A year ago, Michael Chabon was just another lyrical genius, writing critically acclaimed works such as the one that inspired the film “Wonder Boys.”
All that changed on April 16 when the Berkeley author affirmed his place in literary history by snagging the Pulitzer Prize for his near-epic, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
By now it is old front-page news that the accolade followed losses. The night Chabon returned home empty-handed from the National Book Critics Circle ceremony, he got a phone call telling him the book was in the running for the PEN/Faulkner award.
That he lost that one, too, only to win a Pulitzer, has been enough to make his a Cinderella story if one can be made of a former boy wonder whose steadily prolific output has become even more prodigious in his prime.
In fact, the Pulitzer followed a series of events that has made the past year one of the most remarkable in his life. While winning the most prestigious writing award in the country can make a man reflective, the last 12 months have been a time of constant introspection for Chabon, and his wife, Ayelet Waldman. And while April has been a dizzying, wondrous time of excitement, it also has signaled an anniversary of a tragedy.
A “family loss” is how he describes it, and he keeps the details graciously but resolutely preserved within the privacy of his family.
“Lots of great things happened, but this year has been very shadowed for us, ” he reflects. “I’ve had a lot of people since the Pulitzer thing say to me, This has been an incredible year for you.’ I always say, Yes, it has been.’ I always feel as if there’s a, an ” Chabon pauses, considering his words. “I don’t really mean it. Not totally.”
He is sitting at the kitchen table, next to the family area where Waldman began screaming after receiving a phone call with the Pulitzer news. A few steps from the kitchen’s sliding glass back door through which Chabon bounded after hearing the shrieks of his very pregnant wife lies the small backyard cottage where the author shuts himself away to write, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. At the other end of the room is the archway to the living room, where a banner exuberantly adorned with curlicues and the word “Congratulations!” stretches across the window. Daughter Sophie’s class drew the colorful greeting once they heard about her father’s prize.
A cap covers Chabon’s shoulder-length hair, damp from either a morning shower or, perhaps, the rain pattering outside. He has just finished yet another phone call, part of the stream of congratulations and interviews that continue to come in.
“People have said a lot of nice things about me and my book, ” he says. Right after the announcement, “I felt I had heard from every single person I had heard from my whole life.”
An undercurrent of boyish excitement and disbelief still runs through his voice, as though he cannot believe his good fortune. “It’s something I completely totally acknowledge to be true, to think that I’m an extremely lucky person, ” Chabon says. And luck, as he has come to see, can play even in misfortune.
“I’ve wrestled with a lot of different levels of being lucky over the last year, definitely, ” he says. Anyone who has gone through a tragedy “will tell you that word comes up so often when you deal with bad experiences.”
After their own late last spring, Chabon and his wife went to support groups. There, they met people whose stories were far more painful, whose decisions were harder, even more horrible to make. “And you say to yourself, Gosh, we’re so lucky.’ It’s such an ironic thing.”
Life for the industrious Chabons quickly proved irrepressible. In June, Waldman, a former public defender, published her first book, “Nursery Crimes, ” the first in a series of mystery novels. Chabon finished writing “Kavalier & Clay, ” and during the break penned two chapters of a children’s book. Originally envisioned as a picture book about baseball, the concept of “Summerland” has evolved into a fantasy novel melding baseball with fairies.
While publishers suggested changing from a picture book to a novel two years back, Chabon had been more inspired to do so when Sophie, now 6 1/2, graduated from bedtime reading to pictureless, chapter books.
“This whole world of my own childhood reading suddenly was brought back into my life, ” he recalls. It occurred to him as he read to her that he could actually write one of those kinds of books, and it would be fun. After all, his “vague dreams” of being a writer began when he was reading J.R.R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander.
“I thought and I still think there would be this pleasure returning to that sort of primordial ambition to write a novel.”
In a way, “Summerland” is the first book he will write for someone he knows. “Not just Sophie, who will probably be able to read it by the time it’s written, ” he points out, “but Zeke, who’s still not reading, and this new baby, Rosie, who’s coming along. And not only my children, but my grandchildren.”
The children, Chabon says, saved them that summer. “Having children forces you to continue to operate, on a kind of fundamental level of being where you’re supposed to, when you’re supposed to, ” he explains. “We are just eternally grateful to our children just for being there.”
In September, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, ” about two Jewish boys who trigger the golden age of the comic-book industry, debuted to rave reviews, including one from the Washington Post, which declared that “in a just world it should win prizes.” It was the first time in Chabon’s life that the possibility of awards was linked to his work.
As if such praise were not intoxicating enough, a Hollywood miracle occurred. A studio, Paramount Pictures, actually apologized to the filmmakers for misguided marketing and rereleased “Wonder Boys” in November. Chabon, who had gratefully handed off the screenwriting adaptation to Steve Kloves (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”), has taken an avuncular pleasure in the film’s critical success.
As he worked on a TNT pilot, “Telegraph Avenue, ” Chabon could play the proud uncle again, and yet again and again when a litter of award nominations, including the Golden Globe and Oscar for best adapted screenplay, was announced.
Somewhere in all this, Waldman and Chabon found out they were pregnant with Rosie.
More good news came in January. After he handed in the two chapters and outline of “Summerland, ” a modest competition began between major players including Random House and Scholastic. Suddenly, Talk Miramax leapt in and snatched it up. One week later, Miramax the studio stepped in with a mid-six- to low-seven-figure offer for the film rights.
During this flurry, Chabon was adapting “Kavalier & Clay” for Paramount and Scott Rudin, the “Wonder Boys” producer who purchased those film rights last year. Chabon had felt enough of a kinship and excitement for his paean to his boyhood passion to adapt the book himself.
“I felt remarkably clear-headed and clear-eyed about what I had to do, ” he says of the process. He benefited from witnessing Kloves’ sure, sensitive treatment of “Wonder Boys” yet another Hollywood miracle. Once again, Chabon observes, “I was lucky.”
Then the literary nominations were announced. When it finally came down to the Pulitzer, he tried not to have any hopes. “I totally strangled them.”
His wife, unbeknownst to Chabon, was making pacts with God. Waldman who just celebrated a Supreme Court victory in a civil case of South Carolina women secretly subjected to drug tests during prenatal care says she was willing to trade her just-completed draft, a personal project about the drug policies through the relationship of a mother and daughter, for his Pulitzer.
On the day of the announcements, she was the tense one; her husband had put it aside.
“I was ready to stop thinking about all that.” He smiles. “And then I won. That was incredible.”
He called his daughter at school. “She had already been through the whole National Book Critics Circle and Daddy didn’t get it, and the PEN/Faulkner and Daddy didn’t get it, so she went off to school knowing about it.” Pulled from class, all she needed to say was, “Coooooool!” He told his son Zeke that he won a prize. The 3-year-old said excitedly, “Open it! Open it!” Friends and family gathered to celebrate with takeout Chinese food pot stickers and mung bean noodles.
“And the next morning I went to New Jersey, ” Chabon smiles. “Can you see the ads? Michael Chabon, you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. Where are you going?’ New Jersey!'”
On the plane ride, he looked down the rows of passengers seeing propped before them the local newspapers, with huge photos of him and his wife splattered on the front pages.
“It was like ‘Being John Malkovich,'” he recalls with delight. “It was so fun.”
Chabon did allow himself one indulgence (two, if you count the takeout Chinese). “He asked me, ‘Can I please get a Titanium Powerbook?'” Waldman says. Otherwise, he has managed to squeeze in celebrations, interviews and thank-yous into his schedule. That meant keeping appointments such as WonderCon, the massive Oakland comic-book convention, where he spoke just five days after the Pulitzer announcement, and hosting the Times Book Club Gala eight days later.
It would not have occurred to him to cancel, as grateful as he was for the support he received from both. The former avid comic-book reader admits that WonderCon was “kind of a geeky fan thrill for me just to be, like, on the other side.” Although he won’t be attending the Pulitzer ceremony (it’s May 31, and daughter Rosie is due the next day), he will be going as an awards presenter to the July comic-book convention in San Diego, the largest in the United States.
The past year has taught him about luck, although why it happens remains a mystery. Some might ascribe part of that fortune to his generosity of spirit, palpable in his actions and his writings.
“The thing I’m really struggling to be most of all, more than anything, is to be a mensch, ” Chabon says, referring to the Yiddish word meaning an honorable man. “To me, being a mensch is mostly about paying attention to other people and their feelings, and if you’ve incurred an obligation to someone, then try to, you know, discharge that obligation.”
Good fortune depends upon others, and passing that fortune to others is “common sense.”
Almost squarely in the middle of “Kavalier & Clay,” a chapter begins, “One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing. The months preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offer a rare exception to this axiom.”
Despite private sorrows, Chabon seems to be living in his own golden age right now. Broach the idea to him, however, and he hesitates to describe this time as such.
“I think our family works really well as a family, ” he says thoughtfully. “And we love living in Berkeley, and we love this house that we live in. And I do feel that I am living very well now, feeling pretty confident about my powers as a writer. In that sense, in those senses, I suppose, yeah, you could say, you could possibly say, things are going pretty well.”
A careful response but if he were yanked outside of his own life and looked at his successes, his life, how would he see himself?
“Lucky, ” he says simply. “I’m a lucky guy.”
Vera H-C Chan is the Times events editor. You can reach her at email@example.com or 925-977-8428.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times