Illustration by Joe CiardielloCraving Ethiopian, the novelist Michael Chabon—plaid shirt and jeans, man purse made from upcycled inner tubes, signature locks cropped to where he might pass for some mere literary mortal and not the author of a half-dozen bestsellers—strolls up a sidewalk not far from the Oakland-Berkeley border, where he lives with his wife, author Ayelet Waldman, and their four kids. This scruffy stretch is the setting of Chabon's new book, Telegraph Avenue, a Tarantinoesque romp following the struggles of two families, one black, one white, as a megastore threatens the husbands' vintage-vinyl shop, Brokeland Records, and a clash with an arrogant doctor lands the wives' midwifery practice in jeopardy.
Chabon was only 24 when he published his first hit novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, followed some years later by a second best-seller, Wonder Boys, which was later made into a movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. Over the next 15 years or so, Chabon cemented his rep as a genre-busting—mystery, sci-fi, young adult, comics—master of language and crafter of metaphor, winning a Pulitzer prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and creating an alternate Jewish homeland in Alaska for his fabulously unique novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. His swashbuckling Gentlemen of the Road (working title: Jews With Swords) is set in 10th-century Khazaria while Summerland, intended for younger readers, sends us leaping among baseball-obsessed parallel worlds under threat from a dark character called Coyote. Back in Oakland, between mouthfuls of doro wat, the author tells me of his presumed kinship with Harriet Tubman, his "big internet problem," and why he considers himself a failure. No, really.
Mother Jones: Your last few novels were set in these fantastical worlds. What compelled you to bring it back home, so to speak?
Michael Chabon: It really all started with the record store. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community built during the sixties. During the early years it was very integrated. I grew up being taught by black teachers with black principals and vice principals and, you know, a lot of black friends. We played in mixed groups, and I kind of thought that was how it was. Much later in life I realized that I had completely lost that. I was living in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles when the OJ Simpson verdict came down and the primary thing I felt was, "How did I not know that's how black people were going to respond?" I had come so far from the kid who thought that, you know, Harriet Tubman was my forebear, to living in an isolated cocoon. That was a stark, painful experience for me.
One day a couple of years later, I walked into Berigan's, an Oakland record store that's not there anymore. There were two guys working there—one black guy and one white guy. The customers were a mixed-race group, different ages, and they were all just hanging out, shooting the shit. It just really resonated for me, seeing that little pocket where people had somehow managed to create—in this limited context, granted—a world that reminded me of the world I grew up in. It was very powerful. That made me feel like I wanted to write something that would be set in Brokeland, that kind of ragged overlapping border between Berkeley and Oakland.
MJ: Your main characters really struggle to embrace diversity.
MC: 'Cause it's really hard to do! [Laughs.] It may not even really be possible, and they're all aware of that. But some things are globally impossible but locally possible. And I think that's kind of what the record store represents.
MJ: How did you do your research for this book? Did you just hang out down here?
"I'm fascinated by the apparent ease with which Tarantino handles black characters."
MC: Yeah, walking out the door: That was research. That was the probably the single biggest difference for me in writing this book and writing its predecessors. From Kavalier & Clay forward through The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I had to check everything. Like, if you lived in a boarding house in 1941 in New York City, where was the phone? Was it downstairs in the hallway? Would you have to knock on your landlady's door to use hers? Or in Yiddish Policemen's Union, well, are they using US postage stamps or do they have special territorial postage stamps? Gentleman of the Road was another example. To write a book where I didn't need to do research just for the nuts and bolts of everyday life was a big relief.
MJ: It's pretty bold for a white author to write a novel with mostly black characters. Did you feel any trepidation?
MC: [Pauses.] Sure, yes. Because I wanted my characters to be plausible and credible, and so that was a source of anxiety. And then as a secondary source of anxiety: What are people going to think or say or make of this? Would, for example, a black reader be offended by seeing me go to the point of view of a black female character? I thought about it. I didn't really worry about it. The truth is, I really only worried about that kind of stuff when I wasn't writing.
MJ: Did you have any black friends read it?
MC: Yeah. And that was actually helpful. I feel like I did make some mistakes and I overdid certain things, I would say, in terms of dialogue.
MJ: There is a sort of Blaxploitation element, with the amped up metaphors and Tarantino references. Were you aiming for a Tarantino aesthetic?
The book started out as a TV pilot: "I mistakenly thought all I needed to do was novelize it…Well, it turned out that was just idiotic."
MC: No. I'm a big fan of Tarantino's work, and I think I'm fascinated by his evident sense of entitlement to use black characters and black material that he feels not simply comfortable with, but that it's his right and privilege—the apparent ease with which he handles black characters, fully aware that he's been criticized for that, too. But I think that motif, that theme, that subject came into the book because I came to realize was how rooted in the 1970s my characters are, musically and biographically. That's the decade that shaped their consciousness of what it means to be a man, what it means to be black or white, what good music is, and that really seemed to jibe with the setting. So the Blaxploitation stuff just fell in naturally.
MJ: How did this story come about?
MC: This book had a really difficult burst in parturition, because I made a big mistake early on. This thing started out as a proposed series for TNT. I wrote a 90-minute pilot called "Telegraph Avenue" that had the same characters: The two guys, Archy and Nat, own the record store. The two women, Aviva and Gwen, were nurse midwives together.
MJ: What happened?
MC: They didn't think it was right. It never got past the script stage. I put it aside. But I think partly because I was living in the world of that story every day and because I really love the characters, I decided to go back to it. I mistakenly thought all I needed to do was novelize it. Well it turned out that was just idiotic. And I spent two years wrestling with that laziness. Because—it seems so obvious in hindsight—a TV pilot doesn't do anything that a novel does. A TV pilot is all about setting the table. It's opening doors and leaving them open, and they're the doors that you're gonna go through to tell stories in the course of the series. Oh, it was a horrible structure. You try to make a novel out of it! I spent two years trying to before finally deciding just to abandon the novel completely. My wife talked me out of it. She loved Archy; she loved Gwen especially. And she just said, "You can't do that! I need you to write this book." Anyway, I kept the same characters and settings but I just reconceived the whole thing.
MJ: You invent some pretty wild metaphors. Do they just pop into your head?
"When I come upon a word I don't know, I remember it, or try to—it's almost like a tic."
MC: I'm going to slow this process down, because this all takes place in a second at the most, but normally I have an intuitive sense that something, a visual or a process or whatever it may be, is like something else: This woman's haircut: I see it in my mind and then I think, "What is it like?" And then I'll think, "It's like a Volvo—it's like the back end of a Volvo from the 1970s." And then I'll think, "That's it!" That's just right, because I also want to imply that this woman is very cautious and safe, and very white, and very—all the things that come when you think of Volvo.
MJ: You're known also as a master of cool, obscure verbiage. How do you add new words to your repertoire?
MC: I have a good memory for words, and when I come upon a word I don't know, I remember it, or try to—it's almost like a tic. I also just have a good feeling for how words are made and formed in English and the etymologies that give you prefixes and suffixes. So sometimes I'll think, I wonder if there is a specific individual word for this three- or four-word phrase that I'm trying to come up with. And I'll think, if there were such a word, it might be a word like…whatever. And I'll base my guess on that knowledge of French and my knowledge of how roots are formed with suffixes and prefixes in English, and Latin elements. And I'll think, It might be a word like blahblahblah. And then I'll go look it up and a lot of times my guess was right.