In the second of a series of conversations with this year's Pulitzer Prize winners, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with fiction winner Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The fiction prize went to Michael Chabon for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It's a big novel-- 656 pages long-- with a big story about escape, illusion and art in the shadow of the Holocaust. Chabon is the author of two other novels, including Wonder Boys, which was made into a Hollywood film starring Michael Douglas last year. Chabon grew up in Columbia, Maryland and now lives in Berkeley, California. Congratulations.
MICHAEL CHABON: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you surprised?
MICHAEL CHABON: I was very surprised. I was just going about my morning routine out in my office behind our house, and I heard this screaming in the house. And I ran out to see what was going on, and it turned out to be my wife. She was on the phone with a reporter from the AP, and she was jumping up and down, and she hurled and-a-half months pregnant was something I would have liked to have had a little preparation for. And I'm still kind of surprised to admit it, to tell the truth, I wasn't really expecting it, and I had kind of convinced myself, in fact, this it probably wasn't going to be the case.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's a very big award for a very big novel with big themes. Tell us the story briefly.
MICHAEL CHABON: Well, it's a story of two cousins, Sam Clay who is a Brooklyn boy about 18 years old when the story starts, and Josef Kavalier who is a refugee from Nazi occupied Prague and has fled this country leaving his whole family behind, and coming to New York. Very quickly, Sam, his cousin convinces him to go into the comic book business with him. They create this character inspired in part by Joe's having left Prague behind, and in part by Joe's training as an called the escapist, which he did as a teenager in Prague, a character called the "escapist," who is super powered escape artist, a kind of a Houdini figure. It becomes very successful. They never really quite see the fruits of that success. We trace the course of their lives over... Through the war years and then into the post-war period in suburban New York on Long Island. Joe has left his whole family behind. He is wracked with lots of feelings of guilt over that, and he kind of channels his guilt and rage into his work first as a comic book artist, and they create these incredibly, horrifically violent scenes of carnage in which the escapist is destroying entire Luftwafa squadrons and ripping tanks apart with his bare hands.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What was amazing was how you managed not to have tragedy and comedy, but they are all mixed up much. It's about comic books but it's also about the Holocaust. How did you manage to do that?
MICHAEL CHABON: Well, I just try to be true to the character of Joe Kavalier. He came together very quickly for me, more quickly than some other characters have in things I've written previously. I made a decision very early on to have him be a refugee and to be from Prague. And that decision which I made without really thinking about it-- and to be honest, I'm not really sure why I made the decision-- proved to be the determining factor for this book in that it made everything else possible. I knew I was going to write about comic books and the early history of this fascinating, wild and woolly comic book business in New York, but the other things that began to work their ways into the story, the escape artistry. The figure of this golem, this legendary automaton of clay created by a Prague rabbi during the Middle Ages.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Actually read about that. Tell us more about the golem and read that part of the book.
MICHAEL CHABON: I would be happy to. There are a lot of stories about golems in Jewish folk lower. The one I was concerned about was the Prague golem. There are various versions of the story. Some people say he was created merely to be a servant in the main synagogue in Prague, but there are other stories - persistent stories -- that he was created to be kind of a champion of the ghetto, to defend the Jews of the Prague ghetto against pogroms and blood rivals and so on. And it's that figure that I began to see, because I made this arbitrary choice to have Joe come from Prague, I started to see that the golem was in many way as kind of precursor of the superman figure - the character like Superman. So I should also mention many people have pointed out that the Frankenstein myth is probably drawn in part at least from the golem story. "In literature and folklore, the significance and fascination of golems, from Rabbi Lowes to Victor Von Frankensteins lay in their soulessness, in their tireless inhuman strength -- in their metaphorical association with overweening human ambition, and in the frightening ease with which they pass beyond the control of their horrified and admiring creators. But it seemed to Joe that none of these Faustian hubris least of all were among the true reasons that impelled men time after time to hazard the making of golem. The shaping of a golem to him was a gesture of hope offered against hope in a time of desperation. It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something, one poor, dumb powerful thing exempt from the crushing strictures, from the ills, cruelties and inevitable failures of the greater creation. It was the voicing of a vane wish, when you got down to it, to escape."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Critics have really pointed out your ability to have such style with a great story. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
MICHAEL CHABON: Well, I think I was pretty young. I started getting interested in writing and writers when I learned how to read. I became very curious about the authors of the books that I was reading and I realized it was possibly an interesting job to have. But it was when I was ten years old that I first wrote something long. It was a 12-page story that I wrote for an English class, that was about Sherlock Holmes meeting Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I loved writing it. I loved writing about these characters. I didn't have... Take the trouble of inviting my own. I could use others but, more importantly, I tried to write in Doyle's voice. And that was the first time in my voice in my life that I had ever paid attention to language and style. There is a very distinctive voice-- the voice of dr. John H. Watson-- in imitating the voice, I was forced to pay attention to diction and word choice. I started to understand what a style really was, how you made one, that you made it up out of word choices and then my teacher gave me an "A" on the story, and my parents said it was terrific. And I thought, wow, that was so wonderful, and I enjoyed it so much, and I got praise for it. So this is it, this is what I'm going to be. I was lucky. My parents, when I announced to them that I wanted to be a writer, said, "okay." They never... It seemed to be a fine ambition to them. They never attempted to discourage me or steer me towards a more sensible course. I mean, I think privately, they may have had their reservations or their doubts, but they didn't ever burden me with their doubts. And they just always encouraged me to go ahead and try.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You are turning this novel into a screenplay now. And you're actually writing the screenplay this time.
MICHAEL CHABON: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How is it going?
MICHAEL CHABON: It's going pretty well. I just finished the first draft.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it really different?
MICHAEL CHABON: Yeah, it is really different. I think it is incumbent on me to make it really different. I have an obligation to do that because I think it's too tempting for the writer of the original work to do that, boil down or extract all the dialogue, that is not really fair. I think I have a job to do which is to create a screenplay that tells a story that is told in this novel. And to do that I'm unfortunately forced to leave a lot behind, and to leave out a lot. On the other hand, I have been able to find new things, new scenes that aren't in the book, new approaches to telling the story that aren't possible in a novel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Michael Chabon, congratulations again, and thanks for being with us.
MICHAEL CHABON: Oh, thank you, Elizabeth.