Michael Chabon says his new book isn't 'High Fidelity' 2.0. So what is it?

Chabon talks music, race and fatherhood in 'Telegraph Avenue' on 'Morning Shift'

September 25, 2012

Author Michael Chabon has written novels about many cities, like New York, Alaska, Pittsburgh, but his new book Telegraph Avenue is the first to tackle his own Berkeley, California.

Described as "a world grounded in pop culture—Kung Fu, ’70s Blaxploitation films, vinyl LPs, jazz and soul music" by his publisher, the book does what Chabon does best and dives into the close relationships between a few characters in a web of a larger historical and cultural context. 

If I could have hired someone else to come in and write my black characters for me I might have considered that but I felt like I had to do it myself.

Chabon spoke candidly with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia about the themes of Telegraph Avenue last week; here's a preview of some of his comments on music, race and fatherhood. The full interview airs Tuesday on Morning Shift.

On music in the book: I don't think I would have chosen to write this book about two guys who own a record store and are in a band together if I weren't [a music fan].

I love [High Fidelity] and I love the movie that was made out of it which of course was set right here in Chicago, but that book did that very well, and if I was going to write about a used record store I knew from the beginning I had to make it worthy of doing that again because it had been done so perfectly the first time by Nick Hornby....The record store is the center of the novel, but it is not, in a sense, the subject of the novel.

On writing from the point of view of black characters: I didn't see any other way of doing it, you know? If I could have hired someone else to come in and write my black characters for me I might have considered that but I felt like I had to do it myself. Obviously there was something daunting in the prospect of doing this. There are a lot of arguments that have been advanced at one time or another in recent American literary history to the effect that there's something questionable, dubious, maybe even improper in a white writer adopting the persona, writing from the point of view of a character of color of any kind and certainly coming up through graduate school at the MFA program at UC Irvine in the mid-1980s I was made very forcibly aware that there was this feeling. I think it partly evolved in response to William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner, when that book was first published it caused kind of a controversy.

I knew all that. I went into doing this very much with open eyes, with a resolve to be sensitive and very careful and to really consider what it meant to be doing what I was doing and I think you see some of that self-conciousness reflected in certain recurring motifs in the book....

I very much felt that if I wanted to write a novel about black people, white people who hang out at a record store who are in a practice together as nurse-midwives, there was only one way to do it and that was just to do it. 

I took encouragement from two of my favorite writers writing today, Elmore Leonard and Richard Price. And they both routinely write about black people. They do it in a crime context, largely, either writing about criminals...I wondered whether I could do it in an ordinary, everyday context, not in the context of crime and punishment. Although there is a crime story in this book and its an old crime from a long time ago, there's no police, there's no drug dealers in this book. It's just about regular people doing regular things.

It's really important [as a writer] to always bear in mind how much you don't know about the subject. To be acutely conscious of how much you don't know. But that is not a situation for which there is no remedy. If you become aware of your limitations and you become conscious of how much you don't know, you have a responsibility to educate yourself to the extent that you can and that's what I undertook to do. I've been paying attention my whole life to black people and the way they interact with me and I grew up in a place -- Columbia, Maryland -- which was very racially integrated, and I had lots of black peers, friends and antagonists and doctors and authority figures and so, not like that gives me any kind of legitimacy, but at least it reassured me that I had some shot if I was very good and very careful at persuading at least myself that I knew what I was talking about.

I don't know if I had authority or not but I decided to take authority.

On fatherhood: I've been writing about relationships between fathers and children, specifically fathers and sons pretty much since my very first first book, but for a long time I was playing for the other team and I was writing more as a son and it was difficult to me and I rarely attempted to imagine it or envision it from the other side. Partly I think just through lingering adolescent selfishness and the inability that you have when you're an adolescent to actually imagine how it feels to be somebody else and what everyone is going through...the luxury of adolescent self-involvement goes away [when you have kids].