Superstar Writer Michael Chabon, Raised In Columbia, Draws Inspiration For His Fiction From The Planned Community Of His Youth

May 13, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Reporter


All the seats are taken half an hour before he is due to arrive. Green velvet ropes hold back all the throngs who will have to stand. Two NYPD cruisers are parked out front for security. Men with walkie-talkies track his every move.

It is a few minutes after 7, on a chilly night in early May, when Michael Chabon steps off an escalator onto the fourth floor of the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. At the first sight of his unruly brown hair, the crowd of 600 erupts in whistles and applause.

Striding to the podium with a sheepish, astonished grin on his face, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has been called the pre-eminent novelist of his generation responds with child-like wonder: "Wow."

Only a handful of writers of literary fiction in the country can generate such rock-star electricity. That Michael Chabon is one of them -- that he has reached the height of American literature and commands seven-figure book deals and the respect of the fiercest critics -- is a direct result, he says, of a childhood spent in a nowhereland between Baltimore and Washington.

That would be Columbia, Md., a town most would consider placid, even boring, but where Chabon learned how visions become real. His family moved to the planned community in 1970, and the 7-year-old Chabon was given a map of what Columbia was to be. As he grew up, through middle school and high school, he watched a town take shape from nothing -- a phenomenon that had a profound impact on him as a writer.

"It was just this incredibly powerful demonstration of what an imagination could accomplish in the real world," he says over a recent breakfast (doughnuts, plain) at the Red Flame diner in midtown Manhattan. He's writer-chic in a pink striped shirt, designer jeans and gray-rimmed glasses.

Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon) tacked the Columbia map on his bedroom wall and consulted it every morning. In the afternoons, he and his friends would ride bikes over the clay from which homes would grow and explore the giant holes excavated in the earth that would become basements and swimming pools.

"It was like an act of magic," he says. "It was like somebody saying abracadabra. And here, in this place where there was nothing, there is now a house and a shopping center and a pool."

He remembers seeing the trucks drive up, after a series of houses was completed, with their rolls of sod and tiny trees with burlap sacks tied around their roots, and suddenly there would be grass and trees. And it was all on the master plan. The plan said something was going to happen, and then it did.

"It made this powerful, magical impression on me that you could say you were going to do something and, in a way, all you needed to do was name it," he says, recalling the names of his own childhood -- a street called Eliot Oaks, a neighborhood called Longfellow, a village called Harper's Choice. "By naming streets, by naming villages, by naming neighborhoods ... by doing that, you could cause things to come into existence."

Imagining survivors

In a way, that's what Chabon, 43, has done with The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a murder mystery set in a world that doesn't exist but almost did. He supposes that a plan actually proposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior during the Second World War -- to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska -- had come to be, and that the Holocaust had claimed the lives of 2 million Jews, not 6 million.

Those 4 million who survived, in Chabon's world, brought the Yiddish language, culture and traditions to this new home. Chabon creates for them a rich cityscape filled with chess halls, doughnut shops, greasy diners, Jewish mobsters and fleabag hotels. The streets, the buildings, the history -- it is all imagined by Chabon from the ground up.

"I'm doing in this book, on paper, what James Rouse and the Working Group did in the early 1960s," he says. "I stopped short of actual construction."

Creating the book took almost as long as the building of Columbia itself. Chabon's last major novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, was published in 2000. While he has worked on other projects since then, the new novel still took five years and four drafts. At one point, he switched the narration from first-person to third-person, prompting a major rewrite.

"It doesn't all come easily and it's not just me sitting down and writing these beautiful sentences and then I'm done and it gets published," he says. He has been particularly open about the difficulties of writing -- he once threw out a 600-page novel he couldn't get to work -- because, he says, "I hate mystification."

Before his reading at the Barnes & Noble, he encouraged the audience to ask him about anything -- "relationships, dating advice, investment strategies." Mostly, though, they were there to adore him. Many brought multiple books, and he signed for 2 1 / 2 hours, until closing time.

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