“The Place I Always Wanted to Be”: Chabon & Ford on Why Genre Tags Don’t Matter

By Neal Comment

chabon-ford-interview.jpgMichael Chabon showed up for the creative writing program at University of California-Irvine in the mid-1980s with a head full of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Donald Barthelme… but also J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Ursula K. LeGuin. The plan, he told me as we chatted in a hotel bar last week, was to write “intensely literary fiction that was equally steeped in genre,” but he soon found that his classmates were completely befuddled and unwilling to critique the stories he was submitting. “I didn’t want to get into a fight every time I presented a story,” he recalled, so he wound up writing The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which ultimately became his debut novel, as an attempt at working within the traditional coming-of-age genre. “In a way, it was a kind of retreat,” he admits, “and I’ve been… sneaking out at first, but now more clearly into the place I always wanted to be.”

That place is exemplified by The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a detective story set in an alternate history where, after the Second World War, a Jewish colony was established in Alaska rather than the Middle East. Less than a week before our meeting, the novel had received a Nebula from the Science Fiction Writers of America; later that night, Chabon would find out whether he’d be able to add an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America to his trophy shelf. (For the record, John Hart wound up winning.) And I’d invited to our conversation a writer who knew exactly what it was like to have the same book up for both awards: Jeffrey Ford, author of The Girl in the Glass.

“I don’t think about it as science fiction and fantasy. It’s just ‘this story,'” Ford said of his writing. When he was the same age Chabon was when he went to grad school, he reflected, writers like Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, and “the South American guys” (which prompted a wave of nostalgia among us for the covers on those ’70s paperback magic realist novels) were working fantastic elements into their fiction all the time. Chabon pointed out that the idea that writers would only work within one genre is a relatively new one; look at the range of stories Edgar Allan Poe or Rudyard Kipling told, for example, or Isaac Bashevis Singer. “Singer is unquestionably recognized as a literary writer,” Chabon explained, “but is also as much a part of the supernatural literary tradition as Poe.” In this vein, Ford recommended that we both pick up Beneath the American Renaissance, a book by David S. Reynolds about the 19th-century popular culture that shaped what we now regard as American literary masterpieces.

“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal,” Ford said of the genre-straddling, to which Chabon replied, “The people it matters the least to are the ones who are doing it. In so many other artistic mediums, it’s not weird at all.” He cites the career of filmmaker Robert Altman, who went from war comedy to private eye story to western (to take just one short segment) with ease. “The fact that he was working in all those genres—that’s standard operating procedure in Hollywood.”

When it came to the awards, Chabon said he’d been fantasizing about winning a Nebula since he was a teenager. “I didn’t have any doubt that I could handle that kind of material,” he said, “even if I wanted to dial it up and do a full-on space opera. But when it comes to mystery, it was ‘I hope I can do this. I think I can do this.’ I really wanted to do it well, to do the best, most thorough job I could, and then somebody could pick it up and accept it as a mystery. To get nominated for the Edgar was a big relief: ‘Thank God, it worked!'”