Sunday, 28 March 2010

Michael Chabon interview

Michael Chabon: 'I hadn't read a lot by men of my generation and background about being a father – it felt like I was on relatively untrodden ground'
The author of Manhood for Amateurs talks to Christopher Tayler

The Guardian
Saturday 27 March 2010

'You have no tristezza," Michael Chabon was once informed by a friend who liked to get drunk and stoned and tell people their destinies. "And you never will." Only the second part really rankled with Chabon, who was 19 or 20 and willing to admit he'd had few chances to store up deep-seated sadness. As he tells it in one of the essays in Manhood for Amateurs, his newest book, however, his later efforts to get hold of some were not a success. Driving through endless rain during the breakup of his first marriage, a sad song playing, his face wet with tears, he thought of his friend's prediction ("If he could see me now . . ."). Then he stopped for an ice-cream sandwich, listened to a ball game, and realised, to his horror, that he was quite content. Asked if he still worries about his non-melancholic temperament, he says: "I'm tormented by it! That's my only source of tristezza: my lack of tristezza"

Chabon, a screenwriter, occasional essayist and Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, is one of the least neurotic figures in American letters. "Michael remembers to simply enjoy himself better than any long-term professional writer I know," Jonathan Lethem, a fellow novelist and a friend of Chabon's, says. "And the pleasure is shared by his readers." A comic book fan who discovered his vocation by pastiching Sherlock Holmes stories and science fiction paperbacks, he functions as effectively in Hollywood – his screen credits include work on Spider-Man 2 – as in the pages of such novels as Wonder Boys (1995), The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). It rarely occurs to anyone to mark him down for championing and dabbling in once-despised genres, chiefly because of his unquestioned stylistic powers. "He never neglects the musical and metaphorical potential of expression as a means of intensifying meaning," the American critic Wyatt Mason says. "His choices at that basic expressive level always feel vital, surprising, alive."

When we meet, Chabon is in London to look in on the filming of John Carter of Mars, a live-action Disney adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian stories, for which he was hired to do script-polishing work. Wearing a brightly coloured shirt, Chelsea boots and a salt-and-pepper goatee, and with the general air of a long-term resident of northern California, Chabon manages to come across as both an unpretentious professional and a person one could imagine doing bong hits with while discussing HP Lovecraft's prose style. He was once, in fact, a reasonably dedicated pothead, but stopped smoking completely in 2005, thanks partly to the responsibilities of parenthood. He has four children with his second wife, Ayelet Waldman, and as the essays in the new book indicate, he takes his duties as a father seriously.

Manhood for Amateurs was largely assembled from the columns he used to write for Details, a glossy American men's fashion magazine that "made me an offer I couldn't refuse. There was no brief for the column, and the fact that so many of the pieces ended up dealing with aspects of being a father just came from that being something I confront on a daily basis. And I hadn't read a lot by men of my generation and background about being the father now – maybe the floodgates are opening a little, but it felt like I was on relatively untrodden ground." Waldman took on the job of sifting through his journalism after the idea of a book came up, "and when she came back to me, she had two piles". The second eventually became Maps and Legends, a selection of his pieces on reading and writing from such outlets as the New York Review of Books. Because this book was "kind of a gift", he gave the proceeds to 826 National, a nonprofit organisation founded by Dave Eggers.

Chabon doesn't think that parenthood lends itself to forward planning. "It's like war in that regard," he says. Even so, he gives it a lot of thought. He's alarmed by the fenced-in, safety-helmeted culture around American childhood: "If children are not permitted – not taught – to be adventurers and explorers," he wrote last year, "what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?" And it's a situation, he says, that has "only gotten worse. Getting people to be afraid not just of what will befall your children if you let them out to play, but of all kinds of things, including foreigners and terrorists, is immensely profitable."

In a more equivocal way (one of his chapters on this is called "Hypocritical Theory"), he finds himself worrying about the exploitation of fart-and-snot humour by profit-minded grown-ups. "Tropes and jokes that adults never would have gone near, and would have disdained to traffic in not that long ago," he says, "are now actively employed to snare children's attention, and ultimately their income." What bothers him isn't the jokes and tropes themselves but "the co-opting of kids' consciousness": naughty playground rhymes should be an adult-free zone. Acknowledging various contradictions ("I'm not a media critic, but . . ."), he's also uneasy about the slickness of the entertainment industry's products aimed at children. "A lot more money, talent, craft and intelligence get lavished on things that are ultimately just designed to make a quick killing. In an earlier time, lousy TV shows were made by big movie studios for the networks, but there was a kind of disregard for the whole business that could be inviting in a way. Everything seems much more calculated now."

Doctor Who, to which his family is devoted, is exempted from these strictures; one of his subsidiary missions in London involves stocking up on Who-related merchandise. The show's capacity for inspiring "conversational riffing and Talmudic debate" is part of the appeal: born in 1963, Chabon has warm memories of the more rickety, and therefore more imaginatively inhabitable, entertainments on offer in the early 70s. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, he had the run of the neighbourhood, as fewer kids do these days. His father, Robert, a doctor and lawyer, introduced him to comics, the Marx Brothers and Star Trek, and Columbia itself – a planned community opened in 1967 – offered the future novelist further lessons. "It began with a blank expanse and a map that said, 'This is what's going to happen.' And it happened. All these streets that had been named came into being, and I was there to witness it. It showed me that the things you could map in your imagination could take on a kind of reality."

Columbia "was one of the first places in that part of the United States to welcome black homebuyers, and you had white families moving there because they believed in that. There were interfaith centres, where Protestants and Catholics shared the facility with Jewish congregations; there were bike paths everywhere – it was distinctive and different and the people who built it really believed in it." In consequence, he was, he says, "ill-prepared" for the gloomier realities of American life, which began to get through to him after his parents' divorce, when his father moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his sophomore year at college there, Chabon got a job in a bookshop. "At Christmas, they hired off-duty policemen as security. This one cop would stand by the cash register, and every time a black person came in, he unleashed, sotto voce, this torrent of the most vile abuse. Outside movies or books, I'd never heard anything like that."

Pittsburgh – which Chabon, a fan of British rock bands as well as Monty Python, MR James and Michael Moorcock, describes for English audiences as "sort of like Sheffield" – was his city of experience and early manhood. He first wrote about it in a sustained way, however, while doing a master's in creative writing in California, where his mother, Sharon, a lawyer, moved in his undergraduate years. Having exhausted such literary models as Arthur Conan Doyle and Ray Bradbury, he was absorbing the influence of "probably too many writers to name" – among them Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Raymond Chandler, John Updike, Philip Roth and F Scott Fitzgerald. Harold Bloom's notion of "the anxiety of influence" makes little sense to Chabon; as he sees things, "influence is bliss". He remembers being blown away by the opening of Rabbit, Run "and writing something in shameless imitation of Updike after reading it. I just copied the writers whose voices I was responding to, and I think that's probably the best way to learn."

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), his first novel, which was written as his master's thesis, made him famous in his mid-20s and became a bestseller. (It also briefly got him labelled a gay writer: same-sex desire is no big deal in his work.) For five years afterwards he struggled with a follow-up, a massive novel called Fountain City, which he eventually abandoned. Doubts about the contemporary novel's vitality weren't part of the problem. "I'm not speaking of any particular person's public fretting on the subject, but I think that frequently there's – at least in part – an attempt to globalise an anxiety that all writers feel almost every day: what the hell am I doing? And why? There's a tendency to say, 'Not only do I suck but this whole damn world sucks.' The death of the novel's been proclaimed my whole life. Philip Roth wrote that piece around the year I was born, lamenting the fact that fiction can't compete with American reality . . . I guess I feel that, if it's true, then what's the point of worrying about it? And if it isn't true, then go back to work."

His first book's success did, however, put a strain on his relationship with Lollie Groth, a co-student at the University of California, Irvine, whom he married in 1987. They divorced in 1991, and in the stories he wrote as the marriage broke up, "there's a lot of hopeless hovering around the question of the possibility of marital happiness. But I came out of that period. I'm a perpetually disappointed optimist. I don't have any illusions about people's behaviour, and I'm perfectly capable of seeing the worm in the bud and ascribing base motives to my fellow human beings, and to myself. It's not that I think everything happens for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But optimism is just an animal reaction. It's not something I necessarily subscribe to, even; I just can't help it. You could call it denial but – to be hopeful requires a kind of singleminded disregard of everything that would give you reason for despair, and that is a kind of denial, but in a good way."

Another effect of the end of his first marriage was an increase in his interest in Judaism, which eventually led to the Pulitzer-winning Kavalier & Clay, a novel much concerned with Jewish lore and experience. When he was growing up, being Jewish "was part of who we were as a family, but it didn't seem to have any particular use when I was in my teens and 20s." It didn't seem important when he married Groth, who isn't Jewish, but whenever they talked about children, he discovered that he had visceral feelings about their upbringing. "I started trying to reconnect even before I met my present wife. I also got back in touch with some of the more literary heritage of Judaism, and it was very exciting. There were these cables that had just been lying there, and as soon as I plugged them in, this whole new unit that I hadn't been using powered up."

Waldman, an Israeli-born writer and lawyer whose novels include the splendidly titled "Mommy-Track Mystery" Playdate With Death, played a big part in his reconnection too. They married in 1993 and live in Berkeley, California, writing at back-to-back desks when not parenting. A high-profile figure in her own right, Waldman was castigated on The Oprah Winfrey Show after arguing in a 2005 New York Times piece that parents should love each other "even more than they love the children". Combined with their enviable lifestyle, her somewhat uncensored utterances – she is bipolar – concerning their marriage and sex life attract a fair amount of backbiting from New York media blogs. Asked if Berkeley's distance from the East Coast publishing world is one of its attractions, Chabon says emphatically: "Yes. I'm very grateful that I don't try to get work done in that environment, where everyone knows everything about everyone and how much someone got paid for this or that . . . California doesn't have that overheated atmosphere at all."

In the 10 years since Kavalier & Clay, he has been determinedly unsnooty in his work, writing, among other things, a young adult novel, Summerland (2002), and promoting "the great work being done by people who are categorised, or ghettoised, as genre writers". For a while there was talk of his doing a collection of stories along the lines of "In the Black Mill", a horror tale he wrote as "August Van Zorn", his Lovecraft-like alter ego. "It didn't work out because I kept writing things that were too long. One of them was meant to have been a Sherlock Holmes story, but that came out as a novella, The Final Solution. It was the same with Gentlemen of the Road: I couldn't contain my prose sufficiently to generate a collection of short stories." The novel he's currently working on, which he describes as "somewhere between short and massive", is more naturalistic. "So far there's no overtly genre content: it's set in the present day and has no alternate reality or anything like that."

All the same, he's perhaps the only heavyweight novelist going who's as happy to talk about the prose of Larry Niven, a hard science fiction writer he admired in his early teens, as he is to enthuse about Our Mutual Friend. "Maybe if I was going to start a new series of opinions to follow up on this," he says, gesturing at a copy of Maps and Legends, "instead of worrying so much about genre and entertainment, I'd look more at style, and sentence, and voice, because that's what it all boils down to. I'm an avid reader of biography and history, but I would still rather read a great novel about a time or a place – I'd feel like I hadn't really understood it otherwise. So novels are incredibly useful, I think, but whatever other uses they have, primarily their use is to bring pleasure, and they still bring pleasure to a lot of people."

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