“It’s a family novel,” says Chabon, “revolving around two families that live in Oakland and Berkeley. The husbands are in business together in a used record store called Brokeland Records, and they also play in a band together. Their wives share a practice as midwives. One family is black and the other is white, and we meet them at the end of 2004 as their lives unravel and come together again over the course of about two weeks.” When a retired NFL quarterback, now a wealthy black media mogul, wants to open a mini-mall anchored by an enormous record store, the two families set out to protect their neighborhood from gentrification.
“I live in Berkeley, right on the Oakland-Berkeley line,” Chabon says. “Telegraph Avenue is kind of the central artery not only of the area but of the book and all of the characters. Telegraph is the dividing line.” Why set the story in 2004, then? “As a writer, I don’t live in the present,” he says. “I need time and distance to gain perspective and figure out what things mean to me. Also, the neighborhood I’m writing about, where the record store is, has changed over the last eight years, and 2004 was the moment it began to change.”
Chabon has kept busy since writing his last novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. “I have four children [with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman],” he says, “ranging in age from nine to 18, so I’ve done a lot of fathering.” Besides completing Telegraph Avenue, Chabon is working with his wife on a dramatic WWII series for HBO called Hobgoblins. Then there was the matter of the film John Carter, which Chabon co-wrote. The film has lost the Disney Company more than $200 million. “It was a colossal failure. Now, that was a lot of fun,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek. “The creature for John Carter looked like a giant carnivorous cotton ball.”
Still, Chabon finds great pleasure in screenwriting work, and Telegraph Avenue has been optioned by Scott Rudin. “He [Rudin] basically sent me to screenwriting school for a year and a half while I wrote draft after draft of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” says Chabon. That film has yet to be produced, but the project gave Chabon a calling card for Hollywood and membership in the Writers Guild of America. “Now my family has fantastic health insurance thanks to the WGA.”
Chabon is excited about the upcoming release of Telegraph Avenue. “At the moment, I’m still in the honeymoon period, where I think the book is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says. “This is the beautiful time, before a book comes out. It still has that sheen on it, and you haven’t gotten any bad reviews on it yet, and people haven’t come up to you to say, ‘I tried to read it, but couldn’t get past the first 25 pages.’ ”
But it’s doubtful Chabon has anything to worry about. The Atlantic Monthly has already predicted that Telegraph Avenue will be one of the “literary events of the year, akin to the release of Freedom in 2010.”
Michael Chabon is a featured speaker at this morning’s Adult Book and Author Breakfast.