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Craving 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?
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?
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?
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.
MJ: One section of the book, which I like to call The Flight of the Parrot, consists of a single 12-page sentence!
MC: [Laughs.] I couldn't stretch it any longer. That's where I ran out of steam. Otherwise I would have done 16. I wanted to have a chapter that would check in on all the characters—kind of a tracking shot like the opening of Touch of Evil or that famous tracking shot from The Shining—where I was swooping in and out of the characters at this moment in the story. Well, who could do that besides the author? And I thought, well, a parrot could do that if the parrot got loose. It just felt like the right way to approximate that was one single uncut sentence.
MJ: Who have you been reading lately that you're into?
MC: I'm back into Vladimir Nabokov for the 11th time. I just reread Pale Fire—again. And then became completely obsessed with it, again, because I've been obsessed with it before. It's still probably the single most amazing book I've ever read. Now I'm reading Speak, Memory, Nabokov's memoir.
MJ: Anything more contemporary?
MC: The last new book I read—just completely burned through, adored—the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. It's a quintet about one character, tracing him from when he's five years old, and then you check in with him every 10 to 15 years or so. He just published the last in the series. It's fantastic.
MJ: In Manhood for Amateurs you wrote about starting a comic book club as a kid. And nobody joined, and that's when you started to feel like a failure. Do you really feel like a failure?
MC: Oh, yeah. Every single day. If nothing else, it's a habit.
MJ: In your work? I mean, as fathers we all feel that way.
MC: Right?! And that's something I contend with every single day. In my work, sure, absolutely. Nothing ever comes out they way I hope it will. That first vision, that initial vision you have of a book, what it's going to be like when it's done, it begins to go wrong the second you start to write.
MJ: C'mon. You must have had some experiences where a book came out better than you'd imagined—what, never?
MC: No. Because when I imagine it, it's perfect!
MJ: Unlike your sophomore novel, Fountain City, which you abandoned to start Wonder Boys. What was that period like?
MC: Long. Dark. Frustrating. Unfulfilling.
MJ: So was your early success a mixed blessing?
MC: I don't think that success was really the issue. I mean, it may have somewhat increased the feeling that I wanted to do something bigger, better, and different than what I had already done. But I would have had that impulse anyway. Other than that, it was just purely aesthetic. The truth is, I think I just wasn't ready.
MJ: And you didn't tell anyone you'd abandoned Fountain City for Wonder Boys.
MC: I kept it a secret. And, thank God, this other book just flowed so easily. I hit on the voice of Grady Tripp, the narrator, instantaneously, magically. I was like, I'm gonna try something different. I opened a file on my computer, started typing, and the words came out: "The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn." It just came out like that. I didn't know who was talking yet or anything, but I trusted that voice. I don't know where it came from. I just followed it. I wrote a first draft of the book in seven months. It was completed in a year and a half, and that was very restorative, salutary experience.
MJ: So I gather you were one of those rare kids who actually knew what you were going to do when you grew up.
MC: I was very lucky. I had parents who loved to read fiction, who talked about it at the dinner table. I learned how to read at the age of four and immediately took with it, and was constantly reading. At a certain point I just had that fan-fiction impulse: You get so much pleasure from the primary work that you want to create a secondary work of your own to have it keep going. When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher assigned us to write a short story. I was in the throes of a deep infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, which is a really great pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. And that really kind of gave me the clue that, wait, I could make my own Sherlock Holmes stories? How cool would that be? And I loved doing it. I loved imitating the voice of Doctor Watson and telling the details right. And I got an A and my parents gave me praise and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do.
MJ: You've described yourself as a solitary kid, and you chose a solitary profession. What possessed you to have four children?
MC: [Laughs.] Well, when I'm writing, solitude feels very good, but when I'm not writing it feels lonely. And then, I'm kind of shy and not super social naturally—that's a learned behavior. Having a big family solves that problem. For my wife and I, it's going to be a good 27 years of having people in the house, so I'll never have to worry about feeling lonely. I always have a whole crew around and they're into cool things and doing cool stuff and they like watching the same kind of movies and read the same kinds of books. We have our own little fan club going. My family ended up sort of taking the role I was unable to fulfill when I tried to create the Columbia Comic Club.
MJ: How do two bestselling authors, and prolific ones at that, manage a quartet?
MC: Well, that's why school was invented—to give your parents some peace and quiet during the day. I'm mostly working at night and so it's nice and quiet.
MJ: And you're nice and groggy in the morning.
MC: Exactly! I don't get up, usually. I get up two mornings a week, early, to be with them, and sleep in the other five.
MJ: And then you go off on little writing benders.
MC: Yeah. Routinely. I'll rent a place, borrow a place—my speaking agent has a little cottage that he loans me, up in Petaluma. I'll go anywhere I find that is quiet, has no internet. I have a big internet problem.
MJ: Do you wish all this technology would go away?
MC: Well, no. It's because I love the internet and it has been incredibly useful and I have made discoveries that have been immeasurably crucial to my work—things I don't know how I ever would have found out otherwise, that are perfect, just what I need for whatever I'm doing. And with that very truth is the pretext for all the bad stuff. Because I have gotten so much out of it that I can always justify or rationalize it to myself. I'll think, "Oh I'm just going to take three minutes to find out who made the spark plugs that were used in Mustang airplanes that they used during World War II." Two hours later, I'm, you know, looking at the Partridge Family fan site or something like that, and listening to "I Think I Love You."
MJ: [Laughs.] It's called procrastination.
MC: It's more insidious, because you're being incited to it. Procrastination is something you do yourself. You know: "I gotta sharpen these pencils before I start. I got 20 pencils, they're looking kinda dull." Well, the pencils aren't calling you and alluring you and inviting you and offering you anything. They're just sitting there. You're the one who's procrastinating. The internet is actively trying to get you to stop working.
MJ: [Laughs.] You mentioned a speaking agent. As this shy, socially awkward person, how do you feel about public speaking?
MC: That's different. That's a performance. That's easy. I have a hammy side of me that enjoys that.
MJ: Has anything else in your career come close to Fountain City in terms of disappointment?
MC: No, I've never had to abandon anything major and significant.
MJ: I guess this is the moment to ask about John Carter, whose script you helped revise.
MC: My disappointment was much more for the other people involved—in particular the director Andrew Stanton, who is so talented, so smart, was so conscientious. The narrative of the movie, its reception, and its fate was written before anyone had ever seen it. And a lot of the decisions the studio made about the movie were gravely mistaken. They never did anything to refute that narrative. The thing is, if you're going to like a movie that's set on Mars about giant green guys with four arms and red-skinned princesses and flying airships and barbarian tribal warfare, you're gonna love John Carter. If that just sounds silly to you, you're not gonna like John Carter.
MJ: Give me a quick Hollywood update: Is Kavalier & Clay ever gonna get made?
MC: I don't know. Right now nothing's happening. The movie got within a whisker of being put in production, but the plug was pulled on that in 2005.
MJ: What about The Yiddish Policeman's Union?
MC: Nothing. The Coen brothers wrote a draft of a script and then they seemed to move on. The rights have lapsed back to me.
MJ: Whom would you cast as your leads in those films, and also in Telegraph Avenue? You're God, so you can have anyone you like.
MC: As Sammy Clay, I would have John Garfield revived from the dead. And I always saw Adrien Brody as the perfect Joe Kavalier—now he's a little too old. I saw Rachel Weisz as Rosa Saks at one time, although Natalie Portman, who was gonna play her, is not a bad choice. For Meyer Landsman in Yiddish Policemen's Union, there's no doubt it's Elliott Gould, but at age 35—Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye. And this one? I haven't really thought about it. I can kind of imagine the guy who played Bunk Moreland on The Wire.
MJ: Wendell Pierce.
MC: Yeah, I can see him as Archy.
MJ: Telegraph Avenue—and your other writings, for that matter—are pretty nostalgic. How does nostalgia manifest itself in your personal life?
MC: For me, nostalgia is an involuntary emotion. There may be a song on the radio that strongly associate with a particular moment in my history. And I can feel it for a time that I didn't actually experience, so, like, 1940s typography, or when a building comes down and you can see the painted ad on the side of the building next to it. I can remember feeling it when I was 10, not for things from my life but for things like those old soda machines with the glass door where you pull the bottles out, and you knew just from the look of them, they were an artifact of a lost era. I think it's just a natural human response to loss.
MJ: Do you collect things?
MC: Not religiously. I do have a collection of mid-century, small-press science fiction and fantasy hardcovers that is my most focused and dedicated collection. Everything else I tend more to acquire or amass than collect. I have vinyl records I listen to all the time when I work. But I don't collect records. I just buy records where the price seems right and it's music I actually listen to.
MJ: You and Ayelet recently sold HBO a pilot for Hobgoblin, a series about con men and magicians trying to undermine the Nazis during World War II.
MC: Yeah, they're perpetrating scams and cons. We're about to start writing the second episode. Once we've got two episodes, HBO will decide what to do.
MJ: And you've got a director.
MC: Darren Aronofsky.
MJ: You could play that idea any number of ways, from grim realism to sort of the Jewish answer to Hogan's Heroes. How are you leaning?
MC: Well, it's a drama, a World War II spy story, but because it has magic and con artists, there's a certain amount of almost bordering on whimsy. But it's life or death situations with people potentially facing death and the Blitz destroying London and, you know, the Nazis conquering Europe. It's not played for laughs.
MJ: You winced when I said Hogan's Heroes.
MC: [Laughs.] I mean, I grew up on it. Everything I knew about World War II at a certain point came from watching Hogan's Heroes.
MJ: Except you're like, "Where are the Jews?"
MC: Exactly. I mean, what a bizarre—I completely took it for granted growing up, but now I think about it I'm like, wow—really weird idea for a situational comedy, these goofy Nazis. And yet, I remember it having real texture that was persuasive and convincing. It seemed like they got the uniforms right, and if you watched the show regularly you learned to recognize them: That's the army, that's the Waffen-SS, that's the Gestapo. I did get a sense of World War II initially from that show. But it was just a goofy '60s situational comedy set in a German Stalag.
MJ: Imagine pitching that today.
MC: I know! If it were today, it would be dark. Even if there were laughs, they would be dark laughs.
MJ: So, do you find working with Hollywood kind of infuriating?
MC: I've been lucky. I've worked with people I've really loved working with, like Andrew Stanton, Sam Raimi. I've worked with directors that I've really respected from their work and come to respect as collaborators. Jon Favreau, I worked with him, briefly. By and large it's been a surprisingly positive experience and it pays really well and you get health insurance!
MJ: I would think you could afford health insurance.
MC: Mm, we really depend on it. And there've been long stretches where we clung to that health insurance pretty tightly, where I took screenwriting work solely because the COBRA option was looming.
MJ: Critical acclaim and money aside, which of your books are you proudest of?
MC: The sweet spot, the soft spot of my heart will always be held by Wonder Boys because that was the one that saved me—that restored my faith in my ability to actually finish a fucking book. And it was fun to write after so many years of misery. And so I have this sense of eternal gratitude to that book. I'm very proud of Telegraph Avenue—right now, at least. It tends to fade in time. Then they just recede and they become Books You Wrote.
MJ: Do you ever feel competitive with other big-time writers, like, say, Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Safran Foer?
MC: The only writer that I think I feel competitive with, but I mean it in the most admiring sense, is Jonathan Lethem. We're good friends. It's like what you heard about the Beatles and the Beach Boys, how when Brian Wilson heard Rubber Soul it led him to want to make Pet Sounds, and when the Beatles heard Pet Sounds, it led them to make—
MJ: You inspire one another.
MC: Yes, very much so. I don't think there was envy in that Beatles/Beach Boys relationship.
MJ: Really? As a musician, when I see someone great on stage, part of me is saying, "I wish I could do that."
MC: The writers that tend to give me that feeling are my betters, like Nabokov or Thomas Pynchon.
MJ: A female friend asks: Why does there seem to be this insistence that the Great American Novelist be male?
MC: I don't know. Maybe because only men would care about such a thing. I mean it seems much more a male activity to rate things in hierarchies. What a silly thing. Besides, it's Moby-Dick, so we're done. We were done a long time ago.