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Michael Chabon’s TV Success Won’t Lure Him From His First Love, The Novel

Ever since his debut novel “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” first catapulted him into the stratosphere of American letters at age 24, Michael Chabon has managed to stay there. The book he published just 12 years after that one, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” earned him the Pulitzer Prize. And in his more recent books, all sorts of imagined worlds and memorable characters leap off the pages.

But Chabon, now 57, has also spent significant time writing for film and TV in recent years, even serving as the showrunner for the first season of “Star Trek: Picard.” And in some ways, it’s been a welcome change.

The St. Louis University Library Associates are this week honoring Michael Chabon with the 2020 St. Louis Literary Award.
Sarah Lee
The St. Louis University Library Associates are this week honoring Michael Chabon with the 2020 St. Louis Literary Award.

“The collaboration part is fun,” the acclaimed author told St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday. “Especially what’s fun was you would write these things, and then they would get shot and you would see the actors saying the words that you had just been writing a couple of months before or a month before — or in some cases that morning.”

Novels are a different beast.

“It’s not just the loneliness, the solitude of fiction writing that can be tough, but also just the length of time,” Chabon said. “The amount of time that passes between when you are working on the earliest parts of a novel and when that novel gets published can be, in my case, years.”

But he was quick to allay any concerns that he’s giving up his first love. A showrunner isn’t the boss of all the bosses, he explained, and “not the one writing the checks.”

“The flip side of collaboration is obedience and concession,” he said. “And when you’re writing a novel, as lonely as it might be at times, you don’t have to consult with anybody. … So it has its advantages.”

And for Chabon, who receives the 2020 St. Louis Literary Award from the St. Louis University Library Associates tomorrow, it’s his in-progress novel that continues to provide the most satisfaction.

“That’s what it’s all about for me, and that’s what it’s always been about, from the earliest age,” he said.

“I have a brother who’s 5½ years younger than I am, so I was an only child for that first crucial part of childhood and had to play by myself a lot and make up my own games and invent my own worlds to play in. And that feeling when you’ve set up all your little army men or action figures or whatever it might be, your dolls, on the floor and got them all on the floor in all the right poses, and then you lie down on your stomach so that you’re sort of at eye-level at everything and it makes it all look much more real — that sort of angle of play that you try to get at — that is still the goal, always the goal. When I’m working on a novel, that’s where I am.”

The upheaval of COVID-19 delayed and changed St. Louis University’s presentation of its literary award to Chabon. He remains in California for this week’s virtual festivities. But at a time when online activities abound, SLU’s free events stand out: In addition to hearing from Chabon on Thursday evening, the audience can look forward to the presence of St. Louis native Jon Hamm, who is moderating the event.

Actor Jon Hamm, a St. Louis native, is moderating Thursday night's event honoring Michael Chabon.
Cheryl Mann
Actor Jon Hamm, a St. Louis native, is moderating Thursday night's event honoring Michael Chabon.

Three local musical acts — the Red and Black Brass Band, Rubi and the Ophelia String Quartet, and Tonina — will add their talents as well. And the following day, Chabon will stick around (virtually) to offer a craft talk, answering questions about his approach to writing in conversation with Nancy Bell.

On St. Louis on the Air, Chabon expressed appreciation for the honors that have come his way over the years. But despite the recognition he’s gained as a distinguished figure in the literary world, he’s never been one to sit on his laurels.

“The part of it that has to do with the awards and prizes and acclaim and all that kind thing, it’s very nice and it’s very much appreciated,” the writer said. “But when you get back to your chair every night — I work at night and I try to get [to] 1,000 words every day when I’m working on a novel — that part of it doesn’t get any easier, strangely, no matter how many awards or how much acclaim.”

Chabon said he’s experienced long periods of creative frustration along the way, most memorably the years that immediately followed his early success.

“With what was meant to be my second novel, I really struggled really seriously and badly for a long time,” he explained. “After ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,’ my first book, was published, I moved fairly swiftly into writing what I wanted to be the second novel, what I hoped would be the second novel, and I worked on that for about 5½ years and completed many drafts, none to my satisfaction, before I finally abandoned it and started working on this silly little book about, of all things, a writer who can’t finish his book.”

That “silly” book became “Wonder Boys,” which was also turned into a film.

“That really restored my confidence, which is what I needed, because I was pretty badly shaken,” Chabon said. “And I had tried to do something much more ambitious with that second book and cover a lot more ground, and I couldn’t. And then I sort of retreated in a way with this much smaller book that was also set in Pittsburgh like my first book. In some ways it was a little bit of a step backward, but it was what I needed at that point just to be able to keep going.”

For Michael Chabon, Writing Is ‘All About’ Inventing New Worlds
Listen as Chabon, who is this week receiving the 2020 St. Louis Literary Award, discusses his successes, his struggles and how the joy of good sentences continues to sustain him.

He followed “Wonder Boys” with “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and still widely considered Chabon’s magnum opus. That one took him five years to complete.

“And in the course of those five years I lost my way a couple of times and had moments of real panic and despair where I felt like, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening again.’ Like maybe I just can’t do this thing where you have an omniscient narrator and multiple characters and points of view and you’re switching from one continent to another and all the things I had tried to in that failed second novel that I was trying again in a different way with what became ‘Kavalier & Clay,’” Chabon said. “But I stuck it out, and that one happened to come together.”

On the sentence level, he added, writing comes fairly easy. “I would say I’m almost unconscious in a sense while I’m writing sentences. I’m just really listening to some kind of — I’m not trying to be very mystical about this, it’s some kind of physiological process, no doubt — but there’s some kind of voice that’s speaking and I’m just trying to take dictation.”

“But all the other parts of the job, the structure, pacing, plotting, character creation and trying to bring characters across as seemingly living or at least lifelike people and all the other things that any reader expects from a novel, that stuff just never seems to get any easier,” Chabon said, “and I keep making the same mistakes over and over and over.”

Still, he assured, the whole process is one marked by pleasure for him.

“There are plenty of terrible days. … It’s not like I’m just skipping along the garden path every day saying, ‘Yay, I get to go write!’ Chabon said. “But just sentence by sentence, I just find the writing of sentences themselves deeply pleasurable. And because I get that sort of sentence-level pleasure, even when I don’t really know what I’m doing or feel lost or confused, that sort of sustains me through the hard times.”

Related Events
What: St. Louis Literary Award presentation featuring honoree Michael Chabon in conversation with Jon Hamm, plus performances by local musicians
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Virtual event (visit alumni.slu.edu/literaryaward20 to register to attend)

What: Craft talk with Michael Chabon in conversation with Nancy Bell
When: 1 p.m. Friday
Where: Virtual event (visit alumni.slu.edu/crafttalk20 to register to attend)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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