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Michael Chabon has written six novels, guest-edited several anthologies, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. His writing is as versatile as it is skilled—whether chronicling the golden age of comics, the vagaries of baseball, or the mysteries of Pittsburgh, he treats his subjects with expertise and understanding. His latest book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, chronicles the misadventures of a down-and-out detective in a meticulously, persuasively imagined Jewish settlement created in Alaska in the wake of the Holocaust, and in lieu of Israel. The A.V. Club recently caught up with Chabon on tour in support of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and talked to him about how he works, what he thinks about genres and research, and why his website's gone stale.
The A.V. Club: How did you decide to set The Yiddish Policemen's Union—which has a very straightforward plot—in this counterfactual setting?
Michael Chabon: It was really the other way around. I started with the setting and tried to settle on a way of presenting it that would help with all the unfamiliar things I'd be demanding of the reader. [Sitka, Alaska] started with this book called Say It In Yiddish that I've had for years and years now. It's a phrase book for travelers. When I first encountered it—and to this day—I was struck by the mysterious nature of this phrase book, because it was not apparent where one was intended to travel. About 10 years ago, I wrote an essay where I set those thoughts down, imagining possible places where this phrase book might come in handy, and dwelt a little on a proposal I'd read to permit Jewish refugees to settle in Alaska. After this essay was published, I still found myself thinking about this Alaskan Yiddish-speaking territory I imagined. I decided it might be fun to set a novel there.
AVC: The epigraph comes from "The Jumblies," a whimsical poem by Edward Lear. That doesn't seem apposite for a hard-boiled detective novel.
MC: Well, there's a strand of whimsy in The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I was thinking about that image: "Far and few are the lands where the Jumblies live." The idea of being scattered across many lands, and this journey imperiled from the outset, and yet in the end weirdly successful. That sounds like it characterizes, in many ways, the experience of diaspora.
AVC: A few of your books have these expansive but self-contained worlds––Kavalier & Clay, of course, and also Summerland. What's the appeal of creating these types of places?
MC: When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, when I was 10, 11 years old, the books that I loved obviously and openly fit that description: They came with maps and glossaries and timelines—books like Lord Of The Rings, Dune, The Chronicles Of Narnia. I imagined that's what being a writer was: You invented a world, and you did it in a very detailed way, and you told stories that were set in that world. [The Yiddish Policemen's Union] is the most thoroughgoing expression of that understanding I had as a kid.
AVC: Do you use research to submerge yourself into the outlook of a particular place?
MC: Research is part of it. I do a lot of research, reading, investigating, and talking to people, if that seems appropriate. But ultimately, it boils down to imagination. I'm afraid that sounds evasive or flip or insufficient or something. I always think of that famous story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman working on Marathon Man. To prepare for the drilling scene, Dustin Hoffman starved himself for three days, didn't shave, slept in his clothes, and arrived on set looking like a total wreck. Laurence Olivier said, "What on earth are you doing?" Dustin Hoffman said, "I'm preparing for the scene." Olivier said, "Have you ever considered acting?" [Laughs.] All the preparation in the world doesn't avail you if you can't make that imaginative leap and put yourself in the position of the characters you've created, to imagine what it's like to be somebody else.
AVC: Do you think it's more important to be plausible than true to a particular time and place?
MC: You have to take both into consideration. No matter how accurate you're being, if the reader won't buy it, there's no point in saying it. If your reader says, "I don't buy that," it's never your defense as a novelist to say, "But it's true." On the other hand, you don't want to betray the time and place you're writing about. You don't want egregious errors or flaws.
AVC: You've been very vocal about genre fiction being excluded by the "gatekeepers of the literary canon." What, in your mind, makes a genre?
MC: I don't have a problem with many uses of the word genre, just certain ones. I have the most trouble when these labels are used to prevent discussion, to prevent a work from being taken seriously as literature. When we say "genre," we generally mean "something crappy," something that would be sold in an airport. I hate to see great works of literature ghettoized, whereas others that conform to the rules, conventions, and procedures of the genre we call literary fiction get accorded greater esteem and privilege. I also have a problem with how books are marketed, with certain cover designs and typefaces. They're often stamped with an identity that has nothing to do with their effect on the reader. I subscribe to Sturgeon's Law, which is that "90 percent of everything is crud." I'm trying to say that they're all inherently equal—it's not what you do, it's the way you do it. The percentage of excellence isn't any higher in what's called literary fiction.
AVC: So you have a problem with how genre is used as a marketing tool?
MC: Partly as a marketing tool, and partly as a blunt instrument to knock fiction down into its place. When these labels are used to prevent discussion, to prevent a work from being taken seriously, on its own terms as literature, because of how it came packaged, that's what bothers me.
To me, it's about pleasure, and the pleasure of reading, and I like to define pleasure broadly, and let it catch a lot of different possible experiences you could have while reading. It seems so obvious to me. Maybe the ghetto-ization thing is easing a little bit. I was walking through an airport bookstore today, and in the general fiction section, I saw George Pelecanos, I noticed some science fiction tucked in there. I think the situation is improving.
AVC: How do you go from an idea for a project to some kind of stem to follow?
MC: Typically, I start with just a very vague sense of what I'm doing and where I'm going, what it's about. I might spend 100 pages trying to get to know the world I'm writing about: its contours, who are my main characters, what are their relationships to each other, and just trying to get a sense of what and who this book is about. Usually around that point of 100 pages, I start to feel like I'm lost, I have too much material, it's time to start making some choices. It's typically at that point that I sit down and try to make a formal outline and winnow out what's not working and what I'm most interested in, where the story seems to be going. Start over, in a way, but with a much clearer sense of where I'm going and where the story's going. That gets me through the first draft. Then I'll give it out to readers––my wife, agent, and editor—and solicit their feedback, take all their notes, and see which of them resonate, and then start it again. I've learned mostly that it's really long, it takes a long time, is often boring, you go through bad periods where you lose all sense of what you're doing, moments of doubt, and sometimes, but not always, you can push through that and eventually things start to pick up.
AVC: Do you have an audience at mind in any point?
MC: Not an audience per se. I have readers in mind, either actual readers or other people. Sometimes I might write something and think "Oh, she'll get a kick out of this." Generally it's more of an idealized reader, some version of myself, somebody that'll appreciate the kind of work I'm doing.
For example, Jennifer T. Rideout [from Summerland] was definitely created in the hopes that my daughter, and a lot of daughters, would find her to be a worthy and not-insipid heroine.
AVC: How does what you read affect your writing?
MC: My reading is guided by what I'm working on and reading for research purposes. I'll read works of fiction that tackle similar kinds of formal problems. When I was working on Kavalier & Clay, I read The Cider House Rules by John Irving to see how he telescopes the passage of time in that novel. On the other hand, my writing, on a larger level, is always a response to my history as a reader, as I mentioned earlier with Dune and this latest book. There's an ongoing Darwinian competition of ideas in my brain. Certain ones just stick with me. If they stick long enough, if the timing is right and I have the motive and the opportunity, then I will eventually try to write whatever that is. I think it's a pretty intuitive, impulsive process for me.
AVC: Your website has seriously downgraded in content in the last year. Is there a reason?
MC: I have to limit the amount of time I spend at a keyboard. I have wrist problems and hand problems. Partly, I got bored with it. It was always stale, it was always getting out of date. I was not adding new stuff, nor did I really feel like adding new stuff, but I hate a stale website. Websites are just so early 21st century.