Jewish Journal


November 8, 2007

Adventures of Tom & Chabon


Novelist Michael Chabon

Novelist Michael Chabon

Novelist Michael Chabon has an agent, Steven Barclay, who handles his speaking engagements and who scheduled my interview with Chabon for 8:15 a.m. on the morning of Halloween. When I asked Barclay what self-respecting writer does interviews at 8:15 a.m., he said: "A very busy one."

Point well taken.

Chabon, whose first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," was written as his master's thesis at UC Irvine, and who currently lives in Berkeley with his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, and their four kids, will come to Los Angeles on Sunday, Nov. 11, as part of the inaugural Celebration of Jewish Books at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism).

Chabon's novels also include "Wonder Boys" (which became a Curtis Hanson film with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire), as well as the Pultizer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which tells the story of a comic-creating duo set in the 1930s and '40s, during the golden age of comics and, not coincidentally, the time of the Holocaust. His recent works include "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," a murder mystery that imagines an alternative history, in which after a failed creation of the State of Israel, many Jews create a homeland in Alaska, and the just-published "Gentlemen of the Road," a swashbuckling epic of 10th century Khazari Jews in Central Asia, which Chabon originally wanted to title, "Jews With Swords."

Chabon is that rare writer who can provide delight in his embrace of culture both high and low, and whose work is enjoyed for the beauty of his sentences, the wordplay he engages in and the ambition of his novels. At the same time, although his novels consistently feature Jewish characters, he is rarely characterized as "Jewish" novelist. Given his appearance at the Celebration of Jewish Books, I set out to discuss the Jewish nature of his work. The following conversation has been edited for narrative coherence (words in brackets are mine, not Chabon's).

Tom Teicholz: Sometimes when I read the questions I'm going to ask, such as, 'So what it is with you and the Jews?' I feel like I'm writing for Der Sturmer instead of The Jewish Journal. But that is my first question. Your books seem to be getting increasingly more Jewish or more filled with Jewish characters.

Michael Chabon: That's a good way of putting it.

TT: Do you notice this as well? Is it conscious? Does it have anything to do with raising four kids?

MC: I think the answer is 'yes' to all of those questions. It's both conscious -- certainly I notice it -- it is both conscious and unconscious.

TT: Are you surprised by it?

MC: Not anymore. It feels very natural and inevitable. I definitely crept in through the back door in terms of including Jewish characters and Jewish themes and subject matter in my work. It was always present. If you go back and you look at my first book ['The Mysteries of Pittsburgh'], you can see it there, as well; the gangsters in my first novel are Jewish gangsters.

But in terms of being not only conscious but subconscious about it, I think that is a development that's probably tied in ways I don't even understand to the experience of having children and making a family and finding a way of creating a Jewish home that felt honest and comfortable and true to me and to my wife, but that also felt meaningful and authentic.

TT: I find that living in California is very much about trying and being able to create your own way.

MC: Absolutely, I agree completely.

TT: It applies to Judaism, and it applies to you -- you are someone who is creating your own worlds in your books.

MC: Yes, definitely. We just came through the experience on Saturday -- my oldest child, my daughter, Sophie, had her bat mitzvah.

TT: Gosh -- mazel tov.

MC: Thank you. It was wonderful. And we very much did it ourselves. It was an independent bat mitzvah. She studied independently with a teacher, a lay teacher, who then led the service, along with my daughter; my sister-in-law, who's a cantor, sang, and I made the siddur myself.

So we're definitely part of that overall experience (and certainly not just by any means Jewish experience) [that is] part of the California ethos to find your own way to do things -- whether it's spiritual things or creative things or putting Thai barbecue chicken on a pizza.

TT: Your subject matter has gone from Jewish gangsters and gay protagonists ('The Mysteries of Pittsburgh') to drunken pot-smoking, failed novelists ('Wonder Boys') to comic books ('The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay') to Yiddish policemen ('The Yiddish Policemen's Union') and now Jews with swords ('Gentlemen of the Road'). It almost seems as if you're tempting fate to find what would be by definition a less commercial subject and then make it charming.

MC: I guess the best way to explain it is I have a lot of ideas and a lot of different things occur to me in the course of my working life. Certain ideas just seem to lodge in my brain. I find myself thinking about them for so long that I finally realize that the reason I keep thinking about them is that I'm meant to write about it. At that point, I just go for it, and I don't give any thought at all to who's going to want to read this or is there anyone actually interested in this subject at all besides me.

In the case of the latest one, it sort of all came to me at once one day when I took my kids to the Santa Cruz Beach boardwalk, and I had my notebook with me. I spent the day waiting while they rode on the rides -- sitting on benches and taking notes for this strange adventure story set among the Khazars.

After that day was over, I put the notebook away, and I had other things I needed to do. I kept thinking about those two guys, and when The New York Times called and offered me a chance to write a serialized novel about three years later, the first thing that popped into my mind were the notes I had taken that summer day three years before. And I found this desire to do it was just as intense as it was that day.

TT: How did you stumble into the Khazars?

MC: I just must have read about it. I was always interested in Jewish history, generally. As a kid, I had books of strange and surprising facts from Jewish history. I think most Jews are interested in the subject of the lost Jews of history and various surprising groups of Jews: The mountain Jews of Central Asia and the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng and the Jews of India and African Jews, and all those odd pockets of the world where you find Jews.

That's a perennial subject of fascination and has been, going back to the Khazars themselves. I just shared in the greater fascination that Jews tend to have for these strange lost races of Jews throughout time.

To share your fascination with Michael Chabon, travel this Sunday, Nov. 11, to American Jewish University.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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