In the literary salon of Michael Chabon’s head, life is never dull.
“It is crowded,” acknowledges the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, speaking of his imagination. “I am always fending off competing ideas for new things that are sort of singing their siren songs to me while I’m supposed to be finishing something else.”
A private, mischievous smile flickers across his face, as though he is hearing the inner American Idol competition he has just described. Such is his Johnny Depp quality – black-rimmed glasses, scruffy beard, a vintage fitted suit and an open-necked floral shirt – that he belongs in a deep-red room filled with books and curios, reclining on a divan in the corner. But here he is, a literary peacock on a sleek leather sofa in an austere Toronto hotel, in town for the International Festival of Authors.
He could have stepped from the pages of one of his novels: He’s a character fully formed and unabashed, someone for whom ego is worn as comfortably as his pointed black shoes. Sometimes, before he answers a question, his blue eyes roll back slightly as he half-closes his eyelids, an outward sign of some sentence-summoning process.
And when they come out, they’re perfect. “I don’t think it makes sense to criticize me as a writer for overwriting. That’s how I write. It’s like criticizing Oscar Peterson for playing too many notes,” he says calmly. His new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is a richly populated, funny tale of two friends, Nat and Archy, one white and Jewish, the other black, bandmates and co-owners of Brokeland Records, a little empire of old vinyl. His similes and metaphors are breathtaking – the memories of one character, Titus, are “a scatter of images caught like butterflies in the grille of his mind” – but some critics consider them distracting.
Known as a “prose stylist,” prolific in his output – young adult novels, short stories, screenplays, mysteries, comic books, literary essays, non-fiction and novels (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2001) – Chabon doesn’t hold much back in Telegraph Avenue. In one scene, he deftly draws Barack Obama, then a senator. “I am a careful student of him,” says Chabon. “I know that character very well.” He insisted on his inclusion even after his editor tried to dissuade him. “[Obama is] thematically perfect, because that speech he gave in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention [about race] is what this book is about. It’s about the will to create a space … in which the emphasis is not our differences but our commonalities. We are going to unite around something that we all recognize we all care about equally passionately … and that’s what the record store is on this tiny level; the commonality is just vinyl and jazz.”
The most attention-getting part of the novel is Part 3, a 12-page-long single sentence about the neighbourhood and its denizens, including an escaped parrot. “It was what I needed to do then in the book,” Chabon says flatly. “At the midpoint of a novel with so many characters and so many thought strands, I had this longing to encompass them all in a single gesture in some way, and I thought immediately of a tracking shot in a movie, as in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie or Martin Scorsese or a Stanley Kubrick movie, where a tracking shot is a drawing sometimes, very intricate, around a particular location and giving you a sense, a strange sense, of simultaneity.”
His wife, Ayelet Waldman, saved the novel when the writing ground to a halt after two years. “She patched me up and gave me a little bit of a talking to,” Chabon says. “She reminded me of all the things that she loved about the book, and the things she was eager to see resolved.”
They have four children, aged 9 to 17. How do you do that? I ask him. Waldman, a former lawyer, is a bestselling writer too. They write daily at back-to-back desks.
“Would you like me to explain?” he queries.
I nod – a marriage of writers is not always easy. He has said that his first marriage to Lollie Groth, a poet whom he met at the University of California, floundered when he had overnight success with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was written as his thesis and submitted to publishers by his professor.
“It’s the birds and the bees,” he deadpans, barely suppressing a smile. Chabon laughs generously at his conversational prank, and then just as quickly turns serious again. “Our marriage and our family is at the centre of everything, so what’s good for one of us is good for everybody, and what’s bad for one of us is bad for everybody. It’s the family business.”
Together, they’re reportedly working on a series for HBO titled Hobgoblin. And they discuss the content of their individual work: She is his most trusted first reader, he says, and she lets him read her work, especially since she’s known for her brutal honesty about their sex life and family. Much criticized in hyper-parenting circles for writing in New York Times’ Modern Love column that she loves her husband more than her children, she went on to write a book about her non-Tiger-mom parenting style, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Last year, in response to Republican Michele Bachmann’s comments about the HPV vaccine, Waldman tweeted that she got HPV from her husband, who contracted it from his first wife.
Nothing seems to faze Chabon. He clearly has a permissive mind, open to ideas and the possibilities of what anyone might need to say or do. At 49, there’s a bravado about him in person and on the page. When asked about his confidence, he reaches into his bag of similes and pulls out the ideal one, suitably humble and domestic, with which to end the interview.
“It’s like cooking,” he says. “I am an experienced cook. I wouldn’t say I’m a master chef by any means, but I love to cook. And there’s no recipe that I would read and I would feel that I can’t do that. I would never feel that anything is beyond me. But that being said, I still ruin custard all the time by adding the hot liquid to the egg too quickly, and I have to be on my guard when I’m doing it. The mistakes are all there, waiting to be made.”