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Writers on Writers: Scott Hutchins Meets Michael Chabon on his Home Turf

Scott Hutchins hangs out in Brokeland with Michael Chabon.

“Behind Chabon’s geek-chic glasses with a fleur-de-lis on either arm are large, blue eyes that—for all his genuine affability—watch you closely.” (Shot on location at Stranded Records in Oakland.)

“The most recent experience I had with him was trying to read Oliver Twist to my kids. They had no problem with the content or the language. They were totally carried along up to a point.” But 200 pages or so in, “when Oliver was firmly embarked on his criminal career, they were just like, ‘Uh, enough.’ He gets in trouble. He gets out of trouble. He gets in trouble. He gets out of trouble. He’s about to make his true nature understood to the world—but then they come back and they get him again.” His kids wised up. “They said, ‘Dad, is it going to be like this the whole book?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, basically.’”

More than that, though, there’s a piety and a manipulativeness in Dickens’s tone that grate on Chabon. “It’s like when somebody points out the tambourines in Motown music. Suddenly, you can’t hear anything else.”

I’m sorry to hear the tambourines in my own epiphany—mostly because I love Dickens and I love Chabon. I think that people today hold Chabon close to their heart in the way that Dickens’s contemporaries held him.

Still, Dickens was a miserable man. And a bad father. Maybe he’s not such a great role model.

“Who knows,” Chabon says. “I might like him in my dotage.”

Breakfast is over. Chabon hurries out—he has his East Bay life to tend to. And at once I realize that Dickens was a bum comparison—in part because Dickens was from a different world. Nowadays, as a teacher of mine used to say, there’s no such thing as a famous writer. Right?

I turn to the woman sitting next to me in the restaurant. “Have you ever heard of Michael Chabon?” I ask.

She nods. “The Adventures of...” “Kavalier & Clay,” I say. “Right,” she says. “But I couldn’t tell you what he looks like.”

Outside, I keep up my polling: Have you heard of Michael Chabon? A young man with thumb-size ear plug holes: “Sorry—can’t help you.”

A woman in a floppy hat, the brim undulating like a sine wave: “Yes, of course. But I’m a part of the literary world here.”

The security guard at the bank: “Is that a business?”

Finally, in need of a haircut any way, I go to the Temescal Alley Barber Shop and pose my question to a barber sleeved in tattoos.

“Oh my God,” he says. “He’s, like, the nicest guy in the world.”

There you have it: three out of five. I can’t think of another living writer who could hope for such numbers. Michael Chabon loves Brokeland—and Brokeland loves Michael Chabon. 

Scott Hutchins’s debut novel, A Working Theory of Love (Penguin), will be released in paperback this September. After years of considering himself a Missionite, he recently discovered that he lives in Noe Valley.

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