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Fall/Winter 2000 Volume I Issue I

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from the editors

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Michael Chabon 
first debuted upon the literary scene with his novel 

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, an acclaimed work of sexual self confrontation that combined the merits of the author’s more traditional literary skill with a more contemporary coming-of-age confessional.  His subsequent short story collection,

 

A Model World, had many making comparisons to the likes of Cheever and Borges. 

 Chabon’s second novel, the comic gem, 

The Wonder Boys, secured his place among contemporary writers and avoided the pressures and potential of the one-hit-wonder label.  In recent years, many of the short stories from the collection 

Werewolves in Their Youth have also appeared in the most respected literary journals of our day - giving a readership of that waited for his next novel - just brief glimpses of his writing genius.  Finally, on the heels of a successful film adaptation of his work, Chabon’s long-awaited 
third novel,

 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is now available. 

His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire and Playboy and in a number of anthologies, among them Prize Stories 1999: the O. Henry Awards. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist, and their children.

Interview

with Michael Chabon

The editors at failbetter.com have witnessed first hand the fanatical accolades attributed to several young American writers over the past few decades.  Whether it was Bret Easton Ellis of the 1980s - or this past year’s phenomenon of David Eggers -- we have watched the unique pop cultural sensation of literary figures being thrust into the media limelight.  Often, such authors have burst upon the literary scene only to never quite live up to expectations of their proclaimed greatness.  In contrast, every generation witnesses a writer who, over the span of time, has managed to maintain the momentum he or she created with their first work - to steadily increase both their critical reputation and public readership.  In the eyes of many, Michael Chabon is one of these authors.  Thanks to the wonderful world of e-mail, and the kindness of the author, failbetter.com was fortunate enough to get a hold of Mr. Chabon and ask him a few questions about the new book, among other things…

failbetter.com:  Your new novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, appears to be a far more ambitious project in terms of plot than your previous two novels.  How much research did you have to conduct in order to recreate the life and times of 1930s Brooklyn, never mind Prague?  The portion of the book excerpted in The New Yorker detailed Josef’s initial allegorical attempts at escapism -- how much of the subject matter did you already possess a personal or familial knowledge of?

Michael Chabon:  I did a lot of research.  I was lucky enough to be living, in LA and then here in Berkeley, in towns with amazing university libraries, of which I freely availed myself.  I spent a month in New York doing research, both "on location" (visiting neighborhoods and settings) and in the library of the New-York Historical Society.  I buried myself in old issues of the New Yorker, which was a deeply pleasurable activity.  I've always been entranced by old typography, old cars and clothes, the language of old advertisements.  I could sit for hours just paging through those big bound editions of the New Yorker.  It was such an amazing gift to me, to have that incredibly detailed weekly snapshot of the city, month after month, year after year, all through the thirties and forties.  The research was actually, I think, a motivation for writing the book in the first place.  I was looking forward to doing it, and it turned out to be one of the most fun aspects of working on the novel.  

I knew very little about escape artistry when I began the book--I had no idea that it would play any part at all in the action, characterization or, God knows, thematics of the book.  It just appeared one day, fairly early on, in Joe Kavalier's life, and I was obliged to go inform myself.  There's an awful lot of stuff out there about magic and escape artistry in general and Harry Houdini in particular.  It's very rich material and very underused in fiction.  I had to struggle with myself not to get carried away, to hold that part of the story in balance with the other parts.

failbetter.com:  You once said, if you’ll allow us to paraphrase -- The only books that change my life now, not necessarily for the better, are my own.  In that vein, how did The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay effect your life?  Can you qualify it as a positive experience – or is it simply too soon to tell?  Is such experience solely based upon the writing or somewhat tempered by public reaction?

Michael Chabon:  It really is too soon to say.  Though the writing of it is finished, the process of getting it out there and having people read it is yet to come, and that is undoubtedly a big part of the "life-changing" aspect of a book for me.  But I can say that I have learned a great deal about my writing through the years I spent on the thing.  I discovered strengths I had hoped that I possessed--the ability to pull off multiple points of view, historical settings, the passage of years--but which had never been tested before; I also encountered certain limitations which I will not go into, if you don't mind.  It was interesting to me to go back, when I had finished, and look at a sort of self-proposal I had typed up, way back before I even began writing, as to what I imagined the book was going to be about.  After four years and four months (and four days), countless revisions, drafts, cuts and drastic alterations, and a lot of wandering around in the dark, it had turned out to be almost exactly what I had once envisioned.  I was really surprised.  And seeing that has, I think, given me more confidence in that quality of "pre-vision."

failbetter.com:  In your education, as a both a reader and writer, you have cited the influence of such great authors as Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Cheever, among others.  But The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to draws some of inspiration from… comic books.  So, we dare ask, what was your inspiration for the new book?  What “influences” would you cite?

Michael Chabon:  The same; the usual; it rarely changes.  Perhaps you might add William Boyd, a recent discovery and passion.  But the ghosts of Nabokov and Garcia were hovering over me all the way through this book...  I kept seeing butterflies, VN-shades haunting me, at every crucial moment in the writing of the book.

But as far as the inspiration for this book, it was reading about Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, and how they sold the rights to the character to DC Comics for $100.00.  That's not what my book is about, but it was the combination of wild imagination, male partnership, popular art, and commercial failure that resonated, and got me started...

failbetter.com:  The recent film adaptation of Wonder Boys was a critical and box office success.  We understand that your first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, may also be adapted for film in the near future.  At one time, you even had an opportunity to be involved in the writing of the X Men Movie.  How would you characterize your involvement in the movie making business?  Has it been enjoyable to see you work come to the silver screen?  What frustrations, if any, have accompanied the process?

Michael Chabon:  My work in the movie (and television) business has, for the last eight or nine years, been steady, remunerative, and, with one exception, fruitless.  I have written two original screenplays, unproduced, created two hour-long TV dramas, as yet unproduced, developed another idea (a really cool idea) that died before the script stage, and made a doomed pass with my lance at the giant windmill of  X-Men.

The exception, of course, was Wonder Boys, but I had nothing to do with that one, really.  Perhaps there's a lesson there.

I am a big movie buff, but I do this kind of work mostly because my family's health insurance comes through the screenwriter's guild.  I need to make a certain minimum amount of money every year as a screenwriter or our coverage lapses.  There have been moments of great pleasure for me, however, in the course of working in Hollywood.  I have enjoyed conceiving the ideas, writing the first drafts, imagining the ideas up there on the screen or beamed into twenty million living rooms.  And I just love going onto the studio lots, especially Paramount, my first, and still the most romantic to me, rich in associations with Adolph Zukor, the Marx Brothers, Sunset Boulevard...

failbetter.com:  You maintain your own web site, perhaps one of the best author sites on the web, for your fans and general Internet inquisitors (http://home.earthlink.net/~mchabon).  What has this experience been like?  What positive aspects do you think the Internet has added to the literary world?  Do you envision any possible negative implications of the process?

Michael Chabon:  It's kind of you to say that I maintain it.  I feel like all I do is let it languish.  

I think the main reason I put up a web site (www.michaelchabon.com also works) was because it seemed like a good excuse to play with my computer instead of writing.  I enjoyed learning how to write HTML, and now that it's there, I like having a place to put things I've published that won't, chances are, be reprinted anywhere else.  When I have something in a newspaper or magazine, I always picture people all over the country throwing it away when they're done with it, putting it in the recycling.  That kind of piece, the travel things, the little essays, never really lasted, before the web. Now it can. It may not be brilliant stuff, but at least it all has the virtue of being free.

I rely heavily on the Web for research; it saved my life many times while I was working on the new book.

I am sure that people, one day soon, will be able to share novels the way they now share MP3s.  And then I will be one of the people screaming about artists' rights, thinking back with chagrin on the days when I so cheerfully downloaded "Kung Fu Fighting" without paying Carl Douglas a dime.

failbetter.com:  In the past year, we’ve seen several works by new authors touted by both the critics and the general reading public as the “writers of the future” – i.e. White Teeth or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  It wasn’t that long ago that you debuted with such high critical acclaim.  Fortunately, you avoided the sophomore slump.  Seeing the recent media mania surrounding some of these young authors – do you miss the initial sensation of being “the next big thing?”  What advice could you give to these new writers to avoid the pitfall of being labeled a one hit wonder?

Michael Chabon:  I don't miss it - the experience of being the NBT - so much as wish that I had, at the time, enjoyed it more.

I have no doubt that Ms. Smith and Mr. Eggers will write even better books as they go along.  And I hope that they have more fun being young geniuses than I did.