|Tuesday, July 23
Updated: July 29, 12:25 PM ET
The Interview: Michael Chabon
By Rob Neyer
Michael Chabon has written three novels, each of them more accomplished than the previous. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Chabon's most recent book, earned him the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. In September, Talk Miramax Books will release Chabon's Summerland, a novel (with illustrations by the amazing William Joyce!) for children. Chabon is currently writing the screenplay for Kavalier & Clay. For more on Michael Chabon, visit his Web site.
The following interview was conducted via e-mail from July 9 through July 18.
Neyer: In your first novel (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and especially your second one (Wonder Boys), there are repeated references to old Forbes Field, home of the Pirates from the second half of the 1909 season through the first half of the 1970 season. Assuming of course that you remember Forbes Field, what do you remember about it? And why does it keep popping up in your books?
Chabon: I never saw a game at Forbes Field. That may in fact be the key to my fascination with it. My father moved to Pittsburgh when I was 12, and one of the first things he took me to visit was the home plate of Forbes Field, which is preserved under Lucite in the middle of the (remarkably hideous) University of Pittsburgh building that replaced it. A portion of the outfield wall still exists, and the rest is outlined in brick set into the ground.
I have always been drawn to lost worlds, lost paradises, lost cities, etc., maybe because my father grew up a Dodgers fan in Brooklyn in the lost world of the forties. Whatever the reason, I was entranced by the idea that there had once been a huge (remarkably beautiful) ballpark right in the middle of Pittsburgh, a place where Wagner and Kiner and Mazeroski and Clemente had played, which was gone forever. It made that part of Pittsburgh seem forever haunted to me, and somehow bereft.
Neyer: I've visited the spot; it's one of my favorite baseball places.
Isn't it odd that Forbes Field was torn down in favor of Three Rivers Stadium, which in turn was replaced by PNC Park, which is supposed to remind us of old-time ballparks like ... Forbes Field? Meanwhile, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park just keep plugging along and packing 'em in.
By the way, have you been to PNC Park?
Chabon: No! I happened to be in Pittsburgh the week before the ballpark opened ... I was so irritated to miss the chance. It does look beautiful, but I hate that they put it right where Three Rivers was. The boat ride is nice, I guess, but I think they ought to have put it downtown.
Neyer: In Wonder Boys, the protagonist is a writer who's spent years working on a still-unfinished novel that runs into the thousands of pages. I believe I read somewhere that before you wrote Wonder Boys, you yourself were mired in a never-ending novel (since abandoned) that concerned an architect of baseball stadiums. Do I have that right? And as a fan of both baseball stadiums and your work, I have to ask ... is there any chance that someday we'll see some portion of that novel in print? Or is it forever lost to the winds, like Grady Tripp's opus?
Chabon: Yeah, I'm afraid that book is lost, though not in so dramatic a manner as Grady's. Actually, the first chapter of it is visible on my Web site.
One of the many frustrating and embarrassing things about writing that novel was that, when I began it in late 1987, the idea of someone building a cozy, downtown, baseball-only, green-grass, asymmetrical ballpark ever again sounded like the purest fantasy. Things like the SkyDome seemed to be the wave of the future. And then it took me so long to write the damn book ... a few years into it, I started hearing these rumors of a new park going up in Baltimore along the old B&O railroad yards ... by the time I abandoned the thing, they were already building Jacobs Field, new Comiskey (not so hot), Coors Field ... Sheesh.
Neyer: In one of your short stories ("Spikes"), a character laments the passing of first Roberto Clemente (who of course was killed in a plane crash) and then Frank Howard (who left Washington when the Senators moved to Texas). And I believe you expressed similar sentiments in an essay. What was it about Clemente and Howard that captured your imagination?
Chabon: Well, with Frank Howard I guess it was mostly that he was big and handsome and fair and hit mighty home runs and I was a really little kid. He was the local slugger, in other words. He was the only Senator I really cared about, except of course for the manager of the team, a certain Ted Williams.
Clemente was different. He first entered my life in 1971, the year our other local team, the Orioles -- the Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell Orioles -- went to the World Series. Right away, I noticed that playing for Pittsburgh in right field was this marvelous, handsome, graceful, brown-skinned guy. He was strong, lean, serious. He ran hard, threw hard, and swung hard, but he always looked relaxed and unruffled. He was everything an eight-year-old boy could most devoutly wish to be. I'm sure I'm remembering wrong -- I know the Pirates got some fine pitching during that Series -- but to my eight-year-old self it seemed that Roberto Clemente won the '71 Series single-handed. He got at least one hit in every game, and wound up batting over 400.
Neyer: So you were just a kid when Clemente died, and at almost exactly the same time, the Senators became the Rangers, which meant that Frank Howard went off to Texas. Did those losses have any impact on your affection for baseball? Did you adopt another favorite team?
Chabon: After Clemente was gone, I started to notice how this other guy they had, Manny Sanguillen, seemed to have discovered some inexhaustible source of joy, a source that at the time I took to be baseball itself. He was a free-swinging, dirty-uniform kind of guy, and he was always smiling. It made you smile just to look at him.
I don't know if you remember or not, but the middle of the 1970s were not exactly the most joyous of times. The whole world seemed to have turned into a Robert Altman movie. Jarring and sour, and crazy, and colored in a palette that I believe drove my entire generation mildly insane. This malaise -- that's how Jimmy Carter later styled it -- had invaded baseball too. Among the bizarre, misbegotten adventures of that time, along with the bombing of Cambodia, wife swapping, and necklaces for men, was the invention of the designated hitter. (And just think of the Houston Astros' uniforms from that time. They could be seen from outer space.) But there was no malaise for Manny Sanguillen. He went on swinging at bad balls, and tearing around the bases faster than any catcher had a right to do.
I have been a lifelong Pirates fan ever since. The memory of '79, of Willie Stargell in his glory, is still sweet and evergreen.
Neyer: When I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, thoughts of baseball kept jumping into my head ... which is a bit odd, considering there's virtually no baseball at all in the book; if memory serves, there's just a passing reference to one of the main characters going to games at Ebbets Field.
But the book is set in New York, much of it during the years following World War II. And with so many of the game's famous events occurring in postwar New York, and you painting such a vivid picture of the city during those years. So what I wanna know is, how'd you do it?
Chabon: It seems a little funny, I admit, that there's not much baseball in Kavalier & Clay, given that the book takes place during an era that many view as having been golden not only for comic books but for the national pastime as well. And that is a period in the history of baseball that I find particularly appealing and interesting, from the Dodgers to the Negro Leagues to the strangenesses of wartime ball (Pete Gray, et al). I guess that my characters just had too much else on their minds!
I did a lot of research for the book -- conducted interviews, spent days on end in libraries, and read every kind of related book that I could get my hands on. But mostly, I think, in the end it comes down to my having -- having always had -- a strong feel for the period. It's always been easy for me to transport myself to New York during the middle years of the twentieth century, I guess because my father grew up in Brooklyn then, and regaled me with his memories of childhood.