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Writers on Writers: Scott Hutchins Meets Michael Chabon on his Home Turf

Scott Hutchins hangs out in Brokeland with Michael Chabon.

“Behind Chabon’s geek-chic glasses with a fleur-de-lis on either arm are large, blue eyes that—for all his genuine affability—watch you closely.” (Shot on location at Stranded Records in Oakland.)

I’m at Pizzaiolo on Telegraph Avenue, in the Temescal district of Oakland. It’s 8 a.m.—the exact minute the restaurant opens—and Michael Chabon apologizes profusely for the early hour. I tell him not to worry as I shed my bag, scarf, coat, sweater. I left San Francisco dressed as a San Franciscan, and the huff from the MacArthur BART station and the ticking East Bay sun has me pulling at my collar, overheated. If it were allowed, I’d take off my shoes.

Chabon is comfortable in loose jeans and a cowboy snap shirt. It’s his town, after all. He’s just dropped his two younger kids off at their nearby school (the older two attend Lick-Wilmerding in San Francisco). The employees in the restaurant know him and greet him warmly. He still feels bad about how early it is. “But they have the best doughnuts here,” he says. “And great coffee.”

Behind his geek-chic glasses with a fleur-de-lis on either arm are large, blue eyes that—for all his genuine affability—watch you closely. I again assure him that the early hour is no matter for me, but I don’t tell him the full truth: I owe this guy. And I owe him big. Some years ago, I was bottoming out, as a person and as an artist. I was broke. I couldn’t see a day in front of myself. Even more than a writer, I’m a reader, and I wandered the aisles of the library looking for signs. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh—I checked it out and read it in one sitting. Then Wonder Boys. Then The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I ate those books. In my dark and disconnected life, I had come across worlds of effortless delight, of cosmic warmheartedness. I was high, I was low. I was entertained. I was enthralled. I was, above everything, alive. That’s what great books can do, and it was my honor to meet their author. Eight a.m.? I would have been here at five.

So I ask for the famous doughnut and coffee, but Chabon pulls a little breakfast jujitsu. He orders an austere bowl of granola (his “usual”) and milkless black tea. As we dig into the food (the doughnut is fantastic), I wonder if I’ve just witnessed a metaphor for his fictional technique. He talks dessert, sugar, pleasure, but at the core, he offers something more sustaining. Maybe even good for you.

Michael Chabon is the author of five critically acclaimed, bestselling novels, as well as novellas, short stories, TV pilots, books for younger readers, and a serial novel. He’s won many awards, most notably the Pulitzer. He’s the chairman of the board of MacDowell, the venerable artist colony in New Hampshire. He has a famous marriage to the writer Ayelet Waldman, who was nearly torn limb from limb on Oprah for asserting the primacy of her love for Chabon over her love for their children. (To be fair to the audience, she put it in more colorful terms.) He’s a father of four, all California-born, the younger three born in Berkeley.

Chabon’s writing life is deeply tied to California. He received his MFA from UC Irvine and lived for a spell in Los Angeles, but his California journey began and has continued in the Bay Area. His mother, the “original settler,” moved to Oakland when he was still in college in Pittsburgh. On his first visit out here—at age 20—his mother zipped him from the airport to a Mexican restaurant in Fruitvale. He felt instantly at home. “Pittsburgh didn’t even have Taco Bell,” he says. He loved the light, the people, the diversity. “Monocultures—Sweden, China—make me nervous,” he says. “But I guess because I’ve always felt like an outsider, I feel really at home around other outsiders.”

This instant feeling of home, however, applies only to the East Bay. “I remember going up the Montgomery Street escalator into San Francisco that first trip. I was so excited. City Lights. Dashiell Hammett. But I just got this feeling of insignificance—you’re not welcome here. We don’t need you.”

He struggled against this feeling for the entire trip, and years later he did briefly live in San Francisco just before he and Waldman married. But he never warmed to the city. Or maybe it never warmed to him.

“It can be like that,” he says. “Sometimes you really fall for a city. Sometimes a city falls for you.”

Is it the urbanism of San Francisco? No. Some difference in the people? Not that, either. “We visit our big sister a lot,” he says of the city. “We have friends there. Sometimes we go to a museum or to the movies.” But his smile turns mischievous as he describes a perfect, sunny, lush East Bay day—swimming, shorts, and a T-shirt—that concludes at a friend’s in St. Francis Wood, miserably shivering. “So it’s the weather?” I say.

“The only word for it is ‘metaphysical,’” he says. “This is home.”

Page two: Why Chabon is our Charles Dickens.