UCI Student Strikes It Rich on First Novel

Times Staff Writer

Michael Chabon says he set out to write a first novel "about summertime" because of the momentous changes in people's lives that season seems to bring about.

The novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," already has brought about a big change in his own life. Chabon, a 23-year-old graduate student at UC Irvine, recently sold the book's hard-cover rights to William Morrow & Co. for $155,000, a highly unusual sum for any unpublished author, much less one who doesn't own a car and has been living on a teaching assistant's pay.

"That's an awful lot of money," said UCI professor Oakley Hall, director of the university's writing program. "How did he get to be so smart so young? How did he get to be so rich so young?"

Chabon, who expects to complete the two-year master's degree writing program next quarter, says the book's high-priced sale means that "I won't have to worry about getting a teaching job immediately."

But it also means that he will be thrust into the limelight at a young age. Chabon is not sure he is very happy about that.

"It's simultaneously a lot less scary, and a lot more scary," said Chabon in a telephone interview from his grandparents' home in Ft. Lauderdale, where he was spending part of the spring break. "I had always been thinking that I would be struggling in anonymity for a while. That I won't be doing that is scary."

Chabon has written short stories before--none has been published--but "Mysteries" is his first attempt at a novel. He completed it in little more than a year and a half, writing about three pages a day on an old, obsolete computer he describes as a "Stanley Steamer."

A new computer is at the top of his purchase list. Chabon said he also would spend some of his money on a honeymoon in Italy, after he and his girlfriend, Lollie Groth, are married this summer.

To Appear in 1988

"And I want to buy a car--I totaled hers (Groth's) two months ago, so I owe her a car," Chabon explained.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," expected to be on the bookshelves in 1988, is about one summer in the life of Art Bechstein, during which he deals with his gangster father; his friend and guide to the exotic side of Pittsburgh, Arthur; his girlfriend for all seasons, Phlox, and a character named Cleveland.

"It's been called a coming-of-age novel, and I guess that's what it is, in a way," Chabon said. It's been called a comic novel, too, and I think it is funny, so maybe it's a comic coming-of-age novel."

Summertime, Chabon said, has been a theme of other successful novels, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and Philip Roth's "Goodbye Columbus."

"It's a little sub-genre," Chabon said, explaining that summer, particularly for young people who mark time by school years, is a time of sudden freedom, high expectations and inevitable disappointment. "If you go into anything with high expectations, there are bound to be disappointments. . . . Learning about that movement--that's what coming of age means."

Doubted It was Ready

Hall, who described Chabon's writing style as "more Fitzgeraldian than Hemingwayesque--he has a terrific vocabulary," said he knew the book was good and that Chabon, one of 25 students in the writing program, was extremely talented. But he also thought it was not quite ready to be sent to publishers.

"He was right, and I was wrong," Hall conceded. While such a noteworthy success obviously speaks well of the university's writing program, Hall said it was more a matter of "our managing to get out of his way."

Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community whose similarities to Irvine have made his own adjustment to Orange County easier. "I like living here," said Chabon, who shares a house in Newport Beach with Groth. "We could use some more bookstores and movie centers. But I love Mexican food--that's one of the distinct advantages of living in Southern California."

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984, Chabon spent a year traveling, spending time in Paris and then in Berkeley, where he worked in an optometry clinic helping patients adjust to contact lenses.

At Irvine, Chabon says he has been lucky to find a "community of writers, so you can complain," and two "figures of inspiration, or something": Hall ("Downhill Racers," "Warlock") and Donald Heiney, who writes under the name MacDonald Harris ("The Balloonist," "The Little People").

"I've been helped by both of them," Chabon said. "It's been a good program."

Auction of Other Rights

Chabon's agent, Mary Evans, of the Virginia Barber Literary Agency in New York, said she believes that the $155,000 figure is "the most that an unpublished first literary novel ever sold for," making a distinction between literary works and commercial fiction.

Movie rights are being auctioned now, and paperback rights are expected to be auctioned by Morrow, Evans said.

At Bantam Books, Vice President Stuart Applebaum said Chabon's advance "is a good chunk of money, but . . . other people who have never written fiction before have probably done better." (In recent years, Morrow was reported to have paid Duane Unkefer more than $150,000 for his first novel, "Gray Eagles," while Random House was reported to have paid $350,000 for Karleen Koen's "Through a Glass Darkly.")

"In these days of six-figure advances and sometimes even seven-figure advances, it is unlikely to raise an eyebrow in the jaded New York publishing community," Applebaum continued. "It is what is between the covers that the consumer cares about, and this is yet to be demonstrated."

At Morrow, President Sherry Arden had no fears about the consumers, predicting Chabon's book will sell well.

"This is a beautiful writer," Arden said. "We're all in business to sniff out this kind of talent. . . . We were just determined to get this book."

Times staff writers Elizabeth Mehren and Kathleen Hendrix contributed to this story.

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