Life & Culture

How listening to jazz funk helped Michael Chabon create utopia

The much-admired novelist says that childhood memories and old records provided the inspiration for his new book


Michael Chabon was brought up in a place called Columbia, Maryland. It was what was known in America as a planned community — a 1970s concept of a racially integrated, egalitarian, ecumenical community.

It was, says Chabon, speaking from his home in Berkeley, California, a community that “achieved varying degrees of success”. What it did not do was prepare him for the real world. “I went to college in Pittsburgh. Things were the opposite of Columbia and I lost my illusions. Then I got older and moved around and started to raise a family and the places I lived didn’t look anything like Columbia, Maryland.”

Then one day, Chabon, the massively acclaimed writer of novels including The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, wandered into a second-hand record shop near his home. This was no planned utopian community, yet something sparked off an association with his childhood, and with it the idea for his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue.

He recalls: “The customers in that record store were a bunch of black guys and white guys, sitting around, hanging out. The people working behind the counter that day were both black and white. They were teasing one another and talking about music. I felt in their own way that they had created a space with the same impulse that had led to the creation of Columbia and all of the other experimental utopias.”

The resulting novel, originally intended as a TV series, was finally published last week — 13 years after Chabon started work on it. Think of a cross between Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, but densely written and overflowing with metaphor. In fact, the language is hugely influenced by the music his protagonists, Archie and Nat, sell in the shop, which is in danger of being closed down by the arrival of a superstore in the neighbourhood (rather than by music downloads — the book is set in 2004).

It is a showcase for the 49-year-old writer’s flamboyant wordplay. He has spoken of how he loves to combine literary description with demotic speech, and Telegraph Avenue became his canvas. He says: “This book demanded the very type of writing I most enjoy doing — much more so than some of the books I’ve done in the past. At times, writing it was as easy as pie and at others it was challenging and difficult. It depended on what I was trying to get the words to do.”

Telegraph Avenue has had reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic falling over themselves to praise it. This is not unfamiliar territory for Chabon who, unusually for a novelist, became an overnight sensation with his first novel, without even looking for a publisher.

He decided he wanted to be a writer at the age of 11 when he received praise for a class assignment. He says: “I spent most of the next few years starting things. I started novels and epic poems and short story cycles and TV scripts. I was full of good ideas but then I would abandon them and go on to the next thing. I’d feel guilty and fraudulent. How dare I call myself a writer when I’m spending most of my time not finishing anything? It was not until I got to graduate school that I began to get some discipline. I had a room-mate there who had excellent work habits. I just imitated him and found I was getting a lot of work done. I finished a novel.”

That novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was presented as his Masters thesis. Unbeknown to Chabon, his tutor submitted the manuscript to a literary agent. As a graduation present, Chabon received a publication deal and an advance of $155,000. The book was a huge hit. He has written ever since in a variety of styles in different media, hopping from genre to genre, nearly always to critical plaudits. He won a Pulitzer prize for his historical novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, set in the 1950s, and later wrote The Yiddish Policeman’s Union — a detective noir imagining of an alternative post-Holocaust universe in which the Jews have settled in Alaska having been kicked out of Israel. The book won a science-fiction prize.

While there are Jewish characters in Telegraph Avenue, Chabon feels his Jewish writing peaked in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. “For me it was a deliberate thing to explore and incorporate more Jewish themes and subject matter into my writing. That itself came from a decision I made to incorporate more of my own Jewish heritage and ancestry into my regular life. As my wife [writer Ayelet Waldman] and I decided to create a family together, that seemed like an inevitable part of the process. The Jewishness of my writing dialled up higher and higher, culminating in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I would venture to say is probably the most Jewish book I’m ever going to write. It is steeped in Yiddishkeit from the first word. I have assimilated and absorbed so much of that that I think I can take it for granted a bit now.”

Much of the impetus for Telegraph Avenue comes from the music referenced in the novel which Chabon listened to while he was writing the manuscript. He had rediscovered his old turntable and he started playing vinyl while he wrote. It has been good for him both creatively and for his posture. “If you listen to record when you’re working, every 20 minutes or so you get up, go over to the turntable and turn the record over. That is exactly what ergonomics experts say you should do. I always listen to music when I work. I find that I’ll be listening to something for years, then I change project and it doesn’t work anymore. On Telegraph Avenue, I was listening to 1960s and 1970s soul jazz and jazz funk — I call it backbeat jazz. I discovered this music in the process of writing the book. I listened to it and it even became incorporated in the prose in some way.”

Chabon has never had problems with the rhythm of his prose. Writing comes naturally to him. Plot on the other hand is a problem. “Usually four or five times during the writing of a book I will have a crisis. Some of these times are acutely painful and lead to me having thoughts of abandoning the project completely, wishing that I had never started it in the first place and cursing the idiot who got himself into this.”

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