This month, five years since the publication of his last novel, the genre-defying Pulitzer Prize–winner Michael Chabon charts his most exotic territory so far: his own backyard. Set in the ever-changing stretch of Berkeley and Oakland that he calls Brokeland, Telegraph Avenue explores the intertwining lives of two families, one black and one white, during one tumultuous summer eight years ago.
Your new book started in the late ’90s as a cable TV series. What happened? I wrote a pilot, and I had to create an entire world. I thought it came out well, but it just died without getting filmed. My hard drive is littered with projects like that, where you think, “That’s it,” and move on. But maybe because I continued to live in the world of that show, which was set in the East Bay and touched on things like midwifery and used record stores, I couldn’t let it go.
Why midwives? It’s a fascinating job, where every day you’re experiencing this incredible miracle. It seemed like such a powerful kind of work, like whaling in Moby Dick.
What was your birthing process like for this book? I always start with the incredibly deluded notion that it’s not going to take very long, that it’s all going to be over by Christmas, like how wars are always supposed to be over by Christmas. But my first approach, which was essentially to novelize the script, turned out to be a disaster. After two years I was ready to quit. My wife [writer Ayelet Waldman] said you need to keep going because
I love these characters, and I really want to know what happens to them. So I went back and started from scratch. Depending on how you look at it, it took me 5 years or 11 years.
Why set the story in 2004? I knew that I wanted to have a band play a particular event, and I was running possibilities in my mind. I had these very strong memories of going to a Kerry fundraiser in the Berkeley Hills in 2004. It was a doomed moment—things weren’t going well for Kerry. And then I thought, if this is August, that’s about when Barack Obama first appeared at the convention and gave thatncredible speech. It all just clicked into place.
Even in our so-called post-racial America, crossing racial boundaries is tricky. Did you find writing black characters especially challenging?
I honestly did not think of them as black characters, I just thought of them as my characters. It feels good to stretch your imaginative muscles
and create characters whose experiences are very different from your own. I’ve written from the point of view of 10th-century French-Jewish swordsmen, of a German-American neo-Nazi, even of a parrot. No one would say, “How dare you appropriate the thoughts and feelings of a 10th-century French-Jewish swordsman.” They’d say, “You’re a novelist, you’re supposed to make shit up and imagine it.” That’s all I’m ever doing.
Where do you imagine your characters would be in 2012? Archy probably made a go of the real estate thing, but right as he was getting good at it, the market crashed. Maybe he went back to school and got that engineering degree. Nat is probably still trying to make a go of it. Times are tougher for midwives, so Gwen is probably practicing medicine by now, and Aviva, I bet, is thinking about retiring. She’s had enough of fighting with insurance companies and stuff.
What about the Berkeley you once called “oddball” and “outré” and “richer” than any place you've ever lived. Does it still even exist? A lot of those places I wrote about [in the mid-2000s] are gone. But others have come in. You still have all kinds of funny little shops that cater to the kind of people that like to know that there are other people like them. As some go out, others are born.