Interview with Michael Chabon
Telegraph Avenue is his first novel since the Hugo- and Nebula-winning alternative history The Yiddish Policeman's Union. This new book tells the story of Nat and Archy, two friends who run a proud but vulnerable used-vinyl shop, Brokeland Records, on the border of Berkeley and Oakland. The store's small utopia is threatened by the arrival of a wealthy black football player planning a large retail complex. Much of the action takes place on the famous thoroughfare, not far from where Chabon lives with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, and their children. Interviewer Scott Timberg spoke with Chabon on behalf of Goodreads.
Michael Chabon: My earliest interests as a reader, almost from the very beginning, were in the ways the writers I love created worlds. World-making and ancillary forms like role-playing games and map-making have always been interesting to me. The ways people create worlds within the greater world—and try to eliminate the things that don't fit, and emphasize the things they most care about—I think it's a piece for me, but not conscious.
Any piece of fiction that included a map on the endpapers has been an immediate source of fascination; and growing up in Columbia [a planned community in Maryland, designed in part for reasons of racial integration], where there was a map before there was anything else—watching that world get mapped and created on paper, before the woods and metal and dirt of the real world. It was like growing up on Middle Earth in a sense—a place that only existed in someone's imagination and then became real.
GR: And now you've created Brokeland Records. How did that place come alive in your mind and on the page?
MC: It actually all begins by walking into a record store in Oakland, California, in 1999—a place that doesn't exist anymore. (I was probably under the impression that they also sold CDs.) I got inside, and it turned out to be pure vinyl. The people who were hanging out were black and white, and the two people working there—one was a black guy, one was a white guy. I had this immediate sense that here was a kind of micro-Columbia. This consensual, willed coming together by people who shared a certain commitment to something they really cared about and to be together as equals in this space. So it felt familiar. And apart from the fact that I was among my own kind by being among geeks or fans, or people who cared about pop culture—that was gravy to the fact that they were all in there together.
And then looking at what had brought them all together, I had this feeling...this is cool, this is something I want to do something with.
The first thing that I tried to do with it was to try to create a TV series for TNT. Sounds like a perfect setting for a TV show, and in that first incarnation I evolved the characters of Nat and Archy. And I decided to incorporate elements of midwifery into it, because at that point in our lives, Ayelet and I were very plunged into the world of childbirth and labor and babies and midwives.
Two years later I realized what an idiot I had been, and that the pilot was not the right approach at all. I had to reconfigure the whole thing. The structure was completely unworkable.
GR: Is that the longest a novel has taken you to write?
MC: Maybe, but I got the germ that became Summerland when I was 11 years old, so that might be even longer.
GR: But there was a dedicated five and a half years of work on Telegraph Avenue—not just daydreaming about it some of the time.
MC: Right, if that's not the longest, it's gotta be close. I don't think I've ever taken longer.
GR: Speaking of the record store: It's counterintuitive, in a way, that the threat to this little cultural outpost, with the multiracial scene you describe, built around black music, comes not from an evil corporation or a philistine plutocrat but from a successful black man, Gibson Goode. Why did that make sense for the key conflict?
MC: It would have been too easy to have it be a big corporation or the impersonal forces of capitalism. I wanted these forces to have a face, and when I did, they were no longer impersonal. It wasn't just a question of cost cutting, crushing the competition. It became a man with a mission, which is commendable and laudable. He's not trying to kill Brokeland Records.
It's very hard for me to create a thoroughgoing villain—I've tried many times. And I just don't seem to be able to do it. I just always seem to get interested in whoever I cast as the bad guy. I just can't do it.
GR: This book is about a lot of things—race, music, midwifery—but overall it seems like a novel about a handful of characters. How do you go about building a character?
MC: It's an organic process, where the story you tell not only helps you make discoveries, but also makes you change your characters as you tell the story you determine you're going to tell. So for example, Gibson Goode...you see what motivates him, you have to make changes to the story. The understanding that you gain about them—that you sometimes almost arbitrarily say about them, you decide that this character's mom was killed by cancer, let's say. Suddenly it's a fact, it changes your understanding of the character, and then the story itself has to be changed, because a character whose mother had been dead since he's a boy is going to behave differently to his would-be-surrogate mom who turns up as an adult.
GR: So they deepen and fill out as the story moves.
MC: And when the story drives the character and the character drives the story—it's a perpetual motion machine.
GR: Goodreads member Ann asks, "How do you convert kids into adult fiction readers?"
MC: They sell a kit at RadioShack—it's a simple ten-minute installation, and you're good to go.
No...It's never occurred to me to be worried about that—it's always seemed much more of an issue to encourage them to be readers, period, as kids. I've had varying levels of success with my own kids. They vary enough in their enthusiasm for reading to make me realize it has nothing to do with anything my wife and I have done. But we talk about books, love books, encourage reading...And some of our kids love reading and some of them don't so much. There's a limit to what you can do.
In terms of the transition, I have the experience of my oldest daughter. She's almost 18, and she made the transition to adult reading on her own. I think we were in our old house in Maine, and she ran out of what she'd brought to read, and there was a Julia Alvarez novel there, and she liked the cover and picked it up, and she read her first work of fiction for adults. It just happened.
GR: A lot of readers asked about what's coming with screen adaptations of Kavalier & Clay and Yiddish Policeman's Union—anything you can talk about?
MC: No—there is nothing going on. Kavalier & Clay is completely inert right now, Yiddish Policeman's Union—completely inert.
With Telegraph Avenue there is some low-level, bubbling activity. Scott Rudin, the movie producer who owns the rights to most of my work, has the rights, and he is busy trying to set it up as a TV series at HBO, and he has hired Cameron Crowe to write and direct the pilot. That's happening, but I've not had any updates lately.
It would be very funny if that project went full circle that way.
GR: Goodreads member Suchitra asks, "What is the best part about being a writer? And what is the worst?"
MC: Well, the best part is that I get to do what I love. I love to write, and I get to do it for my living; it's something I'm eternally grateful for every day. I feel so fortunate. Reading and writing and books and stories are things I've been in love with all my life. It's still a matter of profound wonder and gratitude to me that this is my job. I'm so grateful and so contented with my lot as a writer that I don't even want to talk about the worst part—it will sound incredibly trivial by comparison.
It's probably something like: It takes so long to write a book. And having to stick with it, often long past the point where your original enthusiasm has waned, and trying to find ways to renew your enthusiasm over the long haul.
GR: Sounds like a bad marriage.
MC: It is like a marriage. If you can't find ways of renewing it...You can only get by so long on the initial blush. And it leads for me—almost every single time—at least to one, sometimes more than one, moment where I say I'm quitting. I'm giving up. Abandoning it. Doing something else. Again, like in a marriage, you imagine other possibilities.
GR: Right—like wanting to cheat on this novel with a cute novella from down the street.
MC: Exactly—in my marriage, never, but in my writing life I have strayed: I have gone out for a while with a hot little Hollywood number, worked on a screenplay, written a short story. Getting that sweet taste of completion in the midst of an incredibly long haul can really help and send you back to the project with a new sense of commitment.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
MC: Typical day writing is five nights a week from 10 pm to 3 or 4 in the morning. And at this point—for the past few years—I listen pretty much exclusively to vinyl records while I write. The reason I do that—in addition to liking the sound of them—is that it forces me to get up every 20 minutes, to turn the record over or put on a new record. And that is the recommended procedure for people who sit in a chair working.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
MC: Yeah, that's a tough one. Elmore Leonard is a writer I've loved—he's been a big influence for a long time, particularly in his approach to writing dialogue. And not just because I was writing black characters and white characters together, which is a hallmark of Leonard's work. I've long felt his influence, but I haven't been working on projects that allow his influence to emerge this fully.
And just generally speaking, I think Raymond Chandler. As a lifelong influence, shaping a lyrical prose that is urban and colloquial and literary at the same time.
GR: Last question: What are you reading now?
MC: I'm reading Dave Eggers's new book, A Hologram for the King, which I loved. It's my favorite of his in a while.
And I'm also on a parallel track. I'm sequentially reading all of Ian Fleming's James Bond books: I'm up to From Russia With Love now. So far Moonraker is my favorite. I love it, but it's completely absurd.
The project I'm working on right now—Ayelet and I are developing it together for HBO—is a World War II espionage show. I turned to Fleming because I'd heard about his real-life experience in Naval Intelligence. So I started reading the Bond books to find the real stuff, and there's precious little of it.
Interview by Scott Timberg for Goodreads. Scott is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has written about books, music, and the arts for The New York Times, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, and GQ. He runs the blog The Misread City: West Coast Culture and Beyond and is working on a book based on his Salon series about the destruction of the creative class.
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