hat was your inspiration for writing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? Did you start with a character, a concept, a plot?
I started writing this book because of a box of comic books that I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years. It was the sole remnant of my once-vast childhood collection. For fifteen years I just lugged it around my life, never opening it. It was all taped up and I left it that way. Then one day, not long after I finished Wonder Boys, I came upon it during a move, and slit open all the layers of packing tape and dust. The smell that emerged was rich and evocative of the vanished world of my four-color childhood imaginings. And I thought, there's a book in this box somewhere.
Where did Josef and Sammy come from? And your decision to set the story against the backdrop of the war--which itself quickly becomes one of the main characters?
Joseph and Sammy grew very quickly out of my initial decision to write a book set during the so-called Golden Age of Comics. Actually I have no idea where they came from. I suppose they initially took form, in the primordial soup of the first hours of the book's composition, as a vague, Mutt-and-Jeff pair, a big guy and a little guy, a Quixote and a Sancho... and then rapidly began to coalesce. They weren't really based on any actual people, in any way that I'm aware of, at least.
As far as the war, that was both the natural product of the period in comics history that I decided to focus on, and the result of my own lifelong interest in the history of the middle part of the 20th century, especially in America.
Can you explain your life-long interest in that time period? And the simulatenously growing popularity of comic books during that time? What were comic books a medium that enabled readers to "escape" the difficult era more than other mediums?
My father really made the middle years of the twentieth century in America come alive for me when I was a kid. He was full of lore about the radio shows, politicians, movies, music, athletes, and so forth, of that era. And since he was from Brooklyn, his memories and his view of that time had a very New York slant to them. The main thing that I was trying to do in this book, I think, was simply transport myself into that time and that place the way my father had done for me when I was a little boy.
I don't know what the connection is to comic books, exactly, except that this was also a world my father introduced me to, and he himself had been a voracious reader of comics as a kid. At the time I was reading a lot of comics--the early 1970s--the comics published by National (DC) were giant things, 80 and 100 pages in length, and typically they were filled out with reprinted stories from the forties and fifties. So it was very easy for me to access and connect with at least this one aspect of my dad's own childhood.
I guess it's no wonder the book is dedicated to my father, Robert Chabon.
What do you think of the comic book industry today? Is there still room for it with all the other forms of media and entertainment that exist?
I can't really answer this, mostly because I don't have enough information. But it's pretty clear that readership of comics has been declining for some time... since about 1945, really, but precipitously since the mid-eighties or so.
I'm not sure anyone knows the answer for sure.
How much research did you do into the historical context of the novel?
I did fairly extensive research--maybe not by James Michener's standards, but for me it was new and very absorbing approach to writing a novel. I read sort of broadly in the literature of comics history, New York history, the history of the US during the war years, etc, and then I did all kinds of special research into escape artistry and Houdini, golems, etc. It was a lot of fun--often, seductively, more fun than writing itself!
Does the novelist have complete artistic license to invent historical details, as you did in some places?
Yes, as long as doing so serves the purposes of the story and is not simply gratuitous. Hell, maybe even if it is gratuitous. I'm a big believer generally in artistic license . . . I still remember that marvelous day when I got my license...my mother was so proud!
Are your characters modeled after people that you know?
Not this time around. I guess the only thing in the book that I drew freely from my own life is the portrait, toward the end, of the working partnership, the creative freeflow in the marriage of Sammy and Rosa--the way they bounce ideas off of each other, criticize each other's work without rancor, discomfort, or hesitation. That's a lot like the way things work with me and my wife, Ayelet Waldman, who's also a novelist.
Are you interested in this being adapted as a screenplay? Following Wonderboys, do you write with that in mind?
There is some early talk of a movie version, but nothing at all definite. I think it could make a pretty cool movie. I can honestly say, however, that I wrote this book without giving a moment's thought to an eventual film. The movie rights had been sold before I even started to write! I took this as total license to write whatever I wanted, without worrying at all about whether it would be filmable . . . because it was already spoken for, the problem would be the producer's, not mine.
Do you plot out that which you leave to the reader's imagination, such as the meaning of the "look" that Sammy's mother give on page 313, the details of what happened to Joe's family?
Interesting question. Actually in the case of Sammy's mother, I think the implication is pretty clear that she knows or at least suspects that he's queer, and is even offering a chance of her acceptance of this, if he could have the courage to take it, which he doesn't. But I did actually write some later scenes between them where her attitude toward his sexuality is addressed more clearly--too clearly, I decided. And the same goes for the fate of Joe's family, which I again decided, after toying with some scenes in the DP camps of Europe, was better left undoubted but unspoken. What matters to this story is how Joe responds.
What's next for you?
I'm working on a pilot script for a TV series. I'm writing it for TNT network. It's called Telegraph Avenue and tells the story of two families, white and black, in Oakland and Berkeley, CA. It's an hourlong family comedy-drama.
--Interview by Laura Buchwald