Zadie Smith was set to be the guest at this month's Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, but she's pregnant and has been advised not to fly so Michael Chabon was tapped for tonight's reading instead. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Chabon will be reading and discussing his latest novel, the comedic Telegraph Avenue. The book started as an idea for a television series. That didn't work out, but Chabon, who had placed the action in the Oakland, California area, kept coming back to the story. "I would see something and think, 'That would have been good to use in that show.' I eventually thought about making it into a book," he tells us.
The locale plays a big role in Telegraph Avenue, which Chabon says is true for most of his projects. The real Telegraph Avenue connects Oakland, a historically African-American area, with Berkeley, a traditionally white area. Chabon's story focuses on a mixing of people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. "It's important for me to start with a place, whether that's the bridge of the Enterprise or the bar in Cheers or the cafe in Friends. I happened to walk into a record store on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, California. A record store in itself probably wouldn't have struck me as being a great setting for anything but this particular record store, on the particular day that I walked into it was being staffed by two guys, one black and one white. There were a bunch of customers hanging out at the store, some black men and some white men.
"Parts of Oakland, like parts of Houston, I'm sure, are both very diverse and very segregated at the same time. People from very different backgrounds live right next to each other and there are barriers, both visible and invisible that keep them apart. It seemed that this record store I had walked into was an enchanted spot, where none of that really mattered. The only thing that mattered was that these guys loved the same kind of music, the same vinyl records and that shared love was enough, at least in the context of this record store, to make the differences between the men seem unimportant for the moment."
That record store became Brokeland Records in Telegraph Avenue. A tiny record store owned by a couple of constantly feuding partners, Brokeland is being threatened by is a gigantic mall that's set to move into the neighborhood, including a three-story media store that's sure to put the vinyl shop out of business. A backroom deal between the mall developer and a local politician seems to have sealed Brokeland's fate.
Chabon's work is often called cinematic. It's a term he doesn't quite accept. "People often tell me "I can see it in my mind.' The passages that people tell me are the most cinematic are actually the least cinematic, because they're the passages in which the language is most heavily involved and working the hardest. And a mere recorded image has no hope of competing with in my mind, even though I love movies.
"In a book, all you have are words to translate what you're seeing in your mind's eye. And this is where movies fall short of the possibilities of literature, because it's also the sounds and the smells and the tactility of the world that you can create. It's not just what people are saying and doing, it's the entire sensory world around them. That's what you have to try to bundle up into language. If you're doing a good job of it, it magically, like the teleporter on the Star Ship Enterprise, it dematerializes in your brain and re-materializes in the brain of the reader. And it's complete. It's not just an image, it's a full world."
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Some authors say they wish they could go back and revise previous published works, releasing a sort of director's cut of earlier novels. Chabon does not. In fact, he does not a lot. "Once I've finished a book, I'm done with it. For better or worse, whatever flaws it may have that I can recognize now, so be it. Just the thought of going back and trying to redo something I've done before feels repellant to me. I would never do that in a million years.
"I'm over the characters, they're done. I don't want to go back there at all. Writing books is not fun, it's hard. There's so much trouble and doubt and confusion and woe involved in finishing a novel which takes me a really long time to do, so when it's done, I would be happy if I never had to think or talk about it again. That would be great."
Oops. Chabon might not be looking forward to his revisiting Telegraph Avenue, but Houston audiences are. The reading has been sold out.
Michael Chabon reads at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, visit the Inprint Houston website or call 713-521-2026.