David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Michael Chabon Interview

Conducted on July 26, 1995 for Critics’ Choice on America Online.

michael-chabon.jpgOnlineHost: Critics’ Choice is delighted to welcome best-selling author Michael Chabon to Center Stage this evening.

OnlineHost: Michael Chabon is the 33-year-old author of Mysteries of Pittsburgh (12 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller list), A Model World, and most recently, Wonder Boys (out right now from Villard Books).

OnlineHost: Welcome Mr. Chabon!

Chabon: Good evening. Thank you for coming. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

CSEmcee5: And welcome Dave!

Edelman: Hi there — I’m the Online Editor for Critics’ Choice. We’ll get to your questions soon… I’m going to start off with a few questions first. Michael, I’ve read that you were working on another book before Wonder Boys… which you decided to set aside. Can you tell as a little bit about this other book?

Chabon: Sure. I worked for a little over five years on a book called Fountain City. It was very complicated and ill-conceived and in the end I decided to abandon it. It was very hard to do this, but I guess it worked out.

Edelman: How does Wonder Boys relate to your troubles with this aborted second novel? Since Wonder Boys is about writers that fail to complete their works?

Chabon: Well, it tells the story of a writer named Grady Tripp who is even more lost in his unfinished book than I ever was. But I definitely gave Grady some of my own anguished feelings about that book I couldn’t finish.

Edelman: Wonder Boys paints a very cynical picture of writers… Do you share this cynical view? Do you feel that writers have an important role in society?

Chabon: Do you really think it’s cynical? I suppose so. It’s more a function of Grady’s own spoilt romanticism — “all romantics meet the same fate” — than my own.

Edelman: Okay, now we’re going to take some questions from the audience.

CSEmcee5: Let’s take an audience question now.

Question: Are there any plans for a sequel to _Mysteries of Pittsburg_?

Chabon: No, I don’t ever plan to go back to any of those characters. But who knows?

Question: Mr. Chabon, I was wondering if you would comment on PITTSBURG. Art’s experiments with homosexuality come at a time before the AIDS scare. Have you considered how/if you would have to change things to write the same story today?

Chabon: Well, I definitely agree that that’s a story that belongs to another time. I can’t even imagine telling it now. It would all be different. Darker, I suppose.

Question: I read that PITTSBURG started out a your Master’s thesis. Did you go to graduate school to work on your writing, or did you/do you intend to teach?

Chabon: I went to the MFA program at UC Irvine in order to find the time and the financial and moral support I thought I was going to need to start my career as a writer. I was very lucky in that I found all 3.

Question: Are you from Pennsylvania? Is this area your “Faulkner’s Mississippi”? (Or even John Waters’ B-more, where I’m from)?

Chabon: No, I’m not really from PA. My dad moved to Pgh. when I was 12, and I spent my summers and holidays there. Then I went to Pitt. I never intended to write more than one book set there, but somehow or other I found my way back in this new book.

Comment: In your books, people are very nonchalant about scenes that are most unconventional. Similar to what Pauline Kael described as Divine’s (John Waters actor) “What the Hell Quality.” I like this very much about your characters.

Chabon: Thank you. I have always been impressed by people who display this quality. I’ve never actually noticed, frankly, that my own preference had made its way into my portrayal of my characters…

Question: Your style in WB seems so much more “adult” than M of P. How have you grown in these few years?

Chabon: Thanks, again. I was 22 when I started MOP. Now I’m 32. Those ten years have taken me all over the country and through many personal difficulties… I guess inevitably I must have grown up. This, I suppose, has emerged in my prose style, which I think is less concerned than formerly with pyrotechnics and showing my chops.

Question: How close was Grady’s “Wonder Boys” book with your ‘baseball’ book?

Chabon: There was no resemblance except for their common unmanageability.

Question: What’s your writing process like when it comes to short stories? I imagine it’s very different from working on a novel.

Chabon: The process is the same, really. I sit down in my chair, turn on the machine, and worry. The difference is that with a short story it’s all over much sooner.

Question: Why did you publish your e-mail address in WONDER BOYS? I appreciate the addition and the response you sent when I mailed you, but isn’t it a risk?

Chabon: The only risk is being swamped, and finding that it takes up hours of your time answering everyone. This is, in fact, exactly what has happened!

Question: your writing is literary and accessible at the same time, like ‘great gatsby’. was it an influence?

Chabon: Gatsby was definitely an influence on my first book, most importantly in its theme of self-invention and self-exaggeration, and in Fitzgerald’s use of one summer as a structure for the book

Question: Do you still write short stories? Your “chops” is really what attracted a lot of us to you in the first place, through the New Yorker. Loved the Nathan stories. Do you still write these characters?

Chabon: Yes, I still write short stories. I had one in the N’yer last fall — “Househunting.” As for my chops I feel that I still possess them — I just don’t feel as much of a need to show them off. Nathan may return one day, but I don’t have any plans for the near future.

Question: How many different languages is Wonder Boys being translated into?

Chabon: Wonder Boys is going to be translated into Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Dutch…maybe a few more

Question: Is there a possibility that “Mysteries” will be a movie?

Chabon: Well, every so often someone comes along and sniffs around the book, but nothing ever comes of it… the rights belong to me still…

Question: Was MOP expected to be such a big hit? Considering the theme of bisexuality, I would think the publishers would be wary of presenting it to the mainstream.

Chabon: It’s much more frightening to Hollywood than to New York as a theme… I don’t think there was much wariness at all.

Question: There seems to be an abundance of great readable fiction out there right now — Rule of the Bone, Independence Day, The Information and, of course, WB, immediately come to mind. Are you optimistic about the future of quality fiction in America?

Chabon: I agree with your optimistic assessment and might add the names of Ethan Canin, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham, Jane Smiley…

Comment: About “showing your chops” — I used to think of M of P as a very “innocent” style, but upon re-reading realized that there was much more to it. WB seems freer, more natural.

Chabon: Thank you. I think my style has grown somewhat less precious. I hope so.

Question: Do you find the cultural fragmentation of the last 10 years has made it more difficult to write novels about Americans? Is it more difficult to make characterizations three-dimensional?

Chabon: I don’t, I confess, give a whole lot of thought to cultural fragmentation when I write. I probably should.

Question: Have any of your books been recorded on audio, and if so with what publisher

Chabon: Yes, as a matter of fact, there is an excellent audio version of WB out from Brilliance Audio.

Question: Michael I’ve always wanted to meet an author who has written something meaningful to me. Thanks. Can you describe process for writing a novel?

Chabon: In three lines…! Well, I begin with an image, usually, or a vague feeling of some kind — a longing for a place, a person a time… then I try to figure out who my characters might be…what kind of people I associate with the above-mentioned feeling or longing… Once I have my characters I try to find a narrator, and then let my narrator help me find a way into a story…only when I’ve got about forty to fifty pages do I sit down a make an outline. Then I try to outline very carefully.

Question: When you write, are you conscious of who you are writing for

Chabon: I have an ideal reader, I suppose. Someone a lot like me.

Question: you’ve spoken somewhat self-deprecatingly about “mysteries,” about showing your chops and calling your style “precious.” are you at all embarrassed by that book? (I hope not, because it influenced me tremendously).

Chabon: I think, from what I’ve read, that most writers are a little bit embarrassed by their first efforts… Imagine if somebody dug up something you did ten years ago and showed it to you…

Question: How much time to you spend devising and or constructing plot before you start writing?

Chabon: As I said, I never have a plot at the beginning.

Question: When reading for pleasure, what do you read

Chabon: Some of the writers I mentioned before, but mostly dead writers… I’m always trying to fill in the holes in my literary education. I also love to read history…

Question: The reason I asked about cultural fragmentation is that the cacophony of “types” in WB seem as though, often, they shouldn’t get along or even have a common vernacular. I especially like the transvestite who breezes through. But I find it stagy at times

Chabon: Interesting point… but I’m not aware of any great effort involved on my part in bringing these disparate people together. It just happens. Maybe fragmentation is a good thing… or maybe it’s something that’s been going on since the beginning of time.

Question: Are you planning on doing any more TV appearances? i.e. Tom Snyder

Chabon: I’m just sitting around waiting for Dave to call…

Question: why not ditch the narrator and let the characters tell the story?

Chabon: Well, there’s no rule that says your narrator can’t be a character, and in fact in both my books this is the case… They’re narrated in the first person by a main character…

Question: What’s a typical day for you? Do you write every day?

Chabon: I write Sun-Thu, 10PM to 3AM. The rest of my time I try to spend with my wife and new baby daughter..

Question: Do you think it is possible for a straight person to write a realistic portrayal of a gay person?

Chabon: Do you? I must, or else I’m just fooling myself…gay writers have been writing straights for years…centuries…

Question: Do you ever think about writing about home, Columbia, MD, “the planned community?”

Chabon: I have fictionalized Columbia in my Nathan Shapiro stories…see what you think!

Question: in both “mysteries” and “wonder boys” you’ve had parents who died a not particularly pleasant death. does this have any parallels to your own life?

Chabon: No. It’s probably laziness on my part. Kill off a parent and you have one less character to worry about.

Question: Did you ever read the Pitt News review of your book?

Chabon: I don’t know if I saw it or not…I don’t think so…

Question: Thanks for your previous answer. How much of you is in your characters and do you feel you can write effectively about someone completely different than you (for ex a lesbian woman of color from Jamaica)?

Chabon: A lesbian woman of color from Jamaica would be tough. It would involve research. but I think that yes, I could do it.

Edelman: Michael, do you feel any generational identity with other Gen X writers? Ex. Doug Coupland, Ethan Canin

Chabon: Of course… as people, more than as writers, though… I don’t really see any common literary thread running through all the writers my age.

Question: Have you found that living in LA has at all altered the tone of your work?

Chabon: Not that I’m aware of.

Edelman: What are you working on now, Michael?

Chabon: Belying my last reply… I’m working on an original screenplay. But it’s almost done, and as soon as it is, I plan to start work on a new novel.

Question: Speaking of your wife and daughter, many of us were surprised to read of them on the “Wonder Boys” cover, assuming your were gay from “Mysteries.” Is this a common reaction?

Chabon: Yes. And, given Mysteries, not a surprising one, perhaps. We do tend to think in categories.

Edelman: Michael, you attended a writing program… Do you feel that these programs help writers? Is writing a skill that can be taught?

Chabon: They help first and foremost in that they give a new writer time, encouragement, and financial support when it’s most crucial…and the company of other new writers is extremely valuable and helpful.

Question: Michael, how much time do you spend reading fiction? what are some of your all time favorite novels?

Chabon: I don’t get to read nearly as much as I would like… only on the weekends or on vacation… Favorite novels: All the King’s Men, Love in the Time of Cholera, Lolita, Remembrance of Things Past, Revolutionary Road, The Age of Innocence, Sentimental Education….

CSEmcee5: All good things must come to an end. Unfortunately our time with author Michael Chabon has drawn to a close. We thank him for spending time here with us tonight.

Chabon: Goodbye, everyone… thanks for coming. The questions were good ones.

Edelman: Thanks for joining us here tonight, Michael…

Chabon: It was a lot of fun!

Edelman: I’d just like to remind people that the log of this chat will be posted online

CSEmcee5: And thank you audience for your insightful comments and questions!

Chabon: Bye!

CSEmcee5: Good night to all!

Comments RSS Feed

  1. matthew on September 25, 2008 at 10:33 am  Chain link

    i like summerland

  2. Lonnie on September 14, 2009 at 12:46 am  Chain link

    Great interview! I can sympathize with him having to throw out a novel after five years. I scrapped my “first novel” 3 times before coming up with the version I like.

    Never again, though. After years of studying everything I could, I figured out the most important elements and put them in a writing course at zero2novel.com

  3. Writing the First Chapter « Geysers of Ink on February 19, 2010 at 11:15 am  Chain link

    […] my favorite author, on his writing process when he begins a novel (this is an excerpt from an uncommonly thoughtful interview he did pre-superstardom in 1995 for Critic’s […]

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