A lanky, dark-haired Pitt student walks into Jays Bookstall, catty-corner from UPMC Montefiore Hospital on Fifth Avenue.
The place feels like someones library. Long tables and shelves overflow with books, while even more are stacked from the floor to the ceiling in the literary chaos of this narrow store. The walls are lined with photos of well-known authors who are in the company of Jay Dantry, the bookstores owner. Still more pictures rest underneath the glass of the counter.
The student, meanwhile, has just lost his job at a nearby competitor, the Atlantic Bookstore. It was probably better that he did. The aspiring writer spent many mornings there sweeping the floor and picking up empty cups from the previous nights festivities.
He asks Dantry to hire him. He cant. There arent any openings.
The student returns the next day.
Are there any openings today?
He returns, day after day, with the same question, always hearing the same response.
Finally, the young man walks in, standing close to Dantry, he says:
If you dont hire me, Im going to kill myself.
Suddenly, there is a position at Jays Bookstall for Michael Chabon.
Chabon came to Pitt in the early 80s, porous to experience and eager to see the world outside of Columbia, Md. His father, a doctor at Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh, lived in the city with Chabons stepmother, who worked for the University. Chabon originally enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University. He was taking enriching classes there, but only a few had to do with writing. Pitt had the traditional academic program he wanted, so after a year at Carnegie Mellon, he transferred to Pitt. At the time, students had to declare their majors immediately, so Chabon selected English. That made sense, because he had been reading since the age of 4, and writing since 10.
Chabons father introduced the young writer to Jays. The elder Chabon, a comic book aficionado and a voracious reader, frequented the store.
During slow times at the bookstall, Dantry and his employee play the word games that appear in New York Magazine, shouting answers across the store. Often Chabon comes to work with stories he has written about old Jewish men in Squirrel Hill sitting around in their underwear. He likes to hear what his boss has to say about the works.
After he graduates, Chabon (CAS 84) still seeks Dantrys opinion, sending him drafts of a manuscript. The mailings first come from Paris, where Chabon has moved, and then, a few years later, from the University of California, Irvine, where he attends graduate school. (An author seeking Dantrys wisdom isnt that unusual. He has always been the unofficial literary editor of Pittsburgh writers.)
The drafts of Chabons manuscript eventually fill a whole drawer in the basement of the bookstall as Dantry reads the book in the various stages.
When Chabon arrived in Irvine, he had about 100 pages of the novel ready. After rereading it, he whittled it to 20 pages, and started rewriting. At the end of his second year in the masters program, he turned in the manuscript to his professor, Donald Harris. Chabon thought he was working on a rough draft. Harris obviously disagreed, sending it to Mary Evans, the professors literary agent in New York.
Most writers have a file overflowing with rejection letters. It is almost unheard of that an unpublished author writes a book that a respected agent like Evans agrees to represent. Evans read Chabons Mysteries of Pittsburgh and loved it. She immediately set up an auction for the rights to the hardcover edition. After a few publishing houses bid on the book, the final selling price was $155,000, which at the time was the highest advance for a first literary novel. At 24, Chabons emergence into the literary world caused a fury of attention.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh (William Morrow, 1988) is about a young man recently graduated from college who deals with homosexuality, relationships, and the general disillusionment of becoming an adult. It was listed as a New York Times notable book for 1988, and in The New York Times Book Reviewone of the literary worlds most esteemed barometersthe review, in part, read:
After the recent spate of novels that seem to begin and end arbitrarily, with resolutions no more satisfying than a shrug, it is both refreshing and encouraging to find a writer who so skillfully sets down the elements of his plot, diligently sets them spinning and then carefully attempts to bring about both a climax and a resolution.
The two students sit beside each other in class, every day. Both have dark hair. Both intellectual and articulate. At first, the professor cant tell them apart.
But as the semester continues and papers filter in, it is obvious there are differences between them. One turns in fabulous papers, filled with luxurious language. Sometimes, he experiments with the prose, so the plot suffers a bit. But Pitt professor Chuck Kinder doesnt really mind. He, too, has written some experimental prose, exploring metafiction. Its Chabons writing that impresses Kinder. But he wont give Chabon an A. He wants to encourage the young writer to work harder.
Kinder finds out Chabon isnt just talented. He is tenacious, reading constantly, always trying to learn. Kinder might mention a book in class, and by the next time the class meets, Chabon has read the book.
While the student who sat by Chabon fails to distinguish himself, Kinder invites Chabon into his graduate workshops, something the English professor cant ever remember allowing another undergraduate to do. Chabon recalls Kinder as a generous teacher, who told great stories wherever they werein the classroom, or when the two would grab ponies at the Cage (the Squirrel Hill Café), or at the parties Kinder had when his friends were in town, friends like the late short story writer Raymond Carver.
Perhaps it is this closeness the professor and student shared that prompted many to suspect that Kinder was the model for Professor Grady Tripp in Chabons second novel, Wonder Boys (Villard Books, 1995).
Tripps unfinished manuscript, this mountain of paper, the tower of a novel, becomes a central element in Wonder Boys. Tripp struggles with the book, adding more and more pages. The book explores his misadventures, an affair with the chancellor of the college, murdered dogs, stolen pop relics, and manuscript pages that take flight. The whole time a haze of pot smoke surrounds Tripp as he tries to do many things, failing at most of his tasks. But in some sweet way, this lost soul redeems himself and helps his students. Wonder Boys also made The New York Times notable books list and received wide critical acclaim.
Chabon admits he based the character on Kinder and Kinders unfinished novel. I remember peering into his office and seeing this monolithic pile of white paperthe inverse of monolith from 2001under his desk lamp. In my memory, it was 4,000 pages long. He was proud of how big of a bastard it was.... You could see it. You could touch it. Twenty years ago, it was already this legendary thing, he recalled in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Kinder finds the attention amusing, and he admires the character that Chabon created so beautifully, but he thinks his influence has been overstated.
In the 70s, Kinderwho still has a wisp of a native West Virginia accent in his baritone voicehad his own literary success with two novels, Snakehunter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973) and The Silver Ghost (Harcourt, 1979), published while he was living in San Francisco.
As for the mound of papers that Chabon had seen, Kinder finally transformed the infamous tome into a novel that in many ways chronicles the adventures that he and Carver had while they were students at Stanford University. It took Kinder about 15 years to pare down the original manuscript from three volumes, about 900 pages each, to one manuscript that was 900 pages, to a digestible book of about 400 pages.
Kinders magnum opus, titled Honeymooners (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2001) was listed as one of The New York Times notable books.
This year, Kinder became the head of the Universitys Writing Program, one of the oldest in the country. Students earn an MFA in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction by taking small workshops and a variety of reading and literature classes. Each student must write a manuscript.
Like the days when Chabon was here, Pitt has a fertile atmosphere for writers, says Ed Ochester, Pitt Poetry Series editor and cofounder of the Writing Program. He was the programs initial director from 1978 to 1998. Students and professors often spent time with each other outside of class, Ochester recalls, having regular readings. It is a tradition that continues today with students reading at a couple of local eateriesTuesday nights at Hemingways and Thursday nights at Fuel & Fuddle. Now, there are two undergraduate literary journals produced at the UniversityPapercut and Collision. There is also an online literary journal, Nidus, featuring poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. Faculty and MFA students serve as editors and readers, selecting the work from numerous submissions.
While Chabon might have been impressed with the volume of Kinders pages, he, too, once struggled with writing endless numbers of pages only to discard the whole thing, when it didnt unfold into a novel. The book was Fountain City, which was to have been his second novel. The book is a love letter of sorts to his passions for baseball, Paris, and architecture. But much like Tripp, he was stuck, adding more pages but not creating the complete novel. He promised never to show anyone any part of his failed work, but, as he notes on his Web site, when he would tell others about his failed novel, most showed indifference, so he posted it online.
About five years after Wonder Boys was published, Chabon and his wife, Ayelet Waldman, a former public defender turned mystery writer, sit in the dim Paramount screening room, viewing a film. There is no one else watching the flickering images on the screen.
It was very eerie, Chabon says. I was shocked to see what I had in my brain on the screen. With no one else around, it was hard to know where to laugh.
When he and his wife attend the preview, Chabon is relieved to see that the crowd laughs in the right places. Critics love the film, including Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who writes, This is a funny and touching story.... It is about people and especially about trying to be a good teacher.
Everyone at Jays Bookstall knows about the comic book collection that Chabons father had. Chabons grandfather was a typographer in New York who worked in a factory that produced comics. Hed bring home bags of comics for Chabons father to read.
Chabons third novel taps into his familys comic book heritage. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Picador, 2001) is the story of cousins and partners, Josef Kavalier and Samuel Klayman, who conceive of the Escapist, a superhero who pummels his way through WWII dictators and evil men alike. The book allows Chabon the opportunity to explore some of the stories behind the comics and talk to the creators, recreating the texture of the 1930s and 1940s.
The books stirs readers and critics. The New York Times Book Review reads: ...most of its unexpectedness resides, comic-book-style, in its challenging situations lushly written, in which you know beforehand that the heroes will prevail. It would make a nice comic book seriesthe cousins square-jawed and ham-fistedbut the depth of Chabons thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.
In the summer of 2001, the reputation of Kavalier and Clay continues to swell. It seems everyone is reading the book. Chabon is in his office behind his house in Berkley, Calif., working on his next book, Summerland, a childrens book written especially for his children, including his 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, who even catches a few inconsistencies and errors in the text when her dad reads it to her. As a child, Chabon loved books like Harriet the Spy, The Hobbit, 21 Balloons, and he now is returning to those books that lured him to writing in the first place.
Chabon rushes from his office to his house as he hears his wifes bloodcurdling scream. When he arrives, he sees his wife talking on the telephone. She is speaking to a reporter from the Associated Press. Kavalier and Clay won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001.
More recently, Chabon has tried another type of writingscreenwriting, for Kavalier and Clay and for the sequel to the motion picture Spider-Man.
All the rules in screenwriting might seem daunting to a novelist, but he relishes the idea of creating within these paradigms. He knows that sometimes he has to do rewrites or someone might rewrite the script for him, but he realizes thats just part of the process, in a way, like those days when Jay Dantry reviewed his stories set in Squirrel Hill.
With one difference. The lanky, dark-haired writer neednt worry about sweeping floors at bookstores anymore. Every so often, I cant believe I am getting to do this, he says about his life as a writer.
This is so cool.
Meghan Holohan is an assistant editor to this magazine.
In 1988, Michael Chabon, with Jay Dantry at his side, had a book signing at Jays Bookstall for his first novel. (This photo hangs on the stores wall.)