Michael Chabon's Life Is Reflected in ‘Telegraph Avenue’

Bestselling Author Grew Up in Idyllic Suburban Melting Pot

Street Walker: When he walks down a street, Michael Chabon says he feels as though he’s walking through time.
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Street Walker: When he walks down a street, Michael Chabon says he feels as though he’s walking through time.

By Kristin Kloberdanz

Published October 23, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Even for a particularly verdant block in Berkeley, Calif., Michael Chabon’s home is an oasis amidst the university town clatter and clutter. The brown-shingled house is situated on a flowery patch complete with a wooden fence, a warm front porch and a bouncing Labradoodle named Mabel, who happily charges to the gate to greet visitors.

Inside, however, life is a little less than idyllic at the moment. Chabon is in the kitchen, making his sick son a grilled cheese sandwich, and his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, can’t shake hands because she also has a severe cold. An assistant wonders aloud if it just might be West Nile virus, and two heavy-footed men shout directions to each other as they clumsily attempt to move an audio system from one room to another. “We’re going to infect you,” Chabon tells me, somewhat sadly.

This has been Chabon’s home for over 15 years, the longest he’s ever lived in one place since his first real home, as a child, in Columbia, Md. The legendary Telegraph Avenue is only a few blocks away, and it’s also the title of and setting for Chabon’s latest creation. “Telegraph Avenue,” whose main characters include a Jewish couple and an African-American couple, is a dense novel packed with genre nods and dizzying themes, from race relations and blaxploitation films to filial responsibility and forgiveness. But for Chabon, the premise that grabbed him years ago, when he first wandered into a nearby record shop, was a sudden sense that, after many years living as a nomad, he had returned home — to the home of his youth.

“The two guys working there that day were a black guy and a white guy, and the customers who were hanging out were black people and white people,” he explains. “I had just walked into this little microcosm of everything I love most about the East Bay.” At that time, in the late ’90s, Chabon had been casting around for a television idea. The record shop struck him as a great setting for a show — but it also cut deeper on a much more personal level. “There was something beautiful and magical about the record store on that day,” he says. In fact, it reminded him of Columbia, Md., a melting pot of a planned community where his parents moved with him at age six. “My parents chose Columbia in part because they believed in the vision it offered of an interracial, interfaith space.”

The television pilot Chabon wrote based on the record shop never took off, but he says the four main characters he created (Archy and Nat, the vinyl shop owners, and Gwen and Aviva, the midwives) stayed with him over the years. And the longer he lived in Berkeley, the harder it was for him to let go. “I kept having fresh encounters, meeting people and learning about the history of this area and thinking, ‘I could have used that,’” he says. “At some point, I just thought, ‘Why don’t I?’ It had been a long time since I had written a novel set in the present day or that’s more or less about real people.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.