IN CONVERSATION . . . With Michael Chabon

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Almost every book Michael Chabon writes is playful and plot-driven, and he has often found inspiration in popular culture. This time he's gone way beyond dabbling in alternate history and comic books: "Gentlemen of the Road" is pure pulp adventure. Is it a deliberate assault on the boundaries of literature? Or just a good read?

You've talked about how important mythology, including Jewish lore, has been for your work. You've also said that when you draw on the stories of a minority culture, there's always someone to tell you you're doing it wrong. Does that go for science fiction and fantasy, too?

Writing, for me, is about what I love, what I'm passionate about, what sets my heart and brain on fire. If I feel like I have to tell a story, say, set against the backdrop of the Holocaust, with Sherlock Holmes, and a chapter told from the point of view of a parrot [in "The Final Solution" (2004)], then that's what I have to do, because in different ways, at different levels, with different effects, but with the same unstoppable obsessive-compulsive drive, those are all things (Holmes, Holocaust, parrots) that I can't stop thinking about. Same goes for elephants, swordsmen and the early history of European Jewry. And because I fundamentally just can't help it, then I can't really waste too much time worrying about how people are going to take it [or] whether it will meet with critical approval.

You seem to be trying to educate people in genre, as in your review of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" in the New York Review of Books, which included a lengthy overview of post-apocalyptic fiction. Does that help mainstream readers feel any less anxious as you coax them into unfamiliar worlds?

In that review -- and in general when it comes to writing critically about genre -- I'm not trying to educate people or bring them along or hold their hands as they leap into the imaginary piranha tank of genre (though I would like to think those are all possible results) so much as clarify my own thinking, to let my history and experience as a reader shed light on my history and experience as a writer, and vice versa. When it comes to genre, I really don't have an agenda or certainly not a realistic one.

What led you to Khazaria, the location of your new novel?

I no longer remember where I first read about the Khazars, but it was not long after I first discovered Borges, say in 1982, and I remember wondering if this article or encylopedia entry or whatever it was might be some kind of elaborate historical hoax. A medieval empire at war with the Vikings and Byzantium that lasted for more than four centuries, that was famous all over the world at the time, and everybody was Jewish! What? How come nobody ever told me about them? The Khazars felt like secret knowledge, and secret knowledge is definitely a source of inspiration for me.

"Gentlemen of the Road" gives me the impression that you had a lot of fun writing it but aren't entirely convinced by the world you've created. Do you think you will ever really break into science fiction? Or are you doomed to keep coming back to literature?

I believed every single word of it with every fiber of my being, actually! Writing it wasn't just fun, it was deep and magical -- I traveled.

As for science fiction, it is literature, as you very well know, my dear. The gates between the kingdoms are infinitely wide and always open!

Julie Phillips is the NBCC and Hugo Award winning author of "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon."

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