Michael Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Gentlemen of the Road, and Wonder Boys, among other novels. His alternate history novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Sidewise awards. His next novel is Telegraph Avenue, due out in September.
This interview first appeared in Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
How did you first encounter the John Carter books, and what sort of an impact did they have on you?
I first encountered them in Page One Books in Columbia, Maryland, in about 1973, I guess, whenever Ballantine Books reissued them with those stunning Gino D’Achille covers. They appeared somewhat magically, like the Monolith in 2001, in a cardboard display dump in the bookstore, this beautiful display with a big piece of artwork on the top of it, and then I guess maybe all fifteen books in this display, each with this stunning cover, and it had a sense of obvious cultural importance, at least to me at age ten or eleven. It inspired this immediate desire in me to know more, to visit, to go there, and see what this was about. What was this thing, who was John Carter, and what was going on with these green guys, and red-skinned beautiful princesses, and flying boats, and everything I was seeing on the covers of these books?
And I bought the first one, and I loved it, and I went back and bought the next one, and then I discovered that the Science Fiction Book Club was publishing them with equally arresting covers by Frank Frazetta, in double editions, two books in one. So I started to get those, because I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, and then not long after that Marvel Comics, of which I was also a great devotee, started doing a comic book version of the same character, and that just kind of cemented it all in my mind. So I was having a multimedia experience with the character of John Carter and the world of Barsoom, and I branched out pretty quickly into the Tarzan books and Pellucidar, everything Burroughs wrote. Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of my first fan crushes as a writer. He was one of my first favorite writers, and I read a biography of him that was published around then that my public library had, this giant hardcover biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I used to sign my name “Mike Burroughs Chabon.” I was obsessed.
I did read my children A Princess of Mars when they were younger, you know. I had kept in touch with those books, I had re-acquired the Marvel comic book versions of them, and then in the mid-’90s I wrote an original screenplay called The Martian Agent that was a kind of steampunk thing, before the term steampunk was really in wide circulation, and I drew very heavily on my memories of Barsoom and of reading those books in creating the Mars in that screenplay, which also had canals, and savage tribesmen, and weird creatures, and all of that. So I never lost touch with that material, it always remained very important to me, and it was in part because of my experience writing that screenplay that I ended up coming onto the radar screen of Andrew Stanton.
With the John Carter screenplay, how did you balance staying true to the source material versus the needs of the current project?
Andrew Stanton and Mark Andrews, his collaborator, had already made a lot of the hard decisions about what to keep and what to let go. They had already analyzed the multiple characters . . . say, there are three evil Thark chieftains, and we really only need one evil Thark chieftain, we don’t need three. Burroughs introduces the idea of telepathy, everyone on Barsoom is telepathic. It’s a terrible idea, and Burroughs realizes that very quickly, and completely abandons it eventually, because it makes storytelling impossible. If everybody can read everyone else’s mind, you can’t have secret plans, you can’t have hidden agendas, and those are the meat and potatoes of storytelling. So even Edgar Rice Burroughs betrayed his own story, so in a sense we had his imprimatur. Another example is the fact that John Carter is immortal when we first meet him in the first book. It’s this really bizarre element that Burroughs apparently derived from a popular novel of the time, and it has nothing to do with anything, it’s completely irrelevant, and again he very quickly just . . . he doesn’t even abandon it, it just withers away and never returns.
As I said, they had already made a lot of those choices, they had already made a lot of those decisions. They had also made I think the very key decision to take material from the first three novels, and to consider those first three novels in the series as a whole, and then to look at the entire matter of those three novels as potentially the matter for three films. Each of those films would be conceived independently to tell its own discrete story separate from the others, so that if you didn’t see the first film and you only saw the second one, you wouldn’t be lost, you would be able to follow what was going on, and it would present you with a satisfying experience on its own, and so there are elements in the first film, the one that we’re talking about today, that don’t actually appear in the novels until the second book. And I think again, with all due respect to Edgar Rice Burroughs, who as I’ve already said is one of my great literary gods going back to the age of eleven, but he was making it up as he was going along. He was writing by the seat of his pants, he was writing for money, he was writing very quickly, he was being paid half a cent a word. A Princess of Mars was the first thing he ever wrote, ever. He didn’t really know what he was doing yet, as none of us would, as none of us did when we wrote the first thing that we ever wrote.
And clearly he was remarkably gifted, that he was able to do such a good job on the first time out, but he got better. By the time you get to the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars, that’s actually a really good book written by an experienced professional writer with a lot of words under his belt. Like any pulp writer of his time, there wasn’t time to go back and ask yourself, “Does it really make sense for all of my characters’ names to begin either with an ‘S’ or a ‘TH’?” No, it’s a terrible idea, it’s really confusing. It was confusing to me as a kid. I had a hard time distinguishing Sarkoja, and Sola, and Tars Tarkas, and Tardos Mors, and Tharks, and Therns, and Thoats. I think if Burroughs had had a little more time, or he had an editor who had a little more time, they probably would have gone over those things and straightened it out a little bit, and clarified it. We were saddled to a certain degree with things that could not be changed, like the names of the most important characters, for example, but boy did we wish we could change them.
Your ultimate goal is to create a good movie, or even a great movie. Your ultimate goal is not to literally transcribe the action of the book onto film, which would ultimately I think be doing a dishonor to the book, because you would be able to capture none of the rich, strange magic of that book in so doing, and therefore you’re ultimately betraying the book.
In your memoir Manhood for Amateurs, John Carter actually comes up during a conversation about whether or not to circumcise your son. Could you talk about that?
[Laughs] Well, it was in the context of discussing with my wife the argument that many opponents of circumcision put forward that having a foreskin increases a man’s sexual pleasure, and it’s a tantalizing argument for a circumcised man to contemplate, but then it also involves a certain amount of impossibility, of failure of imagination, because, I mean, for one thing, how much more pleasurable do I need sex to be? It’s already pretty awesome, and furthermore, what would that be? I can’t even begin to imagine it, and in trying to imagine the unimaginable, whenever I’m confronted with a problem of, you know, irrational numbers, or string theory, anything that’s asking you to imagine the unimaginable—for example, greater sexual pleasure, in this case—I always come back to the nine rays of the Barsoomian spectrum, the nine colors of the Barsoomian spectrum, where we are told by Burroughs that there are nine colors, and as a kid I just would try to imagine what other colors there could be besides the seven basic colors, and what they would look like, and how you would even know that’s what they were if you had earthly eyes, and so on. And so that’s how Barsoom worked its way into that particular discussion.
You’ve said that you started out wanting to be a fantasy and science fiction writer. How did you end up writing books like Wonder Boys instead?
Well, it’s not that I wanted to be a fantasy and science fiction writer, it’s that I wanted to be a writer, and when I imagined the kinds of books that I wanted to write, they were the kind of books that I loved to read, so at any given moment in my life from the point that I decided to be a writer forward, which was around this time—I discovered Burroughs and then Arthur Conan Doyle right around the same time, and those were kind of my first two crushes—I would imagine writing books that I loved to read. When I was in my early to mid-teens, that was a very heavy diet of science fiction and fantasy, so those were the kinds of books I tended to imagine writing someday, or even began to try to write.
And just as I got older and read more, and read more widely, those imagined books changed along with my readerly diet, although I never stopped reading—and I still to this day have never stopped reading—fantasy and science fiction. I just started re-reading Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I haven’t read in about thirty years, and I’m a big Iain Banks fan. I never abandoned genre fiction as a reader at all, and what happened, you know, after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, the book you mentioned, and the short stories that I wrote at the beginning of my career as a published writer, is it presented me eventually with this puzzle to myself of “What happened to that idea of writing the kinds of books that you love to read?” And yes, the books that I was writing were modeled to some degree or another on other books that I loved, but my diet as a reader had never abandoned things that my output as a writer was just clearly not reflecting, and I wondered about that, like, “Why? Why does my backlist look so monochromatic, when the spectrum of my reading is so multicolored?”
And I didn’t really have a good answer. I had a lot of shameful, cowardly answers for that question. Like, I had been taught early on in college and graduate school that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I wrote genre fiction, and not only would I not be taken seriously, but people just really didn’t want to read it, like, my workshop mates and my workshop leaders. I had workshop leaders who just out-and-out said, “Please do not turn science fiction in to this workshop.” That was discouraging, obviously, and if I had had more courage and more integrity, I might have stood up to it more than I did, but I wanted to be read, and I wanted to receive whatever benefits there were to be received from the people I was in workshop with, and the teachers I was studying from, and, you know, I wasn’t looking for a fight, and it wasn’t like I don’t love F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov, and Eudora Welty, and all those people. I love their work just as much—if not more, in some cases—as Arthur C. Clarke, or Frank Herbert, or whoever it might have been. So I had just sort of allowed myself to fall into this channel as a writer that at some point I realized I didn’t want to be limited to anymore.
You also edited two anthologies from McSweeney’s with the aim of exposing readers to a wider range of genres and making it okay for short stories to have a plot. How successful would you say that was, and why did the project stop after two books?
I don’t know. I would like to know how successful the project was. I mean, in terms of the short story, I don’t think it worked. If you take a quick look at the—I’m always going to put this term in quotes, maybe we can just have this be understood—but at the so-called “literary” outlets for short fiction, I don’t see a whole lot of ghost stories, and sea stories, and pirate tales being presented in the literary context. What I was really trying to do was rekindle my own interest in the short story form, which had abated quite a lot when I first began to contemplate what emerged as that first McSweeney’s issue #10. I mean, I’ve written very little in the way of short fiction since then, so even on a personal level it didn’t really work. But when you turn to the novel, you look at the most recent novels by Colson Whitehead, Gary Shteyngart, Rick Moody, Cormac McCarthy. There are so many examples, there’s almost been a little floodlet of so-called “literary” writers either embracing or circling around clear literary genres.
You wrote this great Lovecraftian horror story called “The God of Dark Laughter.” How did that story come about, and were you surprised to see it appear in The New Yorker?
Well, that was actually sort of my second foray. I created this fictional character in the novel Wonder Boys of August Van Zorn, who we’re told is a writer of Lovecraftian horror fiction who had an early influence on the main character of that book, and at some point I just got the idea to try to write an August Van Zorn story. You know, the pseudonym has always existed as a way to protect the quote-unquote “serious literary writer” from the taint of genre fiction, and that’s how August Van Zorn used it. In the book, his real name is Albert Vetch, and he writes under the name of August Van Zorn because he’s a professor of literature, and he has to use a pseudonym for that kind of sordid fare that he’s cranking out, and that pseudonym was there for me as a kind of fig leaf too, to just imagine writing a straight piece of horror fiction that wasn’t “meta” or playing with the tropes of horror fiction in a literary way. I just wanted to write a straight-out story about awful goings-on in this small western Pennsylvania town that turned out to be rooted in some ancient cult of the Elder Ones, just straight ahead Lovecraftian Mythos kind of stuff, and I guess I felt when I did that that I had to protect myself under that pseudonym of August Van Zorn that I had created—it was a double fiction at that point.
And I wrote a story that was called “In the Black Mill,” and when I finished it I thought it came out well. I believe my agent sent it to The New Yorker, who wouldn’t even—I mean, it spent a very brief period of time on the editorial desk there before re-emerging with its dignity somewhat in tatters, and then she sent it to Playboy, to a great fiction editor who used to be at Playboy named Alice Turner, who was a great champion of all kinds of genre writing in the literary context, and she took it and wanted to publish it, but she insisted that I publish it under my own name. And god bless her, because that was right. I wrote that story, and if I want to write a piece of Lovecraftian horror fiction, I not only have the freedom to do so, but I also ought to be proud of it, and put my name on it, and let it just go out there along with everything else that I’ve written. So that was published in Playboy, and it got a little bit of attention from the horror fiction crowd, and it got included in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, the Datlow anthology, and that encouraged me.
And so at some point a little idea popped into my head about clowns, and what if clowns really looked that way, and it wasn’t make-up at all. And there’s something really horrifying to me in that thought. I mean, “coulrophobia” has a name because a lot of people think clowns are terrifying and creepy, it’s not just John Wayne Gacy’s fault. There’s something about a clown in the abstract, with the white skin and the red mouth and all that. It’s bizarre anybody could have ever thought it was anything but horrifying, in my opinion. But in any case, just trying to get at that, and wonder about clowns, and why they look the way they do, and in trying to answer that question, the answer occurred to me in the form of a horror story, and this time I just wrote it without any monkey business about it being by August Van Zorn or any of that, but I set it in the same fictional Van Zornian universe of Plunkettsburg, which is the western Pennsylvania town that he set all his fiction in, as we’re told in Wonder Boys. That was more for my own pleasure, it had nothing to do with wanting to wear a fig leaf of respectability anymore. That time, and maybe it’s proof that something had changed, because my agent sent that one first to The New Yorker, and they took it, and maybe part of the reason for that is because it was a little more thinkable, a little less unacceptable, for them to publish a piece of straight genre fiction, and the fact that they’ve published Stephen King since then suggests that there has been a change.
And that’s as it should be, because that’s where it all comes from. One of the points I was trying to make in those McSweeney’s anthologies, and in the introductions I wrote for those, is that it was not even 100 years ago—and certainly as long ago as 150 years ago—when all kinds of incredibly important work was being done by writers in France, and England, and Russia, and Germany. The great European literary 19th-century tradition is a genre tradition, and it’s unmistakably, unashamedly, unabashedly in the works of the greatest writers of the 19th century. You find sea stories, and ghost stories, and adventure stories, and early forms of proto-science fiction and fantasy, across the board. And that kind of boundarylessness, or literary realms where the boundaries are very porous and indistinct, and can be reconfigured at will, is much more interesting and appealing to me as a writer than a world where the categories are really set and really distinct, and the boundaries are really high, and people have to stay where they start, and can’t move out of those categories. I mean, that’s just inherently deathly. And the reasons why it changed are bad reasons, they’re economic and financial and marketing kinds of reasons, and they have to do with snobbery and academic laziness. I mean, there are almost no good reasons involved for that change that took place since writers like Dickens, who wrote crime fiction and supernatural fiction as easily as social realist fiction, and often all in the same story.
You also just had a short story in The New Yorker called “Citizen Conn.” Could you say what made you want to go back to the theme of comic book creators?
That was actually a story I had started a while ago and had abandoned because I couldn’t figure out how to finish it, and I stumbled across it and reread it, and suddenly it was clear to me how it needed to be resolved, and I rewrote it, and so in a way I returned very literally to a fictional world I had left behind, because I started that story a while after Kavalier & Clay, but not so long after Kavalier & Clay. You know, I think some stories just take that long, that one took a decade to write, and I’ve had that experience before with returning to a short story that I wasn’t able to finish, and after many years suddenly having it clear to me what needs to be done. I think it’s just part of the process sometimes. But it wasn’t like I made any kind of deliberate decision of “Oh, now it’s time to go back to comics” at all. I truly just was going through my hard drive looking for something, and I saw that file, and I opened it up, and I was like, “Oh my god, I forgot about this story. Wow, this is actually kind of a good beginning, you know, why did I stop working on this?” And then I got to the point where I had left off and thought, “Oh, I remember now. I couldn’t figure out what to do. And now what about this?” It was just an accident.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
Well, I have a novel coming out in September from HarperCollins called Telegraph Avenue. That’s the main thing, that’s the only for-certain thing. I’m working on a project at Disney right now, a film called Magic Kingdom. I’m doing a revision of a pre-existing script, working with Jon Favreau, but that’s still in the pretty early stages. And then my wife and I are developing a TV series for HBO with strong genre connections, which is called Hobgoblin, and it’s about a team of con artists and stage magicians and various charlatans who are assembled by British intelligence during World War II to fight against German spies, and we’re having a lot of fun with that one, but again that’s also a long way away from any kind of certainty.
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