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Chabon wanted to write “Telegraph Avenue” as if he had been living in Berkeley for generations. He says his nomadic life in early childhood and young adulthood actually served him well. “I think I have a skill in rooting myself quickly in a place and learning how to think and feel as if I had always lived there, or as if I had grown up there to quickly get ahold of all that necessary information and knowledge, including the past and the history of a place.”
When Chabon walks down a street, he says he feels as though he is walking through time: always looking to peel back the layers of what came before, always seeking longtime elderly residents in order to hear their stories.
Writing intimately about Berkeley back in the day turned out to be the least of his challenges in writing “Telegraph Avenue.” This is the first time Chabon has written extensively from the African American and female points of view, and he really delved into the details of midwifery.
“A part of me is always saying, ‘What do I know [about being black or female]?’” says Chabon. “But I trust my imagination at this point. I’ve been using it for a long time, and I’ve been paying attention to how people talk and what people say and how they look and what they do for a long time.” He decided to write about midwifery because, ultimately, it naturally has more “life and death” consequences than two guys completing daily tasks in a record shop. “It’s weighty, grave work, and that really appealed to me.”
One scene that came quickly and organically for him was the appearance of Barack Obama, who pops up at a political fundraiser in the book. Likening Obama’s appearance to a crossover character in fan fiction, Chabon says his idea to put him in his novel was a “no-brainer.” The novel is set in 2004, soon after Obama’s keynote Democratic convention speech.
“[That speech] was moving to me in a very particular way, because what I heard him talking about was Columbia, Maryland,” he says. Chabon says he was deep in the writing of this book when it hit him that he had to include Obama. “The deepest underlying motivation for this whole book was this experience of having grown up in this dream. I knew right away he belonged in this book, that he was perfect. He was just one more way to evoke this utopian vision.”
Chabon is currently developing an hour-long drama series with his wife for HBO. The script focuses on World War II espionage and stage magic. But he just may have the kernel of another idea. As he sits at his kitchen table, one of the workers moving audio equipment slams something to the ground and yells something unintelligible. “I think this is my next novel,” Chabon whispers.
Kristin Kloberdanz writes often for Time and the Chicago Tribune.