Way back in the late 1980s, a flurry of novels by young writers heralded what was seen by many as a new gay wave in publishing. One of the most successful of that group was Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. A bestseller, the novel garnered a legion of gay readers and established the author as a “name to be watched ” in literary circles.
But unlike most of his contemporaries in that “gay ” wave, Chabon wasn’t actually gay — not that that’s stopped many of his readers from assuming that over the years. At thirty-eight, Chabon is pleased to hear his first novel still reaches readers more than twenty years later.
“All the things I thought were so hot shit when I was writing it now seem to be the product of somebody a lot younger and less experienced than I am now, ” he says. “But what’s important to me now is that there are people for whom that book means something. ”
Since those early days, Chabon has gone on to become a major commercial and critical success, the most striking of which is his most recent novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Gay characters and themes have continued to play prominent roles in Chabon’s work, full players in the worlds he loves to create.
Born in Washington and raised in Columbia, Maryland, Chabon is returning to the area to read from Kavalier & Clay this Friday as part of the PEN/Faulkner series. From his home in Berkeley, California, where his lives with his wife and three children, Chabon talked about the importance of reaching readers, the human habit of categorizing others, and what the literary world can —- expect next from him.
MW: A lot of us here at MW are gay men of a certain age, so Mysteries of Pittsburgh is kind of a touchstone for us. What are your feelings on being a writer with a big gay following?
MICHAEL CHABON: I’m just glad to hear that’s still the case. I hoped it was, and to have it put that way makes me feel really good. Because it was my first book and I wrote it a long time ago, I have ambivalent feelings toward it, as anyone would toward something you wrote when you were twenty-two years-old. But in some way or another that’s the book that’s seemed to inspire people in a way that none of the other ones quite do. It was such a record of a moment in my life when my consciousness of myself was undergoing these drastic alterations. Not that that many people have found their way to the book, but I feel like a lot of those who did found it at just the right time — the transitional moment when you’re embarking on the adventure of your life as an adult and a sexual being and all those things. I still get emails from kids coming out of college who are reading the book that say, “I feel like you wrote it all about me. ” That’s wonderful. When I wrote the book I was too callous and young to realize that that was a special thing. As I’ve gotten older I appreciate when I get those emails, they really mean a lot.
MW: Through most of your books, including Kavalier & Clay and Wonderboys, you do seem to have a pretty good grasp on writing gay characters. Do people generally assume that you’re gay, particularly because of Mysteries of Pittsburgh?
CHABON: Definitely. That’s been going on pretty much since 1988. It wasn’t a big deal then and it’s even less of a big deal now. The only aspect of it that bothered me was the fact that there was a small but vocal minority in the gay literary bookselling community that seemed to be under the impression that I was pretending to be gay to sell more books, or that my publisher was pretending I was gay in order to get me into gay bookstores and stuff like that. That was the only part of it that I thought to be upsetting. It seemed to me to be fundamentally based on an attitude that’s just as narrow as the one that it is in opposition to. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but if Mysteries of Pittsburgh is about anything in terms of human sexuality and identity, it’s that people can’t be put into categories all that easily.
MW: In terms of the literary world, do you think that — with gay fiction, and women’s fiction, and so many other categories — we might be overcategorizing people?
CHABON: It’s a human trait to do that. It’s inevitable. How we go about understanding things is to put them into little boxes and put labels on them. It’s very effective and useful and there’s a good reason for doing it a lot of the time, otherwise things become this big, gray undifferentiated mass. But it can also be a harmful and destructive thing. I think people are more comfortable than we expect with things being a little raggedy on the edges, a little blurry in the middle. They can live with that in terms of the people around them and their lives and their identities, and also in the fiction that they read. But when it comes time to sell books, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a little bit of what you might call ghettoization when you have things like targeted marketing.
MW: Where do you feel that you generally fall into that?
CHABON: I don’t know. Do you mean in terms of publishing or my life?
MW: I was thinking publishing, but let’s go for both.
CHABON: There’s a big lump that’s called literary fiction or mainstream fiction or non-genre fiction or whatever, and that’s sort of where I am. That’s not a problem that really dogs me, except for that brief moment when Mysteries of Pittsburgh came out and Newsweek did a big roundup of all the hot new gay novels. That was me being pigeonholed and possibly confined to a section of the bookstore from which it can be very hard to get out once you’re in. Luckily the book attracted a diverse readership.
In my life, I’m the kind of person who is very comfortable with blurring. I certainly don’t insist on other people putting on the hat I want them to wear. Luckily, I live in Berkeley where that’s kind of the norm. It’s a place that really prides itself on letting people be exactly who they want to be. I think it’s required by law — you have to express your individuality or else you’ll be shown to the town limits.
MW: Outside of your writing, in what ways do you avoid categorization and pigeonholing?
CHABON: Take the way I father my kids. My career permits me this liberty, it’s not just because I’m a good person or anything like that, but I can spend a lot of time fathering my kids — being with my kids, cooking for them, and playing with them. Over the years I’ve often found myself being the only guy on the playground with a bunch of women, carrying the baby around and exchanging the kinds of information that typically mothers and nannies exchange about various illnesses and pediatricians and such. It’s a role I feel very comfortable in and I don’t think it’s all that conventional even in this day and age. Television commercials for household and child-related products almost always have women in them.
MW: In Berkeley you could probably pass for a gay dad.
CHABON: Yeah, except everyone in Berkeley is a lesbian. My wife sometimes refers to me as a lesbian.
MW: When you’re writing, what is your goal? Are you looking to tell stories or are you looking to explore themes? Are you writing more publicly or more inwardly?
CHABON: I don’t think of it as a public thing at all when I’m doing it. It’s completely between me and the computer. I’m just caught up in the world that I’m bringing into existence. That’s what it’s about for me, making up worlds and peopling them. A very close second is telling stories. Those two things are the most important to me. That’s changed a little over the years. When I was writing Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the language and style were always primary for me, and the pleasure I get from writing comes from the play with language more than anything else. But the creation of a plausible world for me to inhabit and then for my readers to inhabit are the key things for me.
MW: Mysteries was taken as sort of a gay novel. A lot of commentary on Kavalier & Clay compared it to books such as Underworld, very broad, big literary statements. Do you find yourself pressured to follow up one book with the same type of book?
CHABON: Nobody’s ever put any pressure on me to write anything and I’m grateful for that. I’ve followed my own desires from the very beginning. It didn’t always work out. There was a novel that I tried to write after Mysteries of Pittsburgh and before Wonderboys. I worked on it for five and half years before I gave it up as completely doomed. But nobody’s ever made an attempt to try to get me to do one thing instead of another.
MW: And now that you’re a Pulitzer Prize winner, still no pressure?
CHABON: Not at all, in fact the book I’m about to write is a really screwy idea that I don’t think anyone would have suggested to me. It’s going to be a literary thriller, by which I mean it’s going to be a thriller but since I’m not a thriller writer they’ll call it a literary thriller. It’s set in a somewhat altered version of the world in terms of history, specifically to the Jewish people.
MW: So it’s an alternate history?
MW: Did working with the fantastical elements in Kavalier & Clay give you more impetus to try that? Kavalier & Clay seemed like a departure for you to start with.
CHABON: That’s something that’s always been part of my work and my own imagination. I think I’m allowing it to come more to the fore than I used to. When I first set my sights on becoming a writer at age eleven or so, I wanted to be a fantasy and science fiction writer. That was my preferred reading material and that’s what I thought I was going to write. That’s always been there. You can even see little hints of it in Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys.
I’m maybe a little less self conscious now about those elements in my taste and in my imagination. Because I’ve written a bunch of stuff that is quote-unquote realistic or naturalistic, there is a strong regulating apparatus on my imagination. When I do things that might be derived from the tropes of science fiction or thrillers or fantasy, I’m always going to filter them through the constraints of the realistic approach to writing, which I’m completely wed to. I’m never going to abandon that, I don’t want to completely come unmoored and float off into the sky and never come back. That said, I’m just finishing a book now that’s a fantasy for ten to twelve-year-olds. I pretty much pulled out all the stops and I do kind of float off into the sky, but I come back again at the end. That was a lot of fun for me, to let go of all the constraints, although hopefully the characters in the novel are very realistic, recognizable little children.