Michael Chabon interview (2000)

by ob

[Michael Chabon is the author of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, “Wonder Boys”, “A Model World”, “Werewolves in their Youth” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, among others. I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with his work since, ooh, at least 1988. This interview followed the release of his third novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”]

OB: “Kavalier and Clay” is an epic novel – which might surprise readers more used to your more self-contained previous novels and short stories… were you ever concerned during the writing that book was getting too big – that you’d set yourself an impossible task?

MB: Roughly every three and a half weeks. There were days when I felt completely in control, not only of the material but of the English language and of the very neurons and dendrites of my brain. And then there were times when the whole thing felt like a big, sodden, half-boiled mishmash. Enjoying regular waves of paralyzing self doubt has always been one of the fun things about being me!

OB: What prompted you to explore such big territory?

MC: Delusions of grandeur? I suppose the answer is that I like to read big books, full of stuff, ranging widely over time and locations…from “Love in the Time of Cholera” to “Gravity’s Rainbow” to Neal Stephenson’s recent “Cryptonomicon”. And I’ve always tried to write the kind of books that I myself would like to read.

OB: The Antarctic section of the book is unexpected, especially from a writer who has concentrated on very ‘urban’ settings in previous works. Was it always something you planned to put into the book? And did you do any first hand research?

MC: I wish that I could have… but instead I took comfort in the example of such literary-Antarctic explorers as Poe and Lovecraft. They could rely only on reading and their imaginations – first-rate instruments, of course, in the case of both writers. Since the whole book was primarily the result of reading and imagination, the Antarctic section was really just another modulation of the process.

OB: The story is based, in part, on the story of Seigel and Shuster – the inventors of the Superman comics. Do you consider comic books to be an unfairly underrated 20th century art form?

MC: I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the role of Siegel and Shuster played in helping me form the characters of Sammy and Joe…I was inspired in part my reading about their invention of the character of Superman, as teenagers, and subsequent sale of the rights to DC for something like $100. But that inspiration was pretty much the extent of their involvement. And yes, I do consider comic art to be underrated, but whether unfairly or not is hard to say. There has been an awful lot of truly awful stuff put out over the years. There are a lot of reasons for this, but none of them is intrinsic to the form itself. I think comic books are as liable as any other popular medium to produce great art. But the history of the form, its economics, its intended audience, have all conspired against the production of art. That’s what makes the achievement of a Jack Kirby, a Will Eisner, a Robert Crumb, a Daniel Clowes, so amazing.

OB: Speaking of comics, you almost wrote the script for the X-Men movie…

MC: I was invited to submit a pitch by one of the studio executives developing the project. I had a lot of fun writing it, and while I was disappointed not to get a job, I have no reason to think that the version filmed from my script would have been any better than the final one, which I quite enjoyed.

OB: The book has some interesting things to say about the way writers use their art to try and solve problems they can’t solve in real life. Is this true of your work?

MC: Yes, I’ve often used writing to accomplish or say things – to date un-dateable women, retort with impossible couth – that I couldn’t manage in life!

OB: It’s tempting to call it a “Great American Novel” – there’s elements of “Moby Dick”, “The Great Gatsby”, and even “Huckleberry Finn” in there…

MC: Hey, I’ll take it. After all, Joe and Sammy, like Ishmael and Queequeg in “Moby Dick” first meet in bed!

OB: There was a long gap between your first and second novels – during which time you were working on your lost novel “Fountain City”. Will we ever get to see it?

MC: Little pieces of it have turned up since, in “Wonder Boys” and this book – maybe a total of seven pages in all. And I have posted the first chapter on my web site. But that’s probably going to be the extent of it.

OB: You’re one of the few contemporary straight American writers who writes about gay characters regularly – “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” was, in part, about a young man trying to decide if he was gay or straight; there are significant gay characters in both “Wonder Boys” and “Kavalier and Clay”. How do you approach these characters? And why do so few other writers?

MC: I think it’s a good question. There are people who argue that members of privileged groups and majorities ought not – don’t have the right – to write about members of minority groups, and maybe there are some writers who are persuaded by that. I write about gay characters mostly because there are so many gay characters in my life! I don’t claim to know anything more about them than I know, and I leave it to readers to judge just how much or how little that is.

OB: What about the books that have inspired you?

MC: “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges. I first read Borges in college, at the start of my sophomore year. I was finally emerging from a long, adolescent infatuation with fantasy and science fiction (by no means entirely extinguished, even now), and Borges provided a key way-station for me on the road from writing stories with titles like “On the Black Moon of Sta’l Pitaqra” to the kind of concern with literary style and themes, and with the establishment of mood, that would lead, eventually, with stops at Fitzgerald and Flaubert, to “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”.

“Love in the Time of Cholera”: for the first two hundred pages, I thought I just might be reading the best book ever written. Inevitably it fell off, although the last fifty pages or so are also incomparably beautiful, the ideal ending for a novel. Garcia Marquez – whose “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is also a reliable means of instilling me with the urge to write – comes as close as anyone ever has, in this book, to making it unnecessary for me to write anything ever again.

The stories of John Cheever: every writer has at least one writer the reading of whom is perilous to his own style and sense of self. John Cheever is my dangerous favorite. Though the period of my greatest adulation of his work – of my ability simply to wallow in his prose like a hog in buttermilk – has passed, when I have been reading Cheever I still must be careful to wait an hour, the way my mother used to warn me about swimming after lunch, before getting down to my own work. One of my stories in particular, “The Halloween Party”, now reads to me as an embarrassingly transparent attempt to duplicate the vocabulary and rhythms of my favorite (did I really dare to use that echt-Cheever word “especial”?), and the switch in point of view at the end of “More Than Human” was directly inspired by a similar, far more devastating and effective trick which Cheever plays in “The Sorrows of Gin”.

“The Great Gatsby”, along with Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus”, is directly responsible for the structure and, I now find, much of the atmosphere of my first novel. I came to Gatsby later than most – I first read it a year after graduating from college – and its retrospective tone, and sense of an age of wonder’s having passed, resonated strongly.

OB: You mention your short stories. You’ve published two collections now – do you approach them very differently from your novels?

MC: Yes, writing short stories is quite different: painful, uncomfortable… I feel ill at ease the whole time. But some ideas just demand to be written as stories… they have a sharper temporal focus, or try to capture a more ephemeral mood that would be lost in the toils of a novel. I admire the stories of: Cheever, Yates, Nabokov, Welty, Joyce, Malamud, Poe, Munro, Borges, Hawthorne, M.R. James, Henry James…

OB: Finally – what’s next for you?

MC: I’m working on a TV project, an hour-long drama for Turner Network Television. As soon as that’s done, I’ll be adapting the new novel for Paramount and producer Scott Rudin.