A Pulitzer winner revisits his inner child

CATCHING UP WITH ... MICHAEL CHABON

April 29, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | By Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

So what does a writer do for an encore after he's just won the Pulitzer Prize with a rich, artful novel about a dynamic duo who create a breakout comic book superhero?

Michael Chabon, still slightly giddy from winning a Pulitzer for his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," has segued nicely from writing a novel about comics to writing a novel for children. He's doing the screenplay for the movie of "Kavalier & Clay," but his next book is for kids.

"Just the idea of writing something for my children was appealing to me," he says. He has a son, Zeke, a daughter, Sophie, and another daughter's birth is imminent.

"As my daughter has gotten older, the stories that I'm now able to read to her at night are the stories I remember reading myself and loving. We're up to novels now, chapter books.

"As soon as we started rereading these classic novels that I loved, it started me thinking I could write one of these. So ..."

So Chabon is trying to write "exactly the kind of novel that I would have liked to have read when I was 10 or 11 years old," he says. "I remember exactly what I liked and how it felt."

Chabon hasn't read to Sophie for a couple of days now. He's on a whirlwind bi-coastal round trip - in New York for a meeting on Wednesday, in Washington Thursday for a book event, then back to Berkeley, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Ayelet Waldman, and the kids.

In an open-neck blue shirt among the suits of a Washington convention hotel, Chabon looks like an Andalusian poet, handsome, with lean, dark features, luminous eyes and flaring black hair. He looks slightly vulnerable seated tenuously in an overstuffed lobby chair.

He's pretty tough about his writing, though. He tossed away a 700-page novel - about an architect who wants to build a baseball stadium much like Camden Yards - when he couldn't get it to work. He salvaged the remains in his second novel, "The Wonder Boys," about an English professor cursed with a 2,600-page unfinished novel. "Wonder Boys" became a movie, which most critics loved but nobody bothered to see. His first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," evolved from his master's thesis and made him a hot young writer at age 24. Now 37, he's even hotter.

Reading comics in Columbia

He read children's classics when he was a kid in Columbia, Md., but also read comic books. He's at least a second-generation comics reader. His grandfather was a printer who brought bagfuls home for Chabon's father, back when comic books cost a dime.

"When I started reading them myself in '69, they still cost 12 cents," he says. "By the time I stopped reading them at the end of the '70s they were up to 35 or 45 cents."

His dad would drive him into Catonsville to buy comic books at one of Steve Geppi's early stores, a place of bittersweet memories for him.

"Actually, what I remember about Geppi's is the day that my father told me my parents were getting divorced," he says. "He sort of softened the blow by first [taking me] to Geppi's. It was while we were driving back home that he told me. So sort of always my association of comic book shopping in Baltimore was not a very happy one."

He and his brother had no inkling that the divorce was coming. He's written about the pain he felt. He's very close to his brother, Steve, who is five years younger.

The comic book creators of his novel, Joe Kavalier, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-dominated Prague, and Sam Clay, ne Klayman, are cousins, but they become closer than most brothers. Joe has come alone to America, but he saves almost every penny he makes from drawing their comic hero "The Escapist" to rescue his beloved younger brother, Thomas.

"The sidekick is one of the themes of this book," Chabon says. "Thomas is Joe's sidekick in Prague. Sammy becomes Joe's sidekick in America. The whole thing of having sidekicks was what gets Sammy in trouble at the end."

Sidekicks abound in comic book history. Batman's Robin is the most famous, of course, but there are also Captain America and Bucky, the Spirit and Ebony White, the Green Arrow and Speedy, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl.

"And my brother Steve was definitely like my sidekick. He was always tagging along and I was always getting him tangled up in my misfortunes and adventures," Chabon says.

He adds: "One of the sweetest things that my son has ever said is a couple of weeks ago when we were going out for a walk ... and my son says to me: `I'm your sidekick, Daddy.' "

Of research and respect

Chabon has an encylopedic knowledge of comic book history, having researched it for his novel, and he has a nice feel for American life from the late 1930s to 1950s. He's met and interviewed many of the most famous comic artists. He regards them with familial affection and treats their work with great respect.

His daring duo of the comics - Kavalier and Clay - reflect that respect. They're true creators who burst out of the boundaries of the comic book page. They work in the golden age of the "funny" books, which coincided with World War II. Joe Kavalier's first cover is a masterpiece that depicts the Escapist smacking Der Fuehrer's face.

"To me an artist is an artist is an artist," Chabon says, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein. "Whether he or she is working in paint or music or comics, any medium in the hands of a true artist is going to produce art.

"It's just that comics never got the seal of approval from the arbiters of taste in this country."

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