Q&A: Author Michael Chabon on the Vinyl Soul of 'Telegraph Avenue'

Pulitzer winner concocts a record-store setting for latest opus

Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has an essay in a recent issue of Rolling Stone on what he calls "backbeat jazz" – the hard bop and soul-jazz that inspired his teeming new novel, Telegraph Avenue. The book is set in a used record store on "the ragged fault line" where radical Oakland meets ultra-liberal Berkeley, as the author has described the neighborhood where he lives.

To mark the book launch this week, a local bookstore was temporarily transformed into a real-life approximation of the fictional Brokeland Records. The book, which follows the tangled lives of the store's owners – one black and one Jewish – as they contend with an incoming megastore that could put them out of business, has already been optioned by film producer Scott Rudin, who made 2000's Wonder Boys, based on Chabon's book of the same name.

Can you describe the pop-up store?
They've covered the windows of Diesel Books – it's festooned with the Brokeland Records logo. They took out one of the huge tables up front and replaced it with a large display unit of record bins. The records themselves were very astutely sourced by a guy named Berigan Taylor, whom I don't know, but he used to have a brick-and-mortar record store on Claremont Ave called Berrigan's. It was in Berigan's in 1999 that I happened to have the germ of the idea for what became the book. Berigan's is still a record store, now called Grooveyard. I didn't put [my publisher] in touch with Berigan – I don't know how they got in touch. I didn't even know there was a Berigan. I didn't know where name came from. I guess he still deals online, so he came down with a supply of pretty awesome records, really well-selected, mostly jazz stuff. From what I understand, they're selling. They actually had to call him to come back and resupply.

Did you get first dibs?
I've gone in twice, and both times I've been running in to sign stock, going from one appointment to the next. I flipped through really quickly and saw all kinds of cool stuff. I haven't had time to get down to it and actually do any shopping . . . I think people love vinyl, and if you put it in their way, where they're going to see it, I think enough people still have their turntables in the garage or attic. You're not gonna throw away a turntable. It's not like you're in an antique store and you come across an old clothes mangle or a butter churn, or one of those rolling mechanical floor-sweeper things that came before vacuum cleaners. It's not like, oh, how quaint and charming, but of course what replaced it is infinitely superior, why would you ever want to go back? Records have been surpassed in some respects, but in many ways they may never be surpassed. The visceral appeal of a great record album with a cool cover, great typography and a beautiful photograph, often a Blue Note or CTI record – you pick that up and you just want it.

I have a turntable within an arm's reach in my office, but I find myself resorting to the ease of clicking on iTunes. It's a pain in the neck to flip the album every 20 minutes.
Well, if you look at it that way, yes. But dude, let me tell you, you need to get up every 20 minutes. And sitting [at a computer] is bad for your hands, your wrists and your arms, and bad for your circulation. And now they're starting to say people who spend their day sitting in a chair may live less long. At this point it has become a habit for me. The record ends and I get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, stretch a little bit. Then I flip the record over or put a new one on. I incorporated it into my routine. Sometimes the writing is going really well, and I sit there a little while longer, and then at some point I notice the silence and I get up.

The name of the store, Brokeland – is that your term?
I believe myself to have coined it. I've since discovered there apparently is a custom bicycle manufacturer of some kind, but it's spelled B-R-O-A-K-L-A-N-D. But I'd never heard the term before, so I'm gonna take credit for that one.

Can you explain why you set the book in 2004?
I needed to set it in a period where the threat of a retail music/media store would be frightening. I decided rather than set it in 1999, I wanted to set it in almost the last possible moment in history where it would feel like a credible threat, and 2004 felt like about that time. I wanted there to be this irony for the reader, that all these machinations Gibson Goode is going through [in developing his megastore] are probably going to come to naught. As much as [Brokeland owners] Archy and Nat feel themselves to be what Archy thinks of as "the last coconut palm on the last atoll about to be flattened by the wave of late capitalism," Gibson Goode is on his own atoll – he just doesn't know it yet. He doesn't know what's about to hit him. As soon as I did that, all these other storytelling and thematic possibilities came into the book – including the 2004 election coming, and Obama as a rising star – that helped me tell my story.

Have you entertained the possibility that somebody's going to stick the book in Obama's hands and say, "You've got to read the passage about yourself?"
You know, I may have engaged in such fantasies at one point or another, but the president is a very busy guy. I would almost hate to think he'd waste his time on that.

It's fair to say women are far more devoted fiction readers than men, but whether it's comic books [The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay], record collecting or sports [Summerland], you pick subjects that men obsess over in infinite detail. Is that an ongoing concern – losing the women in your audience?
Well, I frequently had the experience after Kavalier & Clay came out, having women come up to me – particularly older women – saying, "I have to say, when I first saw your book," or "when my book club chose it, I thought I was going to hate it. The cover put me off," blah blah blah. "But in the end I really loved it." The phenomenon you describe, I think is definitely real. I'm not trying to write fiction that only appeals to men, by any means. There's a lot in the book about births and labor and delivery, and hopefully that balances out some of the more testosterone-related elements.

So was that a conscious decision on your part?
In a sense. I was trying to balance out my story, but it was based on a genuine fascination. As soon as my wife and I encountered the world of midwifery when my wife was pregnant with our second, I got really fascinated by that work. It was immediately apparent to me there was so much power and drama inherent in what midwives do. I had this genuine desire to write about it, and I took advantage of that to balance my story. I wanted to write about a whole world, and that includes women.

I'm intrigued by the idea that Nat and Archy's record store was your version of Huck Finn's raft.
That interviewer just happened to catch me as this thought was coalescing in my mind. A friend was reading Huck Finn to his children, and he was talking about how, as long as they stay on the raft, everything is fine. It's only when they get off the raft that things go badly for them. I realized in some way that was also the case with the record store. Then I thought, well, maybe some part of me sort of knew that all along.

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