Writers ask about other writers’ working habits, maybe to gauge one’s level of looniness. You don’t strike me as being particularly loony, but are you? This is a passive-aggressive way for a younger writer to ask a more experienced and indeed famous writer what his work habits are, in other words.
I have a very regular schedule. I work five days a week, Sunday night to Thursday night, ten p.m. till three in the morning.
I’m a night person. As soon as I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted to, I stayed up as late as I wanted to. I just concentrate better at night. It’s quiet. The phone doesn’t ring. No distractions. I have a lot of distractions. My kids are asleep. I mean, that was my schedule before I had kids, but it’s turned out to be a really good schedule if you have kids.
I heard you sold your first story to the New Yorker at age 24.
His wife, Ayelet, not at all boastfully: He sold his first novel at age 23.
Sold your first novel at age 23. Most writers are still learning how to use a semi-colon at that age. What was it like being…famous?
I didn’t really feel like I was famous. No one that I was running into on a daily basis—like dry cleaners, people—knew who I was, so it’s not like there were people coming up to me and bothering me. I just was living an ordinary life. Pretty safely anonymous.
Has it changed now that Wonder Boys is out?
Yeah, I mean over time, and with this last book it seems like it got a lot of attention. Especially locally in the neighborhood now…
So if you’re in the grocery store people come up and hound you for autographs?
Only in Pittsburgh. Yeah, this one time in Pittsburgh—
Ayelet, perhaps a wee bit boastfully, now: That’s the only place he’s really famous, Pittsburgh.
So I was walking down the street, and this woman comes up, she came up along beside me and said, “Oh, hi. I just wanted to tell you I really like your book.” And that was weird, actually. I didn’t really like it too well.
Ayelet: The only place we can get a restaurant reservation using his name is Pittsburgh. I always try in San Francisco, and it never works.
What was it like, the transformation of Wonder Boys from paper to celluloid?
It depends which time you’re talking about. The first time I saw it the two of us were in the screening room on the Paramount lot, all alone. And we (one of Chabon’s offspring calls out, “Where are you?”) didn’t know if any of the jokes were going through. We were clinging to each other in fear—more of what other people would think of it, and we had no way of gauging that, because there was nobody there but us. So that was sort of a weird experience. But then the second time I saw it was at the premiere. There were a thousand people, and they were all laughing, and that was really fun.
Were you involved in it or…
Not at all. Not at all.
Ayelet: That’s not true. You had some—
They sent me the script every time the screenwriter turned in a draft. And I gave some feedback. But. I had no authority.
Were you on X Men then? How did that come about?
I wrote a treatment that was not, uh, used. At least that I was not paid for.
But now you’re writing the screenplay to Kavalier & Clay, right?
I am trying to adapt it right now.
Not this instant. Well, maybe unconsciously.
Is this the only thing you’re working on now?
Yeah. I’ve been trying to get this thing… I want to get a full draft in before the strike.
What’s it like writing a screenplay? I mean, your novels aren’t completely dialogue-heavy.
It’s a challenge trying to adapt this one. It’s lot of cutting, mostly. Leaving stuff out and trying to find ways of—just trying to boil it down to a coherent story, a simpler story.
Speaking of cutting things out, Kavalier & Clay is a huge, epic book. You must have done years of research. What was writing it like?
A lot of research. A lot of reading. A lot of work in libraries. New York Historical Library. We spent a month in New York City, just walking around.
I researched it for about a couple months before I started working, and then I researched continuously while writing. Stuff would come up that I never would have dreamed of but that I better be writing about—like Antarctica or the Golem or the Empire State Building—and I’d go do research.
Was there an image that started off the whole book? How did it start?
Mostly I just wanted to write about this time in our country’s history. I’ve always been really fascinated by this period, and I just wanted to write something set in New York in this time. I guess casually I’d been looking for a story, and then I read about Siegel and Schuster, the two guys who created Superman, and it just clicked in my mind. I could write about comic book guys. This is something no one had written about. It would be during this time, and that would be my way of dealing with that material. It also seemed like a likely subject for me because it was a partnership. It was about two guys, and I’d written about the relationship between two guys a lot, and it appealed to me. It wasn’t that I started with an image so much.
You stand out among other literary novelists of your generation in the sense that you’re not so preoccupied with postmodern, well, games. You write really strong, gripping stories. When you get to the end of a Michael Chabon chapter, you have to turn the page and read the next. What’s your secret?
Well I really like plotting novels. I do. As a reader, I prefer novels that are fairly plot heavy. I don’t read a lot of purely plot-heavy work, I don’t read a lot of mysteries or thrillers, I also like language, so if I find writers who combine the two, that’s my ideal, and that’s what I try to do in my own work, too. It’s old fashioned, perhaps.
I don’t really have any desire to be…long pause…new or different. I don’t feel a lot of pressure to be new or different, and I don’t think I’d be particularly good at being new and different, so I just try to write the kind of books I’d like to read. I mean, I’m sure that’s probably what everybody does, but in my case I like more traditional narratives.
Are there other writers here who you hang out with on a daily basis—like play poker, shoot hoops?
Locally, in Berkeley, there are a lot of writers but I don’t know any.
Ayelet: There’s the Writers Round Table.
Oh yeah, I belong to this thing in San Francisco called the Writers Round Table. It’s…
It’s very cute. Yeah.
Ayelet: It’s a bunch of old writers of a totally different generation. These guys are like all in their seventies and they get together once a month for lunch.
It started in the early sixties. I definitely—
Ayelet: He loves it.
It’s very enjoyable.
Both you and Ayelet being writers, is there any flow back and forth between you? Comments? Criticisms? Maybe…pillow fighting?
Totally. We rely on each other for all kinds of support. Critical. Plot stuff. Conferences where we just try to say, ‘Well, I’m stuck. I can’t think of a way to get him from here to there,” and she’ll say, “Why don’t you just … whatever.” “Oh my God, thank you!” And I try to do the same for her.
And that working energy, when you’re both working—do you get that?
Ayelet and Michael: We work at different times of the day. Just Michael: She works in the morning, and I work at night.
Ayelet: We’re each other’s first readers, and then we also…a lot of it is plot. Michael relies on my for plot, and I rely on him for style.
How long did it take to write Kavalier & Clay?
Ayelet: Four years, four months, four days.
So you had to wait that long to read it?
Ayelet: No, I read it throughout. Six drafts!
You were pretty sick of it in the end.
Ayelet: I don’t even know what the final version is like. I mean, I read the final version, but I can’t distinguish between the drafts. Neither can you….
Sometimes I forget.
Ayelet: What’s in it.
There are little things I think are still in it that aren’t in it.
What’s the one book you have absolutely nothing to say about?
There are a lot of books I have nothing to say about.
Ayelet: Pick someone dead.
You know, I don’t finish a book, I don’t even read more than a couple pages of a book if I don’t care for it, so I don’t think there’s ever been a book that I hated that I finished. Unless, that is, I was assigned it in college and had to. I don’t tend to like books that are about lowlifes and, like, junkies. The same goes for films. I’m just not into movies where people’s arms are falling off because they have so many track marks. But I did like Requiem for a Dream. Perversely.
Ayelet: Free spirits.
Or like the whole Bukowski, Charles Bukowski School—the whole post-bohemian, post-beatnik thing. And the Free Spirit thing. I don’t like Jack Kerouac. I don’t like William S. Burroughs. I don’t like Allen Ginsburg.
What writers did you admire, growing up?
When I was a kid I was really into science fiction, and Ray Bradbury was the first writer I totally adored for his writing. This was beautiful writing. At least it seemed that way to me when I was eleven. I was really into Henry Miller when I was in high school. Which, I guess, was verging dangerously on Jack Kerouac territory. But it was a whole lifestyle thing with Miller, like the idea of running off to Paris and drinking a lot of wine and having sex with prostitutes. That was kind of appealing to me when I was seventeen.
Did you ever run off to Paris?
I did, yeah. It was a lot duller. My life was a lot duller. Then there was Marcel Proust, John Cheever, Nabokov. Borges. I really liked—there’s a pretty unknown, at least in this country, ghost story writer named M. R. James. I keep adding… S J Perleman. John Collier.
Was S J Perleman a big influence on the humor in Kavalier?
I think so. Indirectly. S J Perleman definitely helped me shape my notion of what—what that time was like. And I think Sammy’s notions of humor are directly shaped by Perleman. Generally, though, I do think there’s a Perlemanian tone to the writing.
Do you collect comic books?
I did as a kid. I had a big collection. My dad used to supply me with the comics, and I loved them and read them for probably a ten year period starting when I was six.
You grandfather worked in the business, right?
He was a printer. But he was retired by the time I came along. No. He still worked when I was really little. That was back in the thirties and forties. He worked in a plant, in the movie-poster side, I think, and he’d bring home bags filled with free comics for my dad to read when my dad was a kid. So my dad really was sort of indoctrinated. He felt like it was his duty to do the same for me. And I’m doing the same thing for my kid. I’m trying with my daughter but she’s not really interested.
So somewhere here in this house there’s a huge, mythic trove of comic books?
Well I have some out in my office, some of my old collection, a small fraction of it. He’s starting to acquire his own collection. He’s always telling people, “Be careful, it’s very delicate!”
Have you been asked to speak at a lot of comics conventions?
Yeah. It’s just…all of a sudden. I’ve become Comics Guy.
Do your parents read your work?
This book, yeah, especially this book—I dedicated it to my father. He was really touched. And my mom is obsessively checking my Amazon.com ranking.
Ayelet: At least you’re not!
Oh, yeah, I know! I rely on her. She says, “Well, you’re at three hundred and seventy five, honey.” Probably they’re relieved it’s not about either of them.
Ayelet: That’s always what they’re… Michael likes to torture them. Whenever he has a book coming out, and they’re like, “What’s it about?” “Oh, it’s about a doctor…who cross dresses.”
I always say it’s about a crossdressing pediatrician.
Your dad’s a crossdresser?
No. But he was a pediatrician. He’s always afraid of anything I say about any father I write about. He thinks people will automatically assume it’s about him. No matter what. And they do.
Ayelet: Like my grandmother is totally convinced his father’s a gangster, and she tells people that.
You have to watch what you say around writers.
I know. I love that…
Our neighbors—I went over there, and something was going on, something crazy in the house. And the guy, the husband said, “I don’t want to see this in any of your books.” And I said, “Too late.”
Where do your ideas come from?
My ideas are just… I can hardly stop them. They’re just—
Ayelet: At this point he has enough for both of us. He’s Idea Head. Every day he has a new idea for a novel he thinks would be great.
I just— Something will strike me. I don’t know. I just…I don’t know. I’ll hear stories sometimes. I’ll remember something that happens to me, and I’ll think wow, that’s a great idea for a story, or in the case of this book I just wanted to write something set in New York in the 1940s. How am I going to do that? Other books have started more with a picture in my mind. Wonder Boys began with an image. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—I just wanted to write something about summer. Something that would take place over the course of a summer. That was it. As vague as that. Sometimes you just get these What If? ideas. What if I decide to write that story about the woman who was raped and gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby?
Ayelet: Where did you get the idea for that?
It just came into my mind. I don’t know. I just wrote this very weird horror story, this What If? story, where clowns were real. What if clowns are just pretending to be people wearing white makeup.
You write on the computer?
I write on the computer. I had a teacher in college—one of my first writing teachers—and she was a really staunch…she was a tough teacher…and she set a lot of rules you had to just obey. And one of them was that you had to write at the typewriter. Not longhand. She said that your handwriting would disguise your writing, and because it was your handwriting you would tend to be much more forgiving of things. When it’s in a neutral typeface, you can be much more critical.
As soon as I heard of a personal computer, I bought one. It was called an Osborne. It was an early portable, more like a luggable, really.
I can’t keep up. My hand can’t keep up, and I find that very frustrating. If I have a complicated sentence in my mind but it’s going to take me five minutes to write it down longhand, I may just not bother in the first place. I might write something easier. I mean, as soon as I started writing at the typewriter, I was very comfortable.
Now I write at the computer. I think it encourages you to rewrite much more. It’s so easy to take the first sentence of your paragraph and move it to the last sentence, and then you suddenly say, “You know, this might work better.”
What’s the one writing lesson you’d give out every time?
To me it’s all about the schedule. It’s about discipline. Keeping waking hours. That’s what I try to hammer home with student writers—to fix and maintain a very regular work schedule. To work a set amount of hours every day, five days a week, even if it’s only an hour a day. To me that’s what it’s all about. To me it’s all about putting the time in, generating the material, and the only way to consistently do that is by working every day. And then, if you do have a steady work schedule like that, it removes a lot of the pressure, because even if you have a horrible day, you know you’re going to be back there the next day. It’s not like you’re like, “Oh, I finally managed to find a seven hour period this Saturday. I’m not going to do anything but write.” But then you have all this pressure on you to perform. I had this teacher, and the way he formulated it was, If you want to write a novel, you’re going to have to sit on your ass.
Are there times when you’re blocked?
No. I’m always either working or taking a break. Maybe when I finish a project—if it’s a small project, I’ll take a few days; if it’s a big project, I’ll take as many as two weeks off.
No writing at all? Just listening to music?
Sometimes. I tend to like power pop. Melodic with an edge. That’s me.