It’s been said that music connoisseurs would listen to Ray Charles sing the phone book. Likewise, literary fans would read Michael Chabon’s prose even if he were only rewriting the phone book, so beloved is his work. In his latest, Telegraph Avenue: A Novel (Harper, $28), Chabon — who won the Pulitzer Prize for 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — tells the story of Bay Area best friends who sell secondhand vinyl in a world that’s quickly going corporate and digital. Of course, it’s also about marital friction, generational conflict and fatherhood. Chabon chatted with American Way about the influence of music on his writing and more.
In Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon tackles heavy subjects to the tune of heady music.
American Way: Telegraph Avenue, both in prose and plot, is a very musical novel. Tell me about using music while you’re writing.
Michael Chabon: I had a creative-writing teacher at UC Irvine, Oakley Hall, and he listened to records while he wrote, which always seemed so strange to me. By the time I was writing Kavalier & Clay, MP3s had made it so that music was available everywhere. I was researching the novel’s era and steeped myself in big-band and swing music. I listened to everything and while I wrote, I found that the right music makes sentences happen.
AW: What were you listening to for Telegraph Avenue?
MC: I had listened to jazz all my life — the classic guys: Louis Armstrong up through Miles Davis — and I knew it well. But this book forced me into making some really important musical discoveries: the stuff from the late ’60s to early ’70s, organ-based jazz, stuff on Blue Note and CTI Records.
AW: There are a few musicians, like Nick Cave and Joe Henry, who are also really great writers. Are you a great writer who wishes he were a musician too?
MC: Yeah, absolutely, I wish I could play. Anything. I’ve tried different instruments over the years, but I just don’t have the knack or the talent. I can’t even sing.
AW: In this book, you describe a neighborhood as “that space where common sorrow could be drowned in common passion.” Where is that place in your life?
MC: The thing that first comes to mind is my family, my house, my wife and kids. One of the totem lines of this novel for me comes from the rapper Rakim, who says, “It ain’t where you’re from/it’s where you’re at.” That isn’t always true, certainly, but it is true, hopefully, in the places you share your love and your passions — your family, a used-record store, whatever community or neighborhood you find for yourself.