Book World Live

Michael Chabon
Author, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union"
Tuesday, May 15, 2007; 3:00 PM

The pure reach and music and weight of Chabon's imagination are extraordinary, born of brilliant ambition you don't even notice because it is so deeply entertaining. He invents every corner of this strange world -- the slang of the "Sitkaniks," their history, discount houses, divey bars, pie shops. Despite the complications of the plot, the details of the world are every bit as enthralling.-- (Review: The Promised Land, May 13, 2007)

Pulitzer prize-winner novelist Michael Chabon, fields questions and comments about his newest title, "The Yiddish Policeman's Union."

Michael Chabon is the author of several other novels, including "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," "The Wonder Boys," and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," for which he won a Pulitzer.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Michael Chabon: Hello, everyone. This is Michael Chabon, and I am very happy to be here, under the auspices of my original hometown newspaper (I was born in D.C. and raised in Columbia, MD), The Washington Post.


Silver Spring, Md: Hi, big fan. I loved the Wonder Boys movie, and not just because I was a CMU writing grad. Are any of your other works coming to the screen? I'd love to see Kavalier & Clay as something like an HBO miniseries, personally.

Michael Chabon: Let's start with this one, and get the movie-related questions off the table first. I loved Wonder Boys, too; I thought it was a terrific movie, with great performances by Douglas, Maguire, Downey, and McDormand in leads, a fine script by Steve Kloves, and sensitive, moody direction by the underrated Curtis Hanson.

Kavalier & Clay was greenlighted last summer. We had Tobey Maguire (again!) and Natalie Portman set to star under the direction of Stephen Daldry, with a script by me. The production designer had taken his kids out of school in LA and was ready to move to London where the principal interiors were going to be shot.

And then last fall it all fell apart. I'm not entirely sure why; I'm not privy to the inside information, but my sense is that the studio (Paramount) underwent one of those financial panics that studios are regularly prey to, and many plugs were pulled--including K&C's.

Oh, well, that's showbiz.

Scott Rudin, the fierce producer who has the rights, assures me that there is no reason to despair and that it will all come back together again. I have no reason at all not to believe him.

A MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH movie has completed shooting and is looking for a distributor; I was not directly involved in that production, which was written and directed by Rawson Thurber, with Peter Sarsgard, Sienna Miller, and John Foster.


Santa Fe, NM: I heard you say that you got a lot of flack for your article on the Yiddish phrasebook (which eventually led to this novel) and that you expected as much if not more blowback from the novel. Just wondering if you've had any yet and if so, what?

Michael Chabon: Not really, no. Not yet--not, at least, from the people (certain Yiddishists) who were mad at me because of the essay.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I put your works into your own class, as it seems there is no one else like you approaching your creativity. How do you feel when people put your works into subjective categories? Do you care or has this ever upset you?

Michael Chabon: Human beings have a gift for taxonomy; like all powerful gifts it is prone to abuse and as useful for destruction as for constructive analysis. Luckily the world keeps sneaking through the gaps among the pigeonholes.


Chicago, Ill: Do you plan to attend the San Diego Comic Con this year?

Michael Chabon: No, I wish I could, but I have other plans.


Arlington, Va: Michael, thanks for taking the time to chat with us... I love the first five chapters of the book (so far, so good!).

I was wondering if you've faced any bias for your genre-hopping... for authoring an epic here, children's fiction there; a serial novel here, a detective story with Jewish themes there, etc...

Many, many thanks, and I look forward to seeing you at Politics & Prose in 1 1/2 weeks.


Michael Chabon: I don't think the average reader cares nearly as much about seeing that the correct genre label gets applied to a work of fiction as some critics do. But I'm not complaining. So far knock on wood (kaynahora!) my books have been very kindly treated by readers and reviewers too.


Rockville, MD: Do you read your reviews (Washington Post and otherwise)?

Michael Chabon: I do read them. I can't help it.

I don't at all mind criticism. In fact, I appreciate it, if it's thoughtful and careful and I sense the reviewer has tried to take the book on its own terms and found it wanting. Or if he or she wants to engage in a kind of argument with the work itself. Then even if the review is on balance negative I am grateful to have had my book taken seriously. Likewise with a thoughtful positive review, naturally.

What is harder to take is a thumbs-up, thumbs-down kind of review, where the critic is basically saying "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." Good or bad, those are disappointing.


Kerala, India: Did you consider other locales in which to create a fictionalized Jewish homeland besides Sitka? What about outside Alaska?

Michael Chabon: No, not really; I wanted the setting to be American, for the context and the "reality" to be recognizable and familiar to American readers, because after all that's the reality that I know, best, too. And therefore there was no other possible or remotely plausible locale. Although the great visionary Mordecai Noah did try to purchase Grand Isle, NY, near Buffalo, as a homeland for the Jews--some two hundred years ago.


Dupont Circle, Washington, DC: Mr. Chabon, I've really enjoyed your books! Question about the writing-- do you map out your novels, or do they often end up going the way they want, and not what you'd planned? A combination of both? Do you set your writing times? Thanks!

Michael Chabon: I have never worked quite the same way twice on a novel, but generally speaking I start with a vague sense of the story I want to tell--very vague.

Then I just start writing and try to generate a lot of settings and characters and see what develops. Maybe write 100 pages like that.

Then I get horribly lost and confused, and have to sit down and try to plot things out and really figure out what the hell I'm doing.

That plot serves me well enough for a first draft; but inevitably the draft comes out a mess with lot of missing pieces and undeveloped characters and flawd plot elements.

At that point I ask my wife and my editor and my agent to read it and give me feedback; taking their (numerous) criticisms and my own sense of what's wrong, I plot out a second draft, being ruthless with what I've already got. Might cut as much as 50% or more. With this latest book I THREW OUT THE ENTIRE FIRST DRAFT AND STARTED OVER!

Each of the subsequent two or three or four drafts gets it own outline.

But along the way, at every step of the way, there's always room for accidental discoveries, chance inspirations, unplanned characters and storylines.



Harrisburg, Pa.: What information are you willing to share on current and future writing projects you are doing or planning? We look forward to them and seek insights on what to expect.

Michael Chabon: Right now I'm so lost to the book tour that I'm not really working much. I would like to get a new novel going. I would like it to be set in the present day and feel right now the urge to do something more mainstream than my recent work has been.

This fall my swashbuckler, GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD, recently serialized in the NYT Sunday Magazine, will be published by Del Rey Books.


Baltimore Md: Michael: One thing I have not seen in the reviews (all of which have been laudatory) is whether you deal with the impact the establishment of Sitkaland had on the native Inuit? How did the indigenous people fit into the fictional landscape?

Michael Chabon: Yes, I do deal with the "Native Question"--in a fair amount of detail. You'll have to check it out. BTW the Natives of Sitka are American Indians, not Inuit--they are called the Tlingit.


Buffalo, NY: With so many of your works being made into movies, I have to ask when we can expect to see The Escapist on the big screen? Any additional graphic novels in the works?

Michael Chabon: No graphic novels in the works right now.


Jackson, Miss: I love the book so far. I'm 1/3 of the way through. How much effort should I spend trying to translate the Yiddish names? Is there much to discover in doing so? Why did you have Yiddish rather than Hebrew as the colony's language?

Michael Chabon: Please don't spend any effort that doesn't feel worth it to you as a reader! This is a novel, it's not supposed to be homework!

Hebrew in Alaska--talk about unlikely!


Houston, Tex: Like most of my friends, I adored Kavalier and Clay. But I find myself somewhat terrified by the prospect of a movie. After all, the book is a bit epic in scale. A lot happens, and I'm finding it hard to believe that a 2-ish hour movie can be made from it. Are you nervous that the finished product won't look enough like your book?

Michael Chabon: I wrote the script--so whatever is lousy about the movie will be, to a great extent, my own damn fault.

Anyway, the book is the book, and the movie--if there ever is one--is the movie. They don't really have all that much to do with each other. They're like those twins who get separated as infants and raised on separate continents. They may sneeze the same and share the habit of carrying a handkerchief, but if you hit the twin in Ohio over the head with a rubber mallet, the one in Geneva doesn't fall down dead.

What was the question again?


Rockville, MD: Speaking of genres: you wrote a children's novel. Do you read any current children's writers?

Michael Chabon: I am eagerly awaiting the promised fourth volume of the HIS DARK MATERIALS sequence by Phillip Pullman.


Rockville, Md: Michael,

Thanks for doing the chat, I'm a very big fan of all of your works. I'm wondering if you were involved in the casting decisions for either 'Mysteries of Pittsburgh' or 'Kavalier and Clay'? It seems like people have very strong ideas of who should portray Joe, Sammy and Rosa.

Michael Chabon: No, I'm just the writer!


Downtown Washington, DC: Hello--I'm a great fan of your books. One of the things I like most about them is that many of them have prominent gay characters that are integrated into the plot very naturally--just as gay people are integrated into the larger society. They're not heavy-handed or stereotypical--just characters that happen to be gay and fit into the plot of the book. Do you intentionally develop plots with gay characters?

Michael Chabon: Life--my life--is rich with gay "characters"; how can any fiction that hopes to pass itself off as plausible neglect to be the same?


Trumansburg, NY: Do you have any favorite, still living, writers that you would be willing to recommend? Especially folks deserving of greater recognition. Thanks.

Michael Chabon: Off the top of my head (omission is not an editorial comment), not as well known as they deserve to be:

Kelly Link

Jerome Charyn

Ben Marcus

Alan Furst

Elmore Leonard's Western fiction

Tom Bissell


Washington DC: I just wanted to suggest that you read the Edge Chronicles kid's books. Their nearly perfect sense of pacing belongs in more books today. It's like Alfred Bester without the science.

Michael Chabon: Alfred Bester--you just got my attention!


Ovid, NY: Mr. Chabon,

Many thanks for your support of the Mysterious Bookshop, I'm patiently awaiting the arrival of your latest through one of their subscription clubs.

Question: Just read William Deresiewicz's piece on your new novel in The Nation, in which he gently criticizes you for being 'trapped' by your use of genre fiction conventions and not 'arguing' with them. Do you feel that the adherence to some genre fiction trappings limits you as a writer in any way?

Michael Chabon: No, I reject the premise--though I appreciated the Deresiewicz review, criticism and all, for being so thoughtful and having a genuine thesis to argue. (Wish, however, he had not been so hard on the other author under review.)

I don't agree with D's claim that great literature can be made out of genre only by overt parody, as in Northanger Abbey (which I consider to be an inferior Austen book anyway) or Don Quixote (which is great, in my opinion, often in spite of the relentless parodying of knightly romance. I consider THE LONG GOODBYE by Chandler to be a first-rate novel and one whose highly self-conscious relationship to its genre (hard-boiled detective) is something much more nuanced, more shadowed, than parody or pastiche. And in that book, for example, the limitations of the genre's conventions--which range from its typical first-person point of view to the antagonism between the dick and the cops to the inverted romanticism and repressed homoeroticism of the male relationships--all serve to make the novel more, not less, powerful.

A poem written in rhymed iambic pentameter need not mock verse to transcend its limitations; and indeed the strictures of a rhyme scheme often lead the poet to unsuspected inspiration and discoveries.


RE: Gay Characters: So are you saying that any modern book without gay characters is not realistic?

Michael Chabon: Well, it depends on the setting, of course, and the kind of story that is being told.


Oxford, Miss: Where can I find a listing of your book tour engagements?

Michael Chabon: You could try my website,


Munich, Germany: When I tried to think of a place in the States that was most opposite to New York City, Alaska was only my second choice. Texas actually came to mind first, but characters in this story would have been too similar to Kinky Friedman.

I've read somewhere that Uganda was considered as a potential Jewish homeland. How would you imagine a Policeman's Union in Uganda?

After the drums stopped, Landsman stood and faced the seated crowd in front of their huts, while the pesky elephants in the background devoured the prized mangos from the rabbi's garden...

Michael Chabon: Uganda was very seriously considered both by the British government pre-Mandate and by a certain influential faction within the larger Zionist movement at the time--even by Theodor Herzl himself.


Berkeley, Calif: First of all, I'd like to say that YPU is one of the greatest novels ever written by an American writer. Second of all, I'd like to say that I love you.

Guess who?

Michael Chabon: Honey...?


Arlington, Va: Are you flattered or do you wince when you are compared to Roth, Singer and other great Jewish authors?

Put another way-- do you consider yourself a Jewish writer, or simply a writer?

Michael Chabon: Flattered, of course!

Yes, I consider myself to be a Jewish writer and am proud to be so identified.


Chevy Chase, MD: I may be one of the few people who have read all your books and all of your wife's mysteries. Any competition there? Does she get to do a chat also?

Michael Chabon: Thanks for the shout out to my wife, Ayelet Waldman--and let me heartily recommend her most recent, non-mystery novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.


McLean, Va: Michael: I absolutely loved Kavalier & Clay and find the premise of your new novel fascinating. How do you, in essence, free up your mind to create these unique scenarios and then develop them into novels? Thank you.

Michael Chabon: The ideas are the easy part. The hard part is sticking with them for the years it takes (me) to finish a novel. The only secret I have to offer is work a regular schedule--the same time every day, for the same amount of time, day after day, week after week, year after g.d. year.


Anonymous: the passage in Summerland where Mr. Feld promises never to leave Ethan will be read at my funeral. It is one of the most beautiful exchanges between parent and child in all of literature.

God bless you.

Michael Chabon: Wow--thank you!


New York, NY: I was wondering if Kurt Vonnegut was an influence on you, and what his passing means to you. Thank you.

Michael Chabon: His dystopian story of enforced mediocrity, "Harrison Bergeron" had a huge impact on me as a kid. I read and enjoyed a number of his books when I was a little older, CAT'S CRADLE, BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. But I was never a rabid fan.


Brooklyn, NY: I want to tell you I loved Kavalier and Clay - and I've never found comics an interesting subject. Just beautifully written, almost frustratingly so (in that I wish I could write like that).

But one thing, I believe an error in the book, sticks out in my mind I have to ask about. In the early part when Kavalier was doing the underwater trick in the river back in Europe, the water is described as cold and, I don't recall the exact figure, but it was around 20C. Which if it were farenheit would be quite cold, but is quite mild in Celsius. Not that this matters at all, but I was curious if you knew of this. Is this an error, or am I missing something?

Michael Chabon: Yes, I have heard about that one a few times. I'll blame it on the typesetter--okay?


Oxford, Miss: I'm about 2/3 of the way through your book and loving it. I'm a Jewish writer in Mississippi. Not exactly like a Jew in fictionalized Alaska but still pretty freakish somedays.

Anyhow, I heard you mention on NPR a Yiddish word that basically means "Oh, you didn't like it when I did X, well just wait until I do Y!" What is that again?

Michael Chabon: The phrase is "af tselokhes" and it means, very literally, "out of spite." Just to be perverse. "Cussedness."


Rockville, MD: Your highly ambitious novels seem so seamlessly executed. Simple question: how do you do it?

from struggling writer Jonathan

Michael Chabon: Thank you. If I had a simple answer, I would tell you. If only the writing felt as seamless as you are kind enough to attribute to the reading of them! It's big, long, pain in the neck from start to finish.


Washington DC: As an aspiring writer, I always think my best work is what I'm going to do next. How many stories are usually in your hopper? Do you think you're still improving?

Michael Chabon: Well, I tell myself that. I hope so.


Michael Chabon: Well, that's it for me--thank you, everyone, for your excellent questions and for caring about fiction in general and mine in particular. Enjoy your day.


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