Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Michael Chabon

I feel like my life has gotten objectively better since I moved within easy access to San Francisco. Exhibit A: Virtually any major writer who does any promotion for their new book will put in an appearance in the city or close by. My most recent example of this was Michael Chabon, who appeared at City Arts & Lecture on September 11, the day after the release of his latest and highly-anticipated novel, Telegraph Avenue.

I really like the City Arts program. I've previously attended for Patton Oswalt's book tour for Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, and... and I'm sure there's one other even that I'm presently drawing a blank on. The setting is a bit formal compared to other literary events: it's held in the Herbst Theater, a great, classic auditorium space. But, it doesn't feel stuffy, and I think that's due to the influence of the program itself. People who show up are excited about the speaker and engaged with the material, so there's a pleasing collegial atmosphere that pervades those events. (I do wish that they would archive their online broadcasts so I could link to them, but if you're lucky enough to receive them on your public radio station, you can probably get a good feel for their tone.)

My affection for Michael Chabon's writing has outpaced my consumption of it. I hang my head in shame and admit that the only book of his I've read is "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" - but it was an absolutely incredible book, among the best I've read. I've been meaning to read "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" for ages, but I don't get any credit for WANTING to read a book. When I'd heard about "Telegraph Avenue" - heck, when I heard the name of the book - I knew I wanted to grab it, and I was delighted to have a chance to hear Chabon talk about it in person.

For those of you who aren't local, Telegraph Avenue is a major arterial road that runs through much of Berkeley and Oakland. It runs through a bunch of different neighborhoods, and has a fairly different character throughout - from the funky university town vibe near its northern end, where it abuts UC Berkeley, through a surprisingly residential neighborhood, through north Oakland, the edge of the gentrified Rockridge neighborhood, though the transitioning Temescal neighborhood, and eventually terminating in the urban core of downtown Oakland, just a few blocks from the Bay. It's probably the quintessential East Bay street, and a fine setting for a novel with its heart in the Berkeley-Oakland area.

Michael was interviewed by Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, who did a phenomenal job. Apparently the two of them know each other and are friendly - Adam said that they'd met at an 826 Valencia "Spelling Bee for Cheaters" tournament and hit it off; later during the Q&A, Michael mentioned that he'd called up Adam to get his "expert advice" on a particular problem he was having with the book (if memory serves, something like stealing or steering an airship?). Anyways, they had an easy rapport, and the chat flowed very well: it didn't feel scripted, and while there were a couple of brief pauses for reflection, it kept moving nicely throughout.

I don't want to dig too much into the (fascinating!) autobiographical stuff Michael talked about at the beginning - I'm pretty sure this will show up on KQED sometime, and I can't really do justice to it. What struck me most, though, was how incredibly humble Chabon is, and how openly he talked about the struggles he has had with writing. For people like me, who absolutely love reading and have a really tough time writing, it's kind of a relief to hear someone of Chabon's stature describe how he's had to abandon stuff that just wasn't working (apparently, he threw out almost everything from his first draft of The Yiddish Policeman's Union), or needed to get rid of characters, or written himself into a corner and gotten stuck. I guess that Chabon is this talented not because he doesn't make mistakes or because he's a perfect writer, but because he's a hard worker who can recognize what's good, what needs to be better, and figure out how to improve his work until it becomes the amazing thing we all get to read.

I used to write a fair amount of fiction, back in high school and college, but never was sufficiently serious about it to get any good, and while I've been writing a lot since graduation, it's almost all been technical or business-related stuff. I've just recently started dipping my toes back into writing fiction again - and it's hard! I've been happy to see that the writing itself comes relatively easily - I can sit down and crank out however much quantity I'm going for - but I'm never happy with it when I re-read it. Anyways... I have no illusions about ever being anywhere near Chabon's league, but listening to him made me cheerful, since I can definitely imagine becoming BETTER than I am now.

As with many City Arts programs, this included an extremely generous Q&A session with the audience; I think it lasted nearly as long as the main discussion with Adam Savage did. The questions covered a wide area but were uniformly thoughtful and knowledgeable. Again, that's part of what I love about City Arts: people who come here are already up to speed on what's going on, so you get really interesting, specific questions, instead of the more vague "What did it feel like to write this book?" questions that often crop up at more general-audience events. For example: the first question was, "I think you were in front of me in the line to the Wilco concert at the Fox Theater with your son. [It was his daughter.] What is your relationship towards live performances, and does it influence your work?" That prompted an incredibly thoughtful response from Michael about not only music, but experiencing live music with his kids. Another person had read Chabon's acknowledgement that he had used Scrivener, an OS X app, while writing this book, and had asked what that process was like. After checking whether the questioner was a Scrivener developer (he wasn't), Michael gave a concise and pretty compelling summary of what Scrivener does (basically providing a really useful way for you to organize all your sources that you would consult while writing and making them easy to find and access), but then segued from there into an app that he was even more excited about, Freedom, a productivity app that does exactly one thing: kills your Internet connection for a set period of time. That in turn led to some great discourse on distractions in writing - and once again, it makes me know so good that I'm not the only person who, when I'm actually in the flow and enjoying what I'm writing, will suddenly think, "Oh, I should check my email!" and derailing a previously productive session.

Also amusing: I think a grand total of four questions throughout the night came from people who self-identified as residents of the Temescal neighborhood. At one point Chabon joked, "I feel like I'm sitting in Pizzaiolo right now." He hadn't talked a whole lot about the book itself during his conversation with Adam, but the questions during the Q&A did a lot to draw out some comments about his affection for Oakland and Berkeley and how neighborhoods change.

I stuck around afterwards to get my book signed. This program rewards repeat attendees: you can see who knows the drill, because they're the ones who make a beeline for the door, turn left at the lobby, and immediately start lining up, while others are still wandering around looking lost. Michael Chabon was very gracious and pleasant, chatting with everyone who came through the (very long!) line. These events have gotten less awkward for me since I (finally!) figured out that it's OK to say "I really like your books."

I'm juggling multiple books at the moment, so it will probably be a while before I finish Telegraph Avenue, but I'll definitely post here once it's done. I read the first 30 pages or so while waiting at the event and on BART afterwards, and am loving what I'm reading so far!

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