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?
"As Sammy Clay, I would have John Garfield revived from the dead. And I always saw Adrien Brody as the perfect Joe Kavalier."
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.
"Everything I knew about World War II at a certain point came from watching Hogan's Heroes."
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!
"The soft spot of my heart will always be held by Wonder Boys," which "restored my faith in my ability to actually finish a fucking book."
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.