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Writers on Writers: Scott Hutchins Meets Michael Chabon on his Home Turf

Scott Hutchins | May 28, 2013 | Story Profiles

I’m at Pizzaiolo on Telegraph Avenue, in the Temescal district of Oakland. It’s 8 a.m.—the exact minute the restaurant opens—and Michael Chabon apologizes profusely for the early hour. I tell him not to worry as I shed my bag, scarf, coat, sweater. I left San Francisco dressed as a San Franciscan, and the huff from the MacArthur BART station and the ticking East Bay sun has me pulling at my collar, overheated. If it were allowed, I’d take off my shoes.

Chabon is comfortable in loose jeans and a cowboy snap shirt. It’s his town, after all. He’s just dropped his two younger kids off at their nearby school (the older two attend Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco). The employees in the restaurant know him and greet him warmly. He still feels bad about how early it is. “But they have the best doughnuts here,” he says. “And great coffee.”

Behind his geek-chic glasses with a fleur-de-lis on either arm are large, blue eyes that—for all his genuine affability—watch you closely. I again assure him that the early hour is no matter for me, but I don’t tell him the full truth: I owe this guy. And I owe him big. Some years ago, I was bottoming out, as a person and as an artist. I was broke. I couldn’t see a day in front of myself. Even more than a writer, I’m a reader, and I wandered the aisles of the library looking for signs. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—I checked it out and read it in one sitting. Then Wonder Boys. Then The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I ate those books. In my dark and disconnected life, I had come across worlds of effortless delight, of cosmic warmheartedness. I was high, I was low. I was entertained. I was enthralled. I was, above everything, alive. That’s what great books can do, and it was my honor to meet their author. Eight a.m.? I would have been here at five.

So I ask for the famous doughnut and coffee, but Chabon pulls a little breakfast jujitsu. He orders an austere bowl of granola (his “usual”) and milkless black tea. As we dig into the food (the doughnut is fantastic), I wonder if I’ve just witnessed a metaphor for his fictional technique. He talks dessert, sugar, pleasure, but at the core, he offers something more sustaining. Maybe even good for you.

Michael Chabon is the author of five critically acclaimed, bestselling novels, as well as novellas, short stories, TV pilots, books for younger readers, and a serial novel. He’s won many awards, most notably the Pulitzer. He’s the chairman of the board of MacDowell, the venerable artist colony in New Hampshire. He has a famous marriage to the writer Ayelet Waldman, who was nearly torn limb from limb on Oprah for asserting the primacy of her love for Chabon over her love for their children. (To be fair to the audience, she put it in more colorful terms.) He’s a father of four, all California-born, the younger three born in Berkeley.

Chabon’s writing life is deeply tied to California. He received his MFA from UC Irvine and lived for a spell in Los Angeles, but his California journey began and has continued in the Bay Area. His mother, the “original settler,” moved to Oakland when he was still in college in Pittsburgh. On his first visit out here—at age 20—his mother zipped him from the airport to a Mexican restaurant in Fruitvale. He felt instantly at home. “Pittsburgh didn’t even have Taco Bell,” he says. He loved the light, the people, the diversity. “Monocultures—Sweden, China—make me nervous,” he says. “But I guess because I’ve always felt like an outsider, I feel really at home around other outsiders.”

This instant feeling of home, however, applies only to the East Bay. “I remember going up the Montgomery Street escalator into San Francisco that first trip. I was so excited. City Lights. Dashiell Hammett. But I just got this feeling of insignificance—you’re not welcome here. We don’t need you.”

He struggled against this feeling for the entire trip, and years later he did briefly live in San Francisco just before he and Waldman married. But he never warmed to the city. Or maybe it never warmed to him.

“It can be like that,” he says. “Sometimes you really fall for a city. Sometimes a city falls for you.”

Is it the urbanism of San Francisco? No. Some difference in the people? Not that, either. “We visit our big sister a lot,” he says of the city. “We have friends there. Sometimes we go to a museum or to the movies.” But his smile turns mischievous as he describes a perfect, sunny, lush East Bay day—swimming, shorts, and a T-shirt—that concludes at a friend’s in St. Francis Wood, miserably shivering. “So it’s the weather?” I say.

“The only word for it is ‘metaphysical,’” he says. “This is home.”

Page two: Why Chabon is our Charles Dickens.

Yet, for all of the East Bay in Chabon’s life—his children, his friends, his home—there’s not much of it in his fiction. In his first four published novels, he does Pittsburgh, then Pittsburgh again, then New York and Prague, then alternate-universe Alaska. Telegraph Avenue, his most recent, is his first Bay Area book. He claims that this strange (disloyal?) delay has nothing to do with Berkeley/Oakland and everything to do with the vagaries of the project. “It started as a TV pilot,” he says, “that never got picked up.”

Their loss. Telegraph Avenue is a brilliant tapestry of a story, filled with intersecting character arcs, people from different classes and races, and much pregnancy and birth (which make for good TV, right?). The happenings revolve around Brokeland Records, a struggling vinyl temple on the border of Berkeley and Oakland. Brokeland is also the neighborhood, so astutely named that it’s hard to believe Chabon made it up. It roughly centers on the Temescal area of Telegraph Avenue, and there’s much to recognize in its portrayal. Temescal is chockablock with Ethiopian restaurants, and the Ethiopian drink suff plays a key role in the book. But the record store itself is entirely invented. “There’s a great place now—Stranded Records,” Chabon says. “But it came the same week that Telegraph Avenue was published.” Life imitates art.

In the book, Brokeland Records is what Chabon calls a “caravansary”—in other words, a meeting place, an oasis, a kind of neighborhood Timbuktu. But there’s a dark force on the horizon: the imminent arrival of a corporate music store, Dogpile Records, which, like the Tower Records of old, adds insult to injury by actually being good. One of the bittersweet pleasures of the book is watching the pitched battle between the two adversaries—neither of which, as we readers know, is likely to survive the Internet. In this way, Telegraph Avenue is a historical novel of our very compressed times. “I’m still inspired by the project of the 19th-century novel,” Chabon says. In particular, he cites Middlemarch.

“I wanted to give Brokeland, or the East Bay, or at least one corner of the East Bay, its due,” Chabon says. “I feel like San Francisco has, justifiably, gotten its share of literary attention. On this side of things, it’s Chez Panisse and Cal, the Oakland Raiders, and maybe Sly and the Family Stone and Tower of Power, and you’re kind of done. But there’s so much more to this area. I wanted to shine a little light on this side of the bay.”

Chabon mentions the work of Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver) and Eric Miles Williamson (East Bay Grease) as notable exceptions to the dearth of East Bay novels. “But there’s not a lot,” he says.

I say that I find the situation in San Francisco to be fairly similar—we have Tales of the City, of course, and The Joy Luck Club, but for a city that punches so far above its literary weight, there aren’t that many portrayals of San Francisco. Chabon quickly agrees. “There are a lot of writers associated with San Francisco,” he says. “But there isn’t a Bonfire of the Vanities of San Francisco. Or a Humboldt’s Gift.”

We puzzle over this conundrum.

“It might just be the distance from the New York publishing world,” he says.

We look outside. Late February, now well into the 70s. Today, it’s hard to regret that distance.

For a week now, I’ve been trying to place Chabon in literary context—he’s our Jack London, say. Or our Faulkner. Or our Maupassant. Witnessing Chabon’s ease in his Brokeland surroundings and considering his near-constant literary output, I come across the right pairing. Chabon is our Dickens. He must have 200 characters to his name, from all walks of life. He orchestrates amazing plots. He’s both literary and enormously popular. His writing is bold in reach and subject matter. He has a precise ear for the particularities that make American speech (in Chabon’s hands) so current and alive. Plus, he’s a family man. In the Victorian era, you could count on about half of your children attaining maturity, so Chabon’s four children are roughly equal to Dickens’s 10.

There’s only one problem. Chabon has lost his taste for Dickens.

Page three: Brokeland loves Chabon.

“The most recent experience I had with him was trying to read Oliver Twist to my kids. They had no problem with the content or the language. They were totally carried along up to a point.” But 200 pages or so in, “when Oliver was firmly embarked on his criminal career, they were just like, ‘Uh, enough.’ He gets in trouble. He gets out of trouble. He gets in trouble. He gets out of trouble. He’s about to make his true nature understood to the world—but then they come back and they get him again.” His kids wised up. “They said, ‘Dad, is it going to be like this the whole book?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, basically.’”

More than that, though, there’s a piety and a manipulativeness in Dickens’s tone that grate on Chabon. “It’s like when somebody points out the tambourines in Motown music. Suddenly, you can’t hear anything else.”

I’m sorry to hear the tambourines in my own epiphany—mostly because I love Dickens and I love Chabon. I think that people today hold Chabon close to their heart in the way that Dickens’s contemporaries held him.

Still, Dickens was a miserable man. And a bad father. Maybe he’s not such a great role model.

“Who knows,” Chabon says. “I might like him in my dotage.”

Breakfast is over. Chabon hurries out—he has his East Bay life to tend to. And at once I realize that Dickens was a bum comparison—in part because Dickens was from a different world. Nowadays, as a teacher of mine used to say, there’s no such thing as a famous writer. Right?

I turn to the woman sitting next to me in the restaurant. “Have you ever heard of Michael Chabon?” I ask.

She nods. “The Adventures of...” “Kavalier & Clay,” I say. “Right,” she says. “But I couldn’t tell you what he looks like.”

Outside, I keep up my polling: Have you heard of Michael Chabon? A young man with thumb-size ear plug holes: “Sorry—can’t help you.”

A woman in a floppy hat, the brim undulating like a sine wave: “Yes, of course. But I’m a part of the literary world here.”

The security guard at the bank: “Is that a business?”

Finally, in need of a haircut any way, I go to the Temescal Alley Barber Shop and pose my question to a barber sleeved in tattoos.

“Oh my God,” he says. “He’s, like, the nicest guy in the world.”

There you have it: three out of five. I can’t think of another living writer who could hope for such numbers. Michael Chabon loves Brokeland—and Brokeland loves Michael Chabon.

Scott Hutchins’s debut novel, A Working Theory of Love (Penguin), will be released in paperback this September. After years of considering himself a Missionite, he recently discovered that he lives in Noe Valley.

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