Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, September 27, 2002

The amazing adventures of Chabon The amazing adventures of Chabon (September 27, 2002)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author visits Kepler's in support of his new book, 'Summerland'

by Sue Dremann

Kepler's Books looked a little like Pac Bell Park this week, with its speaker's podium decorated with San Francisco Giants uniforms and signs reading "ninth inning" and "first base."

These were fitting props to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, whose latest book, "Summerland," incorporates America's beloved pastime. Geared for children, it is an American baseball fantasy and a coming-of-age story that has been germinating in the mind of the Berkeley author for many years.

"It has been with me since I was 9 years old, so it feels really good to get it out," said Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

For his current work, Chabon got a little push from his 8-year-old daughter, Sophie.

"She is extremely critical of stories where there aren't strong female characters," Chabon told the crowd of 100 gathered at the Menlo Park book store.

To satisfy her, Chabon included a main character, Jennifer T. Rideout, who is a determined girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Jennifer accompanies the book's protagonist, a boy named Ethan Feld, on a journey to save the universe from catastrophe.

Ethan is a loser in the magical world of Summerland, where the sun always shines, and the baseball field is always perfectly manicured. But Ethan is the worst ballplayer in the history of Little League. Playing the game is an embarrassment for him, and he wants to quit. But neither Jennifer, nor the little creatures called ferishers -- who maintain the weather in their perfect world -- will let him.

When the ferishers are threatened by an ancient foe, they select Ethan as their unlikely hero, hoping he can help them vanquish their enemy. The mission: play a baseball game for their survival and do battle with a host of mythical creatures, including giants, bat-winged goblins and one of the toughest ball clubs in the realm of magic, the Hobbledehoys.

The setting for "Summerland" is Washington state, a location inspired by Chabon's prior residence on Vashon Island. There, the sun only tortured him by coming out for 20 minutes a day, Chabon recalled, and it rained so much that "green fur grows out of anything made of wood." It became the model for Clam Island, where Ethan lives.

The appreciative Kepler's crowd ranged across a wide spectrum of ages. The bespectacled Chabon, looking 10 years younger than his age of 38, was genial and gracious to the crowd, and talked about the difficult pursuit of writing.

When one has been writing for a long time, he said, a state of mind takes over, triggering a separation between the writer and the self. It's what Chabon called the "midnight disease" in "Wonder Boys," his 1995 novel.

"You end up an observer, taking in everything all of the time, constantly trying to remember things so that you can use them in your writing. John Gardner wrote an essay about how the practice of fiction changes you -- sometimes it's for worse, sometimes for better, but often it's for worse," he said.

Writing "Summerland" helped ease some of that disconnect and brought him back to reality. And having children also makes it harder to disconnect, he said. Married to writer Ayelet Waldman, the Berkeley couple are also parents to Zeke and Ida-Rose. They are expecting their fourth child in April.

In addition to raising his brood, Chabon is also working on the screenplay for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which will be directed by Sidney Pollack. The project, which so far has resulted in nine drafts, has been difficult and boring, he said. In between he worked on "Summerland," which turned out to be a fun, liberating experience.

Fielding questions from the Kepler's audience, Chabon humorously addressed one concerned mother, who asked him why he wrote a dead mother into the story.

"Almost every book that I've written has a dead parent or two. I could say something profound about how in most fairy tales it's common to want the protagonist to have a major crisis to have to overcome. The truth of the matter is that it's one less character to have to worry about," he quipped.

A native of Washington D.C., Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., where he nurtured a great love for comic books -- much like the characters in "Kavalier & Clay." And he has always had an appreciation for words ("a tic for words, if you will"). He sees anagrams when he reads, and reads the dictionary on the toilet, a practice he still enjoys, he said.

Being awarded the Pulitzer Prize has not affected him dramatically, Chabon said. And unlike other awards, he didn't have to sit in an audience at a formal ceremony with potential candidates nervously vying for the same prize.

"With the Pulitzer, they just call you up and tell you you've won. I find that it's a pat on the back."

For Chabon, the freer side of writing seems to come out after literary struggle. After the success of 1988's"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," he spent most of the 1990s struggling with his opus, "Fountain City." Several drafts later, the work still only had "the most boring protagonist ever written," he said.

It was a shattering experience. Chabon feared that not finishing the book could become a habit, and he might never finish a book again. He had also spent a large portion of the advance that he received from his publisher. He thought if he didn't complete the book, that he would have to give it back. Visions of being put in "writer jail," or at least being pursued by lawyers, compounded his suffering.

Accompanying his wife while she studied for the bar exam, Chabon switched gears. He began work on "Wonder Boys," the comic novel about a professor/author who wrote one successful book but couldn't follow up with another. The story was adapted for film in 2000, and starred Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand and Tobey McGuire.

Up next for Chabon is a screenplay for "Spider Man 2." Fans can also look forward to a his take on DC Comics' "The Justice Society of America," which should be available next spring. The main character is called "Mr. Terrific."

"He has no powers whatsoever. He's merely good at things," Chabon said.

E-mail Sue Dremann at


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.