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August 2008
Locus Magazine
Michael Chabon: Streams in a River
Michael Chabon was raised in a utopian community in Columbia MD, received a BA in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh, then an MFA at the University of California at Irvine. His master's thesis became his first novel, bestselling coming-of-age story The Myseries of Pittsburgh (1988). Other novels include Wonder Boys (1995), Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2001), Mythopoeic Award-winning YA Summerland (2002), and historical mystery The Final Solution (2004). The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), which combines the alternate history and hardboiled detective genres, won a Nebula, a Locus Award, a Sidewise Award, and a Hugo Award. Other books include Fritz Leiber-influenced historical adventure Gentlemen of the Road (2007), two story collections, A Model World & Other Stories (1990) and Werewolves in Their Youth (1999), and essay collection Maps and Legends (2008).
Photo by Liza Groen Trombi


Chabon writes a regular column for Details magazine, and has edited anthologies McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (2003) and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004), and Best American Short Stories: 2005 (2005), the latter notable for its inclusion of several genre stories. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife, mystery writer Ayelet Waldman, and their four children.
Excerpts from the interview:

“I didn't have any hesitation about drawing on different traditions in trying to write The Yiddish Policemen's Union; on the contrary, that was one of the things that was exciting about doing it. When I realized it was going to be both a hardboiled detective novel and alternate history, that was part of the reason I wanted to write it! I was curious to see how that would come out.

“I remember reading things which blended genres that way. Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr novels -- those are detective stories. (I liked them at the time.) And Larry Niven did 'Gil the Arm'. Blade Runner was noir and SF at the same time. So it was far from the case that I thought, 'Oh nobody's ever done this.' There was a tradition and I was fully aware I was drawing on it. I guess for me the new wrinkle (if there was one) was going to be the Jewish subject matter, bringing that in as a kind of key third element.

“I heard Yiddish a lot when I was growing up, though I was kept at arms' length from it by relatives who didn't really want me to know what they were saying most of the time. In the early '90s I found the phrasebook Say It in Yiddish in a bookstore, and I was really mystified and entranced by it. If I wanted to goof off a little, I would just pick it up and page through it.

“All phrasebooks are inherently funny, because they have this kind of absurdist, dadaist quality. Often it's hard to imagine real-life applications for the ready-made phrases that have been chosen for you. Then there's this further element that it was Yiddish, and premised on the idea that you could take this eminently practical book somewhere and use it. And yet there was no clue, on the jacket or in an introduction, where you would take it! Even in Crown Heights Brooklyn, there's no post office staffed entirely by Yiddish speakers where you need to speak Yiddish in order to buy postage stamps. It was so richly detailed in between the lines, it implied an incredibly detailed place. It was almost like the mysterious book in the Borges story that seems to imply an entire universe within its pages -- a magic artifact of a nonexistent place...”


“I'm a reader first and foremost, and the choices I make as a writer tend to reflect the choices I make as a reader. So when I'm trying to get going on a project I always ask myself, 'Is this something I would want to read?' -- something I wish I could read, something that seems to be missing on the shelf.

“A standard view of literary critics is that plot is an inherent weakness. That's a vestigial holdover from the Modernist movement in the early part of the 20th century, where painting abandoned figuration, music abandoned harmony, poetry abandoned meter, and to a certain degree fiction abandoned plot. Plot in fiction had become fairly conventionalized, and it probably did feel like something that needed to be loosened up, reexamined, questioned, challenged. I think plot, unchecked, does weaken the power of a work of fiction. If a novel is overly in service to its plot, there's always a diminishment of character and psychology. Plot and character are in an inverse proportional relationship to each other, for the most part. In my own work, I try to find a balance point. Some of Henry James' work is finely plotted. I think Turn of the Screw is his most perfect book, and it does find that balance: character is illuminated by the plot in an ideal way that we could all aspire to.”


“I want to write another novel for younger readers and I know what that's going to be, but I just felt that it had been since Wonder Boys in the early '90s that I had written a novel set in consensus reality -- modern-day America -- and I missed it. I was making things hard on myself for a long time, in that with everything I needed to say in the work I would have to stop and think, 'Well, did they have those back then?' Whether it was New York in the 1930s and '40s or in an imaginary Yiddish-speaking territory in the United States or in the Caucasus Mountains in the year 950, there was always a sense that everything I was seeing and hearing around me in my daily life -- grist for the mill for writers -- I was having to put through all of these filters, because there were no cars or no phones back then. It's stressful.

“So it's pleasurable for me to be working on this novel set now, here in Oakland and Berkeley. I love this place so much, and it turns out I actually know a lot about it. I understand it, and to be able to just put that understanding directly into practice in the work of fiction I'm writing is actually a relief. Nevertheless, I think a lot of the same concerns, themes, motifs, and even to some degree conventions, that I have been exploring in my recent work will find their way into this book.”

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