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.”