DATE May 1, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Chabon discusses his Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Michael Chabon, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two weeks ago for
his novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Chabon is also the
author of "Wonder Boys," which was adapted into a film last year, starring
Michael Douglas as a professor and novelist. Chabon's new novel begins in
1939, during the early days of the superhero comic craze. When the novel
opens, Sammy Clay is a young man working for a novelty company. His cousin
Josef Kavalier is a magician and escape artist, who has just used some of the
tricks of his trade to escape Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. He's moved in
with Sammy and his mother in New York and hopes to make enough money to
smuggle his family out of Prague. Sammy suggests that they cash in on the
Superman craze and create some superheroes of their own. Several of their
characters catch on; the most popular is called The Escapist. He's inspired
by Josef's adventures.
Here's Michael Chabon reading the scene in which Sammy and Josef create The
Escapist, a costumed hero whose power is impossible and perpetual escape.
Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author): (Reading from "The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier and Clay") `OK,' he said, `Listen to this.' He started to pace
between the drawing tables, looking down at his feet, declaiming in a sharp,
barking tenor that Joe recognized from the announcers on American radio.
`To--to all those who toil in the bonds of slavery.' `Bonds?' Joe said.
`Yeah,' Sammy's cheeks reddened and he dropped the radio voice. `Chains,
like--just listen. It's comics, all right.' `All right.'
Sammy resumed his pacing and radio-announcer tone and continued to compose his
historic series of exclamations.`To all those who toil in the bonds of slavery
and the--the shackles of oppression, he offers the hope of liberation and the
promise of freedom.' His delivery grew more assured now. `Armed with superb
physical and mental training, a crack team of assistants and ancient wisdom,
he roams the globe performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who
languish in tyranny's chains. He is,' he paused and threw Joe a helpless,
gleeful glance on the point of vanishing completely into his story now, `The
`Th--The Escapist,' Joe tried it out. It sounded magnificent to his
unschooled ear, someone trustworthy and useful and strong. `He is an escape
artist in a costume who fights crime. He doesn't just fight it,' Sam said,
`He frees the world of it. He frees people, see? He comes in the darkest
hour, he watches from the shadows, guided only by the light from--the light
from his golden key.' `That's great. I see,' Joe said. The costume would be
dark, dark blue, midnight blue, simple, functional, ornamented only with a
skeleton key emblem on the chest.
Joe went over to one of the drawing tables and climbed onto the stool. He
picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper and started to sketch rapidly, closing
his inner eyelid and projecting against it, so to speak, the image of a lithe,
acrobatic man who had just leaped into his mind; a man in the act of
alighting, a gymnast dismounting the rings, his right heel about to meet the
ground, his left leg raised and flexed at the knee, his arms thrown high,
hands outspread, trying to get at the physics of the way a man moves, the give
and take of sinews and muscle groups to forge in a way that no comic book
artist yet had, an anatomical basis for grace and style. `Wow,' Sam said,
`Wow, Joe, that's good. That's beautiful.'
GROSS: That's Michael Chabon reading from his book "Kavalier and Clay."
The most popular superhero that your two main characters create is called The
Escapist. What are his powers and how does he use them?
Mr. CHABON: He is initially conceived by Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier to be a
superhero without any real superpowers, but to be in a way like Batman, to be
a product of intense course of physical training that has brought him to the
peak of his abilities as an escape artist and he performs by day as a
vaudeville escape artist, magician--or I guess you can say by evening. And in
his spare time, with his team of crack assistants, who are his stagehands and
his driver and so on during his civilian life, he roams the globe, releasing
other people from chains. He uses his skills as an escape artist to liberate
political prisoners and concentration camp inmates and orphans from cruel
orphanages and so on.
But actually fairly quickly within the story, that isn't enough for Joe and
Sammy. Those powers are too limited and we learn of the existence of this
shadowy organization called The League of the Golden Key(ph). And they impart
some kind of extra amount of magical superpower to him so that he does
eventually become superstrong and do all of the great World War II superhero
things like tying anti-aircraft guns into pretzel knots and peeling open jet
fighter planes and so on.
GROSS: Now this superhero, The Escapist, has the ability to do escapes in the
way that Houdini did, and Houdini is an inspiration for the characters in your
novel and I suspect something of an inspiration for you as well. Can you talk
a little bit about what Houdini means to you and if you had to learn about
picking locks and undoing chains and handcuffs and other stage magic kind of
things, in order to write this book?
Mr. CHABON: Yes, I did. I never really expected to be writing about Houdini
at all. I've always been fascinated by him but it was only gradually that the
theme of escape emerged for me in the writing of this book. But as soon as I
recognized it and that I had this character of Joe Kavalier, who is a refugee
from Prague and who has escaped to the United States and freedom, somehow this
figure of Houdini began to press itself upon my imagination more and more and
I realized I was going to have to, somehow or another, work him or his craft
or both into the book.
You know, the thing about Houdini, the two things about Houdini that
interested me, at least from the point of view of writing this novel were, on
the one hand, that he did have this legend and that he--that he was, in some
respect, I think, an unacknowledged forebear of the whole idea of the
superhero. In many ways, he was a superhero. He fits the definition in that
he had a secret identity. He was really Erik Weisz, the child of a rabbi and
Jewish immigrants from Hungary. He was born in Wisconsin but he let on that
he had been born, you know, over there on the other side. And he also fought
crime in the sense that, as you probably know, he devoted the latter part of
his life to debunking false mediums and people who claimed they could
communicate with the dead. He had a crusade that was very much like a kind of
superhero crusade against these people.
So there was that aspect but there was also this idea of Houdini as an
immigrant, as a kind of hero of immigrants and it just seemed to me that
somebody like Sammy Clay, this kid from Brooklyn, child of immigrants, would
probably look up to a guy like Houdini.
GROSS: Two of the themes of your book are escape and transformation, two
themes that are epitomized by the superhero comics, that are themes that also
play out in the lives of the main characters, the guys who create the
superhero comics. And one character says, `Clark Kent in a phone booth and
Houdini in a packing crate--they were one in the same thing. You weren't the
same person when you came out as when you went in.' How conscious of these
themes do you think the actual comic book artists and writers were? Do you
think they sat around thinking, `We're doing comics that are really about
Mr. CHABON: No, I don't think so, and I don't think Sam Clay realized that
back when he was 19 and he was coming up with The Escapist. You know, that is
a reflection--what you just read is something that he, in his latter years,
Mr. CHABON: ...would learnedly expound to audiences of comic book fans.
There are some people that--there's a great comic book artist, Will Eisner,
who created a character called The Spirit in the 1940's and later went on to,
in some ways, invent the whole graphic novel that has become such an important
art form in recent years. And, you know, he was a very brilliant--he is a
very brilliant man and one has the sense, reading some of the things he said
about how he felt about comic books at the time, that he did have some degree
of self-awareness, that he was playing with children's' fantasies or adolescent
fantasies and expressing them in some way or another.
GROSS: Another theme in your novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and
Clay," is the golem, which is something that comes from Jewish legends, and
you see certain parallels between the golem and the superhero. Why don't you
start by explaining what a golem is?
Mr. CHABON: Well, a golem is an artificial man, essentially, a homunculus, a
creature that is created out of usually clay or mud that then is brought to
life by means of incantation and spells. Stories of the golem go all the way
back to, I think, the Babylonian exile several thousand years ago. But the
most famous golem of all and the one who appears in my novel is the golem of
Prague that is said to have been created by Rabbi Judah ben Bezulel ben Low, I
think in the 16th century. And there are a lot of different stories about
that golem. In some stories, he's just created to be an artificial manservant
to help sweep up around the synagogue on Friday afternoons, getting ready for
Sabbaths, you know.
In other stories, there's a more, sort of, melodramatic tinge to the creation,
and the golem is brought to life to be a protector of the ghetto, to be a
defender of the oppressed Jews of Prague against pogrom and blood libels, and
it's that golem that is the golem in my novel, and that I see as being,
possibly, an antecedent, like Houdini, of the whole superhero idea, in that
you have this sort of created man--which is the case with a lot of
superheroes, historically, too, from The Human Torch onward--who is brought to
life in order to, you know, protect the helpless and defend the weak.
And I kind of had this intuition, I guess, about the golem. And then in
conversation with Will Eisner, I asked him why he thought so many of the
original comic book creators in the 1930s and '40s were Jews, and he gave me a
very logical, sort of economical explanation. But then he said, `But I've
often wondered if there wasn't something in the Jewish storytelling tradition
that didn't lend itself to the creation of Superman. For example, we have
this golem story.' And that was very exciting for me, to kind of get
confirmation of something that I had just sort of guessed at. And I wasn't
really sure what to do with it until that point.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. He won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of weeks
ago for his latest novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. And his latest book, "The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," just won the Pulitzer Prize.
Michael, why are so interested in the formative era of superhero comics?
Mr. CHABON: Well, it was a childhood interest in mine in that I was a big
reader of comic books as a kid. And it just so happened that at the time I
was most interested, even obsessed, with comic books in the early 1970s was a
period when DC Comics, the home of Superman and Batman and The Flash and
Wonder Woman, were printing out these big, fat comic books, 64-page, 80-page
and 100-page comic books. And typically, the first story in one of these
things would be a new story, but then they would pad the rest of the comic
with reprint material, and this material was just stuff they would dig out of
their vaults and it was all this Golden Age stuff.
And, you know, I was a little. I was seven, eight, nine years old. I
didn't--I knew it was not exactly the same stuff as the newer material. You
could see there were differences in the style of drawing, and there were
always World War II references, and so on. But somehow or other, I didn't
quite distinguish among it all, and I think that was an important thing
because my father grew up reading, essentially, the very same comic books that
I had read and they were reprinting the things that were new when he was a
kid. And it formed this sort of continuum of--I don't know what you want to
call it--almost a kind of imaginative continuum that we had almost identical
fantasy lives, in some respect.
And that got me interested in the world of his childhood, my father's
childhood. He grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, and I used to ask him about
things like the radio programs he listened to, the movie serials of the time,
the--you know, going to the theater on a Saturday morning for a full day of
programming with the newsreel and the cartoons and the A picture and the B
picture, and he was only too happy to kind of indulge this curiosity of mine.
So he really vividly sort of recreated the world of his childhood in my
imagination. And that's the world that I was trying to recreate, I guess, for
myself and, you know, also for readers.
GROSS: Now you also mention at the end of the book--I think it's in your
acknowledgements--that your grandfather worked as a topographer in a plant
that published, among other things, comic books. Did that give you any
special access to or interest in comics?
Mr. CHABON: I guess--well, it partly always gave me an awareness of the
technical or maybe the right word would be sort of technological side of comic
books, that there were printing plants and there were these guys whose job it
was to take the big photoengraving plates and, you know, run them on the
presses and all of that stuff. I was aware of that from a fairly early age.
But I think more importantly was just that it was my father's father who had
gotten him into comic books by bringing home bags filled with comic books from
his job. He worked the night shift and he would bring home these big bags of
comics for my father to read, and that's how it all began. And I think in a
way this book is just sort of the outcome of that initial act of kind of
fatherly generosity that my grandfather preformed for my dad.
GROSS: What are some of the things that you see in superhero comics now as an
adult that you didn't see in them as a kid?
Mr. CHABON: The ones--you mean in the ones that I read or the ones that are
being published now?
GROSS: No. The ones that you read when you were a kid.
Mr. CHABON: It's funny. I've just been re-reading with my own children
these comics that--The Legion of Superheroes, which was this DC Comics title.
I think it continues to this day; in fact, I'm sure it does. It started in
the late '50s and ran all through the '60s and they've been made available in
these nice hardbound reprint editions. And I loved them as a kid. It's this
futuristic band of teen-age superheroes with the most absurd powers you could
possibly imagine. I was almost at a loss in writing "The Amazing Adventures
of Kavalier and Clay," when I needed to come up with a ridiculous power for a
I often found that, you know, a lot of even the ridiculous powers have long
since been taken and you find a lot of the ridiculous powers in the Legion of
Superheroes, so you have heroes like Matter Eater Lad from the planet
Bismah(ph) who has the power of eating anything. And there's another
superhero who's kind of pudgy and he's called Bouncing Boy and he can--that's
his power, is he can bounce.
And my kids are completely enthralled by this stuff. They're young--they're
six and three--and they seem to be taking it all in on this very serious
surface level, but I find that there's this almost--it's a kind of unhinged--I
would almost say, that these comics resemble a little bit the fantasies of,
like, paranoid schizophrenics in some ways. Everything has variations of
meaning and for every superhero there seems to exist a superhero with an equal
and opposite power. And then there are these vast conspiracies of rival gangs
of superheroes. There are these--it's such an elaborated world. And I think
the thing that I appreciate the most now, looking over the stuff, is on one
hand the sheer lunacy of it all, and on the other hand, the incredibly vibrant
imagination that's a kind of collective imagination that went into creating
GROSS: Now the superhero The Escapist in your novel--in The Escapist comics
he uses his powers to try and fight Hitler. And you know, both of the
creators of The Escapist are Jewish, and one of them is a refugee from
Czechoslovakia and his parents are left behind and he can't get them out. So
you know, he has many reasons to want to fight Hitler personally.
Mr. CHABON: Yes.
GROSS: But he's doing it through his creation The Escapist. How much of the
superhero comics during the period of World War II had World War II backdrops?
Mr. CHABON: Well, World War II made the comic book and especially the
superhero. They almost exactly coincided. Superman first appeared in 1938,
and in the first few appearances, or let's say the first couple of years of
his existence, he had a kind of late '30s sort of socially messianic aspect to
him in that he was always--I don't know--rounding up corrupt mine owners and
foiling corrupt union bosses and so on. And then there appeared this figure
of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and also it should be said that, you know, the
Japanese, too, after Pearl Harbor. And that was perfect. That was exactly
what the superhero was designed to fight.
And, yes, the superheroes went to war en masse, oddly enough with the
exception of Superman, who pretty much stayed home during the Second World
War. I think his creators must have realized that even though you had Captain
America and The Human Torch and so on over there fighting the Luftwaffe and
the Wehrmacht and so on, that if Superman really did get into World War II,
he'd probably be able to wrap it up fairly quickly and to sort of get around
that fundamental problem. Superman pretty much stayed home and fought
saboteurs and so on. But all the other superheroes went to war and comic book
sales just skyrocketed during the war years into the several millions of
copies per month sold of each individual issue.
They were also shipped in crates over to the GIs fighting in Europe along with
cigarettes and gum and so on. And a lot of GIs discovered comic books while
fighting in Europe and then came home with their taste for comic books
whetted, and so that this sort of the boom of comic books continued even after
the war was over. But it was never really the same for superheroes. And you
know, when they came back from the war and were forced once again to deal
with, you know, card sharps and gamblers and so on, it was not--the
superheroes genre died out, actually, fairly quickly after the war.
GROSS: Michael Chabon is the author of "Wonder Boys" and "The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which just won a Pulitzer Prize. He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Superman")
Unidentified Man #1: Faster than a speeding bullet.
(Soundbite of gun being fired)
Unidentified Man #1: More powerful than a locomotive.
(Soundbite of train)
Unidentified Man #1: Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Unidentified Man #2: Look. Up in the sky. It's a bird.
Unidentified Woman #1: It's a plane.
Unidentified Man #3: It's Superman.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes, it's Superman, strange visitor from another planet
who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
Unidentified Woman #2: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Do fiction writers suffer from some kind of disorder? Michael Chabon
says yes. He's even given it a name. Coming up, we continue our interview
with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. And rock historian Ed Ward remembers
the music of the group Love.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Chabon. His
novel, "Wonder Boys," was adapted into last year's film starring Michael
Douglas as professor and novelist Grady Tripp. Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize
two weeks ago for his latest novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and
Clay," an homage to the early days of superhero comics.
Both of the main characters in your novel who were comic book artists are
Jewish. And the creators of Superman were Jewish, as well. In your novel,
one character says that all superheroes are Jewish. He says, `Superman; you
don't think he's Jewish coming from the Old Country; changing his name like
that? Clark Kent; only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.' What
do you mean; because it's so non-Jewish sounding? This is somebody trying to
Mr. CHABON: It's just so--exactly. It's just so goyish sounding, yeah. And
they all had names like that. The Flash--the golden age Flash. His name was
Jay Garrick and Bruce Wayne. And, you know, they all had these names that
were just taken right off of a--I don't know. They sound like
housing--streets and housing developments in the suburbs. Yeah, I mean, it
seemed to me that this was a case--and then I was actually a little bit
dismayed, although, also excited to see my intuition confirmed when Jules
Feiffer, the great Jules Feiffer wrote an obituary for Jerry Siegel in The New
York Times and made this exact same point about the kind of disguised
assimilationist fantasy that Superman and--represents and that with this idea
of coming from Krypton and, you know, leaving his real parents behind. And
even his name, Kal-El; that's the real name of Superman. It has that kind of
vaguely Hebraic sound to it.
GROSS: It's true.
Mr. CHABON: So, you know, I'm sure this is another example of something that
was just at work in the minds or in the consciousnesses of Siegel and
GROSS: In your book there's a subcommittee investigating whether comics lead
youth into juvenile delinquency. And I know there really was a subcommittee
investigating comics. But in your book, one of the aspects that they're
interested in, really, in investigating is the Batman-Robin relationship;
superheroes with boy sidekicks.
Mr. CHABON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And they asked, `Was this a thinly veiled allegory of pedophilic
inversion.' And one of the investigators says, `And outfitting the muscular,
strapping young fellows in tight trousers and sending them flitting around the
skies together. Were you in any way expressing or attempting to disseminate
your own psychological proclivities?' And he asks this to one of the comic
book artists who actually is a closeted gay man. Did the comic book
investigating committee really investigate veiled homosexuality in the comics?
Mr. CHABON: Well, they alluded to it. They stayed away from that. The
hearings were fascinating. They were actually televised and I met people that
grew up in the area then and remember watching them on television. And they
were mostly concerned with the violence that was prevalent, especially in the
EC horror comics of the time and the kind of gruesome scenes that one often
found in them and with depictions of drug addiction and antisocial behavior;
other kinds of--they--as I recall--and I read through the transcripts--there
were some allusion to the latent homosexual fantasies that comic books were
alleged to contain and disseminate. But they did stay away from it, for the
However, Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose book, the "Seduction of the Innocent,"
was really the trigger for these hearings, devoted an entire chapter, as I
recall, of this book to this very subject. And he explored the highly
questionable relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. And also, he
was not too happy with the sexuality of Wonder Woman, either, and viewed her
as being clearly having lesbian tendencies and that this was all warping the
minds of America's youth. And so, no, I fictionalized that aspect of the
hearing, but it didn't seem to me to be completely out of character with the
hearing, itself, or with the kinds of things that they were worrying about.
GROSS: So to sum up, you have congressmen investigating the Ambiguously Gay
Mr. CHABON: Exactly. And they--you know, I think that aspect of comic
books, that the critique that Dr. Wertham offered was a kind of stinging one
to guys that were doing comic books at the time. I really don't think they
had any intention of telling any kind of stories other than stories about sort
of father figures adopting these sort of war--they always had these wards, you
know. I remember, as a kid, I never--I didn't know any wards. I didn't know
anybody could be a ward, but comic books were filled with wards.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Chabon and he's--his
latest book, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," about two creators
of superhero comics, just won a Pulitzer Prize. His previous book, "Wonder
Boys," was made into a film starring Michael Douglas.
In your previous novel, "Wonder Boys," the main character, who's a writer,
says that the first real writer he knew was someone who started off writing
horror stories. And many of the stories were published in periodicals of the
day, like Weird Tales, Strange Stories, Black Tower. Did you know someone
like that yourself?
Mr. CHABON: No, I didn't. I completely...
GROSS: Bet you wish you did.
Mr. CHABON: Yes, I do. I mean, I feel like I--that character's name is
August Van Zorn--or that's his pen name. And his real name was Albert Vetch.
And I think it's more the case that I sort of have an inner August Van Zorn.
I've always been drawn to that kind of Lovecraftian horror fiction. I have
a real weakness for it. And I just imagined this guy into my life. It was
almost as if I had had him as a mentor, myself. But, no, it's completely
I have, since then, written a couple of stories sort of in the voice of August
Van Zorn. One of them was recently published in The New Yorker, but they
wouldn't let me publish it as an August Van Zorn story. They forced me to put
my own name on it.
GROSS: Would you have preferred publishing it as August Van Zorn?
Mr. CHABON: Or at least tipping my hat to him, in some way, because I do
feel that when I'm work--when I wrote both of those stories that I was very
much, in some way, channeling August Van Zorn and not writing in my own voice
GROSS: So who was the first real writer that you knew?
Mr. CHABON: Hmm. That's a really interesting question. I know--I grew up
with a family friend, a woman named Ruth Glick, who has become a kind of--one
of the queens of romance fiction, although at the time I think she was just
starting out. She had not at all made the career for herself that she has
since then. And she may well be the first writer that I ever knew. And what
I remember most about her is that even at the age of six or seven, she took me
very seriously when I said that I wanted to be a writer. And she started
handing me things to read that she, herself, had loved. So that was probably
an important sort of first writer to have met.
GROSS: Were they romance novels that she gave you?
Mr. CHABON: No, no, science fiction. And the one I remember most is A.E.
Van Vogt's "Slan," which was a really terrifying and almost scarring
experience for me to read. But I also--I just completely loved it.
GROSS: When you were a young writer, did you go through a very pretentious
period of imitating the great writers who you read and wanted to be like?
Mr. CHABON: Definitely. In fact, some people probably would say I still
haven't come out of the pretentious period. But I was a slavish imitator of
my favorite writers for many years, starting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
When I was about 10 years old, I wrote a kind of pastishe Sherlock Holmes
story, inspired, in part, I guess, by Nicholas Meyer's "Seven-Percent
Solution," which came out around that time. And I wrote my own imitation of
Doyle and, thereafter, just began imitating one writer after another; Ray
Bradbury and then Henry Miller, then John Updike, Donald Barthelme, Raymond
Chandler. I think I learned how to write by doing that...
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Did you do a lot of sex stuff during your
Henry Miller era?
Mr. CHABON: Yeah, and it was even more an active imagination than coming up
with August Van Zorn.
I--yes, definitely. I--you know, it--well, Henry Miller has this really
intoxicating, unhinged, exclamatory style of writing that was very
distinctive, very easy to catch on to and, also, somehow made it seem OK to
write about the kinds of things that--you know, that he was writing about and
that then I, therefore, invented for my own characters, since I had no actual
personal experience of that.
GROSS: Did you go through a period of not only imitating great writers who
you admired on the page, but imitating them in life, as well.
Mr. CHABON: I tried. I tried. You know, Henry Miller--I think that just
reading Henry Miller had a very heavy influence on my decision to become a
writer because I really did think it was gonna be all about lying around in
tawdry, clichy apartments, drinking cheap red wine and, you know, very
GROSS: And having sex.
Mr. CHABON: Exactly; lots of it, too; preferably with, you know, multiple
partners of dubious sexuality and, even, gender. But, you know, it didn't
work out that way.
His was, really--of all my early heroes, I think his was, probably, the
only--he was the only really writer that had that kind of lifestyle attached
to his writer. You know, the other ones--Bradbury, somebody like John Updike
or--I was really into Thomas Mann for a while. I mean, writers like that,
they didn't have that kind of glamorous lifestyle. They were more about going
into your office and shutting the door behind you and staying in there until
you got some writing done. And that has, actually, turned out to be much more
the case with my life, too.
GROSS: Pretty exciting.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. He won a Pulitzer Prize a couple of weeks
ago for his latest novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon, author of "Wonder Boys" and "The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which just won a Pulitzer Prize.
Now in "Wonder Boys," your main character wonders if fiction writers suffer
from a rare disorder from what he calls the `midnight disease.' What is the
Mr. CHABON: Well, the midnight disease is, essentially, I think--it's two
things. It's the way in which writers--and this is sort of my theory, too,
although I think it means a lot more to Grady Tripp than it does to me--but I
think that when you're a writer, you're forced into this observer position all
the time; that you're always sort of paying--you're paying attention to things
on a level that necessarily means that you aren't participating in them. And,
therefore, that you often have a sense of detachment from things that are
going on around you or that you're not fully participating in sort of the rich
pageant of life because you're busy trying to get it all down or remember it
so you can use it later on.
So that's part of the midnight disease. And the other aspect of it that is
definitely more important to Grady Tripp than it is to me is that not only do
you sort of get forced out of the participating in life by trying to pay
attention to it, but you also begin to engineer your own life so that it will
provide you with richer material for your fiction. And I think that's more of
a problem for Grady than it is for me, but I have observed it, myself, I
think, in other writers, certainly, that I've known; that there seems to be
this almost imperative to create drama in one's life as a way of--sort of what
Grady calls as a `hedge against any lack of future material.'
GROSS: I want to actually read your description in "Wonder Boys" of the
midnight disease. You describe it as (reading) `a kind of emotional insomnia.
At every conscious moment its victim, even if he or she writes at dawn or in
the middle of the afternoon, feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom
with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and
airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly
trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him, the neighbors soundly sleep.
This is, in my opinion, why writers, like insomniacs, are so accident prone;
so obsessed with the calculus of bad luck and missed opportunities; so liable
to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when
urged repeatedly to do so.'
I'm interested in that `obsessiveness; that inability to let go of a subject.'
Do you think that's something unique--that's some--do you think that's
something a lot of writers have?
Mr. CHABON: Yeah, I don't think it's unique to writers, by any means, but
GROSS: But writers have their own big dose of it.
Mr. CHABON: It seems to me--and I know I'm that way--and it just--I've had
the experience so many times of just finding myself at the other end of a kind
of obsessive, going over again and again, of a particular experience that I
might have undergone with another writer. Say we've gone off to do something
or other, even if it's as simple as, you know, trying to pick up something at
Target or something like that; that the experience will get just sort of
broken down; like, `Why did the--why do you think the clerk was looking at me
that way? Do you think that she noticed that I was--that I had tape on my
glasses?' And it's that kind of obsessive going over things that, maybe, is
just--it's a byproduct of always going over plots of stories and trying to,
you know, get everything sort of causally oriented, which is always what you
try to do with a plot--is, you know, have this sort of causal imperative to
things. And life often tends not to have such a strong kind of
cause-and-effect thing, but I think it's something that you get in the habit
of seeing, even if it's not there, definitely.
GROSS: Because there are central characters in several of your novels who are
gay, a lot of readers have assumed that you are gay. And I think one major
newsweekly wrote that you were gay.
Mr. CHABON: Yes.
GROSS: Which is not true. You're married and have two children. But,
anyways, I'm wondering...
Mr. CHABON: Well, that has been pointed out. That, of course, has no
guarantee of anything, but, yes, in fact...
GROSS: That--yes--true, true, true. But you could just be very, very
Mr. CHABON: That's right.
GROSS: But I'll make the assumption that you're probably no just very
Mr. CHABON: OK.
GROSS: But I won't--shouldn't assume anything. My question is that--but the
Mr. CHABON: Yes.
GROSS: ...do you have any very amusing stories that come out of this
Mr. CHABON: Well, I don't know if they're amusing. I had a couple of--what
would I call them?--slightly, almost upsetting experiences fairly early on
when the whole `Chabon is gay' thing was much more current than it is now.
You know, back--it was sort of like the `Paul is dead' thing, I guess. And,
you know, I would go into--I would get booked into a bookstore; a place like
Lambda Rising or Different Light and would read something from, say, my
first short story collection that was not--and it had no real overt gay
content of any kind because I didn't really think it mattered what I read, but
there were people to whom it did matter a lot. And there were some people
that, you know, I think were upset that I was being somehow billed as other
than I really was or that--I think there were some people in the gay literary
community that were--that felt that, somehow, I was being put over as a gay
writer, when--you know, when I really wasn't. And that wasn't fair. But
nothing really amusing, unfortunately. That would have been nice.
GROSS: Well, how did you handle coming out as heterosexual, you know, because
if people are assuming that you're gay, on the one hand, you don't want to
kind of falsely get the loyalty of a gay audience by appearing to be gay, if
Mr. CHABON: Right.
GROSS: On the other hand, you don't want to kind of trot around a woman on
your arm all the time just to kind of prove you're not...
Mr. CHABON: Right. No, exactly.
GROSS: ...because that would make it seem like you were so uncomfortable with
the possibility of somebody perceiving you as gay.
Mr. CHABON: Right. You're right. It's very--it's been kind of a balancing
act for me. I mean, you know, I've always thought of that character in that
movie, "The Turning Point." You know, I think it's Tom Skerritt's character
who, at some point, is accused by his wife that he only married her to prove
to everybody that he wasn't really gay. And there's that aspect of it. On
the other hand, as you say, there's, you know, not wanting to seem to be
falsely representing myself. Maybe I'm fortunate in having kind of come of
age in the time that I did; say, in the early 1980s when the categories
started to get blurred a little bit more. I have always had, as one of my
great heroes, Prince. And I, you know, have always taken great comfort in his
sort of--the way that he almost refused to identify himself in any way because
that would be satisfying other people's expectations too much. And I don't
have anything like his courage or his chutzpa, God knows, but it was just,
somehow, not, ultimately, that important to me.
And, really, what I always felt I was most interested in writing about,
especially in "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," my first novel, were--was a world
in which those categories don't really apply and that you have a character in
that novel who's not sure what he is or, to quote that Prince song, you know,
"Am I Straight or Gay?," is kind of the--is the question that he's faced with
in that novel. And what he ends up deciding is that those are just labels and
they don't really apply to his own emotional experience.
I think there's a paucity of labels for people's sexuality, but fiction is a
way of kind of filling up the gaps in our vocabulary that allows us so few
true options for expressing our feelings about people of the same sex.
GROSS: Well, Michael, I guess it's been about two weeks since you won the
Mr. CHABON: Yes, it has; about two weeks, yeah.
GROSS: So has your life changed dramatically in those two weeks?
Mr. CHABON: Not so much; nothing I'm aware of, yet. I guess I've gotten a
few more invitations to participate in various kinds of conferences and so on
than I used to get. My e-mail box filled up, but other than that, once the
initial excitement kind of died down, things have, more or less, returned to
normal; at least I hope so.
GROSS: Well, I want to congratulate you.
Mr. CHABON: Thank you.
GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, it's been my pleasure. It was such a treat. Thank you,
GROSS: Michael Chabon is the author of "Wonder Boys" and "The Amazing
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on the group Love. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Music of the '60s band Love
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the mid-60s Los Angeles, Love was in the air; not just the emotion, but the
band, headed by the talented Arthur Lee. The band imploded after their third
album, "Forever Changes," which was recently reissued by Rhino Records. Rock
historian Ed Ward has the story.
ED WARD reporting:
It was 1967. Arthur Lee, the leader of Los Angeles' top band, Love, had
decided he was dying. There is no real reason for him to believe this, and
he's still with us today, but as he sat writing songs for the new album he
owed Elektra Records, his thoughts were mighty dark.
(Soundbite of Love song)
LOVE: (Singing) Sitting on the hillside, watching all the people die. I'll
feel much better on the other side. I don't know why. I believe in magic.
Why? Because it is so quick. I don't need power when I'm hypnotized. Look
in my eyes.
WARD: Since 1965, Love had been the top band on the Sunset Strip, inheriting
the mantle from The Birds, who had become international stars and too big to
play the clubs. Elektra Records, a folk label, had signed them, for some
reason, and had had a good-sized hit with "Little Red Book," which the band
had gotten from Burt Bacharach. Their first album had done well and a second
album, "Da Capo," came next. By this time, the band was in shaky condition
and the label recorded a long freak-out to cover the second side of the record
because they didn't want to wait for songs they figured the band would never
But in the spring of 1967, to everyone's surprise, Arthur announced he was
ready to record. Elektra looked around for a producer and found Bruce
Botnick, who told them that he and his friend, Neil Young, from the Buffalo
Springfield, would do it.
(Soundbite of Love singing "The Daily Planet")
LOVE: (Singing) In the morning we arise and start the day the same old way as
yesterday, the day before and, all in all, it's just a day like all the rest,
so do your best with chewing gum and it is, oh, so repetitious, waiting on the
WARD: It took Arthur a while to assemble the band, but in June, they entered
the studio. By this time, Neil Young had to start work on the Springfield's
new record, but it's thought that "The Daily Planet" which we just heard has
elements of his arranging on it. Arrangements were important to the sound of
this new record. This was an ambitious project and not easily reproduced
live. Fortunately, besides being a brilliant engineer, Bruce Botnick was a
good arranger who was working with Herb Alpert some at the time. It shows.
LOVE: What is happening and how have you been? I'm gonna go but I'll see you
again. And, oh, the music is so loud and then I fade into the...
Crowds of people standing everywhere across the street down at the
(unintelligible) fair. And here they always play my songs and they are
Well, I think I'm...
WARD: Because the arrangements were so complicated and the band, let's face
it, so stoned much of the time, Lee and Botnick used studio players on a
couple of tracks, but they soon realized that the music was so strange, so
unlike anything any of the pros had played that it would be easier to teach
the parts to the band. And it was strange. Love had never been an easy band
to classify, but Arthur's dread had produced melodies and lyrics that were
odder than ever before.
(Soundbite of music)
LOVE: (Singing) Oh, the snot has caked against my hands. It has turned into
crystal. There's a bluebird sitting on a branch. I guess I'll take my
pistol. I've got it in my hand because he's on my land. And so the story
ended. Do you know it, oh, so well? Oh, should you need, I'll tell you, din,
din, din, din, din, din, din. I'll--yes, I'll see you...
WARD: Something I haven't mentioned is that Arthur and the lead guitarist
Johnny Echols were black. Arthur knew Jimi Hendrix though his scuffling days
and knew he couldn't compete with him. But he was determined to make it as a
black man in a white scene in his own way. He'd also mentioned Love's top
rivals, The Doors, to Elektra and they signed them and recorded them, although
the album didn't go into general release until the summer of 1967 when Love
was already in the studio. The pressure was immense and it would prove fatal
to the band. It was also probably the source of Arthur's feeling of doom. In
September, they wrapped up their recording and in November "Love Forever
Changes" came out. As always, the band refused to tour outside California,
and after recording another single, they fell apart. But few groups have ever
exited with such a brilliant and enigmatic swan song.
GROSS: Rock historian Ed Ward lives in Berlin. Love's album "Forever
Changes" was recently reissued.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
LOVE: (Speaking) They're locking them up today. They're throwing away the
key. I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me? They're locking them up
today. They're throwing away the key. I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you
or me? Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.