Writer Michael Chabon‘s colorful world encompasses costumed superheroes, washed-up detectives, dubious messiahs, and dusty bins at the corner record store. In 2001, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” It’s the story of two Jewish cousins, and their rise in the comics industry against the backdrop of World War Two.
His works also include “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” and “Wonder Boys.” Throughout his novels, he reliably takes on big themes like love, family, and cultural identity in engaging and surprising ways. Chabon is two years out from his last novel, “Telegraph Avenue.” And he’s visiting Oregon this week to speak at Portland Arts and Lectures.
Here are some highlights from our interview (edited for clarity and brevity):
On writing a screenplay for an upcoming film about Frank Sinatra: “I have to do a lot of research trying to get everything right — the period details and people’s manner of speech. And trying to juggle all that and tell a story and have it work thematically and have it work dramatically. There’s almost no aspect of it that hasn’t basically broken my brain.”
On Frank Sinatra himself: “He stood on so many borders: between the pop song and the art song, between Hollywood and Hoboken where he grew up, between a solid, entrenched part of Italian-American immigrant culture and the glossy mainstream of culture, between being a family man and being a swinger in that rat pack guise.
“He was definitely living on the edge a lot of the time, and he liked it that way. As much trouble as it cost him, there was obviously something that he got out of putting himself in harm’s way.”
On race relations in the East Bay area, where “Telegraph Avenue” is set: “The record of Oakland and Berkeley on race relations is of course checkered with all kinds of sad, grim, embarrassing, and shameful moments, but that’s not all there is.”
“I do think there’s a tendency among people here in the East Bay to feel comfortable in a group that’s more diverse than their group of origin. When you go to the movies, when you go out to eat, when you go shopping, when you go just walk down the street, you do see groups of people together that are made up of black people, white people, Latino people, Asian people and just hanging out and being friends.”
“I’m not going to paint it as some kind of paradise, but I think it’s a little easier here, a little more common, a little more likely, and partly because at some point some kind of macro self-selection takes over and what you get is people who feel that’s what they want, and that’s what they’re looking for and that’s what they’re hoping for.”
On the way race relations are reported in the media: “The splashy, ugly race narratives are always going to rise to the top of the media pond. What kind of news story could there ever be about a black person and a white person who are friends and like to go to the movies together and play pool? That’s not a news story. There’s no news there unfortunately. And so it’s so easy to lose perspective and it’s very easy to overlook quiet, encouraging signs all around you because your attention is so steadily being directed at all times to the calamities, emergencies, and disasters of the world.”
On writing bad guys: “I think good people can be bad and bad people can do good. I’ve always been really drawn from an early age to the trickster figure in literature and mythology — whether it’s Loki in Norse mythology or Coyote in Indian mythology. The character who embodies both good and evil in him and is sort of always inadvertently doing good as he’s trying to do bad and whose best intentions go awry and cause disaster and calamity for people. It just feels truer to me and more accurate.”