Michael Chabon has just come back from a family vacation in Maine. He looks extremely rested and relaxed for a man who will publish two books within a six-month period. “It's been a busy time,” he says over coffee in a funky Oakland breakfast joint. “But Maine was great. We swam, took walks, kayaked and ran around in the meadow outside our house with our kids [he has four of them—all under 13].”
With his critically praised novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union (HarperCollins) still on bestseller lists, Chabon is preparing for the release of his new book, Gentleman of the Road (Del Rey), a fantasy set in the 10th century. Originally published as a serial in the New York Times Magazine, the novel, whose working title was Jews with Swords, is consistent with other Chabon novels in that it represents a complete departure from every other book he's written to date. “I try to frustrate expectations as much as I can by not repeating myself,” he says, smiling. “I'm all over the map and I want to continue being that way. I've gotten enough validation over the last several years to make me feel like it's okay for me to do what I want to do.”
Chabon found writing an episodic book stimulating. He had to plot out the book in detail in order to create the necessary suspense to sustain readers' interest week to week. “It was definitely challenging,” he admits. “Because plot doesn't come super naturally to me. Language is easier, but plot? That's hard. It's like writing iambic pentameter,” he adds. “But going back to my first novel [The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Morrow, 1988] and even in Wonder Boys [Villard, 1995], plot has always been very important.”
Chabon says the success of his earlier works has made him more confident about choosing what to write about, but he admits that the act of writing itself hasn't gotten any easier. “I still make the same mistakes every time.” He shakes his head and grins. “When I finish a first draft, it's always just as much of a mess as it's always been, and I've forgotten to do all the same things that I've been forgetting to do for 20 odd years now. My confidence may be somewhat misguided.”
That may be true, but Chabon doesn't make it easy on himself. It takes guts to write novels that differ so profoundly in story and setting with each new book. But what continues to engage him so deeply is precisely the difficulty of transporting his readers to the different worlds he creates inside their imagination. “Sustaining that act of seeing and inhabiting another place or person—whether it's the life of an English professor in Pittsburgh one weekend, or a Czech kid escaping Prague in a box with the golem, or two adventurers in Khazaria in the year 1000—that's the hardest part about writing,” he says. Yet he thinks that the effort of imagining being an English professor or an ancient Jewish warrior is identical and enduring. “I still have to put myself into a state where I'm feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching everything the characters are experiencing. Then I still have to find a way to get all that sensation into language and make it magically appear inside the mind of the reader. It's like that transporter in Star Trek. I have to break it down and beam it up and have it reconstituted in the reader's mind.”
And what form will the next imaginative leap take? At the moment, he's not working on anything, and he says this with a bit of joy. But he knows that it will be a “regular full-sized grown up novel set today, with no alternate realities.” Since he finished Wonder Boys in 1994, he hasn't set a novel in contemporary America, and he says he's looking forward to writing something that uses his memory, and “the present tense.”
But Chabon's most immediate work is one none of us are likely to see. He's rushing off from breakfast to join his wife, the novelist Ayelet Waldman, to work on a joint project. They are writing a version of their own Siddur (a Jewish prayer book) for their oldest daughter's upcoming Bat Mitzvah. In a way, it's classic Chabon—something completely different.
|Perle is the author of Money, a Memoir, recently out in paper from Picador.|