10 Questions for Michael Chabon

Pulitzer Prize--winning novelist Michael Chabon on race, fatherhood and writing box-office flops

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Lee Towndrow for TIME

A central character in your book Telegraph Avenue, Archy Stallings, is the black co-owner of a record store. Did you feel anxious writing from the point of view of a black guy?

While I was actually doing the writing, I didn't have any doubts or anxieties at all. It was only when I wasn't writing--lying in bed at night, thinking about what I had done. The challenge is always the same. Can you imagine what it's like to be somebody else or not?

But race is a charged subject. In the book, there's a white lawyer, Moby, who talks like a black guy. You didn't worry that that was you?

There are a lot of ways in which I address the problem of a white artist's adopting African-American culture. One of them is to present a white main character, Nat, who was raised primarily by a black woman. He separates himself from someone like Moby, who never grew up around black people, just loves black culture and music and talks like he's watched too many episodes of The Wire. I'm not naively saying, "People are all the same, and if I want to write about black people, there's no difference."

Why the interest in midwifery?

I think it has a fair claim to being one of the most fascinating jobs a human being could undertake to do. The drama of birth is so stark. It's just sort of a job, and at the same time it has all of this amazing charge around it.

That 12-page sentence in Part 3. Are you showing off?

If all I wanted to do was show off, I would have restrained myself. I was trying to do a single-take tracking shot in the form of a sentence and use the point of view of a semi-magical parrot to check in on all the characters. It ended up being 4,000 words.

You write a lot about fatherhood. Has having four kids changed the way you see your father?

Completely. With the birth of my oldest child, I didn't immediately revise my view, but the experience of failing as a father has inclined me to a much more forgiving attitude.

Your wife Ayelet Waldman has written about a pregnancy she wanted to terminate and initially you didn't. There's a lost son in this book. Is there a connection?

Maybe. I haven't thought of that, but it was a long time ago. I don't have regret. The termination was made because of a serious genetic abnormality. But I still have a sense of loss and grief when I think of it. There was a place in my heart beginning to be made for that child, a little indentation I don't think will ever be filled. Maybe part of that longing was at the back of this sort of ghostly child who returns to Archy.

You wrote the screenplay for John Carter. How do you feel about that now?

I still feel that we made a very good movie. Solid. Entertaining. Breathtaking. If a movie set on Mars with flying ships, sword fighting, four-armed green guys, red princesses, villainous villains and dashing heroes doesn't sound like your kind of movie, I understand that, but for people who enjoy that sort of thing--I count myself among that group--I thought it was a perfectly serviceable product.

Do you still write from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.?

That's my usual routine. I wish I could work in the daytime and after the kids leave for school, but I just can't make it flow during the day the way I can at night.

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