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
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?
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.
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
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."
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?
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.
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...
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?
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.
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...
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?
It's kind of you
to say that I maintain it. I
feel like all I do is let it languish.
think the main reason I put up a web site (www.michaelchabon.com
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.
rely heavily on the Web for research;
it saved my life many times while I was working on the new book.
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
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
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.
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.