Edinburgh International Book Festival review: David Mitchell with Sam Amidon

Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Number9Dream, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green takes part in online event to discuss latest novel, Utopia Avenue

Author David Mitchell.
Author David Mitchell.

There were times during this online event, David Mitchell admitted, when he had forgotten we were there – we, his audience of several hundred – and he felt he was just having a chat on Zoom with his friend, singer-songwriter Sam Amidon. And, like many events at this virtual Edinburgh Book Festival, this did feel like being allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation between friends, a fascinating two-way interview.

Mitchell spoke about the sheer difficulty of writing about music, the subject of in his latest novel, Utopia Avenue, adding that the aphorism “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is so ubiquitous – and so true – that it has its own Wikipedia page.

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After flirting briefly with comedy as an approach to his subject (“The shadow of Spinal Tap falls a long way”), he decided to make the fictional band in his novel as real as possible. So Jasper, Elf, Dean and Griff cross paths with real-life figures from the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen. He even wrote lyrics for their songs and some readers have clearly tried to find their tracks online.

It was entirely appropriate, then, to have live music as part of the event and, in a stroke of meta genius, Amidon premiered the music he wrote for one of Mitchell’s lyrics, Mona Lisa Sings the Blues. And we (or I, at least) learned a new word, “scenius”, coined by Brian Eno to explain the context which genius needs to grow, specifically the powerhouse of politics, fashion and subculture of 1960s London. Writing about it was, Mitchell said, “an open goal which I couldn’t resist”.

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