Married writers to discuss craft at CCJCC book fest

"You want to write about me?"

The first-time author of "Nursery Crimes" happens to be married to Michael Chabon, who was dubbed a "literary sensation" at age 24. His latest effort, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," made the highly coveted cover of the New York Times Book Review in September, and has continued to garner rave reviews in just about every media outlet that matters.

So it's not surprising that Waldman reacted as she did.

Chabon will speak tomorrow night at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek. Waldman is on the program Thursday night.

Waldman and Chabon discussed their work on a recent Friday afternoon in their comfortable yet cozy Berkeley home, with 3-year-old Zeke (short for Ezekiel) watching "Dumbo" upstairs. Sophie, who is 6, wasn't home.

Chabon had just returned that morning from a book tour and apologized for being in less than top interview form. But he is more soft-spoken, while she's vivaciously chatty.

Born in Israel and fluent in Hebrew, Waldman, 35, was raised in Ridgewood, N.J., and sometimes jokingly lapses into the nasal cadence of Long Island. They settled in Berkeley for a number of reasons — he was raised in Columbia, Md., but now his mother and brother are here, and they thought it would be a great place to raise their children.

When discussing the virtues of the Bay Area vs. Los Angeles and New York, not only did family and friends come into play, but "where our hair looked best," Waldman quipped. Her reddish hair is shorter than his shoulder-length, by the way.

Had she not married him, Waldman said, she probably never would have tested her own literary talents. And in fact, when she began her mystery novel "Nursery Crimes," she didn't even tell Chabon until she was about 70 pages into it. She was afraid of, "Oh, the writer's wife. How cute!"

"I told him to read it, and to be honest and tell me if he hated it," she said. "But he told me to keep going." It's a good thing. Her first "Mommy Track Mystery" landed her a three-book deal.

Waldman began writing the mystery as a distraction from a law article she was supposed to be working on. A Harvard Law School-trained attorney, she found it emotionally too taxing to work full time after the birth of their daughter.

"I always had a clear idea of what my career would be," said Waldman, who worked as a public defender. "And I never knew having children would change all that."

But at the same time, she found being a full-time mother frustrating, not to mention less than intellectually stimulating. "It was so important for me to have an identity separate from my children." Writing the book provided her with that outlet.

"I didn't expect it to be so much fun," she said. "I thought having that much fun writing was a kind of magic he had," referring to her husband, who writes about five hours a night, five nights a week.

Waldman teaches a course at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Law School, on "Legal and Social Implications of the War on Drugs," and given the opportunity, will launch into a lecture about our country's misguided drug policies. But that's a topic for another article.

An avid reader with a fondness for mysteries, Waldman said she thought writing one would be easier than other types of fiction, since "someone's dead, and there you have your plot." But it wasn't that easy.

Waldman's protagonist is Juliet Applebaum, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home mom who investigates a murder while pregnant with her second child.

"The character is me in so many ways," she said, adding that it was only natural that she be Jewish. Interestingly though, Waldman gave her character a non-Jewish husband, for some added "edge," she said. "I needed him to not be Michael in every way."

Waldman and Chabon, who have been married seven years, met on a blind date when they were living in different cities. Waldman's relationship with a Catholic man had ended — "I went to Mass with him and then he dumps me?" — when her roommate's friend said he knew a Jewish guy she might like.

Meanwhile, this friend called up Chabon and said, "I know this girl who needs a Jewish boyfriend."

Chabon, who was briefly married to a non-Jewish woman, had slowly begun his own return to Judaism.

After what he called "an intense sojourn in the gentile world," Chabon said he realized he felt out of place there. "I had this vague sense of wanting to be back but not knowing where back was."

The story of how Chabon got his start is the kind that makes aspiring writers everywhere hopeful — yet also makes them cringe.

He wrote his coming-of-age novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," while working on a master's degree at U.C. Irvine. His adviser read it and shipped it off to his agent without Chabon's knowledge. Publication and glowing reviews immediately followed, before Chabon turned 24.

When asked what achieving that kind of buzz was like at such a young age, Chabon is amazingly humble.

"In retrospect, I recognize how unusual that was, but I didn't at the time because I just didn't know," he said. "I didn't know that it wasn't that easy."

Chabon's second novel, "Wonder Boys," about a pot-smoking college professor with writer's block, was turned into a movie starring Michael Douglas. It didn't do well at the box office and is going to be re-released soon.

His short stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire and Harper's, as well as in two collections.

And now comes this epic novel, which tells the story of two Brooklyn teenage Jewish cousins who create a comic superhero to stop Hitler during World War II. Chabon will be the one to adapt it into a screenplay, and he's also working on a new television series.

He's been called "an American Nabokov," his writing is consistently described by reviewers as "lyrical prose" and at 37, he has never held a "regular" job.

As if that weren't enough, a few years ago, People magazine selected him to be in its "50 Most Beautiful People" issue. Not wanting that kind of publicity, he turned it down.

While his previous books were nominally Jewish and contained Jewish characters, his latest — which grew out of the fact that so many creators of well-known comic books were Jews — is more deeply so. Filled with Old World references from Vilna, Prague and New York, the novel required months of research.

"Kavalier & Clay" has been hailed as more sophisticated than his earlier efforts, yet it is still filled with his trademark "lyrical prose."

It also reflects his own return to Judaism.

"I flirted with Jewish themes before, but now I'm much more comfortable on this ground," he said. "This book was a big step. Maybe before I didn't feel fully entitled."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."