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Book-to-film fame and fortune haven't spoiled family man Michael Chabon

Sunday, February 13, 2000

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Despite its notoriety, this is still a college town, where knots of backpack-carrying students block the sidewalks of streets lined with fast-food restaurants, tattoo parlors, bookstores and travel agencies.

It's the kind of place where Michael Chabon has lived for most of his adulthood and where his two novels, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Wonder Boys" have been set.

But Chabon's life has changed in the years since "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" made the University of Pittsburgh graduate the hot young author of 1987. Three years out of Pitt, he was the subject of a media campaign aimed at readers in their 20s and symbolized by a moody photograph in Vanity Fair.

Still youthful-looking, he's 36 now, a homeowner and father of two who's also trying to train a rambunctious puppy. With his wife, Ayelet Waldman, daughter Sophie, 5, and son Zeke, 21/2, he's settled into the rhythms of raising a family close by the University of California campus.

When "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" came out, Chabon -- whose name is pronounced "SHAY-bawn" -- lived in Irvine, Calif., where he was a graduate student at the University of California campus there. After several years in Los Angeles, where Waldman was a U.S. public defender, Chabon has lived in Berkeley since 1997.

"I started coming out to Berkeley around 1983 or so, when my mother moved here," said Chabon, whose parents divorced when he was 11. "I always liked the place, so when we had kids, we decided to move here. We didn't want to raise our kids in L.A."

His wife is now an adjunct professor of law at Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley's law school.

Chabon said the town reminded him a bit of Squirrel Hill, where he lived while a Pitt student. "It's the kind of place where you can walk to everything and people are friendly. The grocery-store clerks know my kids' names, and you know, you can just charge the groceries and pay at the end of the month."

The sense of permanence is most obvious at Chabon's house, a "Berkeley brown shingle" version of the California craftsman style. Behind the 21/2-story house is a new writing studio covered in the same cedar shingles and designed to Chabon's specifications.

Inside, the writer works at a comfortable alcove among shelves of books. On the shelves are signs of his Pittsburgh days, including a Roberto Clemente baseball card, an old Post-Gazette cartoon and a carefully mounted 1950 feature story on Ralph Kiner.

Tacked on the wall above the alcove are bits of information and a map of Manhattan, where Chabon's upcoming book, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," is set. He uses these reference points to keep him aware of the book's milieu.

The novel recounts the story of two men who develop a comic-book superhero, then sell the idea to a syndicate for $100. Their idea goes on to make millions.

"You'll have to read it to learn how it turns out," smiled Chabon, who would only add that it takes place from 1939 to 1954.

Aside from a collection of short stories, last year's "Werewolves in Their Youth," Chabon has worked on this novel on and off for nearly five years, and he's still trying to wrap up it before his publisher's Tuesday deadline.

Next to his desk is a tall manuscript, an earlier version of the novel that had reached more than 1,000 pages. Chabon's latest version is 400 pages shorter.

"I'm really almost done," he said, in an ironic echo of Grady Tripp, the hero of "Wonder Boys," whose unfinished novel exceeded 2,600 pages with no end in sight.

The struggle to finish the novel is a reflection of how seriously Chabon takes his craft, rather than a failure of will, like his character Tripp.

"You make things pretty hard," his wife teased him. "Why don't you just write some popular fiction and make it easy on yourself?"

"I don't think about writing popular books," Chabon answered firmly. "I just write them. I don't think about how they're going to sell."

"Wonder Boys," though, has made Chabon money. Aside from the book contract and royalties, he received a six-figure check for the film rights. The book, already in paperback, will be reintroduced to tie in with the film version, which opens Feb. 25.

"The new cover will have a picture of Michael Douglas on it, with his name in big print," Chabon joked. "Clear at the bottom, it will say 'By Michael Chabon' in little type."

Chabon, though, is very happy about the "Wonder Boys" film and its star. "I really have to give Douglas a lot of credit for making it. It's not his typical role, and he really showed a lot of guts to make it."

He saw the movie late last month in Los Angeles. "It was really astounding to see my scenes up there on the screen," he said. "What was really satisfying was that about the first quarter of the movie follows the book almost perfectly."

One of Chabon's favorite moments in the film involves a valuable mink-collared jacket kept in safe. "I had just imagined that whole thing in my head when I wrote it," he said. "To see it just like I imagined it almost blew me away."

A major section of the book, however, is barely touched upon in the film. It involves Tripp's in-laws and a Passover seder and provides some of the book's most emotional moments.

"I understand why that story had to be cut," he said, with some regret. "It's the right decision. The movie would have been too long with it."

Another trip to Hollywood might be in Chabon's future. Scott Rudin, "Wonder Boys' " producer, also has acquired the rights to "Kalavier and Clay."

The writer's next project is a TV series. He's signed with the cable network TNT to develop an hour-long drama. Chabon described it as "a relationship-based program about adults. It will be more socially and racially diverse than the shows on TV now."

He also had written two screenplays and the pilot script for a family drama set in Pittsburgh for CBS, but those projects eventually died.

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