• Aimee Levitt
  • Michael Chabon signs books at the Harold Washington Library.

Michael Chabon came to the Harold Washington Library Thursday night to discuss The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this year’s One Book, One Chicago. It was an unusually liberating experience for him, he told his interlocutor, Angel Ysaguirre, the new director of the Illinois Humanities Council (who, endearingly, appears to have an aversion to socks), because for once, he got to discuss the book’s ending instead of worrying about spoilers.

Ysaguirre has been a Chabon fan since the very beginning: he read Chabon’s 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when it first came out. It was, he said, one of the first novels he’d ever read that spoke to him as a young gay man. Though he was required by the library to ask at least one question relating to the official One Book, One Chicago theme (“Heroes, Real and Imagined”), he, and also Chabon, were more interested in discussing how Kavalier & Clay got made.

In person, Chabon was much as you might expect from reading Kavalier & Clay: charming, funny, thoughtful about the process of writing (and making other forms of art, including golems), and very loquacious. (And, when he signed my book, he spelled my name correctly.)

For Chabon, like his superhero-creating characters Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, the act of writing comes from a longing or a wish, in his case, to be someone else. “The act of building your own world,” he said, “is a form of escape. You have greater control—the only creation you have control over is your own. It’s not like I’m down in the basement playing with my model trains. I want to know what it would be like to be someone else, to have someone else’s background and history, a different reality. You want to build something, but you also want out.”

Which raises the question: Why would someone as successful and, apparently, happy as Michael Chabon want out of his own life? (During the evening, he made several references to his four children and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, also a writer, whose judgment he trusts implicitly.) That question went, for the most part, unanswered, but Chabon did say that one of the reasons he wanted to write about New York in the 1940s was because of his father’s stories about growing up in Brooklyn; even back then, Brooklynites could not shut up about their borough.

“I had a longing, or a wish, to see it for myself,” he said. “The one way to do it, the one time machine, was a novel.”

The idea of the pair of boy cartoonists came from an article in an old issue of Smithsonian that Chabon came across in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. It concerned Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two teenagers from Cleveland, who invented Superman and then sold all the rights to DC Comics for $130. The other elements—the Prague Golem, escape artistry, Houdini—emerged more organically, or it seemed to Chabon, magically. “One the theme of escape became clear to me,” he said, “the references to Houdini were already there. When things connect in ways you hadn’t intended, to me, it gives me a sense of being on the right track.” The book’s working title was Love in the Time of Comic Books.

The plot developed as the novel went along. Chabon has difficulty, he said, coming up with plots. The more he knows about where a piece of writing is going, the less interested he is in writing it. Predetermined plots often force characters to behave in ways that aren’t believable—but, he added, the more characters behave like ordinary people, the less the plot develops. “Plot is important to me as a reader,” he said. “I want my novels to have plots. But too much plot gives me a stomachache. I hate page-turners. The impulse to look ahead is anxiety-inducing.”

Part of the discussion included an explanation of the making and animating of golems (including the goat golem, created by two rabbis in ancient Babylonia because they were hungry), and how the Prague Golem may very well have been the prototype of Superman and all the superheroes who followed: very strong, impervious to pain, a protector of the less-strong.

“But that’s only 50 percent of the idea,” Chabon continued. “The other 50 percent is, the Golem gets out of control. The thing that will save you ends up threatening you. That’s the part Superman leaves out. But that’s the part that’s interesting.” It’s implied in Kavalier & Clay that Joe and Sammy will explore that aspect of superheroism in their post-Escapist comic books for adults, but real-life comics writers and artists have done it as well, notably Alan Moore in Watchmen.

Chabon talked a bit about his failures, particularly a stillborn second novel called Fountain City and the one movie for which he has a full screenwriting credit, John Carter. Fountain City was intended to be an epic that spanned decades and continents and contained mythical elements of baseball and architecture, which he worked on for five and a half years, three of those, he said, in complete denial that the thing wasn’t working. “I abandoned it in utter despair in 1992 or ’93,” he said. “I felt a heavy heart—for about five minutes. Then I thought, ‘Thank God it’s gone!'”

John Carter, on the other hand, was pure joy. Chabon adapted it from his favorite Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. The filmmakers were respectful of his screenplay. All was well, until about two weeks before the movie opened and a series of articles appeared—written, Chabon said, by people who hadn’t even seen it—announcing it was a total turkey. It ended up a $250 million flop. Still, he felt no regret about having done it.

Ysaguirre asked at one point if Chabon felt there was something dangerous about escapism. “Escape through the imagination,” he said, “is the appearance of leaving our selves and daily life behind. It’s a beautiful thing we’re capable of doing. We’re grateful when we’re given that experience by a work of art. My job is to create a thing that gives others that sense of escape.”