Novelist Michael Chabon pays homage to his Columbia roots

How Michael Chabon's newest novel pays homage to his roots in Columbia

The author Michael Chabon grew up in the middle of that act of the imagination known as Columbia, Maryland.

For a lot of reasons, he says, the years he spent beginning in 1969 living on the former site of tobacco fields midway between Baltimore and Washington made him the writer he is today.

It wasn't just the sense of possibility that was engendered in a boy on a bicycle as he watched houses springing up from bare foundations.

Nor was it only the racial and ethnic diversity, though most of his neighbors and his school principal were African-American.

It wasn't even that he became imbued with many of the ideals on which the planned community was founded.

"There was a map of a whole town that did not yet exist," Chabon, now 51, says over the phone. "You could look at it and study it and then watch it develop. It was a very clearly drawn, very impressive example of something that had been mapped in the imagination and then came into being."

The author will have a chance to tour his old 'hood and check out the changes that have occurred in the past three decades on Wednesday, when he'll do a free public reading and give a talk at the University of Baltimore, the school from which his mother received her law degree.

He'll talk about beginnings, a topic on which he has ruminated at length as he crafted six novels, two volumes of short stories, two books for children and young adults, a novella, two collections of essays, several screenplays — and most of the lyrics for "Uptown Special," an album by music producer Mark Ronson that pays tribute to '80s popular music.

Chabon made a splash in the literary world almost before finishing graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. His first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," originally was written as his master's thesis; it was picked up by William Morrow & Co. and in 1988 became a New York Times best-seller.

His second novel, "Wonder Boys," was made into a 2000 movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. And his third, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Chabon says that novels start for him when he can envision a particular world.

For instance, in "Telegraph Avenue," Chabon's widely praised sixth novel, that world is a California street that not only exists in real life, but that connects two very different communities — Oakland, which has a large minority population, and white, middle-class Berkeley.

"Once I imagine that world, I start to ask myself what kind of people live there, what music was playing, and what the popular culture was like," he says.

On Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, he put a used record store specializing in fine jazz that's similar to one he visited. He populated the record store with two partners: Archy Stallings, who is African-American, and Nat Jaffe, who is white and Jewish.

Then the author asked himself what would happen if a former NFL star and the fifth-richest black man in America decided to erect a superstore nearby that also will specialize in fine jazz.

Columbia residents even will find a sly tip of the hat to their hometown embedded in the novel; a lawyer character is named Garth Newgrange, an inversion of the name of the street on which the author lived for eight years.

As young Michael pedaled his bike around town, he fell in love with the oddball street signs. Because sound is so important to him, it's easy to imagine him reciting the names over and over, feeling their weight and shape on his tongue.

"When I sit down and try to put words on a page, I generally hear the cadence before anything else," he says.

"It's a sort of sense of the syllables and how they're going to fall. There might be some gaps in the words, but I keep going so I don't forget the rest of the cadence. Then I go back later and fill in the parts that are missing."

For Chabon, writing isn't about filling in the gaps of just individual sentences. All six of his novels deal in some fashion with the fallout caused by a missing father. "Telegraph Avenue," which includes abandoned children, substitute fathers and a nervous father-to-be, is no exception.

He says that preoccupation resulted from his parents' divorce while he was in middle school. What's worse, the father he loved and admired so much moved from Baltimore to Pittsburgh.

It was the mid-1970s, a time when he says that dissolving a marriage no longer was considered forbidden and shameful. Instead, enlightened people were supposed to consider divorce as difficult, perhaps, but for the best. It allowed two people who never should have been married in the first place the opportunity to lead more fulfilling lives.

"I wanted my parents to be happy," he says.

"But what that conception left out is the whole notion of my world being shattered. After my father moved to Pittsburgh, I went from seeing him every day to seeing him on Christmas and summer vacations and on some weekends. It took me a long time to realize how devastating that experience was for me."

He reacted to that loss by vowing to be deeply involved with his own children. As a young man, Chabon used to declare to his dates that when he found the woman he wanted to wed, he would stay home with the kids so she could pursue her career.

In the early 1990s, he met and married Ayelet Waldman, a lawyer turned novelist. After the birth of the first of the couple's four children, Chabon embarked on a schedule of being a father during the day and writing at night between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

"I wanted the subtle satisfactions of being a parent," he says.

"If you're not having any of those moments when you help your kids adjust their backpacks so the straps don't hurt any more, then you're not having the tiny, accumulative moments that add up to intimacy."

But he doesn't see any links between giving birth to a child and giving birth to a novel.

"The only analogy that comes to mind," Chabon says, "is that no matter how much I practice, I keep making the same rookie mistakes."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Michael Chabon will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Baltimore's John and Frances Angelos Law Center, 1420 N. Charles St.*Free. Call 410-837-4200 or visit ubalt.edu.

* An earlier version of this story included an incorrect building location for Michael Chabon's talk.

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