A Conversation with Michael Chabon
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley novelist gets poetic in Pleasanton this month at the Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival
Michael Chabon won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a literary novel involving comic book superheroes. His new book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, promises to transport readers to an alternative reality. And on March 31, as part of Pleasanton’s Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival, the Berkeley author and father of four will visit a place he’s never been: the Tri-Valley.
How familiar are you with Pleasanton and its Main Street?
Not at all. My wife [author Ayelet Waldman] was recently there for a reading. I’ve heard it’s quite a charming kind of place. I’ve wanted to get out that way—I have not done enough exploring east of the tunnel.
What do you think about this city of 67,000, known more for its sports parks and aquatics center, sponsoring a poet laureate program?
I think it speaks very well of the citizens of Pleasanton.
You’ve written that you liked to read stories about local Indians and adventure novels as a youth. What influence did poetry have on your early literary development?
Up and through the time I was in college, I wrote poetry pretty much steadily, in tandem with my prose writing. I always enjoyed it and liked to read poetry. I didn’t really make a commitment to writing prose rather than concentrating on poetry until my last year in college. I just felt like, as much as I liked to write poetry and read poetry, I didn’t feel like my heart was in it in quite the same way. I like telling stories. Not that you can’t do that in poetry, but not quite in the same way.
Who were favorite poets of your youth?
Edgar Allan Poe was my favorite poet. I liked Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, too, and Robert Frost’s. I had a couple of anthologies, like The Golden Treasury of Poetry, that I inherited from my father, which had all the great poetry in English going back to Chaucer and the American poets that started with Longfellow and Whittier. I still like to read those poems; [they’re] kind of the “hits” of poetry.
What poetry do you read now?
You know, I really don’t read contemporary poetry. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit it. There are still some people I like, especially Charles Simic. I think Robert Hass is wonderful. I still like to read the old stuff, though.
From your perspective as a parent, how does poetry fit into your household?
We were doing some Edgar Allan Poe over last summer, trying recitations for the kids with “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “Eldorado,” and “The Bells.” I tried to read poems that really have that great rhythm and where the sense of word play is so powerful.
My oldest daughter, who is 12, likes to write poems. Whenever there is an assignment or a reason to write a poem, she always seems to really enjoy it.
Do you think early exposure to poetry leads to better appreciation of language and art?
No question. I’m absolutely in favor of anything like poetry that draws my kids’ attention to words and language.
We like to play word games around here. We have a game we play where we try to think of words that have prefixes that don’t exist in a form without a prefix. Like sheveled, for example, or mented. You can be demented but not mented. So we are always trying to come up with things like that with a lot of word play. Poetry definitely has that kind of intense pressure with words.
Pleasanton’s Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival will have a conference for poetry and prose writers. What message do you have for aspiring prose writers?
The idea of discipline, the idea of keeping to a regular schedule, without exception. Not only is it a huge part of the job, but it is the only thing you have control over.
Read really widely. Read not just the things you feel like reading or that you are drawn to reading but things that you aren’t drawn to reading and the things that you even have to impose upon yourself. Read as widely and as often as you possibly can. Never stop reading. I’m talking about reading literature. This is neglected, especially by a lot of younger writers. They try to slide by without reading literature.
Why do you think it is important for young or new writers to read great literature?
There is too much emphasis on writing as a form of self-expression, which, to me, is the least interesting aspect of writing—and the least important. I think self-expression happens whether you want it to or not. The most important aspect of writing is craft and style. In fiction, it’s also the ability to imagine the lives of other people—your characters’ lives and the worlds they inhabit—and trying to make those worlds come to life in the mind of the reader in the form of language. And all of that stuff is what you see being done by great writers when you are reading great books.
I think a lot of people have this sense [that] “I have something inside me that must get out. I have to be a writer.” Therefore, [they think they] can dispense with the reading of other people’s work because, after all, that’s just their stuff, and you’re only interested in your stuff. I think that’s why reading gets neglected. But I think the emphasis is mislaid on self-expression. As soon as you put pen to paper or start typing on the keyboard—however you start writing—you are expressing yourself without trying to. In fact, I think the less you try, the better off we all are.
What would you like to share about your new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union?
It’s coming out in May. It’s definitely a step in a totally different direction in terms of the kind of book it is. It’s a noir kind of detective story set in an alternative reality. That makes it different than anything I’ve written. I hope it feels, not crazy fantastical, but I hope it feels here and now. It’s a very Jewish book in a lot of ways. I hope it is fun.
What are you looking forward to during your day in Pleasanton?
I look forward to looking out at the audience and not seeing too many people sleeping. It’s really a strange and satisfying experience to go out of your house where you work and to find that there are people who have read your books and want to meet you and talk to you, and I definitely don’t take that for granted. To be able to talk about writing and books and literature to people who care about these things … our time [together] is a source of comfort for me, and I hope for them, too.
When will you prepare the evening reading?
I will write it out, probably at the last minute. I work best under deadline. I have no idea what I’ll talk about.
As a bonus, maybe you’ll see a bit of Pleasanton’s Main Street while you’re here.
Exactly. That would be good.
Michael Chabon will hold an afternoon question and answer session at the Pleasanton Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival on Saturday, March 31. He will also hold an evening reading at the Amador Theater, 1155 Santa Rita Rd., Pleasanton.
Poetry Fest 411
The sixth annual Pleasanton Poetry, Prose, and Arts Festival, featuring California Poet Laureate Al Young, takes place on March 31 at the CarrAmerica Conference Center, 4400 Rosewood Dr., Pleasanton. To register or to get more information, call (925) 931-5350 or go to www.pleasantonarts.org .
Activities include writing workshops (ranging from adult prose to children’s poetry to writing and illustrating children’s books), a fine arts show, an awards banquet, and writing contests. Registration is required to participate in contests and workshops. For contest information, contact Cynthia Bryant, poet laureate of Pleasanton, at (925) 398-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.