A Life of Wonder and Awe : Books: Michael Chabon’s writing struggles inspired his second novel, ‘Wonder Boys.’ But it’s his new daughter who takes his breath away.
Michael Chabon was just your not-so-average literary wonder boy trying to splashily follow up his phenomenally successful debut, 1988’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” with a great second novel.
How difficult could it be?
After all, from the moment Chabon discovered his gift for writing, it had seemed so easy. At 13, Chabon penned a story about Sherlock Holmes meeting Captain Nemo, and he was hooked.
“It wasn’t that hard,” he says. “I had fun doing it, and I got all this praise and attention.”
A mere decade later, while completing his master’s in fine arts at UC Irvine, Chabon became the toast of the publishing world with the release of “Mysteries,” which, although intended as his thesis, touched off an intense bidding war. (William Morrow ultimately plunked down $155,000.)
And, if critics were to be believed, he had the goods. Finally, they exclaimed, a literate young writer, someone more concerned with craft than attitude.
Unlike other authors of his age, Chabon embraced, rather than scorned, the power of words and language; his writing was lively, funny, involving, beautiful, the kind of stuff from which great literature is made.
Turning the pages of most first novels, says Douglas Stumpf, an editor who worked with Chabon on both “Mysteries” and his new “Wonder Boys” (Villard), is like “turning lead.” But “Mysteries” has a “rare magic quality that really pulls you in.”
Despite the praise accorded his first novel, “I wasn’t confident about it,” Chabon, 31, said recently over lunch at Farmers Market, near his Los Angeles home. “I never really had a chance with it to even think that I was writing this book to be read by the public.”
With his second novel, Chabon thought, he would really slay ‘em; he would move beyond the snotty-young-author ghetto that sheltered the Brets and Jays and Tamas, and never look back.
He also wanted to write a book that was more personal. “(‘Mysteries’) was about somebody who resembled me in some ways, but there weren’t any big chunks of myself in it,” he says.
So, with a big fat advance from Villard in his pocket, Chabon embarked on his second novel, a long, frustrating and ultimately fruitless journey to a place called “Fountain City,” which, he says, “was sort of a map of my brain.”
It covered lots of ground, perhaps too much. Chabon attempted to incorporate several of his passions into one novel: Paris, Florida, architecture and baseball. But after 4 1/2 years, four drafts and more than 600 pages, he was no closer to finishing than when he began.
“It was just too much for one book,” Chabon says. “To try to do it all at once was just over-exuberance and eagerness on my part.”
He knew “Fountain City” was doomed after a year of writing, but kept plugging away. “Because I had taken that money, I felt like I couldn’t dump the project, even when it was fairly clear to me that it wasn’t working,” he says.
Without telling anyone, he finally gave up in early 1993, while living in San Francisco. Using his wife’s decision to take an early bar exam as incentive, he began anew. But the prospect of starting from scratch terrified him.
“When I dropped ‘Fountain City’ and started to write ‘Wonder Boys,’ that was really the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I was so afraid of (messing) up again.”
Using his frustration--and fear--as inspiration, Chabon cranked out his first draft of “Wonder Boys” in seven months; by March, 1994, the great second novel was at last a fait accompli.
The story, in part, concerns a faded, pot-addicted wonder boy named Grady Tripp, a writer who clings to what could have been as he watches hopelessly--a detached observer in his own downward spiral--as his never-finished masterpiece ‘Wonder Boys’ and his entire life crumble and flit away like fall leaves caught in a breeze.
On many levels, Chabon could relate. During the “Fountain City” experience, he says, “I started to think, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to become one of those writers that I have heard about who are working on the same book for 10 years.’
“Then I started thinking, ‘Well, what would that be like? Who does it happen to and why does it happen?’ ”
Although “Wonder Boys” isn’t the autobiographical brain map that Chabon had initially hoped, it’s probably just as well, if only for the preservation of his sanity. Unlike Grady, whose wasted potential is symbolized in his unfinished 2,000-page tome, Chabon lives up to his initial promise.
If there is a criticism to be leveled at Chabon’s work, it is that the prose is too well crafted, too well described; that the preciousness and beauty of the language come at the expense of character development, masking a lack of real depth.
The New York Times said this about “A Model World,” a 1991 collection of Chabon’s short stories: “These sentences bring pleasure, and so too do Mr. Chabon’s considerable narrative skills. But even when he is writing about dissolution, grief and loss, all too often he keeps his distance.”
“I’m not sure there’s such a thing as surface and depth in literature,” Chabon says. “The surface is the depth and vice versa. The language is the content of the writing in a lot of ways. So I don’t even want to accept the premise.”
When Chabon ditched “Fountain City” for “Wonder Boys,” he returned to the familiar terrain of Pittsburgh. While the city retains a warm spot in his heart (he attended college there and his father still lives there), Chabon, after time spent in Key West, Seattle, San Francisco, the mid Houston Valley and Laguna Beach, recently moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Ayelet, a federal public defender. Their daughter, Sophie, was born shortly after they arrived.
But Chabon hasn’t been spotted carousing around Hollywood. He digs his work, his family and baseball, and that’s enough for him.
Even before he reached 30 and settled down, even during the first flush of “Mysteries” success, Chabon dodged the limelight embraced by his literary brethren. It just didn’t interest him.
“The thought of going to New York and being a part of the night-life scene was just . . . I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I would know how.”
And now, just as he’s being bombarded by a crush of accolades for “Wonder Boys,” Chabon is reserving most of his wonder for his new daughter.
“It’s like being in love in a lot of ways,” he says. “I have a physical craving for her presence when she’s asleep at night or if I’m not there. I’m told this is natural.”
Will family bliss stifle the creative impulse?
“Some great, irritable writer said you lose a book for every child. I think there’s a whole realm of human experience that is the basis for some of our best literature, that is a mystery to you until you have kids"--such as, he says, Jane Smiley’s “Ordinary Love.”
Actually, an extra mouth to feed gave Chabon an additional impetus to work. He’s just completed a screenplay, a comedy called “Gentleman Host,” that’s been optioned by Scott Rudin at Paramount Studios, who has also purchased the rights to “Wonder Boys.”
“I looked at it as what I hoped would be a quick way to earn some money, because I found out that I was going to have a baby and I wanted to get some extra cash.”
At first, it was quick, as he completed the first draft in six weeks. Ten months later, he’s just turned in the final version, giving the author a firsthand lesson in Hollywood foot-dragging.
“It’s tedious in a lot of ways, but it’s the same kind of tedium as lifting weights in that you see results. Every time I did a draft it really did get better and more movie-like and the story got tighter and the characters got better.”
Screenplays may be just a paycheck to Chabon, but his fiction remains sacrosanct. “I would never consider writing fiction for money,” he says.
By the same token--and this perhaps is what sets him apart from certain other early thirtysomething authors--Chabon isn’t interested in documenting the foibles of a generation. He has a loftier goal than that.
“I suppose I just want to write things that last,” Chabon says. “My first intention has not been to reflect the time in which they were written. I’m not trying to get the ‘90s or the ‘80s or whatever down on paper in America at all. I’m just trying to write the best English I can write.”