Michael Chabon's new novel, Telegraph Avenue, is about two deeply intertwined families in Oakland, Calif. — one black, the other white. The story takes place in 2004, mainly in and around a store owned by the two fathers. Called Brokeland Records and a haven for secondhand-vinyl aficionados, the store is suddenly threatened by a rich ex-NFL player's plans to build a megastore in the neighborhood. The mothers from each family are midwives in practice together, and their sons are involved in a complicated friendship. It's a quirky tale, told by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chabon with his typical enthusiasm for colorful description and elaborate metaphor. His style sometimes gets in the way of the story and he may test some readers' patience with a single 12-page sentence but, overall, his writing is just jaw-droppingly good.
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We talked to Chabon recently about his writing, his vinyl records and that 12-page sentence.
Q: Why set this story in Oakland?
A: I live in Berkeley, right on the Berkeley/Oakland line. I walked into a used-record store in Oakland one day back in 1999, and saw all these guys who were black and white sitting around shooting the breeze. I was struck by the way — at least at the moment I was in the store that day — they had succeeded in creating this magical space where all the other differences between them seemed to drop away and they were united by their common passion for vintage vinyl.
Q: You have one sentence in the book that's 12 pages long. What's up with that?
A: Well, I was beginning the second half of the novel, and felt I needed to check in on all of my characters and see what they were all doing. I thought, "What if I could do it with one sentence, and capture that exhilarating swoop you get from a tracking shot in a movie?" And then I thought about having a bird do it, like a bird's-eye view in a sense. Thus the parrot.
Q: Do you have a turntable?
A: I do. I listen to it every day while I work. You have to get up every 20 minutes to turn the record over or put on a new record. I discovered that it's a really good regimen to get the blood flowing. I've gone over almost completely to vinyl at this point.
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Q: What did you listen to while you were writing Telegraph Avenue?
A: A lot of the music that the guys [in the book] are selling — the sort of vintage soul jazz and jazz funk of the late '60s and into the mid-'70s. It was the perfect music for getting into the mood.
Q: Has your early career success, receiving the Pulitzer, made you feel pressure each time you come out with a new book?
A: It's stressful, and anxiety-inducing, because I write books to bring pleasure to readers. I'm anxious to find out if that's occurring or not. I hope it is, but sometimes there are people who seem to not derive pleasure from what you've written. And that's a bummer.
Q: Have your feelings about your writing changed as you've grown older? Your confidence?
A: Confidence when writing has never been a big problem for me. I have sort of a disproportionate sense of my own ability to write. I think what's really changed is that at this point I feel completely free to write about whatever I want to write about and to write in any genre I choose without worrying whether my writing will be taken seriously — [even] if I write a crime novel or something like that. It's part of a general sense now that I'm nearing the age of AARP membership. I just don't care what people think about me or say about me anymore like I used to. It's very liberating.
Q: You've called yourself an optimist. Is it safe to say you don't fit the stereotype of the dark, brooding writer?
A: I'm a pretty cheerful person, I have a pretty positive outlook. That's not a boast because I think my wife [the writer Ayelet Waldman] is definitely a pessimist, and that's proven in many, many instances to be a much more effective, pragmatic, useful way of looking at the world. Her pessimism is very frequently borne out, and therefore she's prepared for it when it happens. Being an optimist like me involves a lot of denial.
Q: What do you like to do when you're not writing?
A: I like to spend time with my four kids — my oldest is in her senior year of high school, the youngest is 9 — as well as cook, read and watch movies, probably in that order.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished the new Dave Eggers novel, A Hologram for the King, which I really liked.
Q: Are you already working on your next book?
A: No. My wife and I are developing a dramatic series for HBO called Hobgoblin, a World War II spy series. We gave them a script for a pilot and they liked it enough that they asked us to write a second episode, so we're working on that together. That's my only real creative focus right now.
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- Visit the AARP home page for quizzes, videos and much more