Two friends who own a record store in Oakland, California, try to fend off the advent of a megastore in their neighborhood. That’s the basis of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, in which the characters’ past—and America’s history of racial tension—complicate the story.
You’re identified now as someone who brings a lot of pulp elements to literary fiction. Do you think this book gets away from that a bit?
I guess I don’t really see it that way. It does incorporate lots of elements of crime fiction, martial-arts fiction. I feel like I’ve sort of absorbed a lot of information as a writer about how to handle various kinds of genre material and to become comfortable with it and acknowledge its importance to my life as a reader especially. Now sort of having done all of that for a long time, I continue to feel free to allow those influences to shape the work without trying to write a piece of genre fiction itself.
It’s definitely reminiscent of your novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in the sense that it’s so rooted in history.
It really begins with place for me. When I walk through a place, if I’m firing on all cylinders, even my [Oakland] neighborhood that I’ve lived in for 15 years, I do feel like I’m walking through time at the same time I’m walking through space.… Being aware that [the corner of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue in Oakland] represents the site of the original Ohlone Indian reservation in the area. Those things are always in my mind, the way history has survived and been defaced.
And is that why race plays such a large role in this book?
That’s very much part of the history of [Oakland]. Over the years of living there, I had built up this sense of charged racial history of the area. By no means limited to the Black Panthers—going all the way back to Ku Klux Klan rallies in the streets of Oakland, a whole lot of hooded old white dudes, feeling bold and free to march down the streets. So [the tension’s] not buried too deeply, and if you’re paying attention you become aware of it.
Telegraph Avenue (HarperCollins, $27.99) is in stores September 11.