Michael Chabon Makes A Living

Author Michael Chabon in April 2001
He could be any mild-mannered father, taking his Superman-smitten son to a comic book convention.

But this is Michael Chabon, whose love of comic books led him to write another kind of book, a big zow-ee, wow-ee novel that won him (at age 37) the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. It's called "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," the tale of two cousins who create a Super Hero called the "Escapist." The scene is New York City in the 1930s and '40s.

Says the author, "I'd always sort of been harboring this idea of trying to write something that would be set in that period. It suddenly occurred to me that comic books, this thing I'd loved so much as a child, was really a great vehicle, a way into that material for me. That was what pushed me back to comics."

Actually, he was pushed back to the Golden Age of comic books. Chabon's two main characters struggle to decide what powers to give their Super Hero to distinguish him from other comic book characters.

But Chabon's novel is about much more than comic books. It's driven by the rhythms of Tin Pan Alley and Big Band sounds, a story about lost innocence and the meaning of love and family. Times Square, the Empire State Building, and the 1939 World's fair all play roles. Real-life figures like Harry Houdini, Joe DiMaggio and Orson Wells make appearances. So do the GIs heading off to fight Hitler, and the Jewish refugees who flee him.

When he wrote this book, did Chabon know where he was going? Had he outlined it in his mind?

Read an excerpt from
"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

"No. Absolutely not," says the author. "Typically, I don't do that until well along in the book. I subscribe to what I call the perdition theory of writing a novel, which is that you just try to get as lost as you possibly can."

The fact that he emerged, 639 pages later, with a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is still an "Amazing Adventure" for him.

But he seemed destined for literary fame. He first drew critical praise in graduate school, when his masters thesis was published: a coming-of-age novel titled "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh".

He never really had a day job, did he?

"Not since I've started publishing, no," says the author. "I mean that I sold my first novel when I was 23…and from that time, I have supported myself by writing of one kind or another."

He also did not have to put up with the rejection that writers sometimes suffer for a long time.

"Well, maybe," responds Chabon. "I take comfort in a famous saying by Flannery O'Connor, a great short-story writerm who said…I don't know exactly the quote…but: 'Anyone who has survived has enough material to last him or her the rest of his or her life.'"

The critics also loved his second novel, published in 1995. It was called "Wonder Boys".

"I wanted to write about teacher/student relationships, and I started with this initial image - this image of a student holding a little gun, sort of maybe thinking of killing himself, and the teacher coming upon him," Chabon recalls.

"Wonder Boys" became a movie, starring Michael Douglas as the teacher and Toby McGuire as the student. Like Chabon's first book, "Wonder Boys" was a relatively straightforward story.

But when Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's senior book critic, reviewed "Wonder Boys," he issued a challenge to the young author:

"I think Chabon is an enormously gifted writer and an extraordinary prose style and a remarkable facility with words… Okay, Chabon has proved that he's really good. Now it's time for him to take the next step up and just see if he can write something that gets out of himself, that's big and ambitious."

And Chabon remarks, "And it was just what I was thinking. But I was afraid."

He was afraid because he had spent five and a half years trying to write another complex novel, called "Fountain City" -- a big book he never finished, leaving him hesitant about starting another.

Yardley's commentary, says Chabon, "helped me so much, let's put it that way…to have this sort of avuncular hand placed on my shoulder, the last sort of vote I needed."

As it is in all of Chabon's books, homosexuality is an important theme in "Kavalier and Clay."

"Men's sexuality, I think, is…a much more fluid thing than our society really permits it to be," says the author.

And when he has written about men's relationships, there have been questions about his own sexuality.

"The things you write about people," he responds, "people automatically assume you must have done."

But he does not seem to care about such assumptions about his sexuality.

"I don't care… Who cares? What difference does it make?" he says. "I mean, what I do care about is knowing that I have a gay readership, a large gay readership. I mean, I hope I do. I hope I've held on to it."

Chabon has been married for eight years to Ayelet Waldman, a lawyer turned myster writer. They have three children. Their first meeting?

"We met on a blind date," says Ayelet. "I hadn't read any of his books before. But as soon as I read the books, I was nervous. And he was standing there with a bouquet of irises and wearing this shirt that made his blue eyes just pop out, and I had this remarkable reaction. I just thought, 'Now I can stop dating. This is the man I'm going to marry. And I proposed three weeks later. He accepted."

And did Chabon, too, know right away?

"Yeah, definitely," he says. "It was love at first sight. I just saw her, and she looked so beautiful, and it was…the thunderbolt!"

Chabon writes in his little studio behind the family's Berkeley, Calif., house. He writes through the night, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.

"I'm just a night person," he explains. "I mean, even before I had kids, it worked well for me."

In his studio, he is surrounded by his research books, his notebooks, and the computer where he has designed his own Web site: "I call it Bumps On My Head, and…it's a phrenological head that's sort of a vintage image."

Naturally, there's comic book art on the wall -- a drawing by Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America.

Observes Chabon, "Kirby just never stopped dreaming up worlds. And that is what I think writing is all about - dreaming up worlds."

He has now won the Pulitzer Prize. Does he feel a lot of pressure, because people are going to be closely watching his next book?

"No. I mean, yes, I do feel pressure, but I always feel pressure," he says. "I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I always have. But, then again, I don't know. I've never won a Pulitzer Prize before, so maybe it'll destroy me utterly, and next time you come talk to me, I'll be lying in a gutter somewhere."

Somehow, we kind of doubt that:

Fan at a book signing: "I totally love you. I love you. I've recommended your books to five book clubs. I read your books with a dictionary."

Chabon: "May I shake your hand?"

Fan: "How about a kiss?"

Chabon: "On the hand or cheek?"

Fan: "Cheek."

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