Patch Interview: Michael Chabon on Columbia

Bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon spoke about his childhood in Columbia, its influence on him and the city's changes.


Michael Chabon, who spent his childhood in Columbia, is the best selling-author of novels such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

As a child, Chabon's parents were divorced and he spent nine months of the year living in Columbia with his mother and three months in Pittsburgh with his father. He graduated from Howard High School.

For the past two decades Chabon, 49, has lived mostly in California, making his permanent home in Berkeley since 1997, according to his biography on his publicity agency's website.

Chabon's latest book, Telegraph Avenue, was published in September. The book took him about five years to write. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Chabon wrote that it was his experiences with racial diversity growing up in Columbia that influenced the book.

Patch interviewed Chabon about the influence of Columbia on his writing on Oct. 24 over the phone.

Patch: What is your earliest memory from Columbia?

Chabon: Well, I remember going with my parents and my baby brother to the Exhibit Center to watch the presentation and look at the slides and walk around in the Exhibit Center. I can remember picking up a map of Columbia and my parents getting these brochures and going to drive around to look around at whatever there was to see. I think we looked at a model home in Longfellow on that day. I would have been 6 at the time. [About 1969]

P: Can you talk about your experience with attempting to start the Columbia Comic Book Club at the Wilde Lake Village Center when you were 11?

C: It was very short-lived and had a very small membership. We only had one member.

P: How has that experience affected your writing?

C: I was pretty crushed. I was surprised because I had imagined dozens and dozens of people would have come. I was kind of shocked. It seemed like good training in hindsight for becoming a writer because everytime you write a book, you don't know if anybody is going to show up.

P: How did Jim Rouse's vision affect you as a child?

C: I was very strongly affected by the vision of Columbia, the original founding vision of it and believed in it as a kid. When I would look around me, I felt like it was true that it was working. All the things I had learned that first day at the Exhibit Center downtown seemed to be coming into being, sort of one house at a time, one street at a time. It's important to remember that the city was not even really built yet when we moved there. There was just Wilde Lake and Bryant Woods and the Village Green and the high school was there. And they were just starting Harper's Choice. It was under construction when we moved there. We waited for our house to be finished so we could move into it.

P: Where was your house in Columbia?

C: Our first house was at 5179 Eliots Oak Road and while we waited for that to be built we lived in a townhouse in Faulkner Ridge. We lived there first, second and third grade and then we moved to Phelps Luck, 5453 New Grange Garth and I lived there from fourth grade to my senior year in High School. I went to Howard High.

P: You gave credit to Jim Rouse in your latest book, Telegraph Avenue, what role did he play in the book?

C: That founding vision that I was talking about in Columbia was very persuasive for me. In a sense it raised my expectations for what was possible in the realm of interracial relations and just community building generally. When I left Columbia to go to college I very quickly discovered that Columbia was pretty much completely unique. The Columbia I grew up in was like a city under a bubble. It was not the model or a template for vast social change taking place across America, it was sort of unto itself.

I guess when I came to the East Bay of California—which is a completely different place than Columbia—it's integrated in a very, very different way, in a very much more ad hoc, accidental kind of way whereas Columbia was so deliberate. Still I felt strange echoes, and those echoes were louder still when I walked into a used record store that used to be on Claremont Avenue here in Oakland and saw that in the confines of this little record store, under this even tinier bubble, some people had somehow managed to find a way to create a space... that was deliberately integrated by choice and by design, if you will. And that's what reminded me of Columbia. I felt like having grown up in Columbia is what gave me the ability to recognize that.

P: You've talked about the Columbia map a lot, and looking at the map in your childhood and it inspiring you, how had that map inspired you?

C: The thing about was it was a work of fiction in a sense. When we first got it, when we were first handed that map, there was almost nothing on it. All the things were named, but nothing on it actually existed. I had written in an essay that I was an avid reader when I was kid and among the books I loved to read, most had maps on the endpapers, sort of imaginary kingdoms.

That map of Columbia was like one of those maps to me. It was this map of a place that didn't really exist, but then within a few years it came into being.

That was such a powerful demonstration to me of what a determined imagination could do. It could take these fictitious imaginary kingdoms that existed on a piece of paper and turn it into a place where people lived. That was an amazing demonstration of just what one determined person with a great imagination could do.

I'm speaking at this point of James Rouse and he was always an inspiring figure to me. He had this thing he wanted to have happen and he made it happen. It was an amazing feat and it was so well-intentioned and admirable and it all started with lines of paper.

P: Do you liken Rouse's process to your own in writing a novel?

C: Yes, I've found it as a source of inspiration and I always have. I wanted to sort of give a hat tip to that.

P: What social differences did you see between your time in Pittsburgh and Columbia?

C: The big shock came from when I left to go to college. When I was a kid, I sort of stayed within in the realm of my father's house and I didn't really encounter Pittsburgh in a direct, unmediated way, until I went off to college. It was just like immediate as soon as I got out into the world of Pittsburgh and saw segregation with my own eyes and knew it for what it was. I encountered all kinds of casual racism in things I overheard people saying or that people said directly to me. It was stuff I would have never heard before in Columbia. It's not that there was no racism in Columbia. There was, but it was certainly self-conscious and aware of its status as discouraged and kind-of not very cool. That was just not the case in Pittsburgh at all. It was kind of like, 'this is how I am, this is how the world is, and you're just an idealistic idiot if you think otherwise.'

P: You said you last visited Columbia about two weeks ago, what did you do during your visit?

C: I rented a car and drove up from DC. I just drove around and re-visited all the scenes, the old schools, houses and went to the mall and walked around a little bit and went down to Lake Kittamaqundi and walked around a little bit.

I just kind of took the tour and drove back down and stopped at the house where my grandparents lived in Silver Spring. That was my trip down memory lane.

P: Did anyone recognize you while you were walking around Columbia?

No, but when I went to my old house in Phelps Luck I was just kind of hanging out outside my car looking up and down the street, when the current owner of the house saw me there and came out. First he wanted to see what the hell I was doing, and then I told him I had lived in the house and he knew about me, that I had lived there. We chatted for awhile and he was actually quite friendly.

P: How has Columbia changed since you lived here?

C: Obviously, it's really expanded a huge amount. There's vast areas that are there that weren't there when I was there—King's Contrivance and that new one, what's it called, River's Edge? River Edge?

P: Hickory Ridge? River Hill?

C: Yeah, River Hill. Hickory Ridge was just kind of coming into being as I was leaving Columbia. I think the thing that strikes me the most is, well, a few things. One is the surroundings of Columbia are completely built up in this really hideous way, just like surroundings of every other city in America at this point, with like big box stores and nondescript strip malls and that kind of stuff. I think Rouse would have hated that.

When I lived in Columbia the trees were brought in on trucks and I was taller than they were and a lot fatter. Now those trees are big, gigantic, leafy, it's amazing to see that. Once you get into the core part, the downtown, the original parts don't look that different to me.

The other thing I just noticed, and it's not Columbia's fault, it's just the sort of way everything has gone in this country, everything is a franchise or a chain. It's the Columbia outlet of some national chain or something like that. There's kind of a generic feel to everything. That's certainly not unique to Columbia.

I was thinking walking through the mall that when Columbia Mall opened, which I remember very well, that day it opened, very few of the stores were chains and if they were they were sort of regional chains like Harmony Hut Records. There was a McCrory's dime store. No big national chains really. Most of the stores were little odd mom and pop one-offs... But, in a sense, the whole mall was quirky little stores owned by local merchants of one kind or another. Now, when you go to the mall it's all the same stores you see everywhere else in every other mall all around the country. I think it's just this irresitible tide of history that Columbia was unable to withstand.

P: That's kind of a theme you address in Telegraph Avenue.

C: Absolutely. That's just what happened everywhere and it happened in Columbia too. That doesn't mean anything in particular, except that Columbia is part of the world. I guess in a way maybe what I'm saying is that when I was a kid, growing up there, Columbia wasn't really part of the world, for better and for worse.

P: In your stories you deal with the theme of nostalgia, is there a nostalgic quality to those old stores that used to populate Columbia, but don't anymore?

C: There's no point in being nostalgic about it. On the other end, there's no point in ignoring it either. There has been a significant change and in many ways I think it has been a significant loss. I don't think there's anything that can really be done about it. If you don't know any better, if you're too young to know that it used to be different, it's not going to make you feel bad about it, so [for young people] it is and always has been.

It was a shock to me not having walked through Columbia Mall [in some time] to see Abercrombie, Hollister, the Gap and all the jewelry stores… still, there's still one—Edward Arthur Jewelers. I'm positive that store was in the mall when it opened. That's one of the only stores that I could see that I could remember was there on opening day. It was 40 years ago, it's not that surprising.

P: Do you consider Columbia your hometown?

C: That's always a tricky one for me. I can't consider Columbia my hometown, because I'm torn between defining my hometown as the place where you grew up and the place where you make your home. I don't make my home in Columbia. Maybe if my mother still lived there and I was returning regularly to see her, but she left before I did, in a sense. It feels like the place where I grew up, but it doesn't feel like my hometown in a sense that I don't make my own home there.

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Chabon Talks Race and Early Columbia in WSJ Interview

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