Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Michael Chabon

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Michael Chabon

Article excerpt

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 196os 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. …

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