the praises of Waterford and Wexford — and thankfully, it all feels a world away from post-apocalyptic visions.