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Obama Makes Cameo in Chabon’s Jazzy Novel: Interview

'Telegraph Avenue: A Novel'
"Telegraph Avenue: A Novel" is written by Michael Chabon. Source: Harper via Bloomberg

Michael Chabon is a certified pop-culture expert, having won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the tale of two comic-book artists in 1940s New York.

His brilliant, expansive new novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” is about two friends who own a used-record store on the border of Oakland and Berkeley, California. Archy, who’s black, and Nat, who’s white, like nothing more than hanging out and talking obscure jazz albums. Their wives, Gwen and Aviva, work together in a midwifery practice.

The two men’s stable -- though hardly booming -- business is threatened when a rich former football player announces plans to open a megastore nearby.

We recently spoke by phone while Chabon, 49, was on vacation in Maine.

Muchnick: I heard Tom Wolfe talk recently and he said his first rule of writing a novel is that you should get out of the house. Did you hang out in record stores for “Telegraph Avenue”?

Chabon: Yes, the research was arduous. I had to spend untold hours of pain in used-record stores. It was really a hardship for me, but I’m willing to suffer that kind of torment for the sake of my art.

Muchnick: That’s noble. Did you drop a lot of cash?

Chabon: I did. Purely for research purposes, of course. And the vintage turntable I acquired for listening to the records was also purely for the purposes of research.

Muchnick: You can totally write that off.

Chabon: Exactly! You know, the books that I decide to write are very often the ones that seem like they’re going to promise the most entertaining or absorbing research.

Detective Novels

When I was contemplating “Kavalier & Clay,” there was the idea of plunging myself into the world of comic books, which I had left when I was a teenager.

In “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” there was Yiddish and chess and hard-boiled detective fiction. Like, I’m thinking of writing a book and I’m going to have to read or reread all of Chandler and a bunch of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels -- how fun is that going to be?

The excuse to do all that is part of the motivation to write the book. And that was definitely true with “Telegraph Avenue,” too. I just looked forward to plunging myself into the music and the history of Oakland and Berkeley, where I live, and martial-arts movies and blaxploitation cinema.

Meeting Midwives

Muchnick: And midwives?

Chabon: That was just the world I lived in. My wife and I have four kids, and we live in Berkeley. Birth and midwifery were in the air and water around me, part of every conversation.

I did talk to some midwives and tried to get my facts straight and learn things I hadn’t known.

Muchnick: Have your kids introduced you to new stuff?

Chabon: All the time. There’s a computer game that I’ve never even seen called “Red Dead Redemption,” which I gather is kind of Sergio Leone-inspired. And my son heard about it, and he came home and said, “You know, the music is amazing from this game.”

I poked around and found you could download the music and he was totally right. It was something he encountered in the context of his own world that he realized I would probably like, and he turned me on to it. So that was fun.

Muchnick: Because of the way the characters in “Telegraph Avenue” are so immersed in the pop culture of the past, I couldn’t really tell when the book was set. Then Illinois state senator Barack Obama walked into a scene set at a John Kerry fundraiser. What’s that about?

Real People

Chabon: That’s something I’ve done before, especially in “Kavalier & Clay.” A number of real-life personages flit through the pages: Orson Welles and Salvador Dali and many others.

So it just feels natural to me, like something in my toolbox that I could reach for when I felt like I needed it.

In the case of “Telegraph Avenue,” I realized that the Telegraph Avenue I was writing about has begun to change. A bakery that Archy goes to in the book has already gone out of business. So I thought: Well, what summer is this? And I didn’t make a conscious or deliberate choice, but it just felt like the summer of 2004. I can’t really explain it.

And once I started thinking about the summer of 2004, what moved into my consciousness was the election that year that was coming to a head by August, and the mounting sense of doom that I felt going into the Kerry-Bush election.

Kerry Fundraiser

Then I got to the point where Archy and Nat had a gig with a band they play in, and I thought, maybe they’re playing a fundraiser for Kerry. And let’s say it’s this really deluxe thing where everybody’s paid a lot of money, so there’s going to be some fancy speaker. And I just thought, August 2004, that’s right after Obama gave that speech at the Democratic National Convention.

And as soon as I thought of it, I was like, “Yes, yes, yes!”

I’m making this all sound like a rational, deliberate, conscious process. These kinds of decisions get made in a split second without you having any conscious, rational reason for it at all. And when you’re asked the question by an interviewer, and you have to account for what you’ve done, then that’s when you come up with a reason.

“Telegraph Avenue” is published by Harper in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K. (468 pages, $27.99, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Laurie Muchnick is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on Broadway and Katya Kazakina on art.

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