Michael Chabon: "I think elegy is an inevitable outcome of utopia"

The Books Interview.

Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon. Photograph: Getty Images

Your new novel, Telegraph Avenue, has its origins in a TV pilot you wrote in the late 1990s, doesn’t it?
That’s right. It started as a pilot I wrote for the TNT network in 1999- 2000. But before that it started with me walking into a used record store in Oakland, California and noticing there was this little counter up at the front where a bunch of guys were sitting talking. They were mixed races – black guys, white guys. And they seemed to have created this pocket of commonality.

I was struck by that because I grew up in a place called Columbia in Maryland, which is a planned community built in the 1960s in the countryside between Baltimore and Washington. It was intended to be – and for the period I lived there was – racially integrated.

That was a period of quite strenuous attempts, at both federal and state level, to, if not enforce, then at least to encourage racial integration, wasn’t it?
Right, but where I was it was nothing like that. It was a consensual place. It had utopian ambitions. Not the kind of place where you’d be obliged to live together but where you’d want to live together. That’s where I started.

I found myself much later in life, having left all that behind, living exclusively among people like me more or less, always with this nagging sense of loss and betrayal of the place I grew up in.

So when I walked into that record store in Oakland, I got a little frisson of recognition and yearning. Somewhere along that continuum, the idea for Telegraph Avenue was born. It represents a journey from where I started to where I found myself – trying to imagine a different way of being in America.

Is the novel mourning the end of an attempt to forge a different way of being American?
I think elegy is an inevitable outcome of utopia. I do think I have a sense of belatedness, of always having arrived a little too late. I think it’s a very common American characteristic going back to our earliest times – always feeling you missed it by a little bit!

Having grown up in a kind of utopia myself, and having seen that utopia fade, having been part of all that, has made me sensitive or alert to the inherent melancholy of utopian ideas.

Would you agree that this sense of coming too late, of belatedness, is also characteristic of American novelists of your generation?
As an American-Jewish writer, I was coming after the great generation – Bellow, Roth, Mailer and Malamud. But I think that sense of belatedness is inevitable. It’s an eternal condition. We are all growing up at a time when one is being told that all our greatest accomplishments have already occurred.

My teenagers now, when they’re talking about music, they often express to me this sense that it’s nothing like it was in the 1960s or 1970s. Or even the 1980s, which has this weird historical lustre for them that I really can’t understand!

So I think that if that sense isn’t part of the human condition, then it’s definitely part of the American condition. Why else would the Republican Party always be yammering on about the Founding Fathers?

Talking of music, this novel is steeped in the sounds of the early 1970s.
Very much so. It’s what in the 1950s was called “hard bop”, in the 1960s “soul jazz” and eventually came to be called “jazz funk”. Very groove heavy – jazz with a backbeat. Jazz you could dance to.

You once described the TV pilot of Telegraph Avenue as a “family drama”. Has there been a rediscovery of the family saga among American novelists of your generation?
It might seem that way if you only look at male writers. I certainly don’t think that female writers ever abandoned or strayed from the template of the family novel.

But what I might agree to is that it’s possible there was an unconscious sense among writers that the big book, the important book, was not going to be a family saga. But maybe that has begun to change.

Is that what you meant when you said this was a more “mainstream” novel than your previous books?
I felt I’d been away from consensus, from reality in my fiction. I’d been in the 1940s, in an alternate reality. Not since 1995 had I set a novel in a world that was more or less recognisably the world I was living in.

Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99).