GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon is now widely considered one of the best contemporary American novelists. And each time he releases a new novel, it becomes a kind of literary event. It's no different this time with his book "Telegraph Avenue" that comes out this week. His publisher has set up a record shop on Telegraph Avenue, and it's a replica of Brokeland Records, the shop at the heart of the book.
The novel tells a story of two couples: Nat and Aviva, who are white and Jewish, and Archie and Gwen, who are African-American. The two men are friends and co-owners of that record store that straddles the Berkeley-Oakland border, and Aviva and Gwen work together as midwives. The plot follows these and other characters and touches on issues of race, sexuality and redemption. And Chabon says the way he came up with the idea was by first just imagining the world these characters inhabit.
MICHAEL CHABON: In this case, the world was a very tiny one. The initial seed was planted when sometime in the late '90s I - having just moved to Berkeley, I walked into a used record store. And I was struck immediately on walking into this place - first, you know, overwhelmed by the incredibly nostalgic, powerful odor of moldering records. And then I looked around, and what I saw was two guys were working in the store this day. One was a black guy, one was a white guy, and their customers were all standing around hanging out, and they were black guys and white guys too. And just at that moment, I was caught with a sense of - both of longing and of remembrance because I grew up in the 1960s and '70s in a place not far where you are right now, Guy.
RAZ: Yeah, I'm in Washington, DC.
CHABON: Yeah, Columbia, Maryland. And Columbia was a planned community that was built in the 1960s and was intended to be a place where people of different races could live together, could find affordable housing, and young families could grow up together. And when I grew up there, it did a pretty good job of hewing to those ideals.
And, you know, I moved many times after I left Columbia, and I encountered a lot of stark realities living in other parts of the country that made me realize what a sort of - in a sense, almost like a Brigadoon, you know? Like, a little sheltered oasis Columbia had been.
And when I walked into the record store, I just got a sense of return. And that was where it eventually emerged in the form of this book.
RAZ: A lot has already been written about the music in this book. There's a lot of references to old school jazz and R&B, almost like there's kind of a film score soundtrack behind or sort of embedded within the pages. How did you think about integrating music into the prose?
CHABON: Well, I listen to a lot of music. I mean, I listen to music while I'm writing anyway. I haven't always listened to music. But as soon as it became possible to conveniently and easily take music with me onto airplanes, I began to listen to music while I work. And what I discovered very quickly was that it was possible for me to program the music I listened to, to help get me into the proper frame of mind.
So when listening to this book - I mean, sorry, when writing this book, I listened to lots and lots of music. And as I went along the journey with Nat and Archie to try to kind of figure out what kind of music it was that they were most passionate about, that they specialize in their vinyl record store, that they played in the band together, I discovered this sub-genre or style of jazz, which became something that a lot of people call soul jazz and then transformed into something - some people call jazz funk.
What it really is is jazz with the backbeat restored to a place of prominence so that you could dance to it. I guess the more saturated I got in it, the, you know, the more it worked its way into the book.
RAZ: I know I've asked you about this in the past when you've been on the program, about your writing routine, because it's fairly rigid. You've talked about how you write sort of every day, Sunday to Thursday, 10 to 3 each day. But I was...
CHABON: 10 p.m. to 3:00 in the morning.
RAZ: Which is unbelievable. But I'm wondering how you actually constructed the sentences in this book, because, I mean, I can open up any random page here and find something that just seems like it couldn't have been written quickly. Or did they come out quickly?
CHABON: Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. You know, sentences are the purest, simplest, most pleasurable part of writing for me. And it's the part that comes the easiest to me. It is frequently the case that I, as I'm sitting and writing, I am hearing first the sort of advance - ghost isn't - ghosts come after. So I can't - whatever the opposite of a ghost would be. The harbinger of the sentence kind of begins to occur to me in a sort of empty, rhythmic form that has no real meaning yet, but just is a series of pulsing future syllables and clauses that are structured with a certain kind of rhythm to them. And, you know, instantaneously afterwards, the sense of the sentence fills in that empty vessel, and I'm just struggling to kind of keep up with it and get it down.
But there are plenty of other times where I'm just really working and working and working and working and trying to - I trample on that initial, beautiful, mystical sentence that emerged, and I kind of step on it and then it gets broken, and I can't remember how it went back together again, and I have to try keep fixing it and tinkering with it. And, you know, I love that aspect of it: the shaping of sentences, the crafting of sentences, that's the fun part of writing for me.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the novelist Michael Chabon. His new book is called "Telegraph Avenue." When you read - and maybe you don't, but I'm assuming that you must have come across at some point - somewhere where a critic has written Michael Chabon - one of the greatest living American writers. And...
CHABON: I hate it when they say that.
RAZ: And you've been on this program a few times, and I've met you. And you are a pretty regular guy. And I mean that in the most positive terms. I mean...
CHABON: Thank you.
RAZ: ...you grocery shopping in Berkeley and - but what do you - how do you feel when you read that stuff? I mean, you grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and single mom, and here you are. Many, many critics believe that - and many readers believe you are among the handful of the greatest living writers in America.
CHABON: You know, the truth is the part of me that's walking around grocery shopping and stepping in dog poop that somebody forgot to pick up and, you know, having to rush to get my kid at school - that part of me is so predominant, and I struggle so hard to sort of wrestle away from that side of my life to make space for the part of me that is just all about writing those sentences, that the - I don't know. There's not a whole lot left to spare.
So I've always had a pretty powerful sense of who I am and what I want to do, and I know I can write and I've known that since I was 10 years old. And I don't really think about it very much. I just do it. But all that being said, I have such incredible, lingering aftereffects. Even at the age of 49 - I'm going to be 50 next May - I still smart, deep down inside, every day from having felt like a doofus and a nerd and a geek, having been picked on and teased and everything from the time I was 10 years old to the time I was about 14 years old.
The effects of that period have never gone away. You know, when I hear people giving me the kind of praise that you're talking about, as much as it's, you know, it's very nice and everything, but there's a deep, important, crucial part of me that just says, you know, it just washes over. And that part of me says...
RAZ: That you can't be that. You can't...
CHABON: ...you're still a loser, though. You're still a loser.
RAZ: This book is out. It has been pretty well-reviewed - a few sort of lukewarm reviews.
CHABON: Cavils. Cavils.
RAZ: But by and large, they've been pretty amazing. Does that meananything, do you breathe a sigh of relief? I mean...
RAZ: You do?
CHABON: Yes. I mean, when it - where there are certain crucial reviewers, all I feel on receiving a favorable notice is a profound, immediate, you know, almost like bladder-releasing sense of relief.
RAZ: Even though you've won the Pulitzer Prize, even though you've been...
CHABON: It's not an active pleasure by any means. I mean, it's a pleasure, but it's that kind of absence-of-a-negative pleasure, just like, oh, thank God, I got passed out in this time. It's about exhaling. You know, I can still remember almost verbatim negative criticisms that I got from my first book, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" in 1988, and I could not tell you for a second the corresponding words of praise that I might have received at the same time.
RAZ: But reading what you've read so far, you can now breathe a sigh of relief.
CHABON: A little bit. I'm exhaling just a little bit. But you never know.
RAZ: That's author Michael Chabon. His new book is called "Telegraph Avenue." He spoke to us from Youth Radio in Oakland. Michael, thank you so much for being with us.
CHABON: Thank you. It's been great to talk to you again, Guy.
RAZ: And if you want to read or download audio from "Telegraph Avenue," go to our website where it's part of our new First Read series. It's at nprbooks.org.