That’s the gift of knowing you can floor your metaphors. But as Chabon can acknowledge from experience, sometimes it’s best to first know your terrain.
That was a lesson learned over years as Chabon mapped his way along “Telegraph Avenue,” his new novel, which he’ll discuss Sunday at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Northwest Washington to help kick off the annual Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. (The 15-event celebration runs through Oct. 24.)
The story behind the story of “Telegraph Avenue” began in the late ’90s, when Chabon hatched the idea for a project but hit one slight obstacle: One of the most acclaimed novelists of his generation says he wasn’t qualified to write it.
“Telegraph Avenue” is set in his adopted home of California’s East Bay. Only upon reflection — after writing the concept as a script — did Chabon realize he wasn’t ready. He hadn’t lived there long enough to intimately understand the geography and social geology.
“At some point, I became worthy,” the Maryland transplant says now. “My familiarity with, and appreciation of, the place I was living made me more qualified to write that.”
Today, Chabon sounds grateful that this became the tale of the avenue not taken.
It was in 1999 that TV producers approached Chabon about developing a TNT series. He wrote a two-hour pilot, the producers approved it and things seemed on track until suddenly — as so often happens in Hollywood — they weren’t. So Chabon shelved the script and went about his career, which the next year would produce his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
That mothballed TV pilot continued to gather dust as Chabon crafted a string of well-received books, yet like an antsy offspring, the script refused to stay hushed. “So many times, over a long period of years — through ‘Summerland’ and ‘The Final Solution’ and ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ and ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ — I would meet somebody or hear a story and think: Too bad I never did that,” Chabon said recently by phone. “Too bad I never did that TV show.”
That lost TV show was set on a cultural fault line between Berkeley and Oakland — the shifting tectonic plates of neighborhoods long populated predominantly by whites and blacks, respectively, and long marked by a wide disparity in average income. As the District-born Chabon came to understand the social rhythms of his region, he decided it was time for “Telegraph Avenue” to resurface.
Then, however, came Chabon’s second miscue: He kidded himself that he could simply novelize his script. “It was a stupid thing to try to do,” he says. “There’s no real relation between a pilot script and a novel . . . . It just messed me up for two years and I had to start over.”