Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) reflected on 2012’s cultural highlights and currents in a conversation from his home in Berkeley.
What were your favorite books this year?
I really loved my friend Dave Eggers’ latest book, “A Hologram for the King.” That was probably my favorite of all the new books that I read. He’s written some incredible works of imaginative projection in his last couple of books. Very impressive works, but they’re pretty serious. Not that “A Hologram for the King” isn’t a serious book; it has a lot of serious themes, but it also made me laugh out loud while I was reading it many times.
I know that you always strive to entertain. Do you think “entertainment” has become a dirty word among purveyors of high culture?
Sure, and with good reason, in the sense that most of what gets labeled “entertainment” is really terrible. We get the entertainment we deserve. To me, being entertained is having your mind engaged with the work of art on multiple levels. So I think a lot of what gets passed off as entertainment really does not qualify for that definition. It’s merely diverting at most.
To be entertained by something is in turn to entertain it, like you entertain ideas, a kind of mutuality there that I think is part of my definition of “entertainment,” that you’re giving back to the work at the same time the work is giving to you.
Another book that I just loved is the last in Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels sequence [“At Last”]. They conveniently published the first four in one volume in paperback and then the fifth one, so I was able to read them all from the start to the finish, which is how I think they ought to be read. It was just one of the most amazing reading experiences I’ve had in a decade.
The sequence begins when the protagonist, Patrick Melrose, is about 5 years old and continues up to the present day when he’s well into his mid-40s. After all the suffering and torment and despair that Patrick Melrose has been through over the years, [Aubyn] leaves him in a very interesting place, and he does it all with his incredible examination of the sweep of time and the way our understanding of people changes over decades. All of that is done with this incredible, biting, witty, hilarious prose style, the elegant, classic English sentences that he writes and these amazing put-downs, and he’s great at dissecting an entire social world with a really wicked scalpel.
What significance do you think there was, if any, to the Pulitzer board’s decision not to grant an award for fiction this year?
I don’t feel like anyone knows. We weren’t told. We were told that three choices had been presented and none of them had been selected by the regular jury, and that’s all we really know. So I don’t see how anyone can read anything into it, since we have no idea what happened. Was there a hung jury? Were they arguing so vociferously that in the end they couldn’t come to an agreement because they were all hating each other at that point? Or did they do it as a statement because they were unanimous in their agreement that none of them was worthy? There are so many possible interpretations because of their silence on the subject.
Let’s talk about movies.
OK, great. I just saw the best movie that I’ve seen all year: “End of Watch.” It’s a very small movie in a way, but it just packs a real punch. It’s about two L.A. cops, just regular patrol cops. One is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, one’s played by Michael Peña. It follows them in their regular life down the streets of South-Central, and it does it in a really verité style; in fact, one of the conceits of the movie is that a lot of what you’re seeing is actually filmed by one of the two cops who’s doing a project for a class he’s taking. It just persuasively creates this world of these two cops and their families, their love lives and the feelings they have for each other and the incredible danger of the work they’re doing. It sneaks up on you a little bit because it first feels like kind of a diary and then you become aware that there’s a dark powerful force at work that they’re coming closer and closer to until it finally overwhelms them. It’s really powerful, beautifully made, beautifully acted, great cast. I loved it.
What do you watch on television?
We’re in a golden age of series television right now. This is the year I finally got into “Breaking Bad,” which I was keeping aloof from for a long time, for no other reason than it didn’t sound very appealing. This year we plunged in; we caught ourselves up, so we would be ready when the new season began. What fantastic television! The inventiveness of the storytelling and the way each episode potentially promises to tell its story in a way you’ve never quite seen before in a television show, either through the use of interesting devices and flashbacks or point-of-view tricks. It’s always interesting, and it’s usually excellent.
And we’re watching the second season of “Homeland.” It had its moments definitely earlier on, and then I felt like it kind of jumped the shark a little bit toward the end. I’m not quite sure where they’re going to go when it’s all over, but that will be interesting in itself.
Both of those series show how the intensity level has been really ramped up in television.
Yes. There’s more they can show, so they do. Sometimes with some shows, it starts to feel gratuitous. Even on a show I love, and we really enjoyed the second season of “Game of Thrones” this year, sometimes they’ll do those scenes where there’s just two people talking about local politics and there are two prostitutes having lesbian sex in the background.
Another movie I really enjoyed this year along with everyone in the universe was “The Avengers.” That was big fun. I quite liked the new James Bond movie.
How about websites? Did you discover any interesting new sites this year? Which ones have continued to hold your interest?
I go to the same old boring ones I’ve gone to for years. I know that [music-streaming site] Spotify is far from new, but this seemed to be the year of Spotify, where everyone suddenly was using Spotify and listening to Spotify.
Whom did you share?
Oh, so much. I couldn’t begin to tell you. It must have been 250 things.
One thing about the Internet is that it caters to increasingly short attention spans. Do you worry about relevance in that context?
I try not to worry about things that I can’t do anything about, so no, I don’t.
Oh, how could I forget? Movies. Loved “Moonrise Kingdom.” I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan. You always want his newest movie to be as good as the ones you already love, and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. And with “Moonrise Kingdom” it totally did.
What about your own experiences with Hollywood?
In 2012 I had a sort of not so great one. A movie that I worked on came out this year and unfortunately became notorious.
Yeah, so that was not so great. I certainly would have preferred it to have come out differently. That’s showbiz.
What about your future aspirations in Hollywood?
Right now my wife, Ayelet [Waldman], and I are developing a series at HBO, so that’s where my Hollywood focus is right now.
That seems to be the apex for a lot of writers.
It’s just an appealing medium, the freedom you have to explore different tones that are much closer to the tones you can approximate in a work of fiction in terms of irony and existential despair, tones of violent mayhem, whatever kind of tonal possibilities afford themselves in writing fiction and that might at one time have more easily afforded themselves even in the big commercial Hollywood film business. A lot of that tonal possibility has been narrowed down pretty grievously, I think.
Generally speaking, if you’re working with a big studio on a big release kind of film, you have to stay within a narrow tonal range. And these cable network series permit you to broaden the palette that you can work on, and I think that’s appealing. Then of course there are the long arcs of storytelling that are possible, even longer than those that are possible in writing a novel.
Can you talk about your HBO project?
It would be an hour-long series of drama during the Second World War, and it’s about a team of various kinds of charlatans — stage magicians, a spirit medium, a con artist and so on — who are recruited by British intelligence to perpetrate deceptions against the Nazis.