Author Takes Fame in Stride : But Michael Chabon, 24, ‘Would Rather Be Writing’

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Author Robert Ray called it “only the biggest book-signing in the history of the world,” and who was going to argue with a guy whose books have titles such as “Bloody Murdock” and “The Hitman Cometh?”

Ray and about 20 other Orange County authors emerged from their dark cellars and poorly lit attic hideaways long enough Wednesday to hobnob with the public and one another for two hours at UC Irvine’s new bookstore in the Marketplace shopping center.

And judging from the seemingly endless line of autograph hounds, the main attraction was 24-year-old Michael Chabon of Newport Beach, whose first novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” was written as a thesis for a UCI writing workshop and ended up getting one of the largest advances ever for a first-time author.


But if the $155,000 from William Morrow & Co., or the appearances in magazines, newspapers, radio and TV, or the heady comparisons to Fitzgerald or Salinger have turned his head, Chabon disguises it well.

He fielded all the congratulatory remarks with aplomb (“Congratulations. You’re making quite a stir,” one woman said. “Great signature,” said another) while confessing later that all the attention makes him a little uncomfortable. “I want the book to find its readers, so I’m willing to set aside whatever reticence or discomfort I might have about exposing myself,” Chabon said. “I’m not willing to set it aside totally, but I am willing to for a few weeks.” Chabon has completed a publicity swing in the United States and will soon start a three-week European tour. When he and his wife return from Europe, he said, he expects the hubbub to have subsided.

“I would rather be writing than anything else,” he said during a lull in his autographing, “but since I do have an obligation to do these kind of public appearances, these (book-signings) are the ones I like best.”

Chabon said he didn’t feel like being interviewed, but his refusal came across more as a simple decision not to, rather than a response from someone who felt too important to be bothered. Clearly, he had much more fun talking to the public.

When Terry Black, whose “Dead Heat” screenplay found its way to the big screen, chatted with Chabon, Black said: “You’re writing on a somewhat loftier level than I am. I’m writing about zombies.”

To which Chabon replied, good-naturedly: “Oh, no. I consider zombies to be very lofty.”

He’s not thrilled about being interviewed, Chabon said, because “it requires too much presence of mind.” Asked if he felt he had to be profound or pithy, he said: “No, just well-spoken. And sometimes I don’t know what I think.”


Luise Healey, a literary lawyer who organized the book-signing along with Ray, sympathized with Chabon. “He’s a nice kid and this (heavy attention) must be a tremendously hard thing. He who goes up fast can come down fast. You want him to keep that equilibrium because he has a lot more to write.”

Chabon knows that his early success defies the norm. The Morrow publicity machine turned him into an instant celebrity, and the book is to be the subject of a feature film, with Chabon commissioned to write the first draft of the screenplay.

But it is novels, not screenplays, that interest Chabon. Of “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” Chabon said, “I’m tired of it,” meaning not that he hates the book, but only that he is looking forward to writing the next one. “It’s just a matter of getting better at what I do,” he said.

For now, however, Chabon must endure the spotlight and then bear the burden of proving whether he has literary staying power. And for now, perhaps, he can take solace from aspiring author Sherry Merryman’s congratulatory comment to him: “Congratulations, for the rest of us who have been working very hard for a long time, it’s nice to see someone make it right away.” To which she quickly added: “Not that you haven’t worked hard.”